When three great religions come face to face in one small country, it’s got to be interesting. Catherine Eden spent six days in the Holy Land and came back with a diary of discovery.
‘That’s Jerusalem down there,’ the pilot says, pointing at the spangled darkness below. We are approaching Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, and I’m in the cockpit, by special invitation. My upgrade to Business Class put me in the seat next to the ‘resting’ pilot, and I’ve got to know all three of them as they have rotated duties during the nine-hour flight from Johannesburg. Now, entranced by the banks of knobs and lights but terrified that a sneeze or question might result in disaster, I’m being quiet as a mouse.
It’s my first visit to Israel and this is a good way to start. My spirits lift even higher when I’m told that there will be a spectacular meteor shower on Wednesday night and that Israel offers the best viewing of this once in 33-year phenomenon. I grip the arms of my seat as we make our final descent, plunging nose-first towards rooftops and motorways festooned with lights. Then there is a bump. Shalom! We have arrived.
I awake in Jerusalem, in a stylish hotel overlooking the Old City walls, rebuilt in the 16th century. The surrounding buildings are constructed from pale Jerusalem stone, but nothing else is as I’d imagined: There are no cobblestones or donkeys or bible-story characters in robes and sandals. At 6.30am the road beneath my window is already strident with buses and taxis and big city bad-tempered hooting.
Eli the guide leads our group into the Old City via the Jaffa Gate. This is more like it: quaint alleys, barrels of bagels and sharp-eyed traders plying everything from ‘genuine’ Bedouin bowls to garish nylon underwear. And there’s a donkey. The rider poses charmingly for a photograph and then whacks me with his crop as I thank him and turn away. He expects to be paid.
Dollars are the dominant theme of the Via Dolorosa. Eye-catching shops crowd both sides of the narrow street, almost obscuring the Stations of the Cross that commemorate the route that Jesus walked to his crucifixion. It’s not the original path, of course, but the pious can hire a heavy wooden cross and make their way to the vast Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over what is claimed to be the site of the original crucifixion and the tomb in which Jesus was laid. Any atmosphere that might linger in this cavernous building is obliterated by the shouts of school children and the chatter of shuffling, pushing tour groups.
Since the Catholics and the Greek Orthodox Church jointly control the church, each has provided a chapel, side by side in this holy spot, to cater for their respective flocks. I light a candle for my family and spare a thought for the sad-eyed monk supervising the donation box. It looks as if this experience is not quite what he’d imagined either.
Temple Mount (the biblical Mount Moriah) is crowned by Jerusalem’s most famous landmark, the golden Dome of the Rock. It’s been Muslim territory since the 14th century, revered as the place from which Mohammed ascended to heaven, but it’s also sacred to the Jews, being the site on which a second temple was raised from the ruins of King Solomon’s temple, built in 950 BC. All that remains of the temple is the lower portion of the 488-metre western wall. Jews feel close to God here and it has been a place of prayer and supplication for centuries.
Black-clad religious men, sporting corkscrew curls from under their hats, stride across the plaza. Most of the wall is reserved for men, so the women’s section is crowded. I wait for a space then squeeze up against the greasy stone and close my eyes. Whispers and cries seem to swirl from the cracks, curling round the thousands of tightly-folded scraps of paper that have been stuffed into every groove.
Underground tunnels, excavated some 30 years ago, reveal more of the ancient wall, as well as a water cistern and a section of road dating back to the second temple period. Glass plates in the ground reveal dizzying drops to deeper levels of history. Eli sums it up neatly: ‘In Israel, every man’s floor is another man’s ceiling.’
The Garden Tomb, close to what would have been a busy Roman road, seems a more likely place for Jesus to have been laid. A nearby quarry, known for generations as ‘the place of the skull’ adds credence to the claim that this is the real Golgotha.
We rest a while in the tranquil surroundings then make our way through the business district of Jerusalem (‘The new Wailing Wall!’, Eli quips outside the bank) to the Shrine of the Book, built in the shape of the lid of an earthenware jar, which houses the fabled Dead Sea Scrolls.
Found in 1947 at Qumran, they were part of a library of some 800 scrolls that were probably the work of the Essenes, an elite sect that withdrew to the desert to live an austere life of study and prayer. They spoke of a future apocalyptic war and faced their own battle some time in the middle of the first century AD when they had to flee Roman persecution. It’s speculated that they hid their writings in desert caves and then made their way to the fortress at Masada.
Trials and tribulations weave back and forth across the centuries, colouring the fabric of this land. Our next stop is the holocaust museum, built to commemorate a shocking, more recent period of Jewish history. All official guests of State are expected to visit Yad Vashem, as it is called, and young Israelis are required to go there at least three times in their lives. In this heartbreaking place the most moving display is the children’s memorial – a large dark room with a central column of thousands of tiny lights. A recorded voice plays constantly, listing the names and ages of the children who died.
This evening, as we walk the streets of the ‘new’ Jerusalem, enjoying the vibrancy of its café culture, we see khaki uniforms everywhere and rifles slung across the bony shoulders of off-duty 18-year-olds. Every Israeli boy goes into the army for three years and must serve one month a year thereafter. Military service for girls is voluntary and lasts two years. There is clearly some cachet in being in the army, because it has more female applications than it needs.
