Monday, March 17, 2014

Israel--The Old City of Jerusalem

The busy streets of the Muslim Quarter.

 Note: I just returned from my first trip to Israel, and I am posting my thoughts and remembrances here.  In my previous post, I summarized the entire adventure.

We spent the better part of our trip in the Old City of Jerusalem, so I need to spend some time writing about this ancient city.  Jerusalem has an incredible history.  It originally belonged to the Jebusites, before it was conquered by David.  It was then Israel’s spiritual and political capital for centuries, until the Babylonians invaded, destroyed Solomon’s Temple and the walls of the city, then deported most of the people.  After the exile (foretold by the prophets), Cyrus the Persian King allowed the Jews to repopulate Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. In the stunning Maccabean revolution, the Jews claimed independence from their Syrian overlords, and cleansed the Temple in an event the Jews commemorate at Hannukhah.  But their independence was short-lived.  By Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was a Jewish city under Roman rule. When the Jews rebelled in 68-70 AD (foretold by Jesus in Matthew 24, the Romans destroyed the Temple.  A second rebellion in 132-135 AD caused the Romans to expel all Jews from the city and name it Aelia Capitolina.   After the rise of Islam, Jerusalem was claimed as a Muslim city; the Dome of the Rock was built on the former site of the Temple.  During the Crusades, Christians conquered Jerusalem and declared it a Christian Kingdom, which lasted for nearly two hundred years before being reclaimed by Muslim warriors.  In 1948, the United Nations granted the Jews the homeland of Israel, leading to the Arab-Israeli war that year, and a tenuous co-existence between Jews and Palestinians ever since.  

Zion Gate.  Note the many bullet holes from the 1948 war.

Jerusalem is a modern Middle-Eastern city, but it surrounds an ancient walled city that in many ways is like traveling in a time machine to the biblical era.  This is the Old City of Jerusalem.  The Old City features narrow streets, many of them filled with merchants peddling food, clothes, souvenirs, and artwork; a massive wall with walkable ramparts, “loopholes” designed to allow archers to snipe at invading troops, and several historic gates; and amazing history on virtually every square inch.  In Texas, we love to visit places like the Alamo, San Jacinto, and Gonzales, where momentous events occurred two centuries ago.  In Jerusalem, I walked in a city where history was made two millennia ago—and more.  The city is so filled with history, Tim showed us a lamp post built on a column inscribed with the names of Roman soldiers stationed here two thousand years ago; in America, we would venerate such an object.  In Jerusalem, it’s a lamp post.  There are approximately 40,000 people living in the Old City today; According to Josephus, there were around a million people in the city when the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD.

One of many "loopholes" in the wall.  These allowed archers to snipe at invading troops.
A lamp post built on a column listing members of a Roman legion in the city nearly two thousand years ago.

The Old City is full of cats. Every day, the kids in our group counted cats, and usually reached at least 40.  Their exploits at night didn't help my sleeping issues.

The Old City is divided into quarters belonging to the Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Armenians.  Actually, the Christian population is declining dramatically. Jerusalem is mostly a Jewish and Muslim city.  We stayed in the Muslim Quarter.  We were awakened every morning at 4:00 by the call to prayer broadcast over loudspeakers at one of many mosques in the city.  The people working in our hostel, as well as the merchants we passed every day as we walked to our sites, were Palestinian Muslims.  Most of them speak at least some English, and they were uniformly friendly to us.  However, I can’t deny that I felt extremely out of place in the Muslim Quarter.  On our first Friday there, we were eating lunch outside a Falafel stand when the Muslim noon prayer time ended.  Suddenly, men and boys started yelling loudly from the various shops in the street around us.  It sounded like a riot was about to break out.  Nita explained to us that they were merely touting their wares, shouting something similar to “Three pounds for ten shekels.”  Arabic is an angry-sounding language, a fact I was reminded of several times in Jerusalem, where ordinary conversations can sound like to a foreigner like the beginning of a fistfight.  The streets here are old, dirty, narrow, and steep.  From the time the sun comes up, they are packed with shoppers, pedestrians, merchants beckoning people to come inside their shops or pushing carts full of fruits and vegetables up small ramps, and the occasional motorcyclist.  I was thankful that we got started each day before sunrise; the streets were quiet and empty then. 

An Old City street in the early morning, just before the city wakes up.  Note how steep it is, and the small ramps for merchant's carts.
               The Jewish Quarter is very different.  The streets and buildings are newer, cleaner, more modern.  This is partially because the Jewish Quarter was destroyed during the 1948 war, and has since been rebuilt.  Here, you are more likely to see Western-style shops and restaurants, although everything is still in Hebrew and Arabic.  When walking through the Old City, one is often unaware that he is walking forty or fifty feet above history.  The entire city has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times, the biblical streets and houses are several stories below the surface.  Only in the Jewish Quarter (because of its twentieth century destruction) and under several churches has there been excavation. Tim reminded us several times, ruefully, that only God knows what amazing things we’d find if we could excavate further.  Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen unless there’s another war; something none of us hopes for.  

A bar mitzvah procession through the Jewish Quarter.  Families go to great expense to celebrate the impending manhood of their sons.  Small bands lead the family through the streets with music to the Western Wall, where the boy reads from the Torah publicly for the first time.

               There is great tension in Jerusalem.  It is considered the spiritual home of the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  Everywhere I walked, I saw Israeli soldiers with machine guns.  Most of them looked around eighteen; military service is compulsory in Israel for men and women, aside from the Orthodox Jews.  We experienced some of the anger simmering just below the surface on our trip to the Temple Mount (more details in my next post).  I felt safe there (and Tim reminded us that no American tourist has ever been killed in the Old City), but I knew that the status quo cannot last forever.  Someday, this city will explode again. 

Israeli soldiers, machine guns at the ready, just inside the Lion's Gate.  They were sharing cigarettes with this man; smoking is very big in Israel. 
               Yet, God makes it clear in His Word that Jerusalem is important to Him.  We’re commanded to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6).  This is where Jesus chose to redeem our souls in His atoning death, and conquer the grave on the first Easter.  It’s where the Church was born in the fires of Pentecost; those crowded streets yielded the first conversions that day.  It is the future capital of the New Earth (Revelation 21).  Jesus will one day reign from here.  I am so glad I had a chance to visit Jerusalem.  Whether it’s in this life or the next, I look forward to going back.      

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