The Old City of Jerusalem and Yad Vashem

Western Wall with square

I stepped into the darkness from the bright sunshine. I could not see a thing.  I slowly shuffled my feet forward, inching along into the void, afraid of bumping my big toes or my nose into something solid.  My eyes started to adjust and I began to see a myriad of lit candles surrounding me. I heard a solemn voice reading names, ages, and place names aloud.

This was the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, Israel.  It is a tribute to the 1.5 million Jewish children killed during the Holocaust.  The memorial was hollowed out from an underground cavern on Mount Herzl.  While walking through the memorial, the visitor hears the names of murdered children.

While I was in the memorial I felt transported to another world. It was a disorienting experience but utterly absorbing.

Yad Vashem includes an excellent museum commemorating the six million Jews and other people murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.  It explains events of the 1920s-1940s in sobering and informative exhibits.  I’ve always had an interest in history and I found this museum wholly engrossing.

mosaic
A mosaic in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, Israel.
Jerusalem street
A backstreet in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

I visited Jerusalem with my Israeli friend Moshe. After our tour of Yad Vashem we drove to the old city in Jerusalem and parked by the Jaffa Gate.  Jerusalem is built on a hill, with the Temple Mount as the highest place.  The Temple Mount was where the first and second temples were sited.  The old city was accessed in ancient times by one of four gates in the city walls.  The current walls, built by the Turks in the 16th century, have 11 gates, only seven of which are now open. We passed through the Jaffa Gate and wandered the narrow and winding lanes of the Jewish Quarter.

At one location in the Jewish Quarter archeologists have excavated a base section of the original town wall. Only rubble remains of the base, with a sign on the wall indicating the original height of the wall.  I couldn’t read the sign, but it looked like it was about 30 feet high.  The base was about 15 feet wide.  The wall must have been quite impressive in those times and very useful as part of the defense of the town.

wall base
The destroyed wall in the Jewish Quarter.

In another spot there is the excavated main road of Jerusalem built by the Romans.  This road, called the Cardo, was situated on the north/south axis and was lined with tall columns with carved bases and tops.  Only a few of the columns remain.  Part of the Cardo is now covered by buildings but the original road level is a lane filled with fancy shops.  Along this road is a well-like structure where one can look down to see the remains of two earlier structures, one from Roman times and the other from the time of Nehemiah (approximately 440 BCE).

Roman cardo
A portion of the Roman cardo.

After lunch in a small café hidden away among the back streets of the neighborhood, we made our way to an overlook of the Western Wall Plaza.  From our vantage point we had a fantastic view of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.  The base of the Western Wall is made up of large stone blocks that were part of Solomon’s Temple (the second temple).  The Temple Mount today is where the two mosques are located – the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.  The Dome of the Rock mosque is the one with the golden dome.

Western Wall with square
The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.

We walked down to the square and entered the area in front of the Western Wall.  Moshe and I covered out heads with paper yarmulkes provided to us.  The wind was blowing and I had a hard time keeping mine on my head!   With one hand on my yarmulke we approached the Wall.  The area is divided up into two segregated sections, a men’s section and a women’s section.  For reasons unknown to me the men’s section is twice as large as the women’s section.  Did the authorities think more women than men want to pray to God at the wall?

Worshippers write their prayers on pieces of paper, stick the papers in cracks of the wall, and pray at the spot.  The wind was blowing some of the prayer papers onto the ground.  I wondered if a cleaning crew came out at night to clean up the papers, including the ones still stuck in the cracks so that the next day’s worshippers would have empty cracks to fill.

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Many of the worshippers were Orthodox Jews in black clothes, with black hats and the sides of their heads sporting ringlets.  Moshe and I walked to the side of the wall where there is a cavern dug into the hill.  This opening is a prayer, library, and study room for Orthodox Jewish men.  As we were walking out a couple of Orthodox Jews approached us for a handout and said something in Hebrew to us.  As we got out of earshot I asked Moshe what they were saying.  He replied that they were trying to convert him to become Orthodox.

Moshe told me that he was in Jerusalem right after the end of the Six Day War in 1967 and the site looked very different.  Prior to this time the Arabs had control of Jerusalem.  The Arabs over the centuries had built houses at that spot (which was called the Moroccan Quarter). The base of the Western Wall was covered up, and higher parts of the wall were visible only in a small space behind some buildings.  The Israelis tore down the houses, excavated the base of the wall to expose the temple wall and provide better access, and built the plaza.

After a stroll down the market street it was time to go.  It was very interesting to visit Yad Vashem and Jerusalem with an Israeli.  It was experience to remember.  Thanks Moshe!