At four in the morning I wake, see a streak in the sky and remember the meteor shower. Pulling jeans and a shawl over my pyjamas, I race for the lift. The night manager, seeing a strangely-dressed woman with dishevelled hair fleeing the hotel, quite rightly comes after me. ‘Can I assist with anything?’ he asks politely.
‘I’m going to see the show,’ I reply, waving at the heavens where nothing is happening. He stands with me on the pavement for a while and then asks tactfully, ‘Would you like some coffee?’
‘No thanks, I’d better go back to bed. You probably think I’m crazy. Do you often have crazies?’
‘Not at all madam, but we do sometimes have very interesting guests at this hotel.’
And that, in my opinion, is what makes the Dan Pearl a five-star establishment.
Travel is not for everyone. As we board the bus we hear a plaintive young American saying, ‘Mom, I wanna go back to Pittsburgh’. We, however, are heading for the Dead Sea, a drive that takes us into the nothingness of the Judean desert. We stop to look across a gorge towards St Anthony’s Monastery, clinging to the bleached cliff on the opposite side. A Bedouin boy, complete with makeshift tent and camel, is selling cold drinks and necklaces at the side of the road. I hear a cell phone ring and realise it is his.
The Inn of the Good Samaritan is the genuine article, but it’s closed, so we press on via the green Jericho valley to Qumran to wonder at the caves and the ruined community buildings of the mysterious Essenes. ‘All is pre-ordered,’ they wrote. ‘There is no free will …’
The flourishing kibbutz at En Gedi brings us back to the present. It’s an internationally recognised botanical garden, and at 400m below sea level it attracts psoriasis sufferers seeking relief. Dead Sea mud is supposed to rejuvenate the skin, so I have the full treatment when we reach the Mineralia Spa. I’m basted all over with warm black goo, wrapped in plastic and blankets and left to ‘cook’ for a while before being hosed off. I feel wonderful, but undo the effect later when two of us break the rules by going to the deserted beach and wading into the sea in the dark. Bobbing like a cork on top of water so saline that you feel instantly pickled, I look up at the stars and marvel at the many wonders of the universe.
We’re on one of the first cable cars up to Masada to avoid the tourist crush later in the day. Standing in this ruined fortress that was once a luxurious desert outpost for King Herod and later the last place of Jewish resistance, you feel the sadness seeping from the stones. There’s the ramp that the Romans forced Jewish slaves to build, knowing that their fellow Jews would not harm them. There, far below in the desert sand, are the outlines of the 11 camps that the Roman legions occupied for the seven-month siege of the mountain. And there is the small room in which lots were drawn to determine which of 10 men, after overseeing the slaughter of the community rather than submitting to capture, would be the one to kill the others and then commit suicide.
You sense the drama and despair that played out on that hilltop, and the acts of courage and faith. I’m comforted by the attention of a small ginger cat that seems to live in the office at the upper cable station. A cat flap cut in the door represents a reassuring concern for life.
Eli cheers us with funny stories about his travels with Bedouins, and by the time we reach Yardenit on the River Jordan, our mood has lifted. Charismatic Christians from the USA are being dunked in the water in droves. There are emotional outbursts, whoops and camera flashes. Visitors are routed to the river through a shop selling trinkets, thick mugs emblazoned with the face of Jesus, Last Supper wine and Spiritus hand lotion. This is a country full of variety and entrepreneurial opportunity.
The Sea of Galilee is the place for me. After all the complex political, historical and geographical shuffling we’ve witnessed, it’s a relief to gaze at a tranquil view that hasn’t changed in centuries. A 2000-year-old boat, dubbed the ‘Jesus’ boat, was discovered in 1986 by brothers Yuval and Moshe Lufan, who fish these waters as James and John did before them. Maritime experts and community volunteers lifted the treasure before the unnaturally low level of the lake rose again, and it was prepared for display at the Yigal Allon museum on Kibbutz Ginosar.
We meet Yuval and ask him about his find. ‘It was exciting, but what is more interesting is that since the discovery people here have changed. There’s less fighting, more laughter. I think it is possible that Moshe and I built this boat in another lifetime and that’s why we were the ones to find it now.’
Time is running out, but we manage to sail on the lake, tour ancient Capernaum and squeeze through the gates on the Mount of Beatitudes just before they close at noon. Then it’s on to Megido, where archaeological digs have revealed 25 layers of history. There’s a 360-degree view from up here, and we can see Nazareth quite clearly.
We are tired on the drive to Tel Aviv, but perk up in time for dinner and a trip to the theatre. Afterwards we enjoy the festive atmosphere on the promenade and order drinks at a table right on the beach. The city is still roaring when I crawl into bed at 1.30 in the morning. There’s a saying in Israel that you should work in Haifa, pray in Jerusalem and party in Tel Aviv. It seems to be true.
Our tour ends in the ancient city of Jaffa at a restaurant that was previously a mosque, built on the ruins of a synagogue, below which was a church raised on the ruins of an even earlier temple, which sums up the complexity and richness of this land.
Its troubles are not over, but there is a magic and mystery to this land that transcends the squabbles. ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ remains a heartfelt pledge of Jews in the Diaspora. With its host of sacred sites and places of interest, that’s a toast that any ardent traveller would endorse.
Words: 2 200
Published in Chi Magazine, 2000