Thursday, May 29, 2008

Jerusalem’s Old City

The Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.
by Melissa C. Morris

Last month, while many New Yorkers were on Spring Break
at sandy beach resorts, I took an unconventional holiday; I went to Israel. As a Christian, I wasn’t the typical tourist in this country, but I found the history, spirituality, and people of Israel positively captivating.

The highlight of my trip was a visit to the Old City in Jerusalem.
The Old City is an assault on the senses: busy shoppers crowd into the narrow souk, fresh baked pitas with zatar emerge from bakery ovens, church bells clang, the call to prayer wafts from minarets, and street signs in Hebrew and Arabic guide you on your way.
Jerusalem is dizzying and enchanting all at once.

The Old City is small – at 220 acres it’s about ¼ the size of Central Park – and the best way to get around it is on foot. I donned my moccasins, grabbed my map, and set out to explore.

There are four quarters within the city walls: Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. There are no firm borders between these sections, but each has its own wholly distinctive atmosphere.

Inside the Christian Quarter I found, not surprisingly, church after church after church. I met Christian pilgrims from Ghana, Greece, and Italy; all came to retrace Jesus’ last steps.
Clockwise from top left: Map of the Old City’s quarters; The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be where Jesus was crucified, buried, and later rose from the dead; The exterior and two interior mosaics; The Church of Saint John the Baptist with its distinct silver dome.
The nucleus of the Jewish quarter is the Western Wall. This 2,000-year-old wall has long been a site of pilgrimage for the Jews. Worshippers come to pray in front of the wall, and many insert prayers into the wall’s cracks.
The Western Wall, worshippers, prayers lodged in between the stones.
Temple Mount is a large, raised area within the Muslim Quarter where the gleaming gold-domed shrine, Dome of the Rock, sits. Non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the Dome of the Rock, but even so it’s well worth the trip to view the buildings up close and to take in their surrounding gardens.
Dome of the Rock, believed to be where Mohammed left the earth.
Worshippers washing before entering the mosque. Local schoolgirls at recess.
The exquisite hand-painted tiles on the building’s exterior.
The Armenian quarter is a bit of a mystery since it’s largely closed to visitors. While doing some souvenir shopping I met a friendly Armenian ceramics artist with a pottery shop. He offered to show me around his neighborhood, the smallest quarter of the Old City.
Garo, an Armenian potter, surrounded by his work; A peek around the quiet, tidy quarter of a private people.
A welcome meal at the end of a long day of sightseeing -- a delicious mezze platter with the many facets of Jerusalem happily co-mingling on one plate.
Jerusalem’s Old City is easily appreciated by visitors of all faiths. The lively mix of Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean cultures makes for a rich, intense, and truly unforgettable travel experience.

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