After dinner at the Dancing Camel brewpub I headed back to my room to wind down since it was going to be another semi-early morning, especially because I had to change hotels. I’d had enough points for three nights at the Orchid Park Plaza and one night at the Sheraton, so would be changing for my last night before heading out to Jerusalem for our day tour. Unfortunately, the hotel had other ideas.
It started with loud noise in the room next to me. Then, I smelled cigarette smoke. The went on for 30+ minutes at 10pm, so I went to the front desk to complain. They said they’d look into it, but made it clear I was annoying them, and no, there were no other rooms. 30 minutes later it was still going, so I went down to complain again. They were more annoyed. Finally, they decided the best strategy was to get rid of me, so they offered me a smoking suite in the other tower. Told them I’d check it out first, because hey, one of the things I’m complaining about here is that people are smoking in the room next to me. Suite didn’t smell at all of smoke, and was a bit bigger and much quieter, so was worth the late night move.
Headed back to my original room to get my bags packed up, which took about 10 minutes, and was I was walking out a woman was walking out of the room next door. She screamed loudly at the people in the room “you still owe me 100 shekels” in Russian. Um, wait, there’s hookers in the room? Way to keep it classy Park Plaza! Fortunately, got to the new room and absolutely passed out, so no further drama.
Next day was another early morning fueled by canned coffee from the convenience store. Our tour left from the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem at 11am, so I had a bit of time to make my way there. Unfortunately, this still meant getting up early to switch hotels before heading to the train station to catch the train to Jerusalem. The bus would have been faster, but I figured the extra hour in order to have the train experience would be worth it. I was definitely right.
Got to the Sheraton around 7am, and they were almost as surly as the Park Plaza, until they realized I was an SPG Platinum Member at which point they perked up a bit. They “supposed” they could give me a room early, but it would only be a high floor standard renovated room instead of a junior suite. It was one night, and would be somewhere to put my bags, so I went with it. The room was nice and modern, and as soon as I dropped my bags I hopped a cab to the train station.
The train station was packed, with military everywhere. Being Sunday, I assume everyone was heading back to assignments from visiting friends/family over the weekend so the trains were packed. My train was absolutely packed with military, dozens of them in my car. At one point I felt something poking into my leg, and realized it was the barrel of the guy seated next to me’s gun.
Upon getting off at Jerusalem, it definitely seemed like the entirety of the IDF was on my train:
When I exited the station I realized I was still 5+ miles from the Jaffa Gate. Hmmm, expensive taxi or try and figure out the bus. Decided to try the bus. Got on google maps on my phone, it told me the right bus number, and it was easy to find and a piece of cake. It was a good public transit experience, and what did we do before we had google maps to plan such things?!
Got to Damascus Gate with an hour to spare, so while waiting on Ian decided to have a light late breakfast:
We had booked our tour through Sandeman’s Tours, and they had two options. A three hour free tour, or a much longer 19 euro paid tour. I figured the free tour would be full of annoying cheap people, and Jerusalem had a ton to see, so we went with the paid tour. It was a great decision on our part. Our tour guide was Ryan, an American who’d moved to Israel over ten years ago and was outgoing, friendly, gregarious, and full of knowledge on Jerusalem. We were about 10 people in our group, and first task was the group photo:
That’s Ryan in the lower right in front of Ian and I. First stop was the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, where there wasn’t terribly much to see. We stopped a few times to talk and get a bit of history, but other than that it was a pretty quick stop through this part of the Old City. Cool buildings as we walked:
Next stop was the supposed room of the Last Supper. It was cool, but Ryan reminded us that all these stories have to be taken with a grain of salt, as there’s often just as much evidence about where events happened as there was that it perhaps didn’t happen there. Regardless, it was still very interesting to see. The next stop was in the Jewish Quarter, the tomb of King David. This is also an Orthodox Synagogue so there were paper rent-a-kippahs for everyone to put on before going in. The Tomb of King David:
The Rabbi was rather friendly, and handing out literature, chatting with us, and welcoming us. It almost felt a bit evangelical in a way like he was trying to sell us on the site, but I think it was more than he was just interested in making sure we learned as much as possible about the site while we were there.
