JERUSALEM- Most Americans visit Jerusalem as members of tour groups, and that approach has its advantages: You don't have to make arrangements or plan out the details yourself, you ride on a bus so your legs are fresh, and you have a guide who knows where the must-see sites are and when they are open.
But an alternative exists: If you like to plan your own schedule, spend as much time as you want at a site that interests you, and get the lay of the land by walking it, you can explore Jerusalem on your own. You'll learn by up-and-down experience that the city is hilly, with Mount Zion and the Kidron Valley both as advertised.
I can guarantee, based on walking Jerusalem from the Knesset building in the west to the Mount of Olives in the east over parts of six days, that you will get lost, since streets curve and are often poorly marked. I suspect that sometime you'll move from areas where the signs are in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, to areas where the signs are in English and Arabic, to others where the signs are in Arabic alone. When you see graffiti that equate the Jewish star to the swastika, it might be time to turn back.
But I can also tell of the pleasures of wandering through the walled Old City, never knowing where the next turn will take you. Or the satisfaction of heading out a side exit from Hezekiah's water tunnel, walking east on stony paths and perhaps backyards to where you think the Garden of Gethsemane is, and hitting it perfectly. Or gaining a sense of recent history by stumbling across a plaque honoring Israelis who blew up a British officers club in 1947.
What follows is a circuit of my seven favorite Bible-related sites in old Jerusalem; I've ordered them by geography but also so you can get to the most-visited place early in the morning when crowds are sparse. Speed-walking would allow you to visit all these sites in one day, but more time is much better.
1) The spot most visited by Christian pilgrims is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which spreads over the traditional spot of both Christ's crucifixion and His temporary tomb. Although this is a must-see site, the church for my taste has far too much bling. And some parts-put your hand through a hole in the floor and touch the rock of Golgotha-seem too much like a medieval theme park.
I twice visited the holy sepulchre itself, the tomb that sits beneath an ornate structure under the basilica's dome. The first time was in the afternoon when 200 people stood in line for a two-second glimpse. But I had a different experience at a subsequent 8 a.m. visit, before the tour buses disgorged their passengers: I could kneel for an uninterrupted 15 minutes before the simple slab where Christ's body may have been placed. Not bad.
2) I say "may" have rested because a short walk away, through the Damascus Gate, is another candidate for Christ's burial spot, the Garden Tomb. You can see nearby the distinguishing geological feature, a cliff adjacent to the tomb that looks like a skull ("Golgotha" means skull in Aramaic). This tomb is not covered over by a church building, so you can get a good sense of physical surroundings and then enter the tomb itself, which is simple but elegant. No bling, and truth in advertising: Although it is adjacent to East Jerusalem's Central Bus Station, the Garden Tomb is garden-like.
3) A walk southeast through a Muslim area takes you to the Garden of Gethsemane on the lower slope of the Mount of Olives. The Church of All Nations is built over the spot where ancients believed Jesus prayed that the cup be taken from Him but that God's will be done-yet enough of the garden remains that you can see and get a sense of the olive trees that descend from those by which Jesus walked.
If you climb the Mount you'll pass by thousands of Jewish gravesites (and some Christian and Muslim ones as well). That's because the western slope overlooks the Kidron Valley, also known as the Valley of Jehoshaphat: Many Jews throughout the centuries thought that was the place where the dead would be resurrected, so they wanted to be buried close by. You should stop at the Dominus Flevit ("the Lord wept") Chapel, which is non-bling and offers a wonderful view of the old, walled city. The chapel is said to stand where Jesus beheld Jerusalem and wept over it.
Other historic churches are closer to the summit, which also boasts the Mount of Olives Bazaar and Last Paradise Dry Clean.
4) Walk through the Kidron Valley onto the rocky ridge once settled by the Jebusites and conquered by David 3,000 years ago. The "City of David" site has walls from 1300 b.c. that belonged to the Jebusite acropolis and fragments of what was probably David's palace. You can climb down a shaft that David's soldiers may have climbed up when they captured the city, and wade through thigh-high water in the tunnel that Hezekiah built to connect the city with the Pool of Siloam, which is still there. Note: Bring a flashlight and understand that the tunnel is not a safe theme park ride but a slippery walk through dark, cold water, and may require a guide.
5) Continue west from the "City of David" site to the St. Peter in Gallicantu Church, which commemorates the traditional site of Caiaphas' home and Peter's denial of Christ. The sound effects-a tape of a rooster crowing-are cheesy, but the underground dungeon caves beneath the church, rediscovered in 1889, make the visit worthwhile; Jesus may well have spent the night in them before being taken to Pontius Pilate. The walls have holes where iron rings for chains apparently were attached, and the only add-on is a stand with copies of Psalm 88 ("I am counted among those who go down to the pit") in 43 languages, including Chaldean, Maltese, and Tahitian.
