For my parents’ second full day in Israel, I had originally planned for us to take a road trip up to some of the sites in the north, like the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth. The key to this plan was getting a rental car, as my friends and I had done a few weeks prior. When we did it, it was a piece of cake. This time, Shabbat took its toll and threw a big rock in my plans. As I searched the internet for car rental companies the night before, I was stopped time and time again by the same discovery- literally none of the companies were open on Saturdays, and would not even allow for a car pick-up on that day. It was a little ridiculous. So, I reshuffled a few plans, made some calls, and decided to spend another day around Jerusalem that Saturday instead of later on in the week.
The next morning, I met up with my parents at their hotel at around 8 AM, and reviewed our new plans for the day. We would head over to the Old City to check out the Church of the Holy Sepulcher before making our way to the Mount of Olives, and finally meet up with some of my friends and roommates for dinner that night. It would be a more relaxed day of sightseeing, which may have been a blessing in disguise after the first busy day in Israel. So, we set off to walk along Jaffa Street in the direction of the Damascus Gate of the Old City. Today, Ben Yehouda Street and the area around the hotel had taken on a completely different demeanor. The usually-bustling streets were completely empty, with storefronts closed and locked, and no cars to be seen. Nothing was open. It’s a little eerie to see a popular downtown area turn into a ghost town overnight. Such are the ways of Shabbat!
As we walked into the Old City, a couple of shopkeepers along the way told us that the Dome of the Rock was also closed today, but that we were more than welcome to check out the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Muslim Quarter was a refreshing contrast to the absence of life on Ben Yehouda Street- Muslims don’t follow the rules of Shabbat, and Friday is their holy day and first day of the weekend, so the narrow cobblestone walkways were full of people selling goods and chatting. We made our way towards the heart of the Old City, asking for directions every few steps- the Church is much less of a monument than you would expect it to be, and is nestled in between busy streets of shops that zig-zag amongst the various quarters. Finally, I recognized a few of the shops that we were passing by from when Alex and I had accidentally run into the Church a few weeks back, and noticed a small sign in the corner of a wall that pointed to the right. We emerged through the arched stone doorway into a small courtyard rife with tourists, the Church standing right alongside the other buildings of the Old City.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the holiest Christian site in the Old City, and is the site of the last hours of Jesus. This is where, it is said, Jesus was nailed to the cross, died, and rose from the dead. It’s definitely not the most extravagant church in the world, but it has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries, and the meaning and emotion tied to it lingers in its presence. The church itself was placed here by the mother of Emperor Constantine, and the site has revealed graves, shrines, and various other churches. The Islamic Caliph Omar also visited the church in the 7th century, refusing to pray there to avoid causing his fellow Muslims to turn it into a mosque. The church has been victim to a fire and earthquake, and arguments over repairs have lead to an interesting compromise: the keys to the church are in the possession of a local Muslim family, whose job it is to unlock the doors each morning and secure them each night.
The sites within the church are organized in various “Stations of the Cross”, including where Jesus was supposedly stripped of his clothes, nailed to the cross, crucified, taken down and handed to Mary, and the stone on which his body was cleansed. The final station is the Tomb of Jesus, and the namesake of the church- the Holy Sepulchre. My parents and I made our way through each of the stations, admiring both the shrines and the other visitors around us. Faithful visitors to many holy sites are almost an attraction in and of themselves- it’s not uncommon to see people rubbing themselves on an ancient rock, kissing walls, muttering to statues, and silently weeping. We waited in line to touch the rock upon which Jesus was supposedly cruxified, standing amonst the gold and mosaic shrines filling the room. A priest stood nearby, lighting candles and urging visitors to make their visit short and sweet. He reminded us that the significance of this experience cannot be captured in the hundreds of pictures that we take- it’s “in here,” pointing to his chest.
As we walked around the inner circumference of the church, we ran into a procession of monks singing and trailing incense through the air. Their voices echoed off of the cold stone walls around us as they paused at various points along the walkway. We were eventually allowed to move past them, continuing to look at ancient portraits on the walls, singular candles illuminating dark corners, and heavy lanterns hanging from the high ceiling. The Holy Sepulcher was easily recognizable due to the huge mass of people waiting to go inside it. Tourists of all ages huddled together in a line that snaked around the dark cube that housed the tomb. We stood for a few minutes, just watching the people around us and taking in every inch of the room before turning in to examine the huge, empty center of the church, which was closed off and reserved for special occasions. A flawless, glowing portrait of Jesus covered the domed ceiling, presiding over the only tourist-less spot in the church.
We continued to explore the various nooks and crannies of the place for awhile, following singing priests into various rooms and standing as close as possible to English-speaking tour groups with guides. I watched as a young woman instructed her son how to kneel and pray alongside the Holy Sepulcher, while he seemed more interested in blowing out candles. As we made our way out of the church, more and more tour groups snaked inside- we had gotten there right in time! By then, it was early afternoon, so we stopped at one of the many cafes tucked along the walkways of the Old City to grab a bite to eat and something to drink. It was a beautiful day out.
Eventually, we peeled ourselves away from the shade and wound our way back out of the Old City, crossing the street outside of the Damascus gate to enter the Arab bus station. We hopped onto a bus that would take us towards the Mount of Olives, somewhere that I had seen from afar, but never actually visited. The bus dropped us off at the top of the mount, near a couple of churches and cafes directed at the tourists that often come to visit. I wasn’t exactly sure where to go to get the best view, and upon asking a local restaurant owner, he urged us up to his rooftop. It did have a pretty nice view, but the weather was getting increasingly windy, and we didn’t want to pay to eat there- we had just grabbed food in the Old City. So, we bought a couple of waters, talked to a nice German couple (mostly about Arnold Schwarzenegger), and made our way down along the street.