Israel and the Ancient City of Jerusalem

Mosaic in Jersualem
Mosaic in Jersualem
Mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Old Jerusalem

Riding the bus from the port of Ashdod, Israel, on the Mediterranean Sea inland and up into the hills to Jerusalem was like traveling back in time.  On the coast, the ship docked in a modern, busy, industrious port.  Giant cranes lifted and stacked containers five stories high.  Thousands of new cars sat in rows collecting dirt on their windshields before being cleaned and shipped to dealers.

The tour bus cruised down new highways in heavy traffic and then past the place where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac 4,000 years ago.  Before the road climbed into the Judean Mountains, we saw the battlefield where David slew Goliath.

Despite this area being a desert, there were many fields planted with crops such as grapes, oranges, corn, and cotton.  It was land irrigated using reclaimed waste water.

There was a marked difference between lands of the people groups here.  The Israelis have built sophisticated irrigation systems and their land was generally green.  Social communes called kibbutzim were scattered across the desert, each like a green oasis.  The Palestinian areas were dry and dusty, and generally look poorer.  In some areas Bedouins lived not in tents but in shacks along the side of the highway.  One extended Bedouin family and their camels and goats lived in each grouping of shacks. The Bedouin areas were completely desolate.

The mountains used to be full of trees. The guide explained how the Turks of the Ottoman Empire had caused the destruction of all the trees in Israel during World War I by offering three gold pieces to anyone who brought a load of wood to the railroad stations.  The wood was used to make steam for the railway.  Since the creation of the new state of Israel in 1948, young Israelis have been planting trees.  The mountains are now full of trees again.

After a ride of 1 ½ hours, our first stop in Jerusalem was at the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations.  The garden looks out over the old city of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. The church itself was not memorable to me, and I was surprised at how small the garden is today.  I don’t know if it was larger 2,000 years ago.  The garden has a dozen old olive trees with very gnarled trunks.

Garden of Gethsemane
The Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem

We passed through the Jaffa Gate to get inside the old city.  We saw the Tower of David, which is now the tower of a mosque, and walked to the square in front of the Western Wall.  The Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall) is revered by the Jews as part of the foundation of the Temple Mount, the sole remnant of the Second Temple, which was built by Herod the Great and destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.  The area in front of the Western Wall is divided into two sections, one for men and one for women to get close to the wall.  Several hundred people were bobbing and praying at the wall and sticking written prayers in cracks of the wall.

Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel
The Western Wall in Old Jerusalem

The day was sunny and very hot.  I stood for quite a while in the square in the sun waiting for the tour to resume. I was sweating heavily through my clothes and I wondered how the many Orthodox Jews in their black clothes and hats dealt with the heat.

Muslim Quarter
The Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem

The Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem consists of many narrow lanes lined with shops of all kinds.  There streets were mostly deserted because of Ramadan.  The Muslims were fasting during the daylight hours and probably stayed at home.  We walked to several stops on the Via Dolorosa (also called the Way of Sorrows).  According to Roman Catholic tradition, this is the path that Jesus took through Jerusalem on his way to his crucifixion on Calvary Hill.

The Way of the Cross
A station on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem

The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  This church was built in the 12th century by the crusaders and today is shared by several Christian denominations.  According to tradition, this church was built on the site of Christ’s crucifixion, entombment, and resurrection.

The final stop of the tour was Bethlehem.  This city of 35,000 people is in an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  To get into Bethlehem we had to pass through a checkpoint through the border wall recently built by Israel.  The border wall is made of grey concrete panels about 20 feet high.  It is an ugly structure.  It was “decorated” on the inside by several colorful protest murals.  According to a sign I saw, Israeli citizens are not allowed in this area.  Since our tour guide was an Israeli, he left us on the Israeli side, and a Palestinian Christian became our new guide on the other side of the wall.

The new guide took us to the Church of the Nativity on a hill overlooking the desert valley.  This church was built in 530 A.D.  Everything in there definitely looked 1,500 years old!  We stood in a large upper room for almost an hour in the heat to get our turn to go down a narrow stone stairway to a small, dark lower room to see the birthplace of Jesus and the manger site.  The birthplace site was denoted by a large silver star on the floor.  I couldn’t get in to see the manger in a small adjoining room because of the crowd.

Site of Christ's birth in Bethlehem, Israel
The birthplace of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem

I had a look in the Catholic chapel where the Christmas Eve service is held every year and shown on TV.  Outside the Church of the Nativity is the Manger Square, which is also shown on TV.  The square is not very big and I could imagine how crowded it must get at Christmas time.

Church of the Nativity
The Catholic Chapel of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

The tour was a long and exhausting, but fascinating look at ancient Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

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