She was hoping to enter the Old City from somewhere other than the Jaffa Gate, since that was where she went the last time. But the parking lot was right across the street, so that was where they went. It was the same entrance she used earlier, but it was far less crowded. There were still groups of people huddled together here and there, mostly since the Jaffa Gate was the most convenient way to get in and out under most circumstances, but it was not going to be Independence Day crowded.
“Choose your religion,” Hisham said as they walked through the widest opening to the city.
“I'd rather not,” she replied.
“The Old City is divided into four religions,” he said. “Which would you like to first visit?”
“We're in Israel,” she replied. “Let's go Jewish.”
Hisham led them straight to the Western Wall. Harmony had already been there, but they went into the plaza from a different entrance. There was a much longer line and far more security checking everyone's bags, and everything took longer. This was the second busiest way to get in, after the unfortunately named Dung Gate. She previously entered from the smallest side entrance with no line and relatively little security, even though the plaza itself was busier on that day.
At the Western Wall, Hisham explained what everyone was doing. Harmony already knew what the wall was and that actually touching it required going to either the male or female side. On Independence Day, it was party time and there were flags everywhere. Today was prayer day with only one large flag at the center of the plaza and a few smaller flags atop some of the Jewish Quarter buildings.
Hisham let Harmony in on the dress code and gave a few helpful tips. He said that she could go to the women's side without offending anyone or changing clothes. Harmony did not ordinarily dress like a street prostitute or Walmart shopper, so she already looked modest enough for most religious sites. The first time she went to the Western Wall, she wore her usual walking around at home clothes. This time, she had a long skirt and long sleeve shirt. She was starting to embrace Jerusalem's hot and dry fashion.
Hisham said that only men and married women had to wear hats at the wall. Harmony had a sun hat on, but contemplated how anyone could possibly know if she was married or not. She decided not to ask. That could have easily led to a long religious conversation that she did not want to have. Hisham wore his usual business casual suit without anything covering his bald head. He could not have gone to the wall without getting some kind of hat. Harmony marveled at how he kept that dome from getting sunburned.
He waited for her in the plaza while she walked up to the wall. The women's side was not empty, but it was far from crowded. She could walk right up to the wall without getting in anyone's way. When she touched the wall, Harmony almost expected some kind of electrical shock. This was the single holiest site in the oldest Abrahamic religion in the world. It has drawn countless people from all over the world to revere, pray and photograph. Harmony wanted something magical to happen when she touched it.
“Maybe not have all the secrets of the universe revealed to me,” she said. “That might be asking too much. But something.”
The white stone was a little cold despite being out in the open sun, but all in all, it was just another brick in the wall. She wrote a message down on a small piece of paper and crammed it in the cracks, as people do. Like a wish before blowing out candles, no one is supposed to tell people what they wrote. So that will have to be a secret between her and the stone.
Finished looking at a big wall, Harmony wanted to go up the ramp to the Temple Mount. Hisham said that would have to wait until later in the day. He seemed certain, but she had no idea how he knew. She decided to take his word for it. It might have been because there was absolutely no one on the ramp or waiting in line to get in.
Instead, he took her on a short tour of the Jewish Quarter. Harmony wanted to be blown away by Hisham's knowledge of the area's ancient history and archeology, but he kept pointing out how new everything was.
“When I was here earlier, I saw all kinds of ancient looking buildings,” she told him. “Why is everything in the Jewish Quarter so new?”
“The old buildings were destroyed when Jordan invaded in 1948,” he told her.
“They only destroyed the Jewish Quarter?” she asked.
“That is correct,” he answered. “The Jewish residents were expelled. The Christian residents were forced to allow Muslim prayer in their churches.”
“That's not very nice,” she said.
“The Jewish Quarter was built again when Israel took Jerusalem back in 1967,” he said.
That certainly explained why everything in the Jewish Quarter looked so new. It was all the same white stone, but much cleaner.
But something good came out of Jordan completely destroying the Jewish Quarter. An ancient Roman street was unearthed by archeologists when they were finally allowed in after 1967. This was once the main boulevard running through the Old City, even though it runs perpendicular to today's main street. As the Jewish Quarter was rebuilt, they restored the Cardo and left a portion of it as a Roman ruin.
“It's almost like the ancient Forum sitting in the middle of modern Rome,” Harmony said. “Only much smaller.”
From the Jewish Quarter, they crossed into the Christian Quarter. There were street signs in multiple languages all over the place, but few indications when crossing any borders. The only difference she noticed the first time she went to the Old City was what kind of merchandise people sold in their shops, and sometimes what people wore on the streets.
Crossing the border into the Christian Quarter was more than conspicuous. They went from clean, wide streets with buildings from a few decades ago to narrow alleys with buildings from a few millennia ago. Even without the sudden crucifixes in the shop windows, it would have been indisputable that they stepped over.
Hisham led Harmony straight to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She had stumbled onto it by accident last time. Hisham knew exactly where it was.
“The most sacred site of another Middle East religion,” he announced at the small parvis outside the church.
“This is a Christian church,” she pointed out, amazed that he thought it was from a Middle Eastern religion.
