When most people think of a holiday in the Mediterranean they think of Spain, Italy or Greece, but head further east and there’s a destination that doesn’t instantly spring to mind: Israel. Amid cries of alarm from friends that this was a dangerous place to visit I wanted to explore this great land of ancient people and follow in the footsteps of great figures in the Bible – Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Contrary to our widely held perception, Israel is not in a constant state of war but when the occasional bombings and fighting hit the news it’s easy to see why friends would be alarmed. It’s important to keep safe and follow advice. Sometimes the police will stop your vehicle to check your passport and reasons for being in the country. Just cooperate and you’ll be fine. For good reasons, security is tight.
Arriving in Tel Aviv we were met by our Shoresh Study Tour guide who scared us with a dreadful story about a friend of hers, a guide at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Kay Wilson who was stabbed multiple times in a forest and witnessed the murder of her friend. In court, their attackers said they’d woken that morning wanting to kill a Jew. What kind of sick world do we live in? Kay survived against all odds but her story is chilling and a dreadful reminder that who we are and what you believe in can make us vulnerable and exposed. This barbaric act is symptomatic of the fact that sadly we live in a world where religious hatred still manifests itself.
Jerusalem is an intriguing city, a tangle of narrow cobbled alleyways that reminded me of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Jerusalem is a major pilgrimage site for Christians, Muslims and Jews who each see it as holy and significant to their faith. It’s unlike anywhere else in the world – religion stares at you, it’s raw, it’s real and it’s in your face. There’s no escaping it, everybody is making a statement by the way they dress and behave. If you doubt the existence of God as I do, going to Jerusalem will make you think. In the presence of so many believers, you can’t help wondering, is there something in this? Could there be truth to the Bible? You are pressed up against religion. Religion never sleeps, wherever you look, wherever you go. You’ll hear the Muslim Call to Prayer and church bells at the same time. It’s bizarre. It’s a hotch-potch jumble rather like looking down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.
The city is divided into four areas and most of the time the four quarters live peacefully, side by side. On the first evening our tour guide said that if we got lost we’d know if we were in the Muslim quarter because of the lack of alcohol, the Christian quarter if there was both wine and beer, the Jewish quarter, all wine, and the Armenian quarter by the coffee or cognac.
Jerusalem is a multi-layered city of many different heights and depths. Remains dating to the Roman period have been discovered below street level, usually when somebody has a problem with their drains and so instead of fixing the pipes the archeologists are called.
Tourists flock to the Western Wall to watch Jews wailing. They were originally wailing for the fall of the temple in AD70 by the Romans. Today it is the holiest place for Jews to pray, a symbol of their faith because the wall remains intact. It is the closest place to the Temple Mount, which is now the site of the mosque. It is the place where Abraham prepared his son Isaac for sacrifice to God. Prayers are said to rise up to heaven, and Jews, when they touch the wall cry out to God. It’s an incredible scene to watch. Never before have I witnessed such devotion to God. Young boys, teenage girls, mothers, old men and women were crying and reaching towards the wall and up to heaven. Their faces were contorted in the most desperate pain I’ve ever seen in another human being. I was transfixed. What was running through their minds? The suffering of their race? The destruction of the Temple? Being close to God? Being a non-Jew it was impossible for me to tell. On week-days we saw whole classes of school children praying and studying the Torah. The teacher wasn’t standing over them coaxing them along like they would be in UK classes. They weren’t chatting to friends, they weren’t distracted by their phones, they were crying onto the pages, swaying back and forth. Were they being brainwashed or taught to live their live according to God’s way, taught to learn independently? I watched a young mother reading the Torah while her baby and toddler lay at her feet crying because they were bored. Every now and again she looked up and smiled at them and chatted to them, but it was clear that her Bible was her focus. And in time it would be the same for her children. There was a Torah on a chair, I put it on the ground to sit on the chair and a woman picked it up, kissed it and scowled at me. I was the outsider, the heathen in this God fuelled mania.
I have a general rule; never to visit somewhere twice. The world is a big place. There are too many places to visit and such little time, but I might make an exception for Jerusalem. Even to me, a non believer, it felt incredibly special.
Thank you for reading. There will be another Israel blog next week.