6) A little further west, on Mount Zion, is the Hall of the Last Supper; you might search for it and miss it several times unless you know that it's on the second floor of a building that houses the Mt. Zion Diaspora Yeshiva. This is the traditional site of the upper room in which Jesus had His last Passover meal and instituted the Last Supper.
Crusaders constructed the current building and included Gothic arches, but it's a plain place that's perfect for contemplation if not crowded. On the first floor lies what is called the "Tomb of David," but archeologists who accept the historicity of other traditional sites scoff at this one.
7) If you walk through the Zion Gate into the walled city and head eastward, you'll approach the Western Wall, built by Herod in 20 b.c. as a retaining wall to support the Temple. When Roman troops razed the holy structure 90 years later, they left this Wall, which became a place of pilgrimage for Jews throughout the centuries. Now, men (who get three-fourths of the Wall space under the strict sex segregation now in force) and women come and stand before the huge blocks of stone all through the day.
Some who come stick in the cracks messages to God on little pieces of paper. Many place one or both hands on the Wall and lean their heads to touch it: The Wall is cool in the morning and warm from the rays of the late afternoon sun. In front of the Wall is a plaza in which some Orthodox Jews recite prayers and others read while walking in circles. Non-Jews are welcome, but all males must cover their heads; those who don't are chased by an enforcer who gestures toward a box that contains cardboard skullcaps.
Beyond these seven prime sites are some others worth taking in:
- Just south of the Western Wall you can climb a ramp that will take you through the Moor's Gate onto the Temple Mount. Unless you're a Muslim, you will not be allowed into the two mosques on the mount, including the famous Dome of the Rock that covers the spot where the Holy of Holies stood (and is also where, by tradition, Abraham almost slew Isaac), but you will come to understand that the Temple was a very large building.
- If you don't mind repeatedly getting lost, wander through the walled city's souq, the alleys filled with shops selling everything from T-shirts to fine sandalwood carvings. Shopkeepers will beckon you, sometimes insistently, but you can just say Lo ("no" in Hebrew) and gain good practice for being equally emphatic to "guides" at historical sites who will stick by you and demand payment unless you fend them off early.
- If you pay attention to the news, you'll have a sense of how risky it is for Americans to venture into Palestinian Authority territory. If you go, you'll see that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem doesn't have as much bling as some Jerusalem churches, but it's still a far cry from a stable. Nevertheless, the trip is worthwhile for the opportunity to talk with (and patronize the shops of) Christian Arabs who have it tough economically and psychologically, ground as they are between Israeli and Islamic millstones.
- The Mea Shearim neighborhood, northwest of the walled city, is a center for the ultra-Orthodox; Israelis call them haredim, from the Hebrew word for "fear" of God. The haredim follow East European style from two centuries ago, often wear bekeshes (frock coats), gartels (long belts wrapped around the frock, dividing the "good" upper part of the body from troubling lower parts), and shtreimels, ultra-wide fur hats. Most of the men have long beards, but those clean-shaven (and their sons) grow sidecurls that some wear loose but others braid. Women generally wear long dresses and head coverings, usually scarves but sometimes wigs, if married.
- The Israel Museum in West Jerusalem exhibits Dead Sea scrolls in a wonderfully designed building with a cave-like entrance and a clay-jar-like overall design. Dress is modern here: Some visitors wear low-rider pants (boxer shorts showing) and T-shirts proclaiming "Guns and Moses" or "Torah-Just Do It."
The one place I returned to repeatedly was the Western Wall plaza, in part because of the history and simple beauty of the Wall but also because after walking elsewhere I relished its excellent water fountains and white plastic chairs, perfect seats for resting and seeing some of the divisions of Israeli society.
The variety of clothing is one small sign. Some Wall visitors wear the black suits and broad-brimmed black hats favored by the Orthodox, with white shirts over special undershirts that have four fringes attached to them, in accordance with a Talmudic interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:12. Others are conventionally dressed-and soldiers pray at the Wall with machine guns slung over their shoulders.
The variety of conduct is more important. Some celebrate Bar Mitzvahs at the Wall: Video cameras record a 13-year-old holding a Torah scroll and reciting portions from the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. Then the men typically sing as one carries the Bar Mitzvah boy on his shoulders to the breast-high barrier that divides the men's and women's sections. As Americans throw rice at weddings, so the boy's mother and other women throw into the men's section little wrapped hard candies. Sometimes, some of the haredim at prayer offer up angry "ssshs" that become hisses.
Although a few Israelis seem cavalier at the Wall, others back away from it, not turning their backs on the stones until they leave the closed-in plaza. Many appear to be deep into contemplation, but others ask for spare shekels or talk on cell phones (even though a sign says no begging or phoning is allowed). Still others, poignantly, chant "Moshiach! Moshiach!"-calling in Hebrew for the Messiah to come.