“Precisely,” he agreed. “The Christians are equally Middle East as the Muslims and the Jews.”
Harmony had to take a step back, but that was a good point. They all started in the same place. But as an American, she thought of Judaism and Islam as Middle Eastern and Christianity as Western. Roman Catholics are Italy. Irish Catholics are Ireland. The Protestant Reformation started in Germany. But Jesus was as Middle Eastern as falafel. He might be white in movies, but it seems unlikely that he ever spoke with a British accent.
The dress code was even more strict than at the Western Wall, but she was covered enough. The biggest difference was the hats. Men were supposed to wear them at the wall but take them off in the church. Harmony was initially worried that she might look too Jewish for Christianity's holiest site. Then she noticed that a number of perceptibly Christian women also wore long skirts and long sleeves. What she thought of as Jewish clothing was actually Jerusalem clothing. The only noticeable difference between the Jewish women at the wall and the Christian women at the church was the head coverings. With her less than traditional sun hat, Harmony looked like neither.
As soon as they stepped inside the church, Hisham transformed into a learned scholar. He took her to the Stone of Anointing, Calvary, the Aedicule and Catholicon, describing everything along the way in hushed tones. He could identify most, if not all, of the assorted Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox chapels. They were in a large building with at least two hundred other people, but it was never noisy. Hisham made sure to speak softly, as did all of the other tour guides. Unlike the outdoor Western Wall, this was a subdued environment.
When Harmony was in the church earlier, she understood the basic architecture of altar, transept, ambulatory and nave, and the Stone of Anointing and Sepulchre were pretty unmistakable once she saw them, but she had no idea what any of the chapels were about. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was nothing like any church or cathedral she had ever seen. She would need a map or tour guide to see most of it. There was no simple cruciform floor plan here.
She saw less than a third of the church when she went on her own. Hisham took her upstairs, downstairs, around corners and through doors she never knew existed. He took her to the chapels of Adam, Mary Magdalene, Saint Helena, everything else east of the Catholicon and the Greek Orthodox chapels south of the Aedicule.
He took her upstairs to Calvary and illustrated how where they stood might have been outside the city walls at the time. Harmony already knew that there was a lot of controversy around that. If Calvary was outside the city walls then there was a hill giving any potential invaders an advantage and pretty much rendering the wall useless. But if Calvary was inside the city walls then no one would have been executed there. She could sense that Hisham knew all about the controversies while he talked. They were surrounded by Christians praying and taking pictures, so he was careful not to start a riot.
He took her to the ornate Catholicon, with high ceiling murals and architecture as impressive as any grand European cathedral. The first time she went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she saw the Aedicule. It was impossible to miss. Stevie Wonder could find it. But she never went inside. She was unsure if she should, and it was a little crowded.
“Today is reasonable,” Hisham declared.
There was a line of people waiting to get in, but it was far shorter than the other day. People waited patiently beside the Aedicule. Earlier, they were wrapped around and twisting in all directions like a ride line at Disneyland.
When it was their turn, Hisham and Harmony walked to the Angel's Stone, which may or may not have been part of the stone that sealed the tomb. They were supposed to touch it, but once again, she felt nothing. Countless Christians from all over the world come to touch this stone, but it did nothing for her. It was colder than the Western Wall, probably because it was entirely indoors twenty four hours a day.
They practically crawled to get into the Sepulchre. It was designed that way on purpose. The room was far too small for any security personnel to ensure that people bowed when entering, but the doorway was little more than four feet high. Most adults had no choice but to bow. Kneeling at the tomb was not compulsory, but standing hunched over was far too uncomfortable. While Harmony kneeled at the tomb, Hisham chose to stand as much as he could. She could understand why he might not want to kneel at the tomb of Jesus.
The Via Dolorosa started in the Muslim Quarter, and they were at the other end of the church in the Christian Quarter. Hisham had a straightforward solution. He led Harmony eastward through the winding back alleys of the Christian Quarter into the winding back alleys of the Muslim Quarter. There were no travel book sites on the way, but she found it far more interesting than the t-shirt and coffee mug shops of the main avenues. These were streets where people lived. They had modern security, and it looked like every house had a satellite dish peeking out windows and rooftops, but the buildings and roads were older than anyone's family photo album.
Crossing from the Christian Quarter into the Muslim Quarter was far less telling on the back alleys. There were no shops selling religious souvenirs and all of the streets pretty much looked the same. Looking at the people did not help since few were walking around in the traditional uniforms of their faith. Someone with a crucifix around their neck could pass one second and someone wearing a taqiyah the next second. Then there would be an old man in a kippah. Looking at hats said nothing about where they were.
“It's great that all these people can live so close to each other,” Harmony said to Hisham. “But how do you know where you are?”
“Street signs,” he answered, pointing to a plaque on a wall in Hebrew and Arabic.
To Harmony, the Old City of Jerusalem was an exotic realm of legend and ancient mystery. To Hisham, the Old City was downtown.
At one point, he asked her if she wanted to see where they were. She was expecting him to whip out his phone and show her a map. Instead, they climbed more than a few stairs and went onto someone's roof.
