I’m currently sitting in an Austrian-style cafe playing classical music which is being drowned out by the Muslim call to prayer of the mosques of the surrounding Islamic quarter of the capital city of the only Jewish state. Jerusalem is amazing because of this coexistence of cultures and I’m so glad it’s my location of my first trip outside of Europe (albeit I still travelled by Easyjet).
I spent my first day exploring the Old City which is where I’m staying – right in the midst of this amazing quagmire of beliefs and ethnicities. However my first morning got off to a bit of the shaky start when I tried to visit the Dome of the Rock. “Are you sure you’re not Jewish,” “Why are you alone?”, “You don’t look like you’ve had enough sleep” and most embarrassingly “Your skirt is too revealing” were just some of the comments said to me on the last two of the three security checks I had to go through to enter the Temple Mount. The reason I’m personally angry about the last comment especially is that my lose maxi skirt revealed… wait for it… my ankles. Whilst other tour groups were let in wearing capri pants, these guards chose to attempt to humiliate a young woman travelling alone – instead I got out the world’s largest scarf and turned it into a jumbo overskirt. They had to let me in.
The building itself is beautiful with the shimmering gold dome and the blue Armenian ceramic tiling covering this colossal shrine. It dwarfs the neighbouring Al-Aqsa Mosque, previously the home of the Templars and stands out especially among the cream buildings that cover all Jerusalem’s hills. Yet sadly I just never felt comfortable walking around, constantly being stared at and approached by people demanding money for tours – the only time I’ve felt ill at ease I my whole time here, especially sad considering the importance and holiness of this site to so many religions.
After this I wondered through the city streets, towards the Citadel also known as the Tower of David even though it was built by Herod the Great nearly 2,000 years later after King David himself lived. Then came the incident of the Armenian jewellery seller. He told me that the Citadel wasn’t open yet and would I like one of his business cards. Being a polite idiot I said yes before he took me into his shop and proceeded to try and make me buy his “very cheap” – they weren’t – earrings. After about twenty minutes I managed to leave with around fifty business cards and realising to be a little bit less English and polite. Lesson quickly learned. Oh and turns out he lied about the Citadel being closed. The museum in the complex’s various buildings houses a potted history of the city of Jerusalem and this fortified palace was a refuge for rulers and ex-rulers during the many years in which the city had changed ruling powers every 50 years or so. It is also probably where Pontius Pilate tried Jesus, instead of the Herodium on the other side of the city, explaining why the Dominicans Stations of the Cross goes in the opposite direction to the traditional route along the Via Dolorosa.
Having admired the view over the Old City from the Citadel’s main tower, I ended up wandering through the Jewish quarter and stumbling upon a sunken Roman high street from Jesus’ time; the Cardo Maximus which eventually turns into arcades of shops selling kippahs (Jewish skull caps not me spelling a fish wrong) and menorah candles.
In the Jewish Quarter are also the remains of luxurious houses belonging probably to wealthy priests attached to the Temple during the 1st century, often with stucco and wood preserved due to the burning during Titus’ destruction of the city in 70AD. Getting the ticket was slightly surreal as I had to wait for the devout Hasidic Jew to finish praying before he would serve me. Whilst the mosaics, classical-style pillars and stucco reliefs felt distinctly Roman, the mikvehs (ritual baths) and fresco of a menorah provided an interesting insight into how upper-class Jews lived during the period.
Having eaten a quick lunch on the go due to being to excited to see more of the city I ended up at (sorry) yet more archaeological ruins! The Jerusalem Archaeological Park is situated at the south-west corner of the Temple Mount including a variety of remains including a stone reading “To the trumpeting place to, where a trumpeter announced the arrival of Shabbat according to Judeo-Roman writer Josephus; as well as the steps used by pilgrims to enter the temple before it’s destruction. Having explored this massive complex of remains, some more recent excavations dating back to Canaanite times c.1500 BC, I eventually headed back to my hostel for a siesta and to stock up on water before walking the Via Dolorosa (blog post coming soon as this ones getting a bit long!)