When you land to Jerusalem for the first time in your life, expectations are high, but the outcome is a ‘repartee’, as beauties inside Israel’s political capital are astonishing and challenging indeed. There is so much eclectic spirit to catch in words and pictures, that you’ve got the feeling of a sweet unrest, that you are not going to be able to comprise all that you see in several lines. The city reveals to the tourist eye as an amazing mix of cultures and scents right from the first morning hours, caressed by the warm November sun.
And of course, what can be most suitable for a first stop than the Old City, with the famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa’s stations, the Wailing Wall or the Tunnels of the Western Wall? We started our tour on the narrow cobbled streets which seem scanty for the thousands of tourists who visit the sights on a daily basis, accompanied by our sightswoman and by the city’s renowned cats, the unofficial guides of our journey.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a sign of break in the Status Quo
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem (sepulchre is tomb in Latin) includes three different sights: the place of Jesus crucifixion, Golgotha hills or known as the place of the skull (tradition has it that the skull of Adam, the first man, is buried underneath the rock of the Golgotha), Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected and the Stone of Anointing (also known as Stone of Unction), which tradition believes to be the spot where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.
Beyond the heavy historical and religious significance of the place, the Status Quo, the hundred-year-old “decision to take no decision” agreement between the three different denominations, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic, which are sharing property over parts of the church, is still detected among the secular walls of the premises. Yet, as our friendly guide Sigal Dotal informed us, the Status Quo have been partially broken recently, for the first time in many years, when the leaders of the three denominations agreed over the rehabilitation of the Aedicule, the building above the Tomb of Jesus, which had become unsafe.
“The Israeli Government said that there are sometimes 20,000 people entering the church every day, and warned over the risk of the aedicule’s collapse one day, and urged that immediate responsibility should be taken, but nothing changed.
Ten months ago, the Israeli police came, locked the entrance to the tomb and within two hours, after years, they came and said they would take responsibility and the aedicule has been restored,” the guide recounted.
While visiting the premises, you may witness the ceremony when the church of the Holy Sepulchre is closed down every evening. By the tradition, two Muslim families own the keys of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, so for about 500 years the keys of the church have been passing from one generation to another. The current Muslim custodians of the church keys open the church every day at 4 a.m. and close it at 8:30 p.m., receiving visitors and clergymen.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Old City of Jerusalem.
Via Dolorosa: a multi-cultural experience in the Muslim Quarter
The famous Via Dolorosa starts in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, the largest and most populous one of the four quarters.
The first seven Stations of the Cross on Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross) are located there, providing a unique glimpse of the city’s above-mentioned eclectic style, a true multicultural adventure.
The Christian spirit felt at the stations is mixed with the Arab one offered by the souvenirs shops displaying traditional Muslim clothes and items and by the local merchants selling falafel and with the Jews displaying their own attires and emblems.
On top of all, the streets are crowded with tourists from all over the world.
The joy of the Bar Mitzvah vs the sobriety of the Wailing Wall
When we climbed down to the Wailing Wall, we witnessed several bar mitzvah ceremonies in the Plaza Wall for it was Monday when the Torah is read, some unique experience of this Jewish tradition’s joy.
What was known as a place where Jews used to mourn (the destruction of the Temple) and to pray, the Wailing Wall has become an international site, probably the holiest in the world, where people of all nationalities arrive to pray for their wishes to come true and to jam their notes in the ancient limestone wall cracks that also became good shelters for pigeons and where seeds are coming out as if some natural proofs of the walls’ history.
The walls are overstuffed with the people’s slips of wishes, and the ones that are eventually and inevitably falling down are buried in the Mount of Olives overlooking the Wailing Wall, as our guide Sigal explained to us.
New historical discovery unearthed in the Tunnels of the Kotel
After the deep religious spirit felt up in the Old City we also tasted a little bit of break-taking adventure underground the Western Wall Tunnels, which revealed itself as the first lesson of history and archaeology.
The Western Wall Tunnels of the Temple Mount, known as the Kotel, are one of the major and most impressive remnants in Jerusalem from the days of the Second Temple, destroyed about 2,000 years ago. The walls have been first dug by two British researchers, Charles Wilson and Charles Warren, with archaeologists still digging ever since in search for proofs of the old times.
And their work has been recently awarded last month, when a stunning discovery has been announced: the archaeologists in Jerusalem have uncovered a new section of the Western Wall that has been hidden for 1,700 years. The diggings revealed eight stone courses, or horizontal layers of stones, buried under 26 feet of earth, which represent the remains of a theater dating back to the Roman period. The theater, containing 200 seats, corresponds to historical records that describe a theater near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Experts believe that the structure may have been built for the city council of Roman Jerusalem, serving as an “odeon”, which usually hosted acoustic performances.
