Saturday, December 03, 2005

Touring Jerusalem

The business week in Israel over, my company thoughtfully provided me with a tour guide to take me around the area over the weekend. The first day would be a tour of the Old City. The second day would be a desert tour that would include Masada and a dip in the Dead Sea.

Day 1 - The Old City - I met my tour guide, Abi, in the hotel lobby. I was late since I was up partying the night before in the bars of Jerusalem, which I won't go into here. Like they say: what happens in Jerusalem STAYS in Jerusalem.

Abi has a BA in history and comparative religion and is a walking encyclopedia of the region. He knows more about Christianity than I do, and he's Jewish. After introductions I followed him outside to what I thought would be a car, but he turned his head over his shoulder and told me in his heavily accented English, "Is short distance. We walk!"

For such a heavily built man he kept a brisk pace and I had to practically jog to keep up. As I caught up to him he asked me, "What religion are you? Tour is little different for each religion."

"Uh, Catholic, but I was raised..."

"Okay. I make sure we go to Church of Ascension."

"What if I were Jewish?"

"Then we skip church."

"I see. What religion are you, Abi?"

He glanced at the smart-ass American without answering. Instead he waved a thick, calloused hand at the old walls that were coming into view. "The foundation of these city walls are over three thousand years old." And that started seven hours of walking, talking, and answering questions as we wandered through the old city. He was incredibly patient in explaining the incredibly complex history of the place and the nervous peace that exists in a city that is holy to three of the world's major religions.

Two Holy Places: Muslim Dome of the Rock on top, Jewish Wailing Wall below

For me, I found the Christian holy places of the city disappointing. Part of the problem is the natural comparison to the other major place of Catholic pilgrimage - the Vatican - which is totally awe-inspiring. The second was the commercial feel of the place. The Church of the Ascension was filled with Japanese tourists snapping photos and large non-religious tour groups chatting away - not exactly things to make one feel especially reverent, and crap that isn't put up with at the Jewish or Muslim holy sites. The Christian places here are also overshadowed by the Jewish and Muslim holy areas and just plain living (the Seventh Station of the Cross is right in front of a falafel joint). So I personally found the place more interesting as an archeological and historical landmark than a place that holds importance in my own religion. There was a moment the next day, however, that changed that a bit.
Day 2 - The Desert - Before we got out of Jerusalem we stopped at the Hill of Olives, where, according to Abi, all three religions believe will be the place God will come to judge Mankind. The only question is who will be with Him: Christ, the unnamed Messiah, or Muhammad. I know where I am placing my bet.

This place has a great view of the Old City and surrounding walls, and from here Abi went into detail of Christ's last days, pointing out each place and tracing His movements from His entry into Jerusalem, to the Last Supper, to the Crucifixion. At that moment the place became more than just an archeological site.
From there we hopped in a van and headed towards the desert, driving through the West Bank. During this time we discussed the Israeli wars and the changing shape of Israeli territory. Abi was very optimistic about a peace settlement and thought the death of Arafat now made a compromise possible.
Our first stop in the desert was the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, which included the excavated monastic settlement that wrote them. From there we went on to Masada, and being pretty beat from the day before - and being a total American - I asked to take the cable car up instead of walking. Also being the total American, I was already familiar with the place from the mini-series that was released some years before, so it was pretty interesting to see the real place.
From there we went to a resort on the Dead Sea where I took a "swim". Of course you don't really swim in the Dead Sea - because of the salinity you can't sink or go under water. When you get to a point where you can't touch the bottom, you bob around like a cork without moving a muscle. It is a pretty interesting experience. The locals believe its good for your health to be bobbing around in what is basically a chemical bath, which is why there are various spas dotting the area.

The Dead Sea gets its name because nothing can live there, but it also was a good description of what I felt like afterwards. Two days of heavy touring and walking followed by a dip in the Dead Sea, a stop in the spa's steam bath, and then sauna, and I felt pretty dead myself. As I headed back to Jerusalem for my symbolic resurrection, I couldn't help thinking that the experience over the past few days was an extension of my work. This was a business trip.

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