Jerusalem: a real learning experience

Israel is one of the most culturally and spiritually diverse countries I’ve ever travelled in. To experience the breadth of that diversity most easily all you have to do is spend the weekend in the liberal, carefree cosmopolitan culture of Tel Aviv and then take a bus to Jerusalem. For if Tel Aviv, is where Israeli’s go to play, then sagacious, spiritual Jerusalem is where they go to reflect and learn.

And the first learning experience you are likely have is that religion can make people seriously cuckoo. On this trip with Cam, our first view of religious nuttiness was in the religious Jewish suburb of Mea Shearim.

Mea Shearim is one of the oldest and shabbiest neighbourhoods in Jerusalem. It is an anachronistic enclave home to thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who choose to preserve the archaeic lifestyle and ideologies of 17th century Jewish Europe. They speak Yiddish, not Hebrew. They wear peculiar long black robes and strange black hats (from which their unfortunate epithet ‘cockroaches’ was bestowed upon them by secular Israelis).

Jerusalem Mea Shearim

The inhabitants of Mea Shearim don’t read newspapers, don’t listen to the radio and don’t watch TV. And they certainly don’t surf the web, referring to the internet as “Inter-chet”, as chet in Hebrew means sin. Life in this closed community revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer and the study of Jewish texts, so therefore they don’t work. At least the men don’t work. The women of course do, because (as they don’t believe in birth control) someone must provide for their ever-expanding families. Finally, ultra-orthodox Jews in Mea Shearim (and elsewhere in Israel) are exempt from army service, which is, unsurprisingly, a source of extreme bitterness among other Israelis. Although our stroll through this suburb passed without incident, in the past these religious fundamentalists have been known to throw stones at ‘immodestly’ dressed women, or at motorists who drive through “their” streets on the Sabbath. Needless to say we kept our visit short.

Jerusalem Mea Shearim

Now if Tel Aviv is the cultural, social and economic epicentre of Israel, Jerusalem is its heart and soul. Unfortunately, it is also currently considered hearty and soulful by many other groups of people, some of whom don’t like each other all that much. What you may not realise however, is that Jerusalem’s geopolitics, a result of both its location at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia and its sanctity to Jews, Christians and Muslims, has resulted in diplomatic hell for millennia. This extraordinary 3000 year old city, which covers an area of just one square kilometre, has been destroyed and rebuilt at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked about 52 times, been captured and recaptured 44 times, and been ruled by 25 different empires. And it is because of both its tumultuous past, and its tumultuous present, that Jerusalem isn’t just historic, it is history.

This was a history that we were expertly guided through the next morning on a walking tour of the old city of Jerusalem, led by one extremely enthusiastic expat-American. Entering through the Jaffa gate we proceeded first through the Arab quarter, surrounded by the exquisite sights and smells of the Arab suk.

Jerusalem shuk

The rich aroma of incense, spices, falafel and shwaarma stalls following us as we stroll down the narrow cobble-stone streets. Shops selling fine silk pashminas in every colour, beautiful turquoise, coral and silver jewellery, pottery, shisha pipes and Jesus-style leather sandals lined both sides of every street.

Amongst them numerous tacky tourist t-shirts shops stand, where shirts saying Uzi Does It or Don’t Worry America, Israel is Behind You hang alongside those emblazoned with Free Palestine and Palestine Liberation. In their desire to pander to all manner of tourist these vendors offer a perfect example of the complex conundrum that encapsulates life in this city.

A little further on and we were suddenly in the Christian quarter. Passing through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which is presumed to be the site of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ) we find ourselves walking along the Via Doloroso, the supposed road along which Jesus apparently trod his final steps to crucifixion. In a second display of religious nutterism, Christian style, we watched as several groups of pilgrims slowly re-traced the hairy prophet’s ill-fated steps, while carrying giant wooden crosses (which, believe it or not, you can rent by the hour!) and singing various psalms.

Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Extricating ourselves from the pilgrims we made our way into the Jewish quarter to visit the Kotel (the Western Wall). The Kotel is the only part of the second temple that remained after its destruction by the Romans in 70AD. Although it was not even part of the Temple itself, just an outer wall surrounding the Temple Mount, this remnant of what was the most sacred building in the Jewish world quickly became the holiest spot in Jewish life. Today, a large plaza, divided in two sections (one for men, the other for women), provides access for visitors to touch and pray at the wall, and traditionally, to insert messages and prayers to God into the cracks of the wall. This tradition is so popular that from a distance it seems that these folded paper prayers wedged into the ancient stones, are in fact the mortar holding up this ancient wall.

Inserting Messages to God in the Western Wall, Jerusalem

Although, I’m by no means religious, I have always felt that there is an incredible energy surrounding the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. This sensation I can only ascribe to the energies of the thousands of people that have died for this place, and the millions more that have focused their hopes and dreams and prayers towards this one place for millennia and millennia.

However, with so many tourists visiting, obviously not everyone feels a spiritual connection. My favourite photo from this visit is of a religious Jewish woman, eyes closed, one hand on her prayer book, the other touching the wall, utterly lost in her divine moment, while at her side a blonde Scandinavian backpacker gawks curiously, but utterly incomprehensibly, at the structure before her.

Jerusalem Kotel

Although historically the Jewish quarter dates to the eighth century BC, it looks brand new because it was almost entirely rebuilt following its destruction by the Arabs in 1948 after the declaration of the state of Israel. Leaving the Kotel wall we wander past the Cardo, with its Roman pillars, and other excavations showing vestiges of ages past, and soon find ourselves in the Armenian quarter, the smallest and probably the most enigmatic part of the old city. As a third example of nutty religious acts, we learn that Armenians adopted Christianity en masse as a nation when their King commanded it. The Armenians, however, seem the least interested in the tourist trade of the three major religious groups that call Jerusalem home, and aside from a few shops that sell their beautiful traditional pottery there is little of interest in the Armenian quarter.

Before heading back to the hostel we decide to visit Shuk HaCarmel one of the busiest markets in Israel. After 18 months in Oxford I can say with conviction that the two most disappointing things about living in England are the weather, and the generally shit, over-packaged vegetables. In the hour or so we spent strolling around the Shuk HaCarmel, we didn’t come across a single piece of fruit or vegetable that was wrapped in plastic. No sad, lifeless, wilting vegetables being sold. No “ripen at home” signs stuck on unripe fruit that will never ripen, and amazingly virtually nothing that wasn’t locally grown. Oh the sweet joy!

Jerusalem Shuk ha Carmel


So if day one in the old city was the overview day, day two was the in-depth day. First up on the agenda was a tour of the Western Wall tunnel. Excavations conducted over the last century now reveal the true dimensions of the wall, which is mostly hidden underground, as well as many other features and relics of those distant times. The underground walk along the tunnel with all the layers of past empires exposed is quite impressive, but unfortunately our guide’s overtly religious explanations of the history of it all ruined it for me! Exiting the underground tunnels, we headed straight to the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem’s iconic golden dome on the Temple Mount. I was actually thrilled to finally be able to see the Mosque. In the past when I’ve visited Jerusalem “the situation” (the euphemism by which Israeli’s refer to the Arab-Israeli conflict) was not so calm and visits to the mosque by non-Muslims were simply not allowed.

Jerusalem Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock is an amazing building to behold. With its intricate colourful mosaic façade and its stunning golden dome (real gold), it is one seriously photogenic building. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a special prayer session and after just half an hour we were asked to leave. So we left the Temple mount and negotiated our way back through the labyrinth of narrow streets that is the Arab quarter. Somewhere along the way (though I doubt I could lead you back there) we managed to find ourselves the absolute best falafel in all of Israel. Big call I know, but true. Simply delicious!

Jerusalem will always be one of my favourite cities. Steeped in 3000 years of history, yet still at the centre of current world politics, home to Jews, Muslims and Christians, it is the myriad of intricacies and complexities of life in this modern, yet ancient, city that makes it one of the most fascinating places to visit on the planet.

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