Friday, January 23, 2009

Tour of Jerusalem

Last Saturday (since no-one on my program observes Shabbat) we had our first 'official' tour around Jerusalem. The program that I am on goes way out of their way to make this much more than a 'study abroad' experience - though we do get the regular doses of site seeing and studying, they manage to give us a very critical, in-depth look at the situation, rather than just from a tourist's perspective. That said, our tour was great. It began at a lookout overlooking the city, and our guide gave us a mini-history lesson of the area:
The history here is MINDBLOWING. I cannot even begin here to summarize it, but EVERY site has layers and layers of history under it... our tour guide called it 'lasagne'. (see the pictures 2 below for a perfect example of this). To make this even more nutty, just LOOK at the size of Israel (on the far left) compared to other places - it is only a sliver of the size of California. I haven't checked exactly, but I bet that it isn't much larger than the county I grew up in. It takes 6 hours to drive from tip to bottom, and about an hour to drive from on side (Mediterranean sea) to the other (Jordan or Syria depending on where you are).
Isn't that just nuts?!? I mean, we are talking about a TINY place- that you could drive up and down 4 times in 24 hours - and this is ROOT of so much conflict in the ENTIRE WORLD.
But here, my friends... is an example of why it is such a root. It is Holy to the 3 Major Monotheistic religions in the world, and it is ancient. Those two facts explain, a Lot. Take this particular building, one of the first stops on our tour. This exact place is Holy to 3 religions for 3 somewhat different reasons. It is a chaotic looking building because as each group has had its hayday, it has built on top of the existing holy place.

To begin with, it is considered the Tomb of the Prophet Samuel from the Bible/Torah (you know... 1st and 2nd Samuel... his mom Hannah couldn't have children, so she prayed to God that if he gave her a child, she would give that child back to him. He is usually considered the last of the judges, the first of the prophets... he's the one who chose King Saul and King David... etc. Important guy) Anyway, the Jews believe he was buried here, in the basement of the building, so they constructed a tomb. I couldn't take pictures down there, but it was super interesting. A LOT of orthodox women flock here every day to pray for conception... since Samuel's mother couldn't conceive for so long, the idea is that Samuel will understand their plight and petition God on their behalf. Men come as well, but not at much. Anyway, that's the basement.

Ok great, but that's not where the story ends. Samuel is also considered a Prophet by Islam. They also think he is buried in this spot, but not in the exact spot that the Jews believe - they think he's in a slightly different position. So when they came to power, they built a mosque on top of the tomb. To this day, many Muslims come here to pray on Fridays. They come in a separate entrace than the Jews who are going to pray in the basement.

Oh, but there's more.

This is ALSO the spot where the Christian Crusaders, who had marched for 3 years from Europe on their 'holy' crusades against the Muslims, first saw Jerusalem. From the roof, there is an amazing view of the valley where the city sits. After marching for that long, singing the songs of going back to Zion the whole way, the sight was overwhelming and the story goes that they sat and cried. And then they built a whole series of infastructure around the site - places to collect water, stables, etc. And they used this place as a launching pad for their move to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims.

So, ok - whose is it? And this is just a minor place... wait until we get to the Temple Mount.
The sign leading in to the Jewish section:
This is from the roof where the Crusaders stood:

The view of Jerusalem:

After seeing a few places like the one above, where it is clear that no 'easy' solution is going to be reached (in other words, you can't say, oh, you take this half of the city and the other half is for you....) this monument had a lot of meaning to us. It is built towards the aspiration of tolerance... a recognition that love and unification may be difficult, but tolerance alone is a huge step forward. The monument is made of a giant stone that has been split in half jutting to the sky, but in split between the stones, an olive tree grown, signifying peace.

To make way for new construction, old buildings are usually torn down. Not in Jerusalem. This building, a guest house where the Zionist leader Hertzl stayed on his only trip to Jerusalem, was moved - brick by brick about 10 or 15 feet to get it out of the way of construction. See how the bricks are all numbered? Crazy stuff I tell you.
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