Tuesday 23 April 2013

Israel Take 2 - Day 10

In hindsight, I think this post will make more sense once I get the pictures processed. So look out for those soon! In the meantime, the text of the day is below.

Our original plans for Sunday were to  go into Ramallah, however, since deciding that was a bad plan upon arrival, we'd been batting around what to do with our "extra" day. I remembered the enchanting description of three very different walks through Jerusalem at dawn in the Jerusalem biography - putting that together with my previous experience at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a few days previously, the best idea seemed to be to spend a few hours at dawn in the Church.

So, it was that I found myself walking through the Jaffa Gate at the seriously uncomfortable hour of 5:00am. The boys headed off to watch the Jewish community great dawn at the Western Wall and I headed inside the church for a few hours contemplation and worship. It was a very magical time with the different services all going on at once and in not so subtle competition with each other. The keen faith was palpable and very special indeed.

Stepping out in the full light of day around 7:15, I was not a little unchanged for the experience. However, at that hour not a lot was open so it was back to the hotel for another super tasty breakfast and decide what it was we wanted to do with the rest of the day.

Seeing as how we hadn't yet seen any of the Muslim holy places, the next obvious place to go was the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. It was at this point we were very glad indeed to not be part of a tour group, because security limits the number of non-believers who are able to enter at any given time. A party of three, we were put into the "fast track" line away from the larger groups, who were then turned away for a few hours - the quota having been filled.

From the check point it was a short walk over a wooden bridge, past the Western Wall, over the top of many extremely interesting looking archeological excavations and then into the Temple Mount complex itself.

I was surprised at how little was open for visiting - none of the mosques (either Al-Aqsa or the stunning Dome of the Rock) were open for tourists; the Islamic Museum was likewise very firmly closed.

The other surprise was the very lively study groups which had all set themselves up in the plaza. Some fairly large (20-30), some small (2-3), but definitely segregated by gender and all deep in discussion. A good reminder that this is still very much the centre of faith for a vibrant community.

On the other side of the Dome of the Rock was a lovely little grotto of olive trees where school children would play on their breaks.

Come full circle, we headed out of the "Cotton Merchant's Gate" and found a cute little market where we finished off the majority of our souvenir shopping.

Shopping complete, we headed back through the market and over to the Citadel - that was finally open! It's rather misleadingly known as the Tower of David, the name wasn't the only misleading piece of information. Still it surrounds some pretty neat ruins and from the walls you could get some great views out over the old city.

After several hours wandering about, it was definitely time for lunch and so we decided to pair lunch with another sightseeing expedition. So it was back into the modern city and around the corner from the Mahane Yehuda market at a little hole in the wall called Rachmo. Definitely one of our better lunches in Jerusalem! Enormous portions (Stephen and I split a plate) but all homemade. We had a stuffed eggplant dish, with rice/lentils/onions mix, the ubiquitous tomato/cucumber salad and a plate of pickles that went way too quickly.

Sated, it was through the market to wander about relishing all the lovely fresh fruits & vegetables, pick up some last minute snacks (mmmm halva) before heading back into the Old City to continue our plans for the day.

On the agenda for our final afternoon was to pick up where we left off at the Citadel and do the Eastern edge of the "Ramparts Walk" where we met a very cheerful and yet a little bizarre ticket taker (all of our answers to his very routine questions got turned into song). When I saw the not too terribly stable, nearly free standing spiral staircase, I was wondering what in the world I'd let myself in for. Fortunately, once actually up on the walls, it was firm stone under my feet. A much happier camper, I could then relax and enjoy the view. And the views were wonderful, on the one hand back over the old city, on the other back across the new city. Because everything is built higgledy-piggledy we got to peer into some very non-public areas, including watching some of the police horses get a cool down in the stables that according to the sign were used by Crusaders and later the Sultanate. Kind of amazing when you think about it. I really enjoyed getting a birds eye view of the daily life of the city as well as the more traditional panoramic vistas.

The walk eventually dropped us off at the Zion gate (so called because it leads to the Mount Zion, yes that Mount Zion), just a short walk from our next stop, the Abbey of the Dormition. Looked after by a German Benedictine community it was yet another stunning example of modern architecture built around much older ruins. It also housed some of the more beautiful mosaics we'd seen outside of the Orthodox churches with a beautiful crypt. Blessedly we were able to pace ourselves to fit neatly inbetween the tour groups and so got periods of being in the church on our own.

Around the corner and above a Jewish religious school (which explained the groups of young Jewish adults - some carrying their AK47s alarmingly nonchalantly - hanging out in the church courtyard), was the Room of the Last Supper. Very plain, but with some original features, including scraps of what were probably once frescos.

By that point it was already late afternoon and we were all getting a little droopy from our early start (or at least, I was). So we took the scenic route back to the hotel, through the historic Yemin Moshe neighbourhood. Very quiet and peaceful (living up to its name) with some really lovely gardens. One of the few places in Jerusalem that felt like real people lived there.

Back in the room ,where I took a nap and the boys caught up on the world happenings, we realised that evening was the start of the Holocaust Remembrance Day and so none of the usual restaurants would be open. So we decided to be totally unambitious and give our hotel restaurant a try . . which was exactly the same thing as everyone else did. Service was slow and the food was mediocre - not good, not bad, just ok. But it was dinner and it furnished us with wine glasses and a bottle opener for us to toast our last evening in Jerusalem (oh, and pack).

Luckily for us, there was one last surprise in store before getting on the plane.

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