Today is the first of two days of guided tours we’ve signed up for: Jerusalem and Bethlehem today and Masada and the Dead Sea tomorrow. The tour starts at 7:20 so our day begins at 6a when my alarm goes off. We meet the tour company in the lobby, there’s some sorting out that happens on the street (they have several tours and a line of minibuses on the street and it takes maybe 10 minutes to figure who should go where). We join 14 other people on our minibus (actually, fewer -- some of them join us in Jerusalem) and head out toward one of the oldest cities in the world.
I fight sleep on the ride because, unlike Melinda, I’ve not passed these roads before and I want to take it all in. The airport is about 15 minutes along the way (the route is not quite an hour) but there’s little noteworthy. Along the highway is flat and uninhabited. Some of it is agriculture, some is little hills and trees, but little is towns or homes, at least not along the highway. It’s more like taking an interstate through rural America.
After picking up the rest of our manifest in Jerusalem we make our first stop at the Mount of Olives. This location affords a great view of the Old City and we can easily see the walls surrounding the city, the Temple Mount, and the Dome of the Rock. Perhaps 5 or 6 other tour groups are at this location now, too, and I hear explanations in English and Russian, among those that I couldn’t identify. There’s a few vendors here, too, aggressively selling postcards and such, but they don’t press me for anything (maybe I don’t look like the buying type?). A man with a camel is letting people sit on it for photos and Melinda cajoles me to a three minute ride. It’s fun, it turns out, especially if you’ve just watched someone else ride it so you know what to expect (eg, when a camel gets up or sits down, it does so front first, so you need to lean way back to keep from toppling over). We get lots of pictures of me, the camel, and Melinda, in exchange for a NIS 20 bill. Seems worth it.
The guide speaks English perfectly well and also narrates in Spanish for the three or four guests that benefit from it. I was surprised when the guide started speaking Spanish -- I don’t assume guides know more than the usual set of languages, but maybe he was selected for this tour because of this skill? Dunno. The Spanish part often ended up more brief than the English, in part perhaps because the guests could catch some of the meaning from the English.
The guide part happened in several places. As he drove (he was driver and guide) he explained some things along the way, or some background political or cultural information. At the Mount of Olives and elsewhere he would gather our group together to explain what we were looking at. In the Old City (later) he lead the path we would take around the area, often stopping to count noses (we never lost anyone!). We also had more than one guide; more on that … now.
The Mount of Olives was a nice vista but the first location up close would be the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is in the Palestinian Authority, part of the West Bank, and Israeli Jews are prohibited from entering this region. So our tour proceeded to the border; we left the bus (and our driver) behind and crossed the border; we were met by a Palestinian guide and driver; and we boarded a bus on the other side. But it’s a little harder than that. The issue is, Israel’s built an 8m high wall protecting it from the Palestinian Authority, and there’s checkpoint at the border to pass through. Leaving Israel it wasn’t hard -- just walk through -- but it’s all on foot and one walks for maybe 200m before exiting the wall.
What one sees when exiting is the same natural environment but molded by a different set of political forces. The Palestinian side is noticably more run down than the Israeli side. Buildings are in more decay and several lots are either demolished buildings or half-constructed buildings without any evidence that the second half will happen. The streets themselves are poorly paved and I don’t recall seeing a traffic light on our path. Admittedly, Bethlehem is very close to the border, and the Church of the Nativity couldn’t have been more than three kilometers from the barrier. So note that I have a biased sample.
We drive on to the Church of the Nativity and our new tour guide gives us instructions before we disembark. These instructions include “move quickly, we want to be ahead of those Russians” which I thought was funny at the time but now I know why. There’s many many Russian visitors to these sites and they’re here for praying, not to take tourist photos. And praying takes more time than a quick photo. We enter the church and queue up to visit the Grotto of the Nativity. The guide checks -- it’s going to be maybe 90 minutes wait. So we begin waiting; and we’re thankful that the group of a dozen more Russians, who follow us a few minutes later, are behind us.
Most of what I know about the church I learned from Wikipedia so I won’t repeat it here. It was built in the 4th century over the site of the birthplace of Jesus and it’s the oldest church that’s been in continuous use (it’s still used today). It’s had good times and bad including coronations, earthquakes, fires, and even present-day conflicts. But none of that happened while we were around - great. You can see the effects of these changes on the building. First, the entrance to the church was originally very tall and grand but two renovations decreased the size to the now “be humble” stooping doorway. The columns supporting the ceiling are smooth and clean up to eye level but sooty beyond that, I presume from years of lamps being fired in the room. And that’s a shame, because the Crusaders painted murals on those columns and the details are pretty hard to see now. The present-day floor in the church is about a meter higher than the original floor -- there’s trap doors in the floor now, laying open, to show what the floor used to look like: gorgeous mosaic tile. Hard to say whether it’s better to roll back time to the 4th century or “just” to the 12th or 19th centuries to restore a building, but I did like the floors. The walls high overhead still have bits of gilding and mosaics and one imagines that the entire room would have been more than impressive in its best days.
Our line-waiting is kept entertaining by looking at the building and people, and by the occasional singing by the group of Russians just behind us. After we’ve been in line for nearly an hour when our guide starts to get agitated. “It’s going to be more than an hour yet; it’s the Russians, they pray slowly.” So he hatches a plan: his “friend” the security guard will look the other ways as the guide sneaks us in to the grotto through the exit. We can’t dally in the grotto because there’s only so much room, but that’s fine for all of us who just want a photo or two and to see the landmark for ourselves. The guide asks us to take off the stickers we’re wearing that identifies us as being in a tour group and then he takes us, four at a time, to the exit. It turns out to be a little harder than I guessed -- there’s an antechamber where the grotto empties out and there’s two security offices there. When it’s our turn, Melinda and I enter the antechamber and are told to sit in one place by our guide. We do that but one of the guards starts to question what Melinda’s doing (“are you done? Move along”). Melinda does a good job and gives useless answers to vague questions and when she sees an opportunity she continues the backward path in to the grotto. I suddenly find myself behind the back of the security guards, too, so I follow as well.
The grotto is a modest room, 3m by 10m, let’s say, and the exact spot chosen to mark the birthplace has a 14-pointed silver star. Many people are praying there, I take a picture or two, take a quick look around, then (properly!) walk out the exit. Melinda follows shortly and soon everyone’s gone through this way. The people ahead of us in line are probably still waiting for their turn.
The Church tour continues with a bit more walking around but the Grotto was the highlight. We pile back in the minibus and head toward the wall again. But not before an important stopping point: Johnny’s Souvenir shop. The street is lined with shops thus labelled and our guide takes us to this one; in fairness, he does not claim it’s the best, and I believe we all understand that these shops are all about equivalent. Certainly, Melinda and I believe it. We shop and buy some souvenirs and then wait for the slowest people in our group to buy their fill.
By now it’s after 2p and we’ve not had the lunch opportunity we were promised. The Church was slower than expected, apparently. We’re drive back to the border, we go through the checkpoint with some difficulty (mostly just some people in our group couldn’t follow instructions -- there was no one else trying to cross this direction so just one Israeli guard patiently screened all of us), and we’re reunited with our Israeli guide. Overdue for lunch we stop at a church near the border that also has a restaurant, that’s cafe style. Melinda and I have kebabs and fries and recharge. Great.
It’s a short drive back to the Old City again and we head to Jaffa Gate. Time for some walking. We enter the Old City at Jaffa Gate and walk through the Armenian and Jewish Quarters to find the Western Wall. Our guide knows where the good photo opportunities are and he explains the environment along the way. The Jewish quarter is the newest because it was all destroyed in the 20th century; it was rebuilt after the Six-days war, but during this rebuilding every new construction found some historic artifact. So many buildings are built atop ancient markets or roadways, with some parts of these left uncovered for study and show. The other parts of the Old City look more run down, in part because they’re older (less clean, more crowded) and in part because they’re in more disrepair. My favorite streets were the markets, though, that were covered and had vendors on both sides. The roads weren’t crowded (maybe because it’s Friday afternoon); had it been shoulder-to-shoulder people I’d have been less happy.
We visit the Western Wall and I venture up to touch and look at it. My new awesome hat means I don’t need further head covering, and my being male means I have lots of space on “my” side of the wall. Melinda foregoes visiting the wall in person because the women’s side is still thronged. Ultra-orthodox jews are praying at the wall and less orthodox, but traditional, men come up, stuff a slip of paper in a crack as their note to God, pray briefly and leave.
From the Wall we proceed to the Via Dolorosa, the path of Jesus in his final hours. The path has 14 stations but we visit about half of them. Three are along alleys that we walk and all three are surrounded by Russians praying. We stop at each one, take a photo, and hear from the guide about them. We proceed then to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus’s body was prepared for burial after dying on the cross, and the place where we was entombed. These locations are all in the same church and we have a look around. There’s a long wait for the final station but the others has little or no wait. This building is large but intricate, with alcoves, stairs, balconies, and twists and turns. In contrast the Church of the Nativity, very roughly, had a single large room (with columns), a smaller room in the front, and one room on each side; that’s it.
I’m about saturated on experiencing in real life the places I’ve read about in ancient books, so I’m content that the tour is more or less done at this point. Melinda and another woman on the tour disappear for a few minutes and come back with dessert breads bought from a vendor; that, and the water are a welcome treat. We’re given about 20 minutes to shop at the vendors, Melinda and I look at many of them (though, they’re mostly all the same) but end up without any purchases -- nothing really speaks us that we could see putting out in the house.
The minibus retraces its treads from earlier in the day and we’re back at the hotel around 7p. Melinda’s full from lunch but I’m still hungry so I find a large snack at the hotel bar (the restaurant is given over to an extravagant, and expensive, buffet for dinner and I’m not $65 hungry). We reset the backpack and prepare for tomorrow: Masada and the Dead Sea.