Friday, 12 April 2013

Israel Take 2 - Day 8

The morning of our first full day in Jerusalem started off with the first of several fantastic breakfasts in the hotel's restaurant. Not only did they have a full range of "continental" breakfast foods, but also had a great selection of Israeli salads and dairy treats (I think Israel might be second only to France in the wonderful dairy options). It was also on this day that I discovered the amazing fusion that is oatmeal/porridge with halva and silan - a type of date syrup that I'd never had before and a culinary oversight Branson made sure was fixed. Needless to say, a bottle of that definitely needed to come home with us and we had another item on our "to find in London" list.

After a such a fortifying breakfast, we were off to brave the elements. The weather had taken a distinctive turn for the stormy and so, with a forecast of rain that morning, we decided a museum was in order. Being in the new town already, the Israel Museum seemed a natural choice. Our stroll tools us through the Sir Charles Clore park and even though it wasn't perhaps the most direct route, it was worth it to get a feel for this part of modern Jerusalem.

The Israel museum is extremely well planned out and covers quite a lot of ground. We decided to focus our four hours in 3 different areas: the archeology wing (focusing on artefacts from ancient history of the region), the deservedly much acclaimed Shrine of the Book and the very impressive model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period.

Having been to many of the main archeological sites either on our previous trip or in the preceding days, the archeology wing was something of a no brainer and held many of the more precious or sensitive objects that couldn't continue to be exposed to the elements in their original site. It also really helped us synthesise much of what we had seen into the larger historical context. Unfortunately (and perhaps not surprisingly) many of the curatorial notes were rather heavy handed with the nationalism, much of which felt more than a bit desperate, but this was easily "filtered out" as it were and didn't ruin our enjoyment of the outstanding collection. Still, a more even handed treatment of history would certainly help. 

The Shrine of the Book was just as impressive as its reputation made it out to be, both in terms of architecture (being custom built to display the Dead Sea Scrolls & the Aleppo Codex) and in terms of curation - great development of the historical context with only minor nationalistic side tracks. The only disappointing feature was that the main event - a sample of the Scrolls - was a replica rather than the real thing. Still neat, but significantly less cool than seeing an original. I kind of wish this had been made clear at the beginning. The basement inclusion of the Aleppo Codex, on the other hand, was a surprise treat and included many original samples. I could have used more explanations and in-depth treatment of its history, but for the space available I thought they did a great job.

Tucked in behind the Shrine of the Book, is the amazing and HUGE model of what Jerusalem might have looked like during the Second Temple Period, which according to many is the height of classical Jewish culture. The level of detail was incredible and I was glad to have had that as a background before spending time in the present day version of the city with its many layered history and numerous excavations. 

Pretty chilled from being buffeted about by the winds in our short period outdoors, we opted for a late lunch in the museum cafe before the journey back into the old city. Our walking route conveniently took us past the Knesset with attendant rose garden & new shiny Supreme Court building before coming to the light rail line to take us back into town. I've heard a lot of controversy around the light rail line, but I found it to be extremely clean, efficient and used by pretty much all members of society, Jews & Arabs alike. One of the only times, actually, I saw a representative cross section of the city's population literally rubbing shoulders with one another.

Dropping us off only a short walk from the Jaffa Gate, we headed back to finish exploring the Armenian Quarter, where we had left off the night before. Having been warned by our guidebook that many of the Armenian churches were normally closed to visitors, it was with much surprise that in wandering past their cathedral, St. James, that we saw the doors open. Stepping into the court yard and then into the church itself, we stumbled upon a service in progress! Never having attended an Armenian service before, a quick look at the boys confirmed they were just as interested in observing, so we slipped quietly onto one of the benches at the back and watched with keen attention. I'm not sure how to describe the service other than a fascinating blend of what I grew up with in the Catholic church and my experiences with the Russian Orthodox. I wish I had understood more of what I was seeing, but it was probably one of our most memorable moments in Jerusalem.

Full of awe, we wandered a bit aimlessly until we found ourselves in the Jewish Quarter and more specifically overlooking the old Roman Cardo, which led underground to view some of the remains discovered and partially exposed in a tunnel under the street. It was quite a cool place to explore, peering down viewing holes, over railings and into other caves. Byzantine ruins, piled on or jumbled up with Roman, Second Temple and even First Temple period ruins. Layer upon layer of history.

This led us out not far from the square in front of the citadel where we stopped into one of the pilgrimage refuge cafe's for some warming beverages and a rather nice piece of chocolate cake. Thus revived, it was then time to head off to the Western Wall to watch sun down and the Jewish community's start of Shabbat. I'd been told by a coworker that this was an event "not to be missed", and so we'd been really looking forward to it. Arriving, early we went down into the plaza to see up close to the wall itself and each spent a little time in reflection before heading back up to one of the streets above the plaza to watch the approach of sunset and the different Jewish communities celebrate the start of their holy day.

Out of respect for the Shabbat prohibitions, I didn't take any pictures, but it was interesting watching the different sections interact (or not) and the different yet still similar rituals each followed. Between watching the start of Shabbat and our experience at the Armenian Cathedral, this would prove to set the tone for much of our time in Jerusalem - different traditions practicing their own way, simultaneously trying to pretend they are in a bubble and yet not quite managing it.

After awhile we started to get hungry again and then realised that, because it was Shabbat (as well as the end of the Muslim holy day), we were probably going to be rather challenged in finding dinner. Not knowing quite what else to do, we turned to my guidebook (not for the last time!) and picked one of their recommendations back in the modern city - Shanty. And though a little challenging to find (down a side street from a side street, across someone's back garden and into an alley), it proved to be super tasty - the dishes themselves weren't particularly remarkable, but were well-cooked, homestyle and plenty of it. I was rather impressed because despite being a huge fan of the DK guidebooks, I had previously found the restaurant recommendations to be at best "safe" and at worse, overly touristy. Fortunately, this one bucked the trend and would guide us to some other real gems in a city where the food can be quite mediocre and over priced. 

All that was left after our very tasty, filling supper was another very chilly walk back to the hotel to warm up and prepare for the festival of churches that was the plan for the following day.

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