Another break in the traditional chronological format of my blog, this past Monday I went on a unique little educational army trip to the capital city, Jerusalem. As I’m currently attending a Hebrew language crash course, or “Ulpanit”, I was accompanied by a small group of new friends: fellow classmates and teachers alike. Leaving our base near Ben Gurion Airport, we entered the Holy City and began our tour with the old neighbourhoods of Mazkeret Moshe and Zichron Moshe (if I’m not mistaken). Walking through the quiet residential areas we learned the history of these streets, and who lived on them, from our Educational and Youth Corps tour guide.
We learned how these neighbourhoods were inhabited after a realisation that there simply wasn’t enough room for the Jews in the Old City. In all the times I’ve been to Jerusalem, including the eight blog posts I’ve written about this holy city thus far, I’ve never seen nor heard about these little neighbourhoods. Then again, there’s a lot I haven’t seen in Jerusalem.
Bordering these neighbourhoods to the north is the famous Machane Yehuda shuk – a large marketplace which really comes to life every Friday. We stopped there for a few minutes and I got a falafel.
Getting back into our Mercedes-Benz minibus, we headed for the Old City and disembarked near the Jaffa Gate. Outside the walls, overlooking Mamilla Mall, we posed by a globe sculpture, symbolic of our collective status as immigrants.
We then continued into the Old City entering via the Jaffa Gate, being told that the angled lines in the stonework below was intended to resemble the roof of a house – a story of homesickness.
Within the Old City, our guide took us through the Armenian Quarter, snaking our way through narrow corridors and under graceful arches.
We climbed up onto a large rooftop and I realised that I had already done this exact segment years back when I was in regular Ulpan. We were pointed out the rooftops of various religious buildings around us, including the Dome of the Rock’s golden dome. In middle of our geographical lesson we were distracted by a small group of Arab youth who were leaping about performing some form of amateur parkour before a larger group of tourists.
Next we found ourselves in the Cardo, the ancient main thoroughfare which was once lined with merchants and traders. Today, only some of the walls, pillars and floor can be seen – a far cry from a bygone glory.
After the Cardo, inching ever closer to the Kotel plaza, we sat down to hear about a memorial hearkening from the days of the Jerusalem’s reconquering. Throughout the raging battles for the Old City during the Six Day War, soldiers and civilians alike fell in battle but were unable to be buried due to the “siege” laid out by the surrounding Jordanian army. With no other options available, the living were forced to bury the dead temporarily within the city. After the paratroopers broke through and reclaimed Jerusalem, the bodies were transferred to cemeteries outside the Old City. A memorial replaced the grave and has remained there to this day, occupying a small corner near the Batei Machseh plaza.
Shortly after we ended up at the Kotel and then headed out to our minibus to be whisked off to lunch at the Israel Air Force’s Talpiot Program cafeteria at the Hebrew University. After lunch we attempted to re-enter the Old City where we ended, at the Kotel, but instead spent a while circling the Old City and driving through East Jerusalem. Eventually we disembarked and entered through the Dung Gate and then descended into the earth for a quick run at the Kotel Tunnel tour.
The subterranean excavations are, for want of a better word, fascinating. The incredible richness of the history of the Temple Mount can scarcely be appreciated with just a glance at the prepared archaeological findings. Every little while there is yet another deep plunge into the days of yore, the ancient stonework illuminated in a mellow yellow light.
I think I’ve done the Kotel Tunnel tour twice before this trip and yet each time feels new. Our interesting tour guide, replacing the soldier who departed earlier, led us into the long causeway that runs the length of the Western Wall – the full wall, not just the small iconic section seen above ground.
First, we were educated in the fine masonry of the Western Wall – the impeccable and vastly huge ashlars which were laid down and fit nearly perfectly one atop the other. In this picture, the guide and I stood at the two ends of the largest of the building stones which can also be seen above – a block that weighs an immense 570 tonnes (1.25 million pounds):
Continuing down the tunnel, hugging the Western Wall, we arrive at the place directly opposite the place where the Holy of Holies once was – a holy place, of course. With that our guide bid us farewell and encouraged us to pray while we were here. Upon prayer completion we headed out of the tunnel, back up the numerous sets of stairs and out into the Kotel plaza. There we photographed and were photographed, even providing excellent photos for a large group of schoolgirls from England. With the sun setting we got into our minibus one last time and headed back to the base. Gotta love free army trips!