After breakfasting in our new place and then meeting with Janet to be briefed on the more volatile environment we find ourselves in the West Bank, we climbed aboard our bus only to be waved through our first checkpoint (several blocks from the hotel) on our way to Jerusalem…for now we are back in Israel. Rami briefed us on Jerusalem, considered the most beautiful city in the world. The story goes that God created the world based on 10 measures and Jerusalem received 9 of them. But God also bestowed 10 sorrows, and Jerusalem received 9 of those as well. Jerusalem has never experienced peace! It has changed hands through the centuries—it has been destroyed 18 times, has a tunnel to the Mount of Olives, is considered the Holiest City on Earth, so many different nations and cultures have influenced from it. It has had 17 names, including ‘Navel of the world’, ironically ‘City of Peace’, ‘City of Kings’, War and Lights. It is thought that the peace is so elusive because after all of the populations living here, anyone can find God here…and considers this the most important place to find their God.
Our tour in the morning included Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, and Gethsemane. Traffic was very congested with all the big tour buses going both directions on such narrow streets, with tourists crossing in front of the buses, trying to stay with their tour groups. We walked a great deal up and down on rough stone paths, trying to stay out of the way of vehicles, starting up at the top of the Mount of Olives with the stunning, glittering vista of the entire city, the Kidron Valley between us and walled the Old City…the walls build by Solomon the Great, and the sprawling suburbs in all directions. Some settlements were in view in East Jerusalem, and clearly against the international laws.
We were directly across the valley from the Al Aqsa Mosque, the 3rd most important site for Muslims in the world, and could hear the call to prayer and then the Friday Prayers on the loudspeaker. These Friday Prayer gatherings have been pivotal in the Arab Spring demonstrations throughout the Middle East this season. We could see well enough to know there were people on the Temple Mount outside the Mosque.
Threading our bus through the crowded streets from one side of the Kidron Valley to the other, we slowly made our way a very short distance to the Dung Gate, one of the 7 gates of the Old City. On foot now, following Rami, our bags were searched as we entered the Jewish Quarter and prayed at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (the Wailing Wall, for the Jews, crying for their lost Temple). Many of us placed our own prayers on tiny papers into the crevices of the wall…and as is the custom, walked backward away from the wall so as to not turn our backs on those stones, which is the closest one can get to the Holy Presence of God. (These old stones hold God’s Presence for many worshippers.) Herod wanted to win favor with the occupied Jewish population, and rebuilt their first lost temple. He doubled the size of the temple, so this enormous supporting structure was needed, and the Herodian stones are evident in the base of this wall…now holding some of our prayers.
As we were finishing our time in the plaza, across the Tirobian Valley (valley through Jerusalem, evident in the slopes of the large plaza) from the wall, observing the praying men, separated from the praying women, we noted the emergence of hundreds of Israeli police, and then noticed the 16 police vans (holding 6 police each) that were parked close to the checkpoint we had entered. The police came down from two sides of the wall area; one of those exits is the recently constructed entrances that can only be used by non-Muslims for a short time on a few mornings of the week…this troop exit did not fall into that time frame! Were they up there for Friday Prayers? We wanted to photograph their shocking presence to the site, but refrained for fear of detention!
After a buffet lunch at the Alhambra Palace in Jerusalem, it was off again to nearby Bethany, east of Jerusalem…with steep vistas of valleys and rocky hillsides…another checkpoint, but we didn’t have to stop since we were leaving Jerusalem and not entering!
Our first stop was the Four Homes of Mercy, greeted by the director, Dr. Arafat. This care facility is for severe physical and mental disability patients, currently caring for 77 Palestinian people, ages 4 to 85 years old. This is a UMC Advance Project, supported by the Global Ministries of the UMC. This facility was established in 1940 by a Palestinian woman, Katharine Siksek, and eventually was moved to this site on land donated by the king of Jordan. We toured the hospital, meeting nursing staff and patients…men, women and children, none of whom are able to walk.
Currently only four of the patients pay to be there; the rest of the funding must be found from other persons or philanthropic groups since they have no government support. In fact, the staff has often gone 2-3 months without salary. The facility has 67 employees, and several volunteers and students, costing them $55,000 to $60,000 per month. Even though this is a Christian organization, they have only one patient who is Christian. Our VIM team felt privileged to be in contact with these people, and to see first-hand the work of this courageous team of medical caregivers.
A short bus ride later, still in Bethany, we walked up to the Church of the Tomb of Lazarus, and then up the steep neighborhood hill again and down the 15 rock-hewn steps to the Lazarus Tomb. We had to wait for other groups to exit the Tomb as the passage way down into it is narrow, and requires one to bend way down as one descends to walk down to get into the small place where Lazarus’s body was found and brought back to life by Jesus after having been embalmed for four days! The church is decorated with
beautiful mosaics funded by many countries depicting scenes of Jesus’ birth, life and ministry.
The end of our excursions for the day, but for our bus ride, the ‘back way’, staying in the West Bank, avoiding Jerusalem, back to Bethlehem. A longer route (as a result of the wall), but offering vistas of the steep and rugged landscape of this part of the country. Monasteries perched on hillsides above deep valleys…one valley with a rivulet running through…a rare site. An occasional Bedouin enclave with the sheep, goats and donkeys on those hillsides…beautiful end of our day.
Tomorrow we explore more deeply the Old City!