Wandering at the West Wall

Before I kick off, I have to make something clear. Although I’m visiting what is probably the most significant city (indeed, country) in religious terms I am not in the slightest bit religious myself. So any mistakes you see relating to anything you know more about than me are down to my ignorance or inability to find a decent guidebook. Anything that annoys you, rankles or seems like I’m being rude about your faith is probably intended as humour. Please accept it as such and deal with the fact that some people can see the funny side of anything. No offense is intended anywhere. Don’t shoot me.

The Old City (a small, but historically significant part of Jerusalem) is divided into four semi-official "quarters": Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian. My hostel is in the Armenian quarter, the south-west one if I have my guide map the right way up. There is, I am told, always tension in the area but I haven’t seen any sign. I’ve seen Orthodox Jews walking in the same street as monks in habits, Muslims in their traditional headdress and non-Orthodox Jews. OK, so they don’t hold parties together but I’ve not seen any obvious animosity. Maybe they’re all just saving themselves in case the nutty Scientologists make an entrance.

I managed to locate a city walk guide courtesy of Fromers web page, so I made some notes, filled myself with falafelly goodness and took a semi-guided wander.

My hostel is near the Jaffa Gate and from there I walked down to one of the Suqs (bazaars, or markets). This, essentially, is a huge amount of the Old City – open shop fronts. The central area and many of the streets leading to the wall are just brimming with shops, stores, stalls… In between them are little old ladies selling piles of leaves (either fig or vine leaves, I found out later). Tractors and carts move through these busy streets all the time as well. Anywhere there are steps, little ramps have been put in as well – all in stone. A word of warning, though, if you ever visit. Wear shoes with very good grips as the stone has been worn very smooth and I’ve almost slipped on my backside a few times. I hate to even imagine what it’s like when it’s wet.

Down a side street and up some iron steps is the concrete roof of the covered market area. Easily missed if someone doesn’t point it out to you. The view up there is quite interesting but actually not as good as that from my hostel. Back on ground level I found a very posh street of shops referred to locally as Cardo.

Along there, then turning east I worked my way to the Western Wall. This is an ancient wall and impressive simply as far as the condition it is in despite being around 2000 years old. It’s the Western Wall of Temple Mount, the single most important location in Jewish religious history. As such, there are security checks as you come close to it which is perfectly understandable. I endured the usual Middle East queuing system (if there’s a gap in front of someone, squeeze in) to get into the courtyard but didn’t approach the wall itself. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to and especially today was the Jewish Sabbath I didn’t think it’d be allowed or right for me to do so.

Instead, I watched all the suit-and-hat-clad men walk up to the wall with the holy books in hand, touching the wall and nodding incessantly for what seemed like ages. I’ve seen prayers by other religions where a series of deferential bows is made maybe a handful of times. One of the guys at the wall took this to extremes and if I didn’t know better I’d swear I’d caught him listening to Slayer on his iPod, so fast and for so long was he rattling his noggin. Now, please go and read the disclaimer in the first paragraph again. Thanks.

I thought of heading towards the Ramparts Walk, but as I asked directions to it I was informed that it’s closed on the Sabbath for security reasons as it goes around the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock (a nearby important Muslim site). Instead, I walked around fairly randomly until I found the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – one of several places purporting to be were Christ was crucified, laid and wrapped afterwards and interred. There are a handful of sites in Jerusalem all laying claim to be the same thing – burial sites, "first place this happened" site, "this event happened here" sites. Of course, with documentation being 2000 or more years old, it’s hard to be certain of any of them so I suppose your religion dictates which one you go for.

As I said back at the start, I’m not religious but that doesn’t stop me enjoying the architecture and grandeur of these places. The history is also interesting and I earwigged a few tour guides and did some reading. Five branches of the church actually "share" the buildings making up the site, though this is hardly a peaceful arrangement, being referred to as a "status quo". Small fights have broken out over stupid things such as a monk moving a chair into the shade… and into someone else’s territory.

To save me waffling on, check out the Wikipedia article which I’ve found to be a good resource. Suffice to say there’s a good mix of "religious bling", some fantastic mosaic work, quiet little corners that are boxed off and lit up for no reason I could ascertain due to a lack of signage, and interesting people of various denominations walking about.

A bit more of a wander and I managed to work my way back to the hostel in good time to check my mail before being picked up by Noa and one of her friends for dinner at her place. I was forced to drink Cointreau with home-made lemonade and Glenfiddich, and eat delicious home-cooked food. Oh, woe is me. Our plans for going to the cinema were dashed when we found out that Pirates 3 had sold out, so we instead settled on locating a hole-in-the-wall dark old bar to sit in and sup beer instead. The local brew, Gold Star, isn’t half bad.

Just after midnight, I was dumped out of a small car somewhere near where I live and left to stagger back to my accommodation. Quite a full, and very enjoyable, day.

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