Is this the most contested piece of land in history? Just how holy is “The Holy Land” anyway?
Before I could even get into Israel to see what all the fuss was about I had to convince Israeli border patrol officers I wasn’t a terrorist. It’s no easy task when you’re a sweaty, bearded Cavan Man, but eight hours later I hopped off the bus from Eilat into the maelstrom that is modern day Jerusalem. There are many ways to look at this great city, being as it is, many things to many people. It is either a symbol of human civilisations inability to overcome division, or a veritable religious Disneyland full of historical (and not so historical) wonders crammed into a labyrinthine maze of Jewish, Muslim and Christian people all trying tentatively to get along.
First things first. I had found a cool hostel just opposite the entrance to Jersusalems old city at the Damascus Gate. This is situated on the northwest side of the city and was the starting point for the fabled Road to Damascus. If you were raised christian you may remember this road as the place Jesus pranked some of his friends with the classic “surprise it was me all along!” routine. Modern retellings have lost the comedic timing. Nowadays it is less light hearted. Armed guards are a common sight here.
Most people are by now aware of the situation in Israel and Palestine, and I would hope that they understand more and more the complexities involved. This is basically a disclaimer to explain why I am not wading into it….not in this blog post anyway. I have never been much of a political commentator and any attempts by me to do so here could achieve the impossible: making things worse. I am assured though that Jared Kushner is on the case so expect middle eastern peace to be achieved any day now.
Jerusalem is probably the original cultural melting pot. Here three of the worlds greatest religions played out some of their defining moments and continue onwards in an uneasy coexistence. The city radiates outward around the Temple Mount, site of the original temple of Solomon and legendary resting place of the ark of the covenant. Iterations of the temple were destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans. Not to worry I hear you cry, after those initial early hiccups it was plain sailing for the Jewish people after that right?
Currently the Temple Mount is under Islamic “control” by means of a trust with the Israeli government (called the waqf). Access to non Muslims is restricted to certain times of day and entrance is along a winding platform which begins at the Wailing Wall. This is the place Muslims believe Mohammad ascended into heaven and is the holiest site in Islam outside of Saudi Arabia’s Mecca and Medina. Here sits the iconic golden Dome of the Rock which adorns the Al Aqsa mosque one of the oldest Islamic structures in the world. While non Muslims can access the mount at certain times only practicing Muslims can gain entry into the dome itself. I’ve heard that Muslims are essentially quizzed at the door on Koranic verses to weed out the fake Muslims from the real ones. Also not allowed are kids standing on each others shoulders and wearing a trenchcoat and fake moustache. Religious bouncers are always the worst.
Additionally Jews believe that the Temple Mount is the holiest site on earth. This belief stems from the Talmud which states that the mount served as the foundation stone from which the world expanded from. Quite a claim. Many Jews will not set foot on the mount for fear of accidentally entering the area which was formerly the holy of holies, the room where the ark of the covenant was housed and where the sages communicated directly with God. They fear the divine presence still lingers at the site. Unknown if this would manifest in face melting vengeance ala Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A highlight for rural Irish pensioners on guided trips from mass is the Via Dolorosa, the winding path through the old city that Jesus took en route to his crucifixion. It ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre purportedly the site of Jesus’s death and burial. Inside it’s quite a meandering building and actually consists of two churches – one Greek orthodox and the other catholic. You can climb up to the altar of the Greek church to see the Rock of Golgotha (Calvary) the spot where Jesus was crucified. Left of the entrance is the rotunda containing the tomb of Jesus known as the Aedicule. If you keep following around to the right there are more altars and steps leading further down. I originally thought this was leading down to Jesus’s tomb but luckily it was the rotunda right inside the door all along. Handy.
Is it maddening for people to spend so much time and money on crafting this elaborate tomb only to remember that Jesus just rose from the dead almost immediately afterwards? It’s a bit like buying something only to realise afterwards you never needed it in the first place. For me this was the case with condoms during college.
At the risk of sounding like a serial killer (something I have a habit of doing) one of my favourite things to do while traveling is walking a city at night time. The dim, winding, stone streets of Jerusalem were a dream come true. During the day these winding cobbled alleyways are bustling with shoppers, traders and visitors but by night things are a lot calmer making it much easier to dispose of evidence. Speaking of evidence it’s easy to see how Jersusalem is a Mecca for Dan Brown ancient conspiracy nuts. For some reason the old city is filled with mysterious old symbols and iconography. It covers old builings, walls and doorways. Ever since the days of the crusades (remember them?!) and the Knights Templar (remember the Da Vinci Code?!) Jerusalem has been the epicentre of religious and historical conspiracies. I can’t pretend to know what any of it meant, but I’m sure someone will make up something.
Just to end things on a high note I found an amazing Palestinian beer called Taybeh, it was a bit like Guinness but with flavour. Perfect to get the taste of blood out of my mouth.
Israel is quite a compact little country and it was a refreshing change to never to be more than a few hours from where you wanted to go. I took a day trip around to some of the most interesting locations. Just over an hour south of Jerusalem, on the shores of the Dead Sea, sits a mountaintop known as Masada. Before that though we made a stop in Qumran on the northern shores of the Dead Sea in the West Bank. Here in the sun bleached cliffs the infamous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946, they are the earliest known fragments of manuscripts from the Hebrew bible. There is a small visitor centre here which overlooks the cliffs where the first scrolls were found by a kid looking for a goat. How many of the world’s oldest treasures were inadvertently discovered by a goat? 14 by my count. And they say dogs are mans best friend? All they recover are sticks. And you know where the stick is anyway because you threw the fucking thing.
We need to talk about the Dead Sea. Like Death Valley and Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression it is one of those weird places on Earth that is actually below sea level. 394 meters below sea level to be exact. It is very easy to get to from anywhere lying smack dab in the middle between Israel and Jordan. At almost ten times saltier than the ocean nothing can grow here, it’s deader than the row of leylandii we planted at work a few months ago. It used to be connected to the sea until the land rose cutting it off, the resulting evaporation increasing the salt content of the remaining water. Like a willy in a blizzard the Dead Sea is still disappearing today due to shrinkage although I don’t think it is under as much threat as the glaciers. Because my body is covered in dozens of scratches and bites from defensive wounds I didn’t go for a salty swim this time, but it looks very popular with the locals, it struck me as being pretty much like a beachside resort kind of thing. People will instantly think of the clichéd pictures of people floating while holding newspapers, it’s probably the only place in the world where most people read physical newspapers and magazines anymore. These days paper newspapers serve only two purposes : Dead Sea pictures and spying on people using cut out eye holes. I’ve only done one of those things.
Roughly 60 kilometers south of Jersusalem and on the western shore of the Dead Sea lies the ancient site of Masada. It’s become something of a place of pilgrimage for jews and recruits to the Israeli army are sworn in here. It is probably the biggest attraction here that you’ve probably never heard off. The word “Masada” simply means fortress and it was here that over 900 Sicarii jews rebelling against the Roman empire committed mass suicide to avoid the eventual slaughter and pillaging by roman troops. The sicarii were a band of bad ass assassins named after the concealed dagger they hid under their clothes which they pulled out to straight up murder Roman officials in public before melting back into the shadows.
Unsurprisingly the Romans didn’t take kindly to this and eventually spent years building a siege ramp big enough to climb a freaking mountain in order to reach the last remaining sicarrii encamped at the summit with their women and children. The bloodshed is considered a sacred martyrdom today among Jewish people and it has left the windswept mountaintop notoriously haunted according to some. In fact I first learned about Masada in an episode of Kermit the Frog soundalike Josh Gate’s Destination Truth TV show. In the episode “Ghosts of Masada” they capture a freaky image of a woman on top of the mesa at night when no one else was around.
The sheer 400 foot cliffs of Masada can be navigated by the “Snake Path” trail coiling around the cliffsides but the extreme heat of the Judean desert means this should only be attempted very early in the morning. For the rest of us, the chronically lazy can take the cable car. Either way once at the top you are treated to an amazing 360 degree view of the Judean desert and the nearby Dead Sea. The ruins on top of the plateau are severely weathered and dated thanks to their age and the unrelenting heat of the sun. My camera had trouble focusing on pictures up here, whether that was due to the brightness and dust or the millennia old phantoms who knows. When I’m retelling the story it will absolutely be because of the ghosts though.
Later in the evening, on the way back to Jerusalem, we stopped in at Jericho, a city which claims to be the oldest in the world. Like many places in this region there are parts under constant archaeological excavation. It makes everything seems impossibly old, each place playing an important role in the oldest story of all time. There is even a tree stump here in a glass case which is claimed to be the tree that Zacchaeus the tax collector hid from Jesus. I burst out laughing at the sight, not just because it reinforced my religious Disneyland idea but it also reminded me of the best Tommy Tiernan skit of all time. I’ll link it here if it’s on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5WTpUNi5fs
Back in Jerusalem my last evening before my flight was spent people watching near the Wailing Wall, this was so named because of the tradition of Jews weeping here because of the constant destruction of their temple. At night it is a strangely peaceful place with just a few rabbis and yiddish folk praying at the western wall of the temple. It is essentially Gods inbox, each crack and seam in the ancient structure is crammed with small notes and letters from people to God. With thousands and thousands of hopes and dreams it is probably more paper at this stage than stone. Anyone is welcome to approach the wall and leave a message once you don your customary kippah (cap). As I looked up I wondered how old the messages were and what people were asking for throughout the years. I imagined they ranged from medieval essentials such as “cure me from the black death because I don’t want my genitals to fall off” to ” make them get me a Nintendo AND a Sega” Both equally pressing concerns.
Having been raised Catholic and listening to biblical stories every week my time in Jerusalem was like stepping onto a film set. Every corner had something from a verse or a psalm, every building, street or alleyway had a recognisable role. Trying to stumble across a place that does NOT have a starring biblical role is like trying to escape a fart in an elevator. The Holy Land certainly lives up to it’s name. How much of it you believe is a matter for everyone’s personal faith. You will see people Instagramming something that another person is weeping and bowing in front of. It is so much of a phenomenon that there is a recognised psychiatric condition known as Jerusalem Syndrome in which people suffer from religious delusions triggered by a visit here. It’s easy to see why. What some agnostic know-it-all like myself might smirk at as a mythological fairground can overwhelm a more religiously minded person with a constant ecumenical onslaught. I imagine it’s akin to Harry Potter fans at Universal Studios. You go looking for an enjoyable holiday but you come home with 3rd degree sunburn and calling yourself Malcus Snugglebum.
There are many places remaining in the region which are complicated and distressing to visit. While entering and exiting the West Bank we went through armed military checkpoints. I didn’t go to Bethlehem or Nazareth which I have heard contain the ugly partitioning walls although I think I seen one in the distance. While immersing yourself in the ancient history is fun the frequent military presence is a constant reminder that these are states which still have a long road ahead with much history yet to be written. I just hope it is a more peaceful and prosperous one for all involved compared to the previous few millennia.
If gaining access to Israel was tough then getting out was equally as grueling. Because of the Iranian visa in my passport I was flagged at each step of the way ending up with me being diverted through the separate “high security” lines in the airport. All my possessions were taken out and swabbed, presumably for explosives. The more I tried explaining that the only thing explosive about me is my diarrhoea the less accommodating the security staff seemed to become. Unlike Jesus however I did escape with my life (and I’m allowed make that joke because I can still claim to be Christian when it suits me)
NEXT TIME: I look for a tree that eats people in the city that lost Dracula’s head.