Jerusalem Day 2

Tue, 24 Jun 2008 04:55:51 +0000

Jerusalem Day 1 Index Jerusalem Day 3

Clearly I'm going to have a continuing problem with sabbaths in Jerusalem. There are three of them to deal with, and predicting what's actually going to be open is pretty hard. Today is Friday, which is the Muslim sabbath. And yet, the Tower of David museum was closed, and several other museums are closed too.

It turns out that really there's no breakfast on offer here, apart from a plate of biscuits. The guy at reception had said breakfast was at 8:15, which is weirdly specific. I went in at 8:00 and there were people eating breakfast that they'd clearly bought themselves, and at 8:15 there was nothing at all. So I gave up and just went to a cafe round the corner for breakfast. There I ended up getting a bun with tuna and salad with extra salad on the side, which sounded small when I ordered it but turned out to be both huge and expensive.

After consulting Wikitravel, I decided to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which pretty much never closes as far as I can tell. And here I ran into the second problem with Jerusalem: it's impossible to find your way around. Any given passageway could be a public thoroughfare, a private home, or something appallingly sacred, and there's absolutely no way to tell which. That makes what maps I have useless: "take the second left" isn't very helpful when you can't tell what actually is a left. Even GPS is useless, since half the time you're walking in tunnels. I ran around in circles for about an hour trying to find this church, getting more and more frustrated. I only eventually stumbled upon it by mistake, and by this time I wasn't in a very contemplative mood.

Nevertheless, I went inside. It certainly is a fascinating place, crammed full of denominations claiming their spot.

You can tell which shrine is which by the script they use: Latin, Greek, Ethiopian, and so presumably the one I didn't recognise was Armenian. I hadn't read up on all the details of what's in the church, so I don't know what the big stone was that everyone had to touch.

It wasn't at all clear where I was supposed to go and where not, and since I was fairly early there weren't crowds of tourists to follow. Down some stairs were what I assume was the holy sepulchre itself. I guess I was allowed to visit that.

Afterwards I wandered around the markets some more and bought a few more clothes. I also gave into temptation and bought some Arabic sweets: I got three, but two of them had a weird bitter aftertaste. I hope they were OK.

The other destination I had in mind was the Via Dolorosa. I tracked down what I thought was the Ecce Homo Arch, which Wikitravel claims spans the road.

In fact, I think it's entirely embedded inside the neighbouring convent, which I did visit briefly, but not long enough to find the arch. Doesn't matter. A lot of things in Jerusalem are just some rock where legend has it some prophet did something or other. Given that most of these legends were made up centuries after the fact, generally with input from local businesses keen to draw in the pilgrim trade, it's hard for a skeptical mind to be impressed. Or maybe it's just the frustration of trying to navigate to these spots in the first place.

I went into the St. Anne church though. This is allegedly built on the spot where the virgin Mary was born. I wandered down to the crypt to look at the cave.

More interesting is the Bethesda pools out the back. These are a group of remarkably deep and narrow cisterns that were Jerusalem's water supply back in the day. There's a bible story about Jesus curing a lame man here, so of course it was necessary to build a Byzantine church on top, and then after that was neglected under Muslim rule, a crusader chapel. There was also a Roman temple in the first place, so the whole thing is a huge multi-tiered mess of ruins about four stories high. It's great fun to explore.

I decided that I needed something else to eat, and ended up getting a simple bagel in the jewish quarter. The area was demolished by the Jordanians and rebuilt, so it doesn't feel very historic. But it does have the nicest places to sit of anywhere in the old city.

I walked around to the Zion gate in the Armenian quarter, because I read that it bears some bullet holes from fighting between Jordan and Israel in 1967. I was astonished to see that it is absolutely covered in bullet holes, thousands of the things. It should be a lesson about the dangers of religious intolerance, but I'm sure the locals mainly see it as a reminder of grievances yet to be avenged.

I hoped to catch vespers in the St. James Cathedral, since the singing is supposed to be beautiful. But I was there at the right time, and although there were a few tourists milling about, they all seemed, like me, to be waiting for something that just didn't happen. One by one they drifted off, and so did I. I never saw the inside of the cathedral.

In general it seems that Jerusalem is a pilgrim's city, not a tourist's city. Whichever sect you belong to, you're supposed to go and do your sect's magic ritual at the appropriate shrine, preferably clustered together into a congregation for safety. There's thus no need for signposts to tell you where to go or the significance of what you're looking at. If you don't already know, you have no business being there in the first place. So while Jerusalem is certainly a sight to see, it's a bit of a mess from my point of view.

I spent an hour or so fighting against the internet at the hostel before going for dinner. I had decided on an Ethiopian restaurant on Jaffa street that seemed interesting. I've eaten Ethiopian food once before, not very successfully, so I thought I'd have another shot. I wasn't any better this time. There seems to be something deeply perverse about the idea of trying to scoop up a runny casserole using only your fingers and bread that's full of holes. Somehow I managed to eat it all though, and it was delicious. There was a movie playing on the TV in which Brad Pitt and his wife are travelling on a bus through Egypt, and she gets shot and they have to go to a doctor in a tiny village who sews the wound together without anaesthetic. Egypt, of course, is next on my itinerary.

From 8:30 or so sabbath begins, including the reception at the hostel shutting up for 24 hours. So from this point on, even less is going to be open. Tomorrow should be challenging.

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