We met our generous host for a tour of the Old City at 8.30 this morning. We walked through a hillside neighbourhood of ‘luxury apartments’ facing it, mostly bought out by rich Jews abroad who visit twice a year and hope they will eventually come to retire here, within sight of it.
The tour was exhaustive but very pleasant. Through the Jewish Quarter first, with its brand new rebuilt Ramban Synagogue, a very large one, and (very) devout Jews going about their daily pre-Sabbath business. The Jewish Quarter has been very extensively renovated, excavated, rebuilt, restored, scraped clean, and signposted. It feels like one of those European medieval towns in that everything has been carefully (or not so carefully) restored back to its former glory (Ottoman glory, in many cases here). The Western Wall plaza, where a neighbourhood was razed to make room for pilgrims, is what one expects it to be. There was no question about visiting the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, this being Friday and us being non-Muslim. We wandered inside the Muslim Quarter and then we visited the very chic Bethesda site (complete with a basilica and excavations, run by the French), the Lithostrotos (and the associated underground waterless cisterns) up Via Dolorosa and to the Holy Sepulchre. Between these we experienced the crowds in the Christian Quarter and the after-prayer ones in the Muslim Quarter, had hoummous for lunch (nothing like the hoummous elsewhere) and Arabic coffee, scented with cardamom.
The place is — predictably –madness. Everyone seems to hold on to a piece of it, from the Ethiopian Church and the Copts on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, to the Austrians and their convent, to Greeks and Russians, the French, the Germans, the Syriac Christians and the Orthodox Christians and the Orhtodox Jews and the Conservative Jews and the Hassidim, from Orthodox Palestinians to Armenians, from Poles to Ukrainian Greek Catholics, from street sellers to shop owners to women with their head wrapped: nuns in black, nuns in white, nuns in grey, orthodox Jewish women, Muslim women, Russian women in pilgrimage and prayer. A place where sense does not matter, in the name of God. A place of archeological battlegrounds and fake monuments, of displaced places and revamped facts. A soberingly unstable playground for the Devout, where God only matters and where homes and bodies are usurped, bulldozed, evacuated, longed for, exchanged. In life and in death, like the Jewish tombs on the Mount of Olives bulldozed by the Jordanians to make way for a swanky hotel. A place where people chose to be buried: Jews in the Mount of Olives, Christians on Mount Zion, so as to be close to their respective Messiah when he comes to raise them for the dead. Amen.
Tonight I might try to go to the American Colony and East Jerusalem, to get away from the Sabbath stillness falling here as the sun goes down.