Thursday, 15 June 2017

Day 4 - Western wall, temple mount, Bethlehem & area, Herodium

A new day, a new guide. Foteh our original guide needed time to rest from recent surgery, and was replaced by Gila, a non-practicing Jewish woman originally from LA who came to Israel 40 years earlier for one year of adventure & never left.

We were at the gateway to the temple mount for 7.30am in order to beat the crowds and be certain of access, Ramadan having increased visitor numbers compared to normal. Access is gained from street level via a wooden ramp leading up to about 10 meters above the pavement, the temple platform/courtyard being considerably above ground level at that point. The gate through which we entered had a security check point, requiring all visitors to submit to airport style scrutiny before being allowed in. 

First we visited the western wall, known as the wailing wall. Almost everyone must have seen pictures of the prayer there, so I won’t describe things too much except that men and women are separated and the whole area is a lot smaller and more crowded than I’d expected. Chris went up to pray – I did not. There were bar mitzvah celebrations going on in the mens area, and there was also a lot of noise from musicians leading bar mitzvah parades out on the road behind.

A quick note from subsequently gained knowledge.  Practicing Jews are not allowed on the temple mount in case they accidentally step into the area that was previously in the holy of holies, and instead pray at the western wall because that  is the closest they can get without entering the area. The men’s area is set closer to where the HoH would have been so that they can get closer than the women, however with the recent tunnel under the wall, some women go down there to pray because the can get closer to that theoretical point.  Only men are allowed to read aloud from the Talmud, and when some women have tried it, they have come under attack, with chairs and other articles being thrown from the mens area of the wall.

In the outer court in front of the wall there was gathered a group of army recruits. At one point they linked arms and began singing & dancing in a style many charismatic Christians from the 70’s and 80’s would recognise. After a while we left and headed to the Temple courtyard and the dome of the rock area.

The temple area is administered by the Palestinian authorities, though they use the Israeli police to enforce actions apparently.

The temple mount is vast. It’s big by modern standards for a plaza, and must have been incredible when originally built. As a group we stand in the shade while being given some history, both ancient and modern, about the area. We moved to the smaller mosque beside the dome of the rock to view the patterns on the walls & ceiling, and one of the party began discussing the Roman conquest of Jerusalem with the guide. When she mentioned the construction of the Coliseum in Rome being funded by treasure looted from the Temple, a local guard/policeman came over and told her that she must not mention the temple. He kept saying “no temple, no temple, only mosque here” over and over, and would not accept that we had been discussing Rome.

It seems that, for a variety of reasons, there has been denial that a Jewish temple ever existed on the temple mount in recent years among the Palestinians, and any attempt to find evidence otherwise by archaeological means is forbidden. There are now groves of olive trees planted across the temple mount, in order, it was suggested, to make future excavation difficult. I’m not certain that this is the complete truth about the matter, but as with so many things, that’s how the situation appeared as explained.

While having explanations, there was a bit of a fuss in the distance and a group of what the guide described as ‘settlers’ – young orthodox Jews, males with long ringlets dressed in work-style clothes, girls in dresses – came on to the mount area, accompanied by Israeli police at each corner. These groups apparently regularly walk around the outside, partly to provoke, partly as a dare and proof of their courage, partly for ‘luck’. When we first arrived on the mount we were advised that sometimes there was trouble and that if there was a riot then we should follow the guide - probably good advice.

There were lots of words describing the temple mount, that I’ve either forgotten or suspect would not be terribly interesting here.

So we walked around the temple mount. We walked onto the steps where pilgrims would have once come and teaching taken place, to gateways, Mikvah baths, all kinds of places. It’s a lot of stones from various eras all blended together, and while potentially interesting, there’s little sense of a spiritual depth to the place *for me*.

We went down to the Bethlehem area past what would have been shepherds fields, but are now mostly given over to concrete housing on dusty, ragged and torn land. Jerusalem extends to almost touch Bethlehem now, and it’s difficult to imagine that this could have once been countryside that supported livestock. We got to eat lunch in a Palestinian area near Bethlehem and a boy of around 10 brings a lamb in his arms to the door of the restaurant as we walk in, seeking to be photographed and then asking for a dollar afterward. The food was barbequed chicken, a bit more tasty than usual, and I have my first local beer here (that left a headache in the afternoon).

After lunch we visited a cave that would have once been lived in and might have been like the place Mary & Joseph stayed when in the area, then on to Manger Square and the church of the nativity. The place is very busy, and we pass through the ‘birthplace’ chamber quickly & in single file before wandering around the rest of the church, which is being restored at this time.

We wander out of the church, back down through Bethlehem’s streets, run the gauntlet of street vendors and back to the underground coach park where the driver, Raja, and our ‘chariot’ awaits.

30min drive through the traffic took us to Herodium.

Herodium was a mixture of winter palace and bathing area placed, at the bottom of an artificially heightened hill, with a fortress on top. There’s little left of the palace now – just lines of stones on the ground to mark the outline of buildings and structures, left evident by the archaeologists. We stop in the visitor centre to see the model of how it was thought to look, then hike up the hillside to Herod’s tomb. In retrospect I realise that we never saw the fortress.

The hill itself is arid and barren, with just a few dry, spiky looking plants growing in crevices and between rocks. As we get higher the ground changes in appearance, from showing what looks like bedrock in places to appearing more chalky, presumably from the material used to give the extra height.  We pass below some excavated ruins and the trail then turns sharp right uphill to a wooden platform and glassed off area, within which we can vaguely see evidence of a frescoed room where the archaeologists are still working. This was Herod’s place to entertain honoured Roman guests, with a suite decorated very much like the more luxurious houses in Pompeii.

The trail goes a little further horizontally, then sharply uphill again before we arrive at the tomb area. There’s not a great deal left of the original tomb – just carefully carved stones forming the base of the monument – but a reconstruction has been placed there based on the design of Absalom’s tomb in the Chadron/Kidron valley.  Our guide, who knew the discoverer of the tomb personally, mentioned that the original stone sarcophagus had been broken into many pieces, probably by the Jews who hated Herod. She also mentioned that bones had been found in the area of the sarcophagus, but that it wasn’t possible to identify whose they were because there was no way to trace Herod’s line to the present day.

Shadows were beginning to lengthen as we made our way back down the trail to reach the carpark and our coach. Naturally I was taking pictures, trying to get the group in as we wandered down, and so was last back. While waiting to ascend my hat blew off, and with my usual grace and delicacy I managed to stop it blowing over the edge while tangling my feet together and measuring my length in the car park. Of course I was holding my camera too, so that hit the dirt too, and managed to take various lumps out of my person on the gravel in a failed attempt to save it. Of course no-one saw this happen, so my attempted jokes about being proud when I got back on the coach just seemed strange instead of making light of a painful matter. Double bums.

Home for a good scrub including wounds to remove gravel, dinner and bed.

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