Finally, we saw the view that we were looking for. A small pavilion extended out over the mount, looking over the thousands of graves that had been scattered over the land for centuries. This is supposedly where God will start to redeem the dead when the Messiah returns on the Day of Judgement, so many Jewish people have chosen to be buried here, with the current count at somewhere around 150,000 graves. This makes the Mount of Olives the world’s oldest continually used cemetery- some graves were desecrated during the Jordanian occupation of the area, but most are still intact. It also provides a great view of the Old City. From here, we could see the Dome of the Rock and the rest of the Temple Mount. It was a beautiful view, but the wind was getting a little unbearable- our only picture has hair being blown all over the place.
We were ready to leave pretty quickly, and faced the next task: finding a taxi. This is a pretty common issue at touristy sights. The drivers know that you’re stuck there, so they can hike up the price and you can’t really do much about it. A couple of men assured us that they would call a taxi for us, insisting that we only wait for five minutes until their friend arrived. Ten, then fifteen minutes later, we were getting antsy and tired of talking to this guy about the wrestling scene in America. We started walking back down the path until we luckily ran into the taxi that we had been waiting for, and made our way back to the hotel. The parents napped for a bit, and I worked out the final pieces of our plan for the next few days. I had originally booked us rooms for that night at the “Sisters of Nazareth Convent” in Nazareth for our trip to the north, which sounds a little silly, but actually comes highly recommended. Ever since I had called to reschedule that day, the Sisters had been trying to contact me to confirm the new plans. I had been busy inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and on the mountain, so by the time I was able to call them back, the Sister that answered the phone sounded like a worried grandmother. “Sophia, we’ve called three times today to talk to you! Are you okay? Are you still coming to visit tomorrow? We look forward to seeing you!” I couldn’t wait to meet these women and see what this place was like.
Post-nap, the parents and I headed over to Mount Scopus to see my dorm and the university. It was still Shabbat, meaning that buses weren’t running from downtown to campus, and our choice in taxis was limited. We ended up with a guy driving a Mercedes who blasted Fleetwood Mac the entire ride there. I walked my parents around the Student Village, showing them my dorm apartment (which ended up being much smaller and more institutional-looking than my mom expected from our Skype dates) and the local cafe. Eventually, we decided to walk to the university to look around while we waited for my roommates to return home. I walked them past the cemetary that I pass every day on the walk to school (lovely, right?), showed them the great view of Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock, and finally approached the entrance to Hebrew University. The campus itself was closed for the day (again, for Shabbat), so we couldn’t actually go inside, but we got the general idea of things.
I wanted to show my parents the “Arab neighborhood” that lies adjacent to campus, so we walked about 15 feet to the left of the main entrance into campus that I walk through every day. This neighborhood is called Essaouia, and the main windows of Rothberg International School look out over it. It’s a bizarre view for students at an Israeli university to have- the homes there are noticeably less luxurious than the ones surrounding the neighborhood, and you can distinctly see the high, grey separation wall weaving through the land. As we stood on the street, a couple of young boys saw us and started walking in the other direction, past a car with broken windows. We stood for a few seconds as I started to explain that this was the view that we had from the International School, when all of a sudden, a couple of rocks came flying through the air at us. The young boys had gone into their neighborhood, and were now responding to our presence in a less-than-welcoming way. We panicked, as Mark started rushing further down the street, and my mom yelled a few terms at them that I won’t repeat here.
I yelled at my parents to come back towards the main street that we had walked to campus on, and we were soon out of the range of fire of the rocks. I was completely caught off guard- this had never happened to me or any of my friends before, and my parents and I had not even ventured into questionable territory. We were literally seconds away from a main entrance into my campus. I had friends who went into Essaouia regularly to visit a local family that they had met there, to play with their kids and have tea. As I look back on the situation, a few things come to mind. First of all, these were young boys, which I always see as the most troublesome group- in Cairo, I got used to having bored kids follow me around or try to get my attention in various ways. And again, the phrase “What are we teaching our children?” comes to mind. Also, from their point of view, we probably didn’t look like their favorite type of person. We were a white family standing in front of Hebrew University, which provokes a few implications. I wouldn’t be surprised if they assumed that we were there to intrude upon their neighborhood, or just to see how much worse off they have it. I’m not excusing the act- it was unacceptable- but there is meaning and a reason behind it. Some part of me feels as though throwing rocks just goes to show the desperation of their situation. Do these kids have any other way of communicating their anger, or gaining understanding about the conflict?
So, we made our way back towards the dorms, a little shaken by the turn of events. This was also the second time that some act of retaliation had occurred in Jerusalem since I’ve been here (although on a much, much smaller scale)- first the bus bombing, and now rock-throwing. I had officially experienced more violence here in Jerusalem than I had in the West Bank, yet my program insists that I stay here. Go figure. Anyway, soon enough, we were back at my dorm, and my roommates arrived for dinner. We hopped in a couple of cabs and headed down to Ben Yehouda Street, hoping to find a restaurant that would reopen at the end of Shabbat that evening. After walking around for a bit, we came across a nice Italian Restaurant that was already full of customers, and chose to eat there that night. We indulged in pasta, garlic bread, and almost everything else on the menu- having parents in town is always a good thing! It was great to have them meet the friends that they had only seen in pictures up to that point. After dinner, we walked down the street to grab some ice cream, walked around Ben Yehouda Street for awhile to talk and watch some street performers, and eventually split up. The parents made their way down the block and back to the hotel, and my friends and I shared a cab back to the dorms.
That’s it for part 2 of the ‘Parents in Israel’ series- next up, a road trip to the north!