It is said in Jewish tradition that there are three important times to visit the city of Jerusalem during the course of a year. These times are during the High Holidays, especially during Sukkoth; during the Passover Holiday, and during Shavuot. At the end of the Sukkoth festival, my wife and I, along with another couple, made a pilgrimage to the Holy City which included visiting a number of sites in and around the Old City. What made this event additionally interesting it that it occurred during the Christian Feast of the Tabernacles, as well as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Though I have been to Jerusalem on several occasions during the past few years, there were some places, especially in East Jerusalem, that I had not personally visited since before the occurrence of what became known as the First Intifada, in September, 1987. Despite the current political and security situation, we felt as if we had gone back in time and were visiting the city as it was during an earlier time when such visits were more possible.
We began our tour with some Christian holy sites on the Mount of Olives, including the Chapel of St. Peter, and the Basilica of the Agony, otherwise known as the Church of All Nations. Both of these sites, located on the Mt. of Olives have rich religious and historical meaning to the Christian World, including the Garden of Gethsemane; where Jesus and his disciples slept and where he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot. Some of the olive trees in both this garden and on the grounds of the basilica are more than two thousand years old. I was impressed by the size and appearance of the olives, which didn’t appear to have any blemishes; not like the olive trees growing where we live in Netanya. The basilica itself was very impressive and we happened to encounter a group of visiting pilgrims from Mexico who were engaged in a special prayer ceremony including baroque guitar music by one of the pilgrims. We toured also parts of the Jewish cemetery on the Mount, some of which is still in disrepair following the period from 1948 to 1967 when this part of Jerusalem was occupied by the Jordanian Army. One small triangular shaped section was so neglected that most of the graves were unreadable; and only a few had been partially restored by either the Hevra Kadisha burial society or by descendants of the deceased who were buried there. We also visited the lookout point in front of was once the Intercontinental Hotel, giving one of the most beautiful panoramic views of the Old City; a place I had not personally been to since 1987.
Going into the Old City, we visited the Kotel, or Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy site. Being there on the last day of Sukkoth, or Simchat Torah, I was able to participate in one the many “Hakafot” or dancing with the Torah scrolls in front of Kotel, which made our visit even more meaningful. We were impressed by the number of foreign groups present at both the Kotel and in the oriental “Shuk ” market in the Old City. We noted groups from Russia, Germany, Italy, France, and other countries as well.
Finding businesses in the Jewish Quarter closed for the holiday, we ate a modest lunch in an Armenian restaurant near the Jaffa Gate; and afterwards visited King David’s Tomb and an interesting place known as The President’s Room, located on the roof of the synagogue where the tomb is located on Mt. Zion. The President’s room was used by Israeli President Zalman Shazar who used to go there to view parts of the Old City, including the Temple Mount, when it was still under the control of the Jordanians prior to the June 6, 1967 Six Day War.
The last place we visited was Mary’s Church and the grotto where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to be “sleeping”. Christian legend says that she will ‘awaken’ when her son returns to rule over mankind again. There is also a less known spot nearby where the Israeli Haganah forces tried to blow an opening in the Old City wall during the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. Despite using more then 200 kilograms of explosives, all they managed to do was to make a small dent in more than six foot thick city wall.
We were all impressed by the seeming peaceful atmosphere of the entire area, including the Shuk, which was crowded with tourists and pilgrims and virtually every shop was open; a far cry from previous years, especially after the Second Intifada uprising in September, 2000. With so many religious holidays and festivals occurring concurrently, including Ramadan, it was lovely to see the Old City in such a splendor.
The question we all had upon leaving is how long this seeming tranquility will last, taking future events, including the proposed international summit in America into consideration, not to mention demands by the Palestinians and others unfriendly to Israel. For those who live in Jerusalem, especially in and near the Old City, most residents would like to see what we saw on Thursday to be like this every day. And why not – isn’t it better to have peaceful coexistence rather than armed conflict?