Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Chosen Land and the Holy People

Originally uploaded by scarlettholly.
It´s funny to think that I am one of the most sacriligeous, heathen people I know, and yet, I have been to perhaps the most religious country in the world, the centre of the three great monotheistic religions. And despite the lack of theological guidance in my life, it was an amazing experience.

I was in Israel to visit my boyfriend, Ori, a native to the Holy Land. He was able to show me around and give me the insider´s viewpoint, although the occasional refrain of "a map might have been useful" was sometimes heard. He couldn´t help getting us occasionally lost; he actually hasn´t lived in the country for about 5 years. Still, he proved to be an exceptional host, and managed to take me almost the entire lenght and breadth of the country. The only major place that we missed was Eilat, and we can do that next time. By the way, Israel is pretty small, so the length and breadth took us only 2 days.

Ori lives just outside of Jerusalem, so it made sense to start there. Jerusalem is the seat of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and also home to some of the biggest religious conflicts in Israel. Notