Israel Part 1: The Holy City

Jerusalem at Night

About 5 weeks ago, Lee got an email. One of those too-good-to-be-true emails. So good it must be spam. 
The email was from Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, inviting Lee on a press tour for the Jerusalem Marathon. All expenses would be paid for the 1-week trip – all they would ask is that he write about it on Brew Drink Run.
My first response when he told me was, “You MUST go!” And then my next question was, “Do they allow paid guests?”
The answer was yes.
I was still dubious that it could be true, and kept waiting for the catch. The email claiming, “we just need your credit card and social security number…” It didn’t help that four days before our departure we still didn’t have flight information. To pack, or not to pack? 
But then Lee’s email box chimed with the message we’d been waiting for – flight confirmation from Savannah to Tel Aviv. It was real.
A couple of frenzied days of preparation, and three long flights later, we found ourselves in the passport control line at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv behind two other Americans. My ears perked up when I heard one say, “I didn’t get my tickets until Thursday! I really didn’t think this trip was happening – I was kind of shocked.”
I figured these must be our people – and sure enough they were two other bloggers in our press group. There were about 18 of us in the English-speaking group (more about some of them here), along with Russian and French contingents.
Past the border control we met our wonderful guide, Ori, who directed us to our bus to begin the drive to Jerusalem. 
Our first stop was one of my favorites of the whole trip – the Mount of Olives.
I grew up in the church, and stories about Jerusalem and the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives are more familiar to me than any other tales from my childhood. We stood on top of that famed mountain, next to a group of tourists and a man with a camel looking for riders, and Ori pointed out the sites.

Camel Ride, Anyone?Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

It went something like this: over there – that’s where Jesus rode down on a donkey into Jerusalem before the Passover. That is the gate where he entered the city on a path lined with palm branches. See that church over there? That’s where the Last Supper is believed to have been. Do you see that smaller dome over there? That’s the church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on Golgotha and around Jesus’ tomb.
I could see it all in my mind’s eye – I could see Jesus and his disciples there. It was as close to a feeling of time travel as I’ve ever had.
The next day took us into the Old City of Jerusalem. To walk the winding streets of the Old City is to weave your way through a labyrinth of cultures and ages. All of the walls and paving stones are the singular tan color of Jerusalem stone, and it’s not easy to tell one street vendor or falafel shop from another. But if you look at the people, the differences are striking. 

In the Old CityCat in the Old CityIn the Old City

On one street, you may jostle for space next to a woman wearing a burqa as you hear the Muslim call to prayer echo off those tan stones. Turn a corner and you may find yourself bumping into a Jewish man with long sidelocks spiraling down from under his broad-brimmed black hat.

Stations of the CrossVia Dolorosa

At any moment, you’re likely to to see Christian pilgrims from all over the world walking the stations of the cross, following the last steps of Jesus before his crucifixion. Some carry crosses on their own backs, while others chant prayers in many languages.

Approach to the Western Wall

I stood at the Western Wall of the old Temple Mount and said a prayer next to a woman who was rocking back and forth, cradling a holy book and repeating prayers in Hebrew. I tried to imagine Jesus driving out the money changers before teaching there – right there where I was. It was somehow so real and surreal at the same time.

At the Western WallPrayers at the Western Wall

As a person of faith, but one who also values peace and tolerance among the faiths, it was a lovely sight to see – this mosaic of cultures and peoples and religions. I never felt unsafe. I never felt threatened. It seemed there was something special here for everyone, and everyone was welcome to experience it. 
But just read an article about Israeli politics – or better yet, ask an Israeli – and you find a real tension under the surface. Get outside the walls of the Old City, take a drive past the Palestinian neighborhood a
nd see the imposing security fence erected around it. Take note of the black-charred sections of that wall, sites of some earlier violent display. See the traffic backed up on the interstate as people gather in central Tel Aviv for another political demonstration. Stroll a quiet marketplace, and notice the young police officers with automatic weapons, armed for a siege of a scale I can’t fathom. 

Ben Yehuda Market

Here’s what I understand. Israel is a special place. If you’re Christian, Jewish or Muslim, the area is sacred to your faith. Even if you’re not religious, but of Arab or Jewish descent, you claim an important history here. But it’s been a tumultuous history for thousands of years – each group fighting for power and control, each sure this is THEIR chosen land. The pendulum swings first one way and then another, and it swings like a wrecking ball.
I have more I want to say about this trip – about the people and places and even the marathon. But it seems overwhelming to try to put it all down at once. So for now, here is what is on my heart.
Israel is a beautiful land and a holy land, filled with beautiful people. But it’s so much more than that. I went into the trip with an open mind, hoping to understand more about the area’s history and the politics, and hoping for a spiritual connection. I certainly got the latter, but as for an understanding … I came home realizing that I don’t know hardly anything. And certainly without a clear idea of how peace can be won.

Leave a Reply