Don’t miss the tour of the Tunnels if you are in Jerusalem, you’ll have the opportunity to walk through a thrilling underground space, disclosing stone arches, water pits, an ancient aqueduct, and to touch the original ancient walls that tell the story of the Jewish nation and where Jews are also cramming notes of their wishes into its stone cracks.
Digging out for lost treasures at the Sifting Project in the Tzurim Valley National Park
And, as Jerusalem is a never-ending archaeological site, we couldn’t have missed a live demonstration of “treasure hunting” while visiting the Tzurim Valley National Park, located on the lower western slope of the Mount of Olives, at the foot of the Hebrew University Mount Scopus campus, an archaeological site set up to recover artifacts that might be hidden in the topsoil unearthed from the Temple Mount.
The Antiquities Sifting project is covering 170,000 square meters and started about 12 years ago. The work of the archaeologists deployed at Tzurim is based on a special, unique technique in the country, called “wet sifting”, similar to the technique of panning for gold. Hundreds of artifacts have been found so far, including coins and jewelry, some with biblical links dating back more than three millennia.
As of 2008, the archaeologists here started to take for examination the materials originating not only from Jerusalem, but from all over the country. One of the most important items discovered here was a piece of cuneiform tablet, one of the first pieces of cuneiform writing ever found in Jerusalem, but the experts also found a little golden bell, allegedly one of those hanging on the bottom of the high priest’s robe during the Second Temple period, or some dice made of bone found right on the site of the recently discovered Roman theater underground the Western Wall.
Every piece of soil and stone is examined, using wire filters that are rinsed under water. The work is being done inside a large hothouse covered in plastic sheets. The contents of black plastic buckets filled with stones and pebbles are emptied into wooden-framed screens, with volunteers and archaeology students sorting the debris content in search for items of potential importance: pieces of pottery, glass, metal, colorful mosaic tiles, bronze or silver coins, arrowheads, pieces of stone cups, bowls, vessels, pots, plates or items made of bones such as spoons, hair comb or pins. A couple of weeks ago, the researchers have found a 2,000-year-old bronze coin in almost perfect shape, that needed no cleaning and that had a visible inscription: year 4 (of the Jews’ revolt against the Romans).
Under the supervision of our host Frankie Snyder, a passionate lady, member of the Temple Mount Sifting Project’s team of researchers, who has an academic background in mathematics and Judaic Studies, we played at archaeologists a little bit with materials originating from a former street in the Second Temple period destroyed in the year 70, but I have to admit that my “trophies” were just some ordinary pieces of red pottery and a tiny piece of shell. So, maybe I will get luckier with “my treasure” next time.
City of David, the most excavated site in Israel
Jerusalem is constantly torn apart between past and present, with many gaps to be filled in, with numerous question marks still to be answered, some controversies to be disentangled. One of the most vibrating, active and mysterious sites is undoubtedly the City of David. We won’t talk about the political controversies around it, but rather about its archaeological significance, revealed by the findings of an ancient world. The settlement is believed to have been the original urban core of ancient Jerusalem, where King David allegedly established the unified capital of tribes if Israel and where much of the Bible was written.
The tour was introduced to us by one of the funniest and most original guides I have ever met, Jamie Elgirod, who took us 3,500 years back in time to the days of Abraham, when the first foundations of the city were laid, then 150 years ago when captain Charles Warren began first excavations on the premises and up to the modern days.
“Jerusalem is not just history and archaeology, there is a very deep idea behind the establishment of monotheism over here. The idea is to reveal the archaeological antiquities and tell you a story, not to educate you, but to share the story of Jerusalem,” Jamie told us, adding that, ‘by the way, did you know that Jerusalem was destroyed 42 times?’
The guide also told us that if the City of David had maximum 25,000-30,000 visitors per year 15 years ago, today it has 600,000 tourists a year, which makes the city of David the third most visited site in Israel after the Western Wall Tunnels and Massada.
At the same time, we heard that the City of David is the most excavated site in Israel, but only ten per cent of the hill of the City of David has been unearthed in the last 150 years, which means there is still a 90 per cent that is hidden underground and that’s why it’s still an active digging site.
If you happen to visit Jerusalem, don’t miss the City of David, the laser light show in the evening, the trekking through Hezekiah’s Tunnel in knee-high water, or the Hasmonean Aqueduct tour, but bear in mind, it’s not recommended for claustrophobic people.
To be continued….