On the way out, another statue of King David:
We wandered a bit more through the Jewish Quarter before beginning the trek to the Muslim Quarter and towards the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock / Temple of the Mount depending which tradition you subscribe to. In order to get in there was a very strict security check looking not only for weapons/etc but also for anything that could be considered religiously or politically provocative. This included any religious items like prayer books, necklaces, etc, or anything that took sides in the Israel/Palestine situation. Fortunately our group was rather well-behaved, and we made it through security unscathed. Then, it was up to the courtyard in front of the Dome of the Rock.
I’m not going to go into all the details, but this is an extremely holy site in both Islam and Judaism. However, Orthodox Jews are prohibited to access the site since there is a belief that the Temple was destroyed during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the precise location of the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary entered only by the High Priest, is not known. Hence a restriction applies to the entire compound. However, other rabbis believe that modern archaeological and other evidence has enabled them to identify areas that can be safely entered without violating Jewish law; but even those opinions forbid Jews from entering the Dome of the Rock.
In Islam, this is believed to be the place with the Prophet Mohammad ascended into Heaven accompanied by the Angel Gabriel. Other Islamic scholars believe that this happened at the location of the Al Aqsa Mosque, just a few meters away. Now you see why everything around here is so tense? Three major religions, disputes about where things happened, etc. There’s just a whole lot of historical shiz that went down in a very small area.
So what’s the deal with the Foundation Stone? The Founddation Stone and its surroundings is the holiest site in Judaism. Though Muslims now pray towards the Kaaba at Mecca, they once faced the Temple Mount as the Jews do. Muhammad changed the direction of prayer for Muslims after a revelation from Allah. Jews traditionally regarded the location of the stone as the holiest spot on Earth, the site of the Holy of Holies. Again, lots of shiz went down here.
The Temple Mount:
This is where things got weird. We’d been warned by Ryan to be on our best behaviour at the site, and for the most part we were. A Dutch couple, however, decided they’d take a pic with their arms around each other. No big deal in western culture, but apparently this is waaaaay too much affection to be displayed at one of the holiest sites in Islam. An old lady ran up to us and started screaming at us: “WE HATE OBAMA! HATE AMERICA! ANIMALS! INFIDELS! HATE AMERICA!” Um, honey, the people you’re pissed at are Dutch. Apparently all evil white people are Americans in her eyes though. Way to do your part for cultural understanding!
Yeah…moving on…next stop was the Western Wall of the temple, aka the Wailing Wall. People often insert prayers into the wall. Approaching the wall to pray is acceptable as long as your head is covered, but men and women must pray on opposite sides of this fence.
While we waited at the wall, again, there were hundreds of IDF soldiers hanging around. Ryan told us that the IDF organizes outings for them, since many of them have recently made Aliyah and haven’t been to some of the important places in Israel, or many others many have grown up poor and not been able to afford a trip to Jerusalem. The IDF hanging out at the Western Wall. Funny, we never brought guns on our field trips in school….
At this point, it was the time our tour was scheduled to end. Ryan had warned us there was so much to see the tour would likely go an hour long. At this point, he gave us a choice: go that extra hour and rush through things, or spend more time and do the entire Via Delorosa in the Christian Quarter. He was such an excellent guide we went with the latter. After a quick stop for a very late lunch, we continued on. Last major stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Showing just how packed in things are, right in front of the church was a minaret in the Muslim Quarter:
Front of the church:
Ryan gave us a brief tour of the church, including some of the most important parts – the places where Jesus was supposedly crucified and the place where he is thought to have been buried. After this, he gave us maybe 15 minutes on our own to take in the church, and I’ll admit it was a rather powerful experience.
After this, we continued on to walk the Via Delorosa, or the last steps of Jesus from the time He was condemned to be crucified to the time he was buried and rose. This is also known as the stations of the cross, and was a fascinating hour-long walk through history.
By the time we finished it was freezing, and nearly 6pm It had been a nearly 7 hour tour with a fantastic guide!
I was absolutely beat, so after saying goodbye to Ian I took a tram to the bus station, and found the bus headed towards Tel Aviv. I’d arranged to meet another reader of my blog for dinner and we got a quick make-your-own burrito (I swear, I had more tex-mex in Tel Aviv than I eat in DC!) near my hotel. After this it was time to head back and crash, because I was absolutely beat. It had been a jam-packed three days in Israel and it was time to begin the long trek home in the morning.