Monday, April 22, 2013

Timeless Jerusalem

Wailing Wall and Dome of the Rock

Morgantown, WV.  4/22/2013:   No other city inspires human emotion like this one:  love, hate, greed, charity, grudge, forgiveness, laughter, tears. You can think of more.  Only Rome spans modern history so dramatically.  

Centuries are visible in the picture above..and so are the homes of members of four major religions.


  It is impossible to divorce yourself from political reality; "it is what it is.."  But if you can stand back and just look at what's before you, then it's easy to see the beauty of Jerusalem as it must have looked 2000 years ago.  Squint a little, and the TV antennae and construction cranes go away, leaving you with the stone rooftops and narrow streets that greeted the ancients.

  These pictures were taken in the 1980s when I traveled as a reporter covering Secretary of State George Shultz.  We went to Israel frequently, and I never got over it.  This shot was taken from atop the wall at the Damascus Gate.  I apologize for the quality; the shots were scanned to digital from color slides.  That being said, I make no apology for the stories they tell.


  I loved wandering the streets of old Jerusalem.  We had a lot of time on our hands since we were not allowed to attend Schultz' meetings with the Israeli government or with the Palestinians.  The sessions would last hours, leaving us either to wait outside closed doors or get out and see things.  A regular "briefing" was scheduled for us after each meeting, so we had time to spare.  It was irresistible.   

  Shops are everywhere and the products are eclectic.  You can find anything in the stalls, which are niches in the sidewalk base of buildings.  Gold?  Antiquities? Leather goods? Baubles or Beads? T-shirts with Coca Cola in Arabic?  Whatever you want.  But be sure to haggle..the merchants expect it and enjoy it.  I wanted that Coca Cola T-shirt for my younger son (he collected Coca Cola stuff at the time) and simply paid the guy what he asked.  His eyebrows rose and he asked in a disappointed tone if that was "it?"  I told him it was and he shrugged a middle-eastern shrug and took my money.  I really don't think it made his day.

  One of my friends broke a strap on his brief case and took it straight to a leather merchant, who promptly sewed it back for him right there on his Singer machine, which was parked by the sidewalk.  


  Of course, great storms of religious history are everywhere;  your stroll takes you through them at every turn.  This (below) is believed by many to be the Tomb of Christ, housed in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  

  Constantine removed rock and soil around the tomb and encased it in marble to protect the process, making it difficult for modern-day archaeologists to examine.  But if you are a believer, this will take your breath away.

  Nearby--inside the same church--is the hilltop believed to be the site of the crucifixion.  A silver plate surrounds the hole where it's thought the cross was erected. The two artifacts, Golgotha and the Tomb, are only a few steps between.

  That is one of the things that strikes the visitor: great places and things we've heard about since childhood are just small distances apart.  It's said that Christ never traveled more than 200 miles from his home.  You can see how true that is with one visual sweep of the horizon.  The Mount of Olives, for instance, is easily within sight across a valley just outside the walls of the old city.


  Look at the picture at the top of this column.  There, in the middle distance, is the Wailing Wall, where Jews go to pray and leave their messages to God.  Above it, within half a mile or less, is the Dome of the Rock, which in Islamic tradition, houses the rock from which Muhammad ascended to heaven.  It is the oldest existing Islamic monument, stunning in its beauty as it dominates a major part of Jerusalem's skyline.

  You can look around yourself and see the faith of millions expressed in a very small space.  The passions are ancient and often extreme.  

  But when I think of that part of it, the Philadelphia Restaurant comes to mind.

  The Philadelphia is located..or was when I was traveling East Jerusalem, which is not a Christian or Jewish neighborhood.  Several of us would go there for a lavish dinner in the best middle eastern tradition whenever we were in town.  The meals were served "home-style," individual courses of meats and vegetables..mounds of food..passed around or simply left on the table within reach, whatever made you happy.  Dinner at the Philadelphia would take at least three hours.  The owner played host, standing and talking--often telling us about his dream of going to America to open a new Philadelphia Restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland.  I don't know if he ever made it, but he would have been a hit.

  One night, it was just so good that the seven or eight of us "closed the restaurant," last to finish, last to go.  We realized we had not been terribly wise. How to get back to the King David hotel at this time of night..starting from a part of town that might not be totally friendly?  The owner and his chef refused to let us look for cabs; they piled us all in their private cars and drove us back to the hotel.  After much hugging and hand-shaking, they pulled away, driving past a billboard which featured a huge picture of Yasser Arafat, who sought to remind us once more of political realities in the land of faith.  I liked their vision better than his.

  Jerusalem tells many stories.  You know a lot of them, but not all by any stretch of imagination.  I hope you can go there and hear them for yourself.