Friends: The hostel I ended up at in the old walled city of Jerusalem is just a few steps from the seventh station of the cross, the second of three places where Jesus fell while lugging his cross on the way to Calvary Hill. All day long pilgrims in groups and on their own retrace Jesus' final trek, many singing or chanting. The route is through narrow, alley-like, centuries-old cobbled streets lined with shops selling all manner of goods--rugs, spices, watches, olives, rosaries, freshly butchered meat and fish, underwear, fabrics, sweets and on and on.
I had no clue I was in such close proximity to this hallowed route when I made my selection of a place to stay. I felt like I was lugging a cross myself, walking my loaded bike through the narrow confines and mobs of people to reach it. My legs were sore the next day from the effort it took going down the ramped steps and over the cobbles and having to push it up various inclines. My map didn't indicate these were more walkways than streets. If I'd known, I would have entered the Old City through the Damascus Gate rather than the Jaffa Gate, cutting my walking distance by two-thirds. But it gave me a good taste of what a hive of activity and market place the Old City is. The Old City is divided into Jewish, Christian, Arab and Armenian sectors.
One of the most hallowed sacred sites of the Christians, Jews and Muslims are within short walking distance of one another in the Old City. The Western Wall of the Jews is on the eastern fringe. One must past through a metal detector to enter. The devout kiss or place their hands upon it. Some stand praying, bobbing their head repeatedly. Others sit and read from the Torah. As one enters, there is a stand of cardboard yarmulkes to cover one's head. There is a men's side and a much smaller women's side.
Above the Wall is the Dome of the Rock, a mosque built over the rock that the Prophet Mohammad launched himself from to heaven in 632 A.D. to take his place besides Allah. I was thwarted several times in gaining entry, as there is only one entrance open to non-Muslims and only from 12:30 to 1:30, none of which I was aware of. The golden dome is one of the prominent landmarks of Jerusalem. My hotel overlooks it.
Just a little ways beyond the Dome is the Via Dolorosa, Way of Sorrows, the route of Jesus' final
trek. It culminates at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was nailed to the cross. Groups from all over the world, including many Hispanic with badges bearing their country's flag so they won't get mixed up with the wrong group, are among those retracing the route. One from the Philippines was carrying a cross. There were clusters of nuns of many nationalities and a handful of clerics. Whether or not one is moved by these sites, it is hard not to be effected by the rapture and devotion of those who are truly moved by being here, some falling to their knees overcome by their emotion.
Before settling into Jerusalem I made a slight detour to Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus. As I closed in on Jerusalem after making the hard climb up from the Dead Sea, I was hoping to see signs to Bethlehem. Not coming upon any I asked someone at a service station the way. He was alarmed that I might not know that Bethlehem was part of the Palestine Territory. "Aren't you afraid of the Arabs?" he asked. "Should I be?" "Absolutely. They're terrorists and would
love to get their hands on someone like you. You'd be crazy to go there by bike."
I thanked him for the warning, not bothering to tell him about the Arab motorist who had stopped to offer me water as I made the long climb up to Jerusalem. He no doubt would have been aghast, hoping that I hadn't accepted it. I hadn't, but only because I had plenty. I was surprised myself by the offer. When the somewhat struggling car pulled over ahead of me and the gray-bearded gentlemen with a head wrapping got out of his car, I thought at first he was asking me for water for his car, having noticed the three bottles mounted to my frame. But he pointed to his trunk saying he had water in there if I needed any.
I ventured into Bethlehem after reaching the fringe of Jerusalem, just skirting around its
periphery for the several mile side trip. I was waved through the Palestinian check point. There was a sign saying no Israelis allowed. After several blocks on Yasser Arafat Boulevard I turned down Pope Paul VI Street and was immediately swallowed up by swarms of pedestrians as it turned into a narrow byway similar to what awaited me in the Old City of Jerusalem. The guy at the service station would have been freaking, as I was the only non-Arab among thousands, any of whom could have grabbed me and shuffled me away. I had to walk my bike nearly a mile past all manner of little stands and shops selling all the necessities of daily life. It was a bonanza of food and luxury after ten days in the barren desert.
I was eventually spilled out into Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity just beyond it, built over the site where Mary gave birth. I was at first denied entry into the church since I was wearing shorts. A guard told me though that I could tie my windbreaker around my waist, which would be enough to cover my knees and allow me in. There were tour groups in all sections of the church being lectured to in Japanese, Spanish, Greek, French, English, Italian and languages I couldn't identify. Three blocks further was the church of the Milk Grotto, where Mary and Joseph and Jesus hid out. It is constructed of a distinctive milky white stone, the color thanks to a spilled drop of Mary's milk. The church included a graphic painting of Mary breast-feeding.
I returned to Jerusalem via a route different than I exited, along a main highway with a towering, recently-constructed wall separating Palestine from Israel. The wall has effectively eliminated the suicide bombers that plagued Jerusalem up until a couple of years ago. Suicide bombers are regularly caught trying to enter the city at the various checkpoints, according to my friend Evey, whose partner writes for the Jerusalem Post. He was working late on a story last night, so I was able to accompany Evey to a lecture by Churchill scholar Sir Martin Gilbert. His 90-minute lecture was mostly drawn from his book "Churchill and the Jews." Churchill was a long-time advocate of an independent Jewish state and was such a strong supporter of the
Zionist cause that some didn't think he was fit to be Prime Minister. There were some 500 of us packed into a suburban synagogue for the lecture, the most people the synagogue had seen since Yom Kippur. I was one of the few not wearing a kippa on my noggin'.