One of the places we really enjoyed visiting recently in Jerusalem was the Western wall of the temple. As i am sure it is everyday, the space in front of the wall was filled with people praying. Many were Hasidic Jews. Some were bowing in rhythm. Some were bowed over prayer books, prayer shawls over their heads. Some were leaning against the wall. Many tried to find some microscopic niche in which to slip a tiny slip of paper filled with prayers.
And no one blinked an eye. Business as usual. Overt expressions of worship and devotion from any and every religious tradition were simply business as usual.
My wife commented, “If we did this back home, everyone would think we were strange.” How true. Even though we live in a nation of unprecedented religious freedom, we are pressured to keep the expression of our faith to ourselves. We might get away with bowing our heads over a meal at a restaurant. Or a fish magnet on a car. Perhaps some religious jewelry. Just don’t get carried away.
On the streets of Jerusalem Muslims roll our their prayer mats in public at the call the prayer. Many businesses shut down for Sabbath. Souvenir vendors and art dealers blatantly cater to Christian tourists. Orthodox Christians, Hasidic Jews, and many in Islamic garb walk the streets together in plain sight. They live, worship and work together, free to express their faith.
Our last day in Israel was the “go do whatever you want day.” My wife and I and a few friends decided we wanted to return to the Jewish quarter of Old City Jerusalem and then check out the highly recommended market, Mahane Yehuda.
When we started out, we didn’t even know the name of the market. But a shop owner said, “You are probably looking for Mahane Yehuda” and he wrote down the name for us. Great. Now, how do we get there? “Oh, it’s easy. You have to go deep into the Arab market, out the Jaffa gate, and head towards Jaffa road and St. George.” We thanked him as if we knew what that meant, and headed towards the Jaffa gate, where our taxi had dropped us off early that morning.
We got to the Jaffa gate. Now what? Aha, there’s a tourist center here. He sent us out the gate and up the hill to where we could catch the tram, a light rail train that would take us to the market. We saw the tracks in the road, and waited for the next train to come so we could see where the stop was. Once we got to the stop, it looked like we would need to buy a ticket. Not quite sure how to do that, a random guy simply directed us to a machine that had an English option. As I fiddled with the buttons and my debit card, a train came and left. Finally the machine spit out five tickets for us, and we boarded the next one.
I think this is the first time my wife and I have set out to explore a city on our own without a translator or guide with us. I really enjoyed the adventure! As we were told, everyone we asked for direction was extremely gracious and helpful.
Sitting on the train, I looked up and saw a sign announcing the next stop – in Hebrew. I can figure out some Hebrew, but now quickly. Before I knew it the announcement changed to Arabic. Not helpful. Finally came the English. We reached the stop specially designed to bring traffic to the market, and started down the street.
There is a lot of information on Mahane Yehuda Market on Wikipedia. Over two hundred and fifty vendors lined the streets, some out in the open, some under cover. There were fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, bread, halva, baklava, coffee shops, spiced and dried fruit, olives, and candy as far as my eye could see.
Turning into one of the covered areas, we came across Haachim Levy spices, teas and fruits. The young man working the booth enthusiastically described and let us try many of the blends of dried fruits out front that could be used to make tea, infuse drinks, or mixed into oatmeal. We bought three sweet and one savory blend from him.
We asked him where to get the best baklava and coffee in the market. With booth after booth selling those items, we wanted a recommendation. He directed our eyes down the long row of booths past several signs his favorite coffee roaster. “Just past that you’ll see an old man – that’s where you want to buy your baklava.” At the coffee roaster, I got a delicious long espresso made from a Tanzanian blend. Sure enough, just a few booths down we found a huge display of baklava. We loaded up a box with one of each that was sealed up so we could take it home with us.
As we continued to walk through the market, I couldn’t help but wonder how many in Jerusalem did their food shopping here. Throughout all our travels, we hand’t seen any grocery stores or Walmarts in Jerusalem. Maybe we just didn’t go through those parts of town. After a little research, I learned that there are some grocery chains there. But most people talk about the markets.
The experience reminded me of the markets in Baltimore when my wife and I lived there. The best thing is you buy everything fresh! I suppose after a while you would have your favorite vendors and be able to get exactly what you wanted in season and for special events. I could get used to a great selection of fish, meats and vegetables. I am too often disappointed with the grocery stores near me.
One cool thing about the market is that you get to talk to the person working the shop. Everyone was very proud of their booth and products, encouraged me to try samples, and loved to talk about their product, their family and the market. The few farmer’s markets near us give us a bit of that, but it just wasn’t the same.
We really covered a lot of ground today. Our group left the hotel about 8 am. Our first stop was Temple Mount. The security line was short and the crowds were few, but we also couldn’t go inside due to remodeling work being done today. Even so, the Dome of the Rock was beautiful under clear blue skies.
We next headed to the Western wall of Herod’s temple to join many others in prayer. I went to the left with the men, while the women went to the right. The crowd was still small when we arrived.
I watched with interest as many sang psalms and said prayers while others place their carefully written prayers into the cracks in the wall.
We walked further down the western side of the wall and marveled at the size of the stones used to build the wall over 2,000 years ago.
Rounding the corner, my wife and I ran up the southern steps as had many pilgrims before us. The steps are different widths, to keep folks from running too fast.
On the way to King David’s tomb, we ran into a special Jewish family celebration. A little three-year old boy was about to get his first haircut! He didn’t seem too happy about it, but the family and many bystanders joined in songs, cheering, and a blue and white balloon release.
