Why Israel? Isn’t it dangerous? What are you going to eat? Are you going to Jerusalem also? Are you on a pilgrimage?
The questions bombarded us.
Sure, Jerusalem is a holy city for the 3 major mono-theistic religions of the world but this one is a contrasting journey of the current Jerusalem and the Old walled city.
Jerusalem itself has been more or less continuously inhabited for the last 4000+ years. The original city, inside the walls, was just about one square kilometer. Now it has grown to 125 Sq KM. Quickly mounting the Mt. Scopus we see before us a sweeping view of the old city. Dome of the Rock shines at its best and Holy Sepulchre stands at a distance.
Almost all the buildings sport a similar color and architecture owing to two reasons. One, by a rule the owners are advised to use the Dolomite stone which is available in abundance in this region and two, to have arched windows on the façade.
We descend and drive towards Yad Vashem, some distance away, the biggest memorial in Israel to the holocaust victims, on a hill suitably called the Mount of Remembrance.
This is not only a memorial for the 6 million Jews who lost their lives in the holocaust; this also works as a research and education center on the holocaust. Entering one room after another we have goosebumps that stay till we step out of the museum. Artifacts, books, clothes, footwear and other belongings bring tears in our eyes. The last room, the Hall of Names, has files and files containing the names of the heroes.
Goosebumps start all over again when we enter the memorial for all the 1.5 million children who lost their lives to the mindless killings. Projected on the glass are the photos of the young boys and girls and in the background we can hear their names, age and country of origin. Millions of reflections of twinkling lights, which actually originate from just 5 candles kept at various angles using mirrors, intensify the grief. There is also a memorial named Righteous among the nations, for all those non-Jews who risked their lives and helped Jews at their time of plight.
Jerusalem can also be called the city of museums! The Israel Museum, one of the biggest, is our next stop.
The first thing we notice about Israel Museum is that it looks like an open air museum. The 20-acre campus sprawls across the lip of central Jerusalem’s Valley of the Cross and is divided into three sections featuring an impressive variety of around 50,000 collections from prehistoric archaeology to contemporary art of today.
A mini Jerusalem, a model of Jerusalem city depicting its topography and architectural character in the Second Temple Period, greets us with historical context to the Shrine’s presentation of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Among the highlights of the Museum, is the Shrine of the Book resembling the lids of the jar which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical manuscripts in the world.
While the most interactive is the children’s wing with its multiple workshops, the Art Garden is clearly a winner. It displays the evolution of the modern western sculptural tradition. An Oriental landscape combined with Jerusalem hillside, the garden serves as a platter to sculptures by international masters such as Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Mark Dion, James Turrell, Israeli artists Benni Efrat and Menashe Kadishman and India’s Anish Kapoor. Anish Kapoor’s Turning the World Upside Down is the real leader.
Closer to the old city, just outside the Zion Gate, lies the historic Mount Zion. King David is said to have set up his palace and the City of David here, in around 1000 BC. We can see the Tomb of King David, the room where Jesus had the Last Supper (the cenacle), place where he regularly met his disciples, and also Dormition Abbey, where Virgin Mary fell into an eternal sleep. On the slopes is the grave of Oskar Schindler and is perhaps the most visited grave in Jerusalem.
The Tower of David museum, besides presenting Jerusalem’s history, has a sound and light show. Night Spectacular is billed as one of its kind in the world! Suddenly the dead stones of the citadel seem to come to life at night and we are transported many centuries in the past.
A visit to Jerusalem is not complete without following the paths of countless pilgrims of the 3 religions. One of the walls surround the temple mount, the Western wall, is the most sacred place for the Jews. The wall and the adjoining plaza is in two separate parts for men and women. It is also called the Wailing Wall since many worshippers come here to mourn the destruction of their temple several centuries before. It is believed wishes and prayers written on slips of paper stuck in the crevices between the stones will come true.
A set of stairs leads us to a vantage point from where the golden Dome of Rock is visible. It is situated on the temple mount and is perhaps the oldest Islamic architecture. It is believed that Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven from this spot.
A few hundred meters inside Lions Gate is the starting point of Via Dolorosa which literally means the “way of sorrow”. It is believed to be the route taken by Jesus on way to his crucifixion. Today is Friday and we follow the procession taken out by the priests of various Christian domains.
The route starts from the church of flagellation where Pontius Pilates pronounced Judgment on Jesus to the ninth station just outside the Holy Sepulchre Church, depicting the place where Jesus falls the third time. One priest recites what happened at each station of the cross. Other stations, including crucifixion sites, are all inside the church of Holy Sepulchre, the holiest place for Christians.
The streets of the walled city seem to be like one big bazaar! Most of them geared to entice the tourists with their beautiful wares. Exquisite ceramic works claimed as original Armenian in one shop vying for attention with another selling souvenirs. So are those selling religious artifacts and clothes. Our favourite, however, is in the Muslim Quarters near Damascus Gate where they sell aromatic spices of all types. This is where we had one of the tastiest falafel.
Mammilla mall was once a street bazaar but is now home to modern shops, premium brands, fashion chains and posh restaurants. The archeologists had number many of the original stones from the demolished bazaar and used in the new mall. More on each of these will come in separate posts.
We decide to take a ride on Segway to explore the area. After YMCA Tower observation point, archeological museum and Artists Colony where Artists open their studios to public; comes the Teddy park!
It is a huge patch of green in the stone city. Then we see something absolutely out of place here but not so in Netherlands. A Windmill!
In conclusion, whether you are in search for inner peace as a member of one of the three major semitic religions of the world or you are a history buff who wants to experience word war atrocities this is the place to be in. Maybe you are on a pilgrimage tracing the biblical places. Jerusalem has it all.
P.S.- This piece was first published in national daily Mail Today.
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