After a free morning, we headed to the Old City of Jerusalem for an “official tour”. This is ground that I’ve wandered a number of times, enough to be familiar with. But never before had I been led by a guide. How worthwhile would it be?
Our guide, Alan Rabinowitz, writes a regular tourism feature in the Jerusalem Post. He is articulate, informed, and passionate. I cannot say how impressed I was with him. Old City is barely more than a square mile, so it’s no exaggeration to say that I had already covered most of the same steps we covered today. But still, this was a very different form of coverage.
The tour was aimed at providing us with a general overview of Old City—its layout and layers. Somewhere along the way, one of our wittier walkers exclaimed, “I never knew the city of Jerusalem was so tall!” This was his way of marveling at how history is piled on top of each of other here. Layers deep, this city is swimming in history, and much of it is history sacred to one or more of the three monotheistic religions. Even a glimpse at it makes one shake his head.
In the course of hours, we touched stones laid by Herod the Great, walked beneath arches made during Mameluke rule, passed gates build by Hadrian, climbed walls constructed by Crusaders, noted walls crafted for Ottomans, and passed bedrock from Mount Moriah, claimed to be the spot of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac—that’s fragments of a four-thousand-year span in less than four hours!
Would you believe me if I said my head was spinning by suppertime?
Set free for a break with our “sack suppers”, we ate and people-watched in the plaza facing the Western Wall. Yes, that’s THE Western Wall—the most sacred site to the Jews, where they still gather faithfully to pray. Sundown was marking the start of Jerusalem Day, an annual holiday marking the uniting of Jerusalem’s parts under Israeli control. Think of it like an alternative July 1, with a level of energy that few Canada Days have ever contained. It is intense. When we were leaving the Western Wall, the area had erupted into crowds of dancers and singers. The prayer areas, both men’s and women’s, before the wall were filled with people, and the air with energy. We asked Allan what they were singing. He translated, “The Temple will be rebuilt!” Beneath the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holiest site, celebrant Jews sang unrestrained of their dreams for a Temple restoration on that very spot. And Canadian eyes took in what they could.
Between supper and the bus laid the highlight of the day. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel extended its territory to include the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem (along with much more). This included the Temple Mount. Excavations began around its base, and it was discovered that the Western Wall, where the Jews famously pray, was but one portion of the still-completely-intact western wall of the Temple Mount. It’s all there—nearly a half-kilometre in length! There are fascinating tunnels beneath the Muslim Quarter—and we toured them with Allan, one of Jerusalem’s finest guides.
Along the way were models and illustrations so that one could really grasp how the Temple Mount has evolved through the ages and empires. Special attention was given to Herod and the magnitude of his ambition and genius in building the Temple that would have stood in Jesus’ day. Allan presented some fascinating perspectives on Herod, who despite being psychotically paranoid and frightfully cruel, was also an astoundingly shrewd politician and a blindingly brilliant architect. His fingerprints are still all over this land, with most of its historical mega-sites (Masada, Caesarea, Herodian, Machaerus, and more) owing their existence to his imagination. Certainly, that doesn’t redeem poor Herod. But it does flesh out a bit more of the picture of his larger-than-life character.
At one point, after some descent in the tunnels, Allan stopped us to look at stones. The stones of the wall had certainly been laid by Herod—that was the case for much of what we walked along. But at this point, he drew us to what we walked UPON. This was an older stretch of road. This too was laid by Herod the Great. Allan pointed out that this was an important street, right near the Temple Mount. He felt that few people could visit Jerusalem without setting foot on this street. And there we were: Literally walking where Jesus walked. With all the layers of Jerusalem peeled away, beneath a whole neighbourhood of activity, there we were. And like Japanese tourists, we snapped the photos to prove it!
On the way back out, one commented, “Well, now that I’ve walked where Jesus walked , I just need him to teach me how to walk LIKE he walked.”
That was more than Allan could show us in one day.