The Old City.
Holy to three religions - Judaism, Chrstianity, and Islam. Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, all within minutes of walk. I have to confess that we didn't visit any churches - with four kids in tow, that wasn't an option, really. We just walked through the narrow streets, ate good food, enjoyed the sights and sounds.
We entered through the Damascus gate into the Muslim Quarter. Right there, we took a sharp left while everyone else was heading straight. We found empty little side streets. Flowering bougainvillea. Painted doors and shutters. There were no other tourists, only a few local people on their way to some mysterious errands. No vendors, no famous landmarks, only hundreds of years of history. It was so very lovely. The Muslim Quarter is a confusing mix of Medditerranean and Oriental styles. One corner looked just like in Croatia, the next view would be a street corner in old Istanbul. It was charming and enchanting.
Somehow we ended up on the Via Dolorosa. The first station is a lovely little church in a quiet courtyard, with lots of green, inviting quiet and somber contemplation. Alan copied a Greek mosaic from a wall because he wanted to find out what it meant, and we sat in the little chapel and were quiet.
Maybe because we were there early, it wasn't crowded yet. Little did I know how very crowded it would become later in the day! We sauntered through the narrow streets, under arches and through little tunnels. We were turned away twice because we ended up at gates leading to the Temple Mount. Since it was Friday, it was closed to all non-Muslims, it being their holy day. I love that idea - it's not only a tourist attraction, it's a living religious site. We had a tentalizing peek at the Dome of the Rock and I could snap a quick image or two (encouraged by two very, very young Israeli soldiers), then we retraced our steps through the souq of the cotton dealers, past stalls with sweets and bolts of fabric.
We just drifted. We had no real goal, but somehow we ended up in a "Shabbath-mode" security check. (Don't ask. I don't know, either.) It spat us out at the Wailing Wall.
Now, the Wailing Wall is just this big wall, right? You have a big section for the men who all have to wear a kippa and a little section for us girls.
But even though the Via Dolorosa left me feeling like I was the world's most unsprirtual person, the Wailing Wall made me cry. I touched it, and tears fell. Even the memory of it is strong enough to move me. It's just a wall. Go figure.
We walked back the Via Dolorosa to the Austrian Hospice. It's a delightful little secret - tucked away behind a non-descript red metal door lies a beautiful building in real Viennese splendor, complete with a cafeteria selling Apfelstrudel and Sachertorte and wonderful coffee. It's a quiet spot and you can sit in the garden under palm and sycamore trees and enjoy a rest from the bustle of the city.
Doug was on a quest to find a cistern he had visited years ago and that he thought the boys would like. We never found it. But we did visit the cisterns under the Ecce Homo convent/church/site. The cistern was almost empty (the gentleman at the reception told us it was because there had been some digging going on nearby) but it dripped and had tiny stalagtites and was cavernous enough to please our kids nevertheless. Goal achieved.
After some more drifting around, we decided to leave the Old City by way of the Damascus Gate - apparently at the same time as 1,000 other people. It was a scrum, a push-and-shove, and I had a hard time hanging on to my kids and to my camera at the same time. Later, I discovered that my camera belt had become loose and my camera was dangerously close to coming off the belt. That doesn't normally happen by itself. It's a rather solid construction. Made me go "hmmmm".
It was challenging to keep the kids calm - imagine their view of backs and butts up close, being pushed and squished against each other. At one point I missed a step (there was no way of seeing the ground) and nearly fell - that was rather scary. Sweat-drenched, we were quite relieved when the Damascus gate spat us out onto Nablus Road.
Searching a book store (the kids had run out of books), we ended up at the American Colony Hotel which has a pleasant little bookstore but alas, nothing for kids.
The Garden Tomb is right across from the Old Arab bus station (yes, that's its real name) in East Jerusalem. It's a highly disputed site of Jesus' tomb - archeologists have actually disproven the claim of General Charles Gordon that the Garden Tomb is the real place of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The tombs are in fact from the 5th century. But that doesn't stop thousands of tourists of visiting the site, and it's (I think) the only site owned by Protestants in the city - so it's not going to go away any time soon. It's a pleasant place, run by the British church, set in a nice little garden and full of religious groups who are singing hymns next to each other - different hymns. Yes, it's slightly jarring.
We decided to take the bus back. (Since Doug isn't allowed by USAID rules to use public transport in the West Bank, he... walked home, of course.) The bus was air-conditioned, modern, fast, and cheap. I can't see any reason not to take the bus any time it's possible.
There is so much we didn't see. As of today, we have 30 more days in Palastine. I dare say we will be coming back to the Old City at some point.