Life At The Top...
... Of a mountain. When we reached the Czech Republic, we didn't know our accommodation was going to be this unique.
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“What will you do in Jerusalem?” the Israeli border officer sternly asks.
Trying to regain a conscious perspective after going through a series of unnerving control checks from Jordan, I couldn’t think of any better answer.
“I’ve always been yearning to visit the Holy Land as a Christian.”
Without flinching during the dreaded interrogation, I pray there won’t be inevitable hassles to this conventional stringent process. Sliding back my passport down the glass partition, she remarks, “Enjoy your stay!”
Yes, that easy or, I guess, it’s sheer luck. My heart is racing with excitement.
Leaving the psychedelic desert behind, the minivan heading for Jerusalem slowly comes to a stop, the driver murmurs indistinctly in Hebrew when a young checkpoint officer announces, “Hold your passport up!”
“Now what’s the matter?” Completely nonplussed, I whisper in agitation.
“This is normal protocol,” my travel buddy, Pinky, answers.
Don’t miss out!
Not to be overlooked, the blue and white Israeli flags flap in the morning breeze. Shalom. We’re in central Jerusalem in an hour.
The sidewalks are quite choked with vendors selling a diverse range of merchandise. Pedestrians are unfazed by the chill, honks and traffic.
The Downtown Triangle nestles in the commercial hub of Western Jerusalem. Bordered by upscale shops and roadside eateries, the lively, car-free Jaffa Street exudes a European charm thriving with buildings of eclectic architecture. Trams run through the avenue of palm trees in front of the city hall. Residents, snug in their winter jackets, whizz around in their daily grind; the Jews in their notable garb.
Diversity in landscape
Making oohs and ahhs, we enter into another world of beguiling aura - the old town of Jerusalem. This small walled city has four quarters, eight gates, over 220 monuments and gobs of history. Sieged by violence and struggled for political liberation for ages, the UNESCO World Heritage Site has endured through time. Standing proud for centuries, the walls protect the most sacred places venerated by Jews, Muslims and Christians. It’s abundant with historic landmarks worth seeing for tourists, and pilgrims from around the world come for spiritual connection.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, evocative of God’s existence, is the focal point of the Christian Quarter. As the most exalted site of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the mood emanating from the sacred corners is full of intimate rueful invocations. We need not rush as The Altar of Crucifixion, The Stone of Anointing and The Edicule (Burial Shrine) are traditionally swarming with worshipers. Elsewhere the first century tombs are completely restored in the sequestered crypt.
We drift through five stations of the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrow), a Christian devotion during Lent Season, which observes Jesus’ agony to Golgotha (Calvary). Interestingly, every nook and cranny takes us a step back in time through ornate chapels and shadowy walkways.
Across the church is the all-too-often ignored Muristan area (Hospital in AD 600) of the Knights of the Order, who cared and protected the pilgrims, and repelled the infidels from the Holy Land. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Sauntering through rows of shops, we can’t help but briefly stop to haggle over some impressive rosaries and crucifixes. Along the spice-scented atmosphere, we stumble upon young military forces cheerfully combing the narrow streets and trickling into the wider open spaces of the Jewish Quarter.
“Actually, Israeli citizens over 18 render military service for at least two years,” Pinky mentions.
“Yes, they’re quite hard to miss,” I admit.
The Western Wall is the holiest remnant of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great. After the Six-day War in 1967, Israeli forces levelled the little Moroccan Quarter to expand the open-air synagogue. Non-Jews are most welcome to visit and pray.
Meandering in and out of souvenir stalls for a little leisurely time is invigorating. Just when we think there could be no more beyond the corners, the passages seem never-ending. The sprawling Muslim Quarter is broad you can literally get lost! Armed guards control the restricted access to the Noble Sanctuary Muslims revere as the site Prophet Muhammad ascended from to heaven. Widely known as the Temple Mount, it always remains in tranquillity off prayer hours. The magnificent Dome of the Rock and “The Farthest Mosque” (Al-Aqsa Mosque) dot the erstwhile Holy Temple.
Adjacent to the Temple Mount, beyond the Gate of Eternal Life (closed in 8th Century), is the all-important Jewish Cemetery for over 3000 years. Deemed as the place for the Last Judgement, it has approximately 150,000 graves including those of the illustrious rabbis and leaders of all time. Unfortunately, mindless vandalism and desecration of some tombs have been reported lately.
Weary after a long and arduous walk, we inch our way to the deeply spiritual Armenian Quarter. The compound lies in peace and quiet. The grandeur of St. James Cathedral and its idiosyncratic religious service have intriguing hidden stories to tell. The St. Mark’s Church, regarded as the venue of The Last Supper, is not to be missed!
A sigh of relief
Now it’s time for snack. Israeli sweet bread and savoury pastries are highly pleasing to the senses. With fresh pomegranate juice to flush a bagel toast down, we walk all the way to the time-honoured David’s Tower, a citadel turned museum illuminated prettily at night.
“We’re blessed this truly unique place lives in our time,” I conclude.
“A city that’s like no other!” Pinky confirms.