The visit to Israel of friends from abroad provided us with the opportunity to walk through the Old City of Jerusalem and show them just a few of the tourist attractions in which that relatively small area abounds.
One of our visitors had been to Israel several times in the last forty years of our friendship, while the other was experiencing Israel for the first time. During their ten-day stay they managed to spend a few days in both Tel Aviv and Eilat, enjoying the sunshine and warmth that contrasted so starkly with their frigid north European home. Her conclusion: Israel is a pearl.
In Jerusalem, too, we were able to provide some sunny days before the horrific sandstorm that engulfed the whole country, but luckily that came just at the end of their stay. It was a perfect day when we set off for the Old City.
Our route took us first through the bazaar which constitutes the main point of access to the various quarters of the Old City. A map conveniently situated outside the tourist office by the Jaffa Gate gives the visitor a clear idea of the layout of the city inside the massive sixteenth-century walls. We watched our step carefully as we negotiated the lane leading down through the Muslim quarter to the Christian and Jewish quarters because of the cement slopes on either side that enable the colourful wooden hand-carts to move through the area with their load of goods.
The lane is lined with tiny shopes where merchants offer their colourful wares of souvenirs carved from wood, metal or plastic, as well as colourful T-shirts, fabrics, dresses and scarves that crowd every inch of space. The owners stand in the doorways and offer their merchandise to the passing crowd of tourists from all over the world as well as many Israelis.
Our friends wanted first to see something of interest to Christians, and so we took them to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the oldest buildings in the region whose initial structure was created by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, in the fourth century. It has since been expanded by the addition of more structures. Inside and around the church groups of pilgrims from every corner of the eath congregate, each speaking their own language and venerating one or another relic of Christianity. Suddenly the melodious singing of a Russian Orthodox group broke out, joined by a priest waiting in line to enter the chapel built on the spot where Mary Magdalene supposedly met Jesus after his resurrection. The church is one of the few Christian sites that was protected by the Moslems during their centuries of control of Jerusalem.
As we left the church the sonorous call of the muezzin to prayer echoed around us, followed almost immediately by the chiming of the church bells. As we headed towards the Jewish quarter we were able to examine a large stone plaque commemorating the time when the knight of St. John, also known as the St. John Hospitallers, had lived and worked there, caring for wounded and ill crusaders in Jerusalem. They were driven out of Jerusalem when the Moslems took control of the city, and subsequently made their headquarters first in Rhodes and later in Malta, where their centre is still to be found.
With the sound of the muezzin and the church bells still echoing in our ears we made our way to the Jewish quarter and the Western Wall, the sole surviving relic of the supporting wall of the rampart on which the Roman client king, Herod, built his temple in the first century B.C.E. Our friends went to stand near the women at prayer in the section permitted to them, and were able to imbibe something of the atmosphere there.
Having visited the sites sacred to the three major religions, our friends were ready to find something to eat. There was no chance of finding anything in the Jewish quarter, where the religious restrictions on engaging in trade on the Sabbath are in force, and so we made our way back up through the bazaar to the Armenian quarter. Our search did not last long as we were soon spotted by a ‘fisherman’ for a nearby restaurant who duly led us to the desired eatery. The place was clean and pleasant, the service quick and efficient, and the only drawback was their inability to process a credit card.
Our friends, accompanied by the restaurant’s owner-manager, were escorted to the nearby money-changer, and eventually the problem was solved. Our friends were left somewhat mystified by this inability to comply with one of the basic conveniences of the modern world, but considering that the area embodies over two thousand years of history, this can only be regarded as a minor hitch.
Over time little seems to have changed in the Old City, and perhaps in another two thousand years it will be possible to pay for a meal with a credit card.