Thursday, February 25, 2010

Exploring the Old City of Jerusalem

Today, we were broken up into groups of four and asked to maintain the identity of family with our group for the duration of the trip. My family (Family #1) consists of Anne (my friend with whom I planned to come on this trip), Megan (pronounced Meeghan, who is from New Zealand!), and Bev (also part of the group from Virginia, but who is a Southern Baptist, brought along by an Episcopal friend - not THAT kind of Southern Baptist, she's quick to say).

Here we are before setting out on our adventure today:
Bev, Anne, Fran, Megan

Our "adventure" was to spend the day exploring the Old City of Jerusalem. Different families were asked to explore different quarters of the city (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Aremenian). We were assigned to the Muslim quarter. Things we were encouraged to ask or do:
  • Find the high place of the quarter and look out over the area.
  • Talk to a local resident of the quarter and see what his/her life is like.
  • Discover major places of worship in the quarter - and sort out whether there are places of worship for other religions there, as well.
  • Eat lunch.
  • Discover any ruins in the quarter.
  • And, above all, expect surprises.
Here's a map:
We entered the Old City through the Damascus Gate and immediately encountered sooks - covered stalls in the bazaars. We wandered about for a bit, and then we were invited in to a shop in an Armenian Church. The shopkeeper lives in the monastery, runs the shop, and assists the bishop. We all bought some things from him, and learned a bit about the church.

A woman working there told us her story. She is Jordanian, and moved to Jerusalem to marry. She's been here twelve years, and cannot go back to Jordan or anywhere else outside of Israel. She's still having difficulty getting the right sort of paperwork from the government, and has not citizenship documentation. She was reading an American novel, spoke six languages (including totally flawless English) and was quite amazed to learn that Anne and I were priests. Apparently women clergy were beyond her experience!

We wandered into the Christian Quarter to climb the tower of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer so that we could get a look out over the Quarter. It was closed, so we wandered some more. We got totally turned around in a residential neighborhood, and were rescued by a boy named Omar (age 11). Omar led us out and to a restaurant for lunch - he was quite sweet and chatty (What's your name? How old are you? Your friends are slow!). It turns out to have been a business transaction, with Omar wanting to be paid (10 sheckels!) for his trouble. Lunch was quite good, though not the meal we'd had in mind.

After lunch we did climb up the tower at the Lutheran Church (177 steps) and got some great views of the city:
To the left is a view of the Muslim Quarter - that's the Dome of the Rock in the distance. And, to the right, The Church of the Resurrection (often better known by its crusader name: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre) in the Christian Quarter.

We walked some more and made our way down the Via Delorosa. There, several of our group got lured into a jewelry shop by an enterprising salesman. Two of us stayed outside for quite a while, watching pilgrims make their way along the Via Delorosa. In the time we stood there, a large english speaking group, and several others made their way. Bustling all around the pilgrims saying the Stations of the Cross were women in headscarves, Palestinians, Orthodox Jews, and other tourists. The mix was quite extraordinary.

Then, the most amazing part of the day (for me) happened. We reunited with our friends in the jewelry shop, and the proprietor spoke to us for a long time. First, he gave me grief for not coming in. Apparently, many tourists avoid the shops because tour guides tell them to be wary of shopkeepers (for good reason in some cases, I'll say). He really encouraged me to use my eyes and see for myself. It was a good lesson.

He also spoke at length about his own situation. He is an Israeli, Muslim, Bedoin, ex-Palestinian, and something else which I am forgetting now. He has extraordinary wealth and privilege - he's traveled the world - does business in Santa Monica, CA. He wanted us to know that his wife is a pediatrician, drives a car, is well treated. He was quite concerned about how westerners perceive Muslims. He also had some negative things to say about those who live in the Quarter.

In the end, I thought his perspective was interesting. And, I was not willing to let it entirely color my opinions. Just as I would question the views of a wealthy American about poorer residents of the neighborhood (nobody on welfare really wants to work....) I questioned some of his views about his Muslim neighbors.

I was also quite struck by the difference between his life and the Jordanian woman we encountered earlier. She was not able to travel home, he'd visited 40 countries. This is a nation of contrasts.

We were asked to return with a symbol of our day (and given 20 sheckels with which to buy it). We chose spices. Everywhere in the Muslim Quarter, my nose was assaulted by smell. The smell of cooking food, of spice, of cigarette smoke, of trash. So, we bought a curry spice which was one of the smells I smelled all day. And then we bought a spice blend, that we were told would go into rice dishes or soups. What we liked about that blend was that it was made up of many different things. It represented for us the blend of Armenian, Jordanian, Muslim, and Christian cultures that we had encountered in the Quarter.

The photo on the left shows a spice shop. Yes. That's a pyramid of spice. The photo on the right are all of the symbols brought back the families.

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