Even though King David probably isn’t buried there, I was fascinated by the location of his tomb. Men and women entered on separate sides. Chairs were filled with men praying and reading psalms. I appreciated the reverent atmosphere of that room.
The upper room we visited probably wasn’t the site of Jesus’ Passover meal with his disciples, but we went to that place as well. More Muslim than Christian in design, it was much larger than I would have expected it to be.
As we walked through the Jewish quarter, we paused to look at some of the old wall of Jerusalem, from the time of Solomon. There isn’t much from the first temple period, so I appreciated this ancient site.
Caiaphas’ house is where Jesus was taken after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and where Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. The house include some deep pits where Jesus May have been held prisoner before his trial. I read Psalm 88 to our group, and we thought about the only One we can cry out to for help when we’re “in the pit.”
Waiting to go into the tomb
Inside the tomb
The very last place on our tour was Golgotha and the Garden Tomb. This place was simple and was more like a place where Jesus could have been crucified, buried and the resurrected. We met for communion and a chorus of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” before we rode back to our hotel.
Tomorrow is a free day. I think we’re going to go back and wander around the Old City again, and spend some time at the market.
We hit the ground running at 7:30 and got a bird’s eye view tour of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.
Garden of Gethsemane
To save a little time (and energy) we drove the Palm Sunday walk to the Garden of Gethsemane. I led a communion service there for our group. I’ve done it hundreds of times, but never “on site” before. What a great experience!
Pool at Bethesda. You can see one of the seven colonnades.
From there we entered the old city of Jerusalem through the Lion’s Gate. We first stopped at St. Anne’s church and the Pool of Bethesda. Amazing excavations brought the story of John 5 to life. In St. Anne’s we sang a few songs (everyone knew “Jesus Lives Me” and the Doxology) in a place with remarkable acoustics. The hang time of each phrase lasted at least five seconds. I did a verse of “Of the Father’s Live Begotten” because you can’t take the Seminary Kantorei out of the kid.
A very crowded Via Dolorosa
Beginning at Pilates judgment hall we then walked the Via Dolorosa past the fourteen stations of the cross. This path takes you up and down through a maze of churches, shrines, and markets jam-packed with people of who knows how many nationalities.
The place where Jesus died on the cross
We finally arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, within which are one tradition’s location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The line to see that last station was three to fours long. We plan on going back there on our free day.
The stone of anointment, where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.
Today was also our day to go to Bethlehem. Our Israeli tour guide handed us off to an Arab tour guide for this part of the trip. We first stopped at a great restaurant for lunch of schwarma. We also spent a little time at a store selling olive wood carvings. We got a few gifts there, but many of the items were way up there in price.
Church of the Nativity
Inside the church of the Nativity. Long line to the right.
We got onto a smaller bus that took us up to the Church of the Nativity, but not after backing over a concrete barrier. This driver was definitely on the wild side. But then again, so was everyone else on the road.
The wait to see one traditional birth place of Jesus was two hours, and most of our group didn’t want to do that. The rest of the church was either under construction or not open to the public. So we really didn’t see much there. I wasn’t impressed by the town of Bethlehem at all.
Overall it was an up and down day. In some spots I saw more than I expected. In others I saw less. But we were right there where it all happened.
Even though many in Israel were observing the Sabbath, we had a busy day.
We were on the road at 8 and went to the site of John’s baptisms in the Jordan River. The Jordan is a modest river but the setting of this place was beautiful. At many locations along the banks, groups were baptizing and renewing baptisms. When Lisa and I dipped out feet in the water, lots of little fish tickled our toes.
The Jordan River
The gift shop there was a marvel of the tourist industry. Items for sale included small jars of water from the Jordan, vials of mud from the riverbed, shofar (ram’s horn trumpets), menorah, balms from the Dead Sea, replicas of the ark of the covenant, rosaries, jewelry, dates, honey, dates and much, much more.
We were most interested in the fresh juice drinks sold at a stand. Delicious!
Our next stop was the ancient ruins at Beit She’an. King Saul’s head was displayed there after his defeat on Mt. Gilboa (1 Samuel 31). The Romans built quite a “spa” complex there, complete with bathhouse, theater, amphitheater, hippodrome, temple and shops. The excavation was enormously impressive.
Ruins at Beit She’an
From there we stopped at the springs of Harold, or Gideon’s Cave and springs where he whittled his army down to 300 soldiers to defeat the Midianites ( Judges 7). The park here is a popular Sabbath destination. Tents and picnic blankets stretched as far as you could see. Kids splashed in wading pools as parents grilled supper. Women lounged in the refreshing springs just feet away from the cave itself. We ate our picnic lunch here too, with freshly baked pita, mango, olives, and homemade cheese and mango jelly.
As we made our way south to Jerusalem, we made a quick stop at Bet Alef, the ruins of a 4th century synagogue with a beautiful intact mosaic floor. The history and design we learned from a film was fascinating.
4th century flood at Bet Alef synagogue
As we drove south, we saw the mount of Jesus’ temptation in the distance and drove by the Samaritan Inn. The wilderness all around made me appreciate Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation (Matthew 4). The deserted road from Jericho to Jerusalem helped me picture Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan.
We finally arrived in Jerusalem and caught a glimpse of the city as we made our way to our next hotel, the Jerusalem Ramada.