Today (Sunday) we had no tour commitments today left for our walking tour of the Old City about 10am. Our first stop was at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where we hoped to get into the chapel built over the site of Jesus’ tomb. The crowds had thwarted us a few days ago and we hoped that getting there a little earlier might be an advantage. Not so!
I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to us but this being Sunday meant that many Christian visitors were in the church. In addition – and this certainly had not been expected – the chapel itself was in commission for a service as we arrived. With no idea at what time the already long line would start to move we once again reluctantly left. So near and yet so far……. But something to try again in a future visit, perhaps.
We left the Church and made our way down the Via Dolorosa again to the Church of St Anne which is built over the assumed site where the Virgin Mary was born. It is a beautiful little church built in garden surroundings and right next to the Bethesda Pools where Jesus commanded the man to “Take up thy bed and walk”. A church from the period of the Crusades also stands nearby, although that is no guarantee of authenticity of a Holy site as the Crusaders seem to have found almost everything in this city and surrounding area to have had some Biblical significance.
We then left the Old City via the Lion Gate and were just across the valley from the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, as well as being very close to the church built over the tomb of the Virgin Mary. We chose not to climb the Mount of Olives and were present at a time when the Garden and the other points of interest were closed for a couple of hours. (This somewhat random closing schedule seems to be a feature of Israeli sites and, although the guide books generally do a good job of identifying hours, it is often difficult to visit a series of sites without a wait).
So, we chose to stand beneath the City Walls below Temple Mount and simply gaze over the valley to the much greener hillside opposite. The cypress and olive trees, unpaved paths and little in the way of buildings other than churches provided a scene more like those imagined from Bible readings than perhaps most in the city. In addition, there is a vast archeological site just beneath the walls and a huge cemetery claiming tombs of many Old Testament figures. There are also tunnels attributed to King Hezekiah (approximately 8th century BC) which were built to prepare for a siege on the City of David expected from the Assyrians and mentioned in the Second Book of Kings.
So we were once again quite literally overlooking perhaps three thousand years of history in an area that had experienced many experiences of peace, war and conflict as depicted in the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps underscoring this and bringing it right up-to-date, we could also see atop the Mount of Olives the concrete wall diving Jerusalem from the Palestinian West Bank as well as one of the Israeli settlements that have been built just across that wall causing further recent unrest.
We re-entered the Old City and made our way to the end of the line waiting to enter Temple Mount. This area, which accounts for about 1/8 the area of the Old City and is bounded on the west by the Wailing Wall, is under Muslim control. Once again, it is open only a few hours each day to non-Muslims, partly to facilitate prayer at the Dome of the Rock (a gold domed icon of the Muslim faith in Jerusalem) and the Al Aqsa mosque and partly as an aid the crowd control in (as one of our fellow visitors said) “the most volatile site on earth”.
Unfortunately we were not to enter this potentially volatile area as, after about 40 minutes standing in the hot sun, the 2:30 entry time came and the gate was abruptly and forcibly closed and the remaining line was forced to disburse – to try again some other time. Once again, we were close (and perhaps that is the main thing we needed) but it certainly would have been a privilege to get closer to what had been the site of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, once more built by King Herod. It is the temple that Jesus would have visited and at which he taught, as well as turning over the tables of the money changers. It is of paramount importance to Christians and Jews as well as being the third holiest site of the Muslim Faith – and yet today it is illegal (under Israeli law) for Jews to pray on Temple Mount and impossible for others, such as ourselves, to carry a Bible into this site. It is perhaps little wonder that it a volatile area!
That essentially concludes our five days in Jerusalem but we intend to visit more sites of significance from our new base in Tel Aviv starting tomorrow.