Jerusalem is a fascinating city. We had heard there is a special energy that you feel instantly upon arrival and you definitely get the sense right away that it's a sacred place to many people, with a long and emotional history.
We found a room nearby the Jaffa Gate in the oldest hotel in Jerusalem. It's famous patrons include Mark Twain, who wrote his impressions of the Holy Land in "The Innocents Abroad". Like the city itself, the hotel definitely shows its age, but some of our favorite moments were sitting on our balcony and watching the many people and costumes parade in and out of the old city. Whether it was Orthodox Jews hurrying to the Western Wall to pray, young Americans dressed to impress heading out to the city center for a night on the town, a Priest leading a group of Italian Pilgrims toward the Via Dolorosa, or a group of Arab-Israelis taking advantage of Shabbot to throw an impromptu dance party, we were constantly entertained right out our window.
Our first couple of days we spent taking in the sites of the old city. We visited the Western Wall several times, the most memorable being for the start of Shabbot on Friday evening when the area was filled with families and groups of visitors praying and singing. We also took a very interesting tour of the underground tunnels near the Wall. It gave us a better sense Jerusalem's varied past, because each meter we descended down below the present-day surface represented another era in the city's history. It's amazing how many different structures (and the cultures they represent) have been destroyed, buried, and (for the lucky ones) rebuilt again.
We also visited St. Anne Church, which is situated next to the ancient ruins of the Pool of Bethesda, and walked along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows), stopping at the 14 stations that trace the route Jesus carried his cross. The last stations are in the Church of Holy Sepulchre, which which is interesting not only because it is supposedly the site of Jesus' crucifixion, but because it is shared by several different Christian faiths, and therefore is dissected into separate parts and adorned in a wide variety of styles.
After getting the visiting hours wrong a few times, we finally made it to the Temple Mount as well, which encompasses the Dome of the Rock, a (used to be real) gold plated mosque that covers a slab of stone sacred to both Muslims and Jews. The Muslims believe this is where Mohommed travelled in his night journey to heaven to join Allah, and it is the third most sacred place after Mecca and Medina. The Jewish faith believes it is the foundation stone of the world, where God gathered the earth to form Adam and also where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. As such, it was the site of the First and Second Temples built by the Jewish people, which were later destroyed. The Western Wall is sacred to the Jewish faith today because it is the closest part of the Second Temple to the "holiest of holy" that remains today. Gil and I were disappointed that non-Muslims are no longer allowed into the Dome of the Rock, but it's a pretty good mirror of how divided the religious groups seem to be in Israel overall.
We also visited the Citadel or "Tower of David", which was responsible for protecting the city from invasion, and too has been reshaped by many different groups over time. There was a really cool art and music installation (very Burning Man-esque!) set up in the courtyard.
We also spent a lot of time outside of the old city, first visiting the churches and various ruins on Mt. Olive (which was pretty much the only thing we could do on Shabbot since the whole city shuts down for 24 hours!). One of our favorite parts was the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive grove that is over 2,000 years old. In some ways this was more spiritual than the old city, because it seems history has been rewritten so many times that no one is really sure where sacred events occurred, but these ancient gnaraled trees have certainly witnessed it all.
We also spent time in the city center experiencing "modern" Jerusalem. This primarily meant eating gelato and watching the various music and dance performances happening on Ben Yehuda Street (from traditional Jewish "rapping" to drum circles to break dancing...). It also gave us a better sense of Israeli security efforts - we thought 19-year-old kids carrying automatic rifles made us feel safe until we actually got locked inside of the restaurant we were eating at in the German Colony for our own protection (hello, fire codes?).
Our most emotional experience was visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. The very well designed exhibits tell the story of one of the more inhumane and horrific events in history in a very humane way - through news and video clips, interviews with survivors, and the personal items of a select few of the millions men, women and children thoughtlessly murdered in such a short period of time. It could elicit no other response other than a sickening remorse for the past and anger that we as a society continue to allow genocide to occur in the world today.
On that positive note, we are sad to report we have no pictures from Jerusalem (these pictures are all stolen from the internet, but are very similar to ones we took), as Gil's camera was stolen from our rental car the day after we left. It was a blow, but the thieves were kind enough to leave behind our passports and credit/ATM cards, so it could have been much, much worse.