“Are we supposed to be here?” she asked.
“This is ok,” he answered, pointing to a group of children playing a few roofs away.
They walked across the rooftops on what looked more like a well worn road than the tops of people's houses.
This view of the Old City was considerably different. There was little traffic on the back alleys, but absolutely none on the roofs. They could also see far more than the stone walls all around them on the street.
“That is the Church of the Redeemer,” he told her, pointing to a steeple in the distance. “Next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”
Harmony could easily see the steeple. It was a white tower poking out of all the white buildings. The Holy Sepulchre domes were camouflaged until Hisham showed her exactly where they were. Once she saw them, they stood out like peas in a bowl of rice.
“That large gold dome is the Dome of the Rock,” Hisham pointed.
That was the most dominant building on the horizon. Everything else was built with white stone. The dome was bright gold and stood on colored tiles.
“We are going that way,” he said, pointing in the opposite direction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
They walked over a few houses, but eventually had to take more than a few stairs down to the street. They were soon at the first Station of the Cross, where Pontius Pilate turned fifteen minutes of fame into immortality. From there, they walked west, more or less, down the most crowded street in the Old City. Harmony suspected that it was crowded because they were on the famous Via Dolorosa. Hisham told her that it was so crowded because they were in the Muslim Quarter, which was more crowded in general. Most of the people seemed to be where they wanted to be and not walking west with them.
Hisham pointed out each subsequent station along the way until they were back at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, home to the last few. Harmony pondered how anyone could be sure that each station was in the right location, but since they were now mostly churches, no one was ever going to change them. The stations were all clearly marked. The markers could be moved, but the churches were staying put.
Having heard about all of this throughout her childhood, it was nice to walk in the actual place. Or at least where most experts agree might be the actual place. The locations might not be exact, but it was a great walk through history either way.
Back at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Hisham told her that they might be able to go to the Dome of the Rock. They were just nearby, and going back and forth to all of these sites. There was surely a more organized way to do this, but the Old City was small enough that they could walk back and forth all day without difficulty. Hisham knew where everything was, so they never got lost, and got everywhere much faster than Harmony ever could have without him. A tour guide would have taken a more direct route, but he also would have told corny jokes and not been as interesting to talk to as Hisham.
From the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they walked through the Jewish Quarter and practically out of the Old City. They walked around the Western Wall Plaza to an entrance next to the plaza entrance where they waited in a long line. The lines to enter the plaza moved quickly while their line stood still.
“This is not yet open,” Hisham told her. “We will advance quickly as it opens.”
While waiting, they talked about all of the Christian history they had just seen. Hisham was most definitely not a Christian, but he knew it from an anthropological point of view more than Harmony ever could. She knew the lyrics to “Jesus Loves Me” and “Bringing In the Sheaves”. He knew where all the bodies were buried.
Harmony thought about how a few people warned her not to talk about anything Jewish on or near the Temple Mount, and here they were talking about the life and death of the most famous Jew in the world.
“Talk of the Christians is acceptable,” Hisham told her. “It is best do not mention the other religion here.”
Harmony did not mind at all if people inferred she was Jewish because of her new clothes, but she did not want to be turned away from the Temple Mount. This was most likely her only opportunity to get in. Walking around the Old City showed her how common her style of dress was, but no one was going to mistake her for Muslim. In Hisham's business clothes, he could have been anything.
When the line started to move, it moved quickly. Some of the people waiting in line were refused entry and had to turn around. At a guard shack, Hisham spoke to a few security personnel in either Hebrew or Arabic. Other men in line were talking to other men in uniforms. The women in line, like Harmony, waited patiently while the men talked to male security guards. Some were arguing.
This was looking like the most difficult place in Jerusalem to get into. Each religion controlled their own sites in the Old City. She had to go through Jewish armed security to get to the Western Wall and Christian priests to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She walked up to both places, no questions asked. A few pilgrims were asked to take off their hats at the church, but everyone was allowed inside. Getting onto the ramp that took them to the Temple Mount was a palpably different atmosphere.
Harmony was bracing herself for the bad news that they could not go in. Muslims were more strict about their security, at least for outsiders. Everyone of every religion or race got into the Western Wall Plaza and Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the same entrances. The Temple Mount was segregated. Muslims could get in from an easier path on the other end of the Western Wall. The rest of the world had to go through the security checkpoint and walk up a narrow cattle ramp. Even wearing an unadorned crucifix necklace would keep someone out. The Jewish and Christian sites never checked anyone's jewelry. Their chief concern was hats.
Harmony knew that this was her only chance. If she could not get in with Hisham, it would be almost inconceivable alone. She had her passport in hand, hoping that the American coat of arms would work as well here as it did at airports around the world. But no one ever asked to see her passport. Hisham's identification was apparently good enough.
After a lot of talking in a short amount of time, their bags went through an x-ray machine and they were walking up the wooden ramp to the Temple Mount. She knew this was a place she was probably only going to see once in her lifetime. The rebel in her sang a Jewish song in her head.
“Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay,” she sang to herself. “And when it's something something, with dreidel I will play.”
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