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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

Jerusalem, Israel

Thursday | September 22, 2016

Up early in the David Citadel Hotel, I was keen to spend the majority of the day exploring Jerusalem, a most holy city in so many religions.

After a filling breakfast, I was off to meet Rafi, our driver, and explore the city.

An important note here: because I am Catholic, I had arranged to have the tour focus on places and events that are impactful in the history of Christianity. Someone else might have selected a guide who would focus on the history of Jews or Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Another note: everything reported in this entry is a direct reflection of what I was told by my guide. Any political or religious commentary is not mine (other than the comments that react on my personal exposure to religion as a child.)

We spent the majority of the morning – and day in fact – walking around and through the walled ancient city of Jerusalem, which is now home to 100,000 Palestinians. The city itself is one square kilometer, was built by the Greeks and later enhanced by the Ottomans who occupied the city from around 1500 to 1918.

The city is also home to a large ultra Orthodox Jewish community around whom there is some degree of controversy. Our guide explained that member of the ultra Orthodox Jewish community don’t work, don't serve in the Israeli military, and are “entertained by the state.”

The entirety of Jerusalem comprises approximately 800,000 people, 28% of whom are Palestinian. It is the capital of Israel, site of the Supreme Court and the Parliament, known as the Knesset. The Parliament building was a gift to Israel by the Rothchilds. Moreover, notwithstanding all the contributions the Rothchilds make to the state of Israel, they never take credit for it by posting plaques or any information referencing their contributions.

Although Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, few countries maintain embassies there. They were almost all relocated to Tel Aviv after Israel’s 1967 accession of the West Bank. The United States, however, reestablished its embassy in Jerusalem during the Trump administration.

We were fortunate to explore the city in the morning, so we saw the beautiful effect of the sunrise on the outer walls and the buildings in Jerusalem; there is a distinct pinkish gold hue.

We began our day on the top of one of the four mountains that form Jerusalem, Mount Scopus (after the Greek word meaning scope or to look at from afar). Mount Scopus was not originally part of Jerusalem, but was added by the Crusaders around 1104 AD. From here, we had a beautiful view of the city and Rafi gave us a brief history of Jerusalem. This overview was important and helpful as we continued our exploration throughout the day.

Interestingly, Mount Scopus is 22% owned by the Mormon church. In front of the church area is a huge terraced mountain. Rafi explained that Israel has set that space aside, not to be developed. The Israeli government was afraid the Mormons would create another Salt Lake City in the middle of Jerusalem.

From that spot, we were able to see the Golden Dome which Rafi made sure we understood is not a mosque, even though it looks like one.

The dome memorializes the exact spot where Abraham was supposed to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and instead ended up sacrificing a goat. At some depth beneath the golden dome is the “foundation stone” where that event occurred. King Solomon constructed the building on that spot to commemorate the event. In the seventh century, Mohammed covered the spot, and it is now covered by the Golden Dome, largely considered the third most important place in the world for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina.

Our next stop was the Mount of Olives, one of the most famous places in the New Testament. From my days as an alter boy, I was keenly aware the Mount of Olives is the site from which Jesus ascended into heaven after his resurrection from the dead.

From that spot, Rafi explained more about the history of Jerusalem. The city was founded in 1006 BC by David. His son, Solomon, incorporated Jerusalem after that. There is very little left from that period.

Years later, Herod built a temple, made most famous when Jesus was brought there after his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. But it was not only an edifice he built, but a huge plateau that leveled part of the city. It took 32 years and 10,000 men to erect that monumental construction.

After Herod and the Jews were firmly entrenched in Jerusalem, they were pushed out by the Romans in approximately 69 AD. The Romans maintained the city of Jerusalem until they were ousted in 638 AD by the Muslims.

We were able to see the new barbed wire wall of separation intended to keep the Palestinians away from the Israelis.

And on the top of the Mount of Olives is the Hebrew University, which acquired the property in 1927– two decades before Israeli independence.

From this site, we were able to see a massive cemetery.

Most interesting are the beautiful white stone crypts that are above the ground, each of which has an opening into which family members and friends can put candles to commemorate the dead.

We could even see a gorgeous Russian Orthodox Church.

While there, we also saw (and heard) two American preachers, who had busloads of congregants, listening to them preach and singing.

It seems like a real tourist junket.

As we descended the hill, we were walking the exact path that Jesus walked on Palm Sunday.

We stopped in a catacomb that housed many sarcophagi.

At the bottom of the hill, as was the case with Jesus, we ended up in the garden of Gethsemane.

The olive trees there are very old, perhaps even 800 years, the oldest trees in all of Israel.

(Rafi explained a theory that the stations of the cross were manufactured by the Crusaders so they could promise afterlife to the heathens and thieves who were raping and pillaging in the name of Christianity. I had never heard that theory before, but there are certainly many varying theories in the world religions.)

This is the Eastern gate of the wall of Jerusalem. It was built sealed shut and legend has it that the only person who can penetrate the gate will be Jesus himself when he comes again.

We came up on the Church of all Nations, originally constructed in the fifth century and then revived in the 20th Century. This magnificent church commemorates Gethsemane and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.

Next, we came upon the Dormition on Mount Zion. This is the place from which Mary ascended to heaven.

Our next stop was the place known as the Upper Room, most famous in religious history because that is the place where Jesus gathered his disciples for the Last Supper (or Passover Seder).

It was humbling and otherworldly to stand in this actual room. It is medieval, consistent with the architecture of the times.

Years after the Last Supper, after the Muslims came into Jerusalem, they adorned this room with Arabic inscriptions.

It was here that we had a discussion of the similarities between King David and Jesus Christ. They were both born in Bethlehem near Jerusalem. The Last Supper was held in the room directly above King David’s tomb. (And now, there is a mosque on the third level, above the room that housed the Last Supper, making this singular building the most holy for three separate religions.)

We descended to the bottom of the building where we visited David’s tomb, which is over 3,000 years old.

Then, we saw the Zion gate into the old city. It is littered with thousands of bullet holes from the 1967 war.

The Israeli soldiers shot the walls heavily as a warning to the Palestinians that they should remain inside the walls and not come out to their death.

We discussed the conquering of Jerusalem. The Ottomans were comprised of both Armenians and Turks. That is interesting because Armenians are Christians and Turks are Muslims. As a result, each religion got a section of Jerusalem.

Today, most of the streets of Jerusalem are narrow, as in most ancient cities.

But back in the Roman times, the streets were actually called “corridors” and were quite wide.

There were two reasons for this. First, because the streets were wide, the Roman army could invade on a moment’s notice, rather than getting stretched along miles of a thin path. And second, the Romans were aware that streets became marketplaces and by having the streets wider, they afforded room to merchants to market their wares as depicted in this painting.

Inside this Byzantine church, we found a map of the Middle East. It is remarkable because it has the Church of the Golden Dome in the center of the city, whereas it is really outside the city.

It was done this way to depict the Golden Dome as the center of the religious universe.

I was struck by the difference between the large Roman streets depicted above and the small streets that were built by the Ottomans. Their streets were also built as marketplaces, but, as you can plainly see, are quite narrow.

We stopped in a little religious store and bought me a yarmulke, that we are having custom embroidered with Peter, in English and in Hebrew.

Rafi will mail it to us in a few weeks.

This was the site of the original wall that separated Jerusalem from Jordan.

This wall was broad and rose to 49 feet high.

In the center of town we found these little Orthodox Jewish boys out with their teachers and rabbis, praying and seeing the sights.

Rafi told us that this particular plaza is often full of young Jewish boys between the ages of 16 to 19 years. There are no girls present in the plaza, but they can be seen peeking out from the windows of all the houses around the plaza. With the girls are their fathers. When a girl sees a boy she would like to marry, the father goes down and negotiates with him. In that community, once a Jewish girl and boy meet and have six conversations, it is deemed that they must marry.

Rafi also told us about a Passover tradition that mandates Jewish people, usually women, clean their houses and create an almost impeccable state. As result, he explained, many New York Jewish women, he called them JAPs, sell their homes for one week and travel to Israel to spend a week in Jerusalem. Then, they return to New York and “repurchase” the house. As a result, they can live in the same house for 20 years, and never have to clean it for Passover.

We then took a walk into the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem.

As mentioned earlier, this was constructed by Herod as the second temple of the city, after that of Solomon 155 years earlier.

At the end of the Jewish quarter, we ended up at the Kotel, or Wailing Wall, the only thing left standing after the Romans destroyed the second Temple in 70 AD.

Considered the holiest site in the world for Jews, this is actually a section of the western wall of Jerusalem. It was unearthed around 400 years ago during an earthquake. Up until that time, the entire wall of Jerusalem had been invisible. And since 1948, the Israelis have been uncovering more and more of the wall. As a result, this initial find of the Western Wall is not really as important as it once was, although Jews from all over the world flock to this point to stick notes in the wall and kiss it and touch it as I did. (Men and women are relegated to different parts of the wall – they can never be seen at the wall together.)

Little boys were celebrating their bar mitzvah.

Groups of orthodox Jews were praying at the wall.

From the Jewish quarter, we found ourselves in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem.

This is the most holy section of the city for Christians because this is where the Stations of the Cross were performed and is the home of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Finally, it was time for us to stop for lunch so we stopped at the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family and sat in the garden on the roof, a fascinating little place no one would ever be able to locate.

It was built in 1855 and Emperor Franz Joseph stayed here for several days in 1869. I had Jerusalem pizza (not that great) and schnitzel as we sat outside and enjoyed a pleasant breeze. Anyone visiting Jerusalem must stop here as it is a beautiful find.

Then, it was off to walk the fourteen Stations of the Cross. (We visited each, but I did not take 14 separate photographs.)

One of the things that struck me most was how close all the stations are to each other. As a child, I had come to believe that Jesus had walked miles carrying the cross, but that was not the case. Unfortunately though, most of the walk was uphill, something no one would want to do in the heat of Jerusalem, especially with a heavy wooden cross on his back.

The streets we walked on the way to Golgotha (or Skulls Place) where Jesus was crucified are small clustered streets resembling a bazaar such as one would find in Turkey.

We stopped briefly in front of the city’s Lutheran Church and Rafi explained some of the doctrines of Martin Luther. He told us that whereas the first half of his edict was palatable to Christians and Jews, the Jews rebuffed Luther midway through their meetings after which Luther’s writings became wildly anti-Semitic and served as inspiration to Hitler justifying his killing of the Jews.

Rafi pointed out this beautiful sculptured fountain that had been built by the Romans. But they ran out of money and used a crypt for the base of it.

Finally, we arrived to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the most holy places in the entire Christian religion.

This particular church was built in 1104, above a building that had originally been constructed by Hadrian. Five different branches of Christianity worship in this church and each is relegated to three services a day. As a result, there are 15 different Christian services conducted in this church each day. A Greek orthodox priest maintains the keys and is protected by a private Muslim Army– go figure!

Perhaps that is one of the most unique aspects of old Jerusalem– the way Muslims, Christians, and Jews live together and all recognize this very spot as the most important in each of their respective religions.

But on the other side of the coin, the efforts of Israeli’s to separate the Palestinians and keep them from entering certain areas of the country seem to present a powder keg that is bound to explode if not this year and if not this decade, then eventually.

A dome always designates the fact the general area is of great importance and the specific area is of utmost importance.

Finally, it was time for us to enter the church– perhaps the holiest place in all of Christianity.

The first place we came upon was the spot where Christ was actually crucified. There is a hole in the ground under the altar, representing the place where the cross stood, and people pass by stick their hand into the hole.

Next, we came upon the actual marble slab where Jesus’s body was laid to rest after he was crucified. It was on this very rock that Mary and the disciples wrapped his body in a white shroud before it was to be entombed.

And then we descended the stairs into the actual tomb where Jesus Christ was buried.

During the few minutes we were there, we saw a Greek orthodox, and then an Armenian, priest descend the stairs and spread incense throughout the room. I lit a candle in my parents’ memory.

The detail in the marble was exceptional, but even more fascinating were the graffiti crosses left by the Crusaders.

Back outside, we found ourselves in more of the bazaar like streets we had encountered earlier in the day.

Rafi brought us into a special place to look at Syrian silk. There were only nine Silk factories in Damascus and all have been bombed by Isis. As a result, it is highly unlikely that silk of this quality will ever be made again. The goal was for us to look at it, but not to buy anything. Of course, I bought! I ended up with this beautiful red piece, a remnant from a much larger roll of fabric, and the owner gave us some brocade backing to facilitate our framing of the piece.

We also bought silk Christmas gifts for my family.

We then got into our van and drove to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is a city of approximately 30,000 people, 75% of whom are Muslim. The other 25% are Christians. There are no Jews in Bethlehem notwithstanding the fact that it is in the middle of Israel.

In order to get into the church that houses the manger where Jesus Christ was born, we had to crawl through a very small door called the Humility Door for obvious reasons.

The door had actually been much larger in earlier times, but it was made smaller around 529 AD to prevent horses or animals from getting inside. (Of course, we all remember that horses and cows and donkeys were present to breathe on Jesus at the time of his birth.)

This is the oldest Christian church in the world. Helena of Constantinople oversaw construction in 325 AD. In 529 AD, it was sacked by the Persians. But Justinian revived it in 540 A.D. The Arabs rebuilt it also, this time in 638, and the Ottomans cleaned it up in 1430.

We were required to have a local Palestinian guide because Rafi is Jewish. It was interesting that our guide, Johnny, kept referring to Jesus as “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Midway through our tour, Johnny was called away by another obligation and Rafi got to finish the tour anyway.

We descended the small staircase and were shocked to see that we were the only ones there.

And in front of us was the actual area where Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Off to the side was the manger in which the famously wild animals kept him warm.

It was interesting to note the lamps were connected to the ceiling with painted ostrich eggs. It was these eggs that gave rise to the notion of Easter eggs.

Alas, our visit to the holy land was over and we boarded our van for the drive to Tel Aviv. On the way, I was amazed at the majesty of some of the Palestinian homes visible above the roadway.

Rafi and our driver explained that the Israeli government would come with bulldozers and level the home, even if completed, if the owner did not have a building permit and pay a heavy tax to the Israeli government.

On the other side of the road was a large Israeli city. It has 80,000 people and was constructed over the last 10 years. Rafi explained that the majority of people living in that settlement are French Jews.

Interestingly, our driver told us that he comes from a village of 18,000 people, and he proudly pointed it out as sitting on a hilltop to the right of a bus. Of those 18,000 people, he is related to almost 4000 of them.

After about 90 minutes, we arrived in Tel Aviv. It is a major metropolis, nothing like what we saw in Jerusalem or Nazareth.

The first building we came to was a large building Rafi pointed out as looking like the former World Trade Center. Ironically, that is where my former law firm, Greenberg Traurig, maintains its Israeli office.

Next, we drove by the complex, many blocks long, that is the police and army compound, located right in the middle of downtown Tel Aviv.

Our next journey was down Rothchild Boulevard, once considered to be the Israeli Fifth Avenue.

Tel Aviv also boasts the largest Collection of Art Deco buildings in the world. They are to be protected by UNESCO.

At one intersection, at the end of Rothschild Boulevard, we came upon Habima, the location of the Israeli Philharmonic building and the Israeli National Theater.

But most of the residential buildings looked frumpy to me, nothing like one would expect to see in a major international city.

Finally, we stopped and took a walk at the Tel Aviv City Hall. It was at this very spot that Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated in November 1995 during a protest of more than 600,000 people, almost 20% of the state of Israel.

Preparing for the long ride back to Haifa, we stopped in a shopping mall to go to the bathroom and were confronted with security screening. Rafi explained that this is the case when entering every store in Tel Aviv.

Rafi bid us adieu and we were left alone with our driver for what turned out to be a 2 ½ hour drive from Tel Aviv to Haifa. As if the traffic and snails pace were not enough to get to us, he put on Arabic music that sounded like a woman who was wailing after seeing her cat get run over by a motorcycle. And this sound droned on for hours.

Finally, we arrived in Haifa and we saw the Hanging Gardens of The Baha’i, fully illuminated.


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