We couldn't have left Israel without visiting Jerusalem, so it was convenient that a few of our Israeli friends are actually studying at the University there! It was surreal - standing at the tram stop and then suddenly being greeted by our friends Shachar, Bar and Almog. Liat joined us a bit later and the conversations flowed like only a weekend had past since Cambodia!
Jerusalem is, without a doubt, the most interesting and intriguing city we have visited yet. The old city is such a dynamic mix of people and religion - a living microcosm of the human race. Coming from relatively non-religious backgrounds, our friends were humorously shocking cultural tour guides. They explained that when it comes to religion in Israel, you are either fanatical or completely uninterested. They did, however, know the best local food places and bars to drink at!
So, while they were busy studying, we took ourselves back out for a bit more insight. We joined a free, tips based walking tour and were taken through the four quarters of the old city. We hadn't really thought about who the fourth quarter belonged to in a city dominated by Christians, Muslims and Jews... and were surprised to learn that it belonged to a handful of orthodox Christian Armenians. After the crusaders first captured Jerusalem in the 11th century, they rewarded the Armenians for their early conversion to Christianity (amongst a dominant population of Muslims) by granting them their own quarter. Despite being such a minority, even today they hold onto it proudly.
With a very enthusiastic guide, we weaved through narrow alleyways, convinced that we would be lost without him. The confrontational political and religious stories behind the city made it all the more intriguing. From great rooftop city views we were given the low-down on all the major religious sites, including the Jewish Western (Wailing) Wall, the Islamic Dome of the Rock and the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Evidence of past conflicts were everywhere and from more recent times, there were even bullet holes covering parts of the outer walls. We left even more curious than before, and decided to go back in a few days for another more in-depth, paid 'Holy City' tour.
In the meantime, to take a break from all the religion and politics, we decided to catch a bus out to the Dead Sea for the day! It seemed strange to be driving out into the middle of the desert to go for a dip, although it was definitely worth it. The scenery was spectacular, with huge sandy cliffs, open desert and a seemingly out of place inland sea separating us from our neighbours in Jordan! When we arrived at Ein Gedi, a popular 'beach', the sun was scorching, the gravel was hot, the umbrellas were up and people were literally floating around whilst reading the newspaper! The life guards, obviously feeling quite useless in a place where it is nearly impossible to drown, decided it was their job to add to the mood with loud american pop music. We weren't too discouraged and eagerly ran down to the salt lined edge to join in. Aidan was curious and decided to taste the water. Let's just says it's salty enough to listen to the signs and not dunk your head under!
It was the most incredible feeling - floating in this water. We could lay on our backs with our hands and legs in the air without moving a muscle! When the sun started to go down, we could see shadows of the natural salts and oils floating all around, purifying the water. If you had a cut, you would know about it and as charming as us Australians are, we overheard one fellow Aussie telling his mates how his arse crack was sore!
Feeling cleansed and refreshed, albeit a little dehydrated after a whole day in the Dead Sea, we headed back to the city, ready to recommence our religious education. And what better way than to cross over into the West Bank to visit the birth place of Jesus Christ, Bethlehem. Although this special place for Christians (as well as Jews) is only half an hour away from Jerusalem, it is currently under control of Palestine and Israelis are not allowed in without permission. So we were on our own, and as our bus drove across the politically controversial border, we noticed a subtle change in the soldier's uniforms, as well as a sudden lack of Hebrew lettering, black suits and curly sideburns.. Surprisingy though, the city didn't seem all that much different to Jerusalem - apart from a sense of Palestinian nationalism and a public protest to free Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails...
The Church of the Nativity, built over the cave that Jesus is said to have been born in was an interesting sight. It seemed to have been built to resemble a stable, and the gold chandeliers hanging from the roof of the altar suggested that it was once a glamorous spectacle. Relatively recent Christian conflicts over which denomination is responsible for it's upkeep has meant that the church currently stands in a state of unceremonious splendor. It makes you wonder what hope the human race has of finding peace when we can't even find it within Christianity... It didn't add to the spiritual feel when bus loads of tourists rocked up, talking loudly and even smoking in the corridors.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the tourists and the state of the Church, we found relief at the nearby Milk Grotto of the Virgin Mary. It is said that a drop of breast milk fell on the floor of the cave as Mary was taking shelter with baby Jesus. A complete contrast from the last place, this underground church was beautifully constructed, cool and had a much more peaceful air about it.
We also took the chance to visit an Islamic mosque, although soon learnt that just because Bethlehem is dominated by Arabs, it doesn't mean they are all Muslim. There is a sizable Arabic Christian population in the city, which was demonstrated proudly in the Arab Women's Museum. Managed by conservative Arabic Christian women, there were a considerable amount of crosses and rosary beads scattered amongst the collection of pots and cooking utensils. It wasn't exactly the political, women's rights and awareness centre that we were expecting.
A couple of fresh 18 year old Israeli army recruits checked our passports on the way back, and before we knew it we were back in 'Jewish' Israel. Our friends welcomed us safely back to their side of the border, and took us out to enjoy some good Israeli nightlife. We had a few drinks in the student bar district, and went to watch some amazing live music, performed by a Jewish father and son who had immigrated from Kazakstan. Their music was hypnotizing, and although we have no way of playing it right now, we were happy to buy an album.
The next morning we set ourselves for the 'Holy City' tour, and our new guide was just as passionate and knowledgeable as the last. By the end of it we felt like we knew this old city a little better, and couldn't help noticing how similar these three major monotheistic religions are! In the whole scheme of things, the differences are really just splitting hairs...
We were first taken to the Western Wall to learn why thousands of Jews visit it to pray every day. The sight is simply a retaining wall, built to support the reconstruction of the first temple built on the Mount by King David's son, Solomon. When it was around, this temple was the holiest of holy sights for all Jewish people, and served as a governmental, judicial and religious centre. The Foundation Stone beneath the temple marks the place where the world was created, where Adam was made and where Abraham went to sacrifice his son to God. When the temple was destroyed by conquerers and the Jewish people were banished from the mount, they began to pray at the wall, which was believed to be the last remaining structure associated with their holy temple and the Foundation Stone. Even today, thousands of Jews come everyday to this site to pray and slip messages between the stones.
Ironically, this very sight is also the third holiest site for Sunni Muslims, and the Temple Mount has been in their control since 638AD. They believe that Sulayman (aka Solomon) who built the first temple, was actually a prophet of Islam, as was Jesus! For many Muslims, the Foundation Stone marks the spot where the last prophet Muhammed made his Night Journey and ascended to heaven. The beautiful Islamic 'Dome of the Rock' now protects this Stone and sits right next to the Al Aqsa Mosque, where only Muslims are allowed to enter. The security check point to get up to the Mount was very strict and no weapons (including bibles, crosses or Jewish Kippa hats!) are allowed in. Luckily we were forewarned and Jess tucked away the little cross that she wears around her neck. It is also forbidden to perform any non-Islamic prayer here - and security take their job seriously - so we tried to look inconspicuous as we watched groups of Muslim men praying together and covered women scurrying into the mosque with their children.
From here we followed the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of the Cross. This is the street where Jesus is said to have walked down, carrying his cross after being found guilty and sentenced by Pontius Pilate. We passed a few different churches along the way including those of the Ethiopian and Egyptian denominations, before we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This Church represents Golgotha (Calvary) where Jesus is said to have been crucified and Sepelchre, where he was buried and later resurrected. Originally two different churches marked these two different events and locations, but when the Crusaders came, they decided these were not grand enough and built an enormous structure to cover both!
Later we went back on our own to properly appreciate this magnificent old church. Our timing was perfect and we stood in awe and watched as hundreds of priests from all over the world walked around the Sepulchre, waving incense all around the room. They were taking part in an annual procession to honour the Finding of the True Cross (another story altogether). After the procession ended we were able to touch the said ground where Jesus died, the stone they anointed his body on and the tomb he apparently rose from. Similarly to the Church of the Nativity, different Christian denominations have argued about who gets the honour of responsibility for each section of the church. To ensure it is well maintained, the Greek Orthodox look after the tomb and the Roman Catholics, Calvary. We don't know if it was the incense, the singing or something deeper, but there was definitely an overpowering feeling of something stronger than humans, modern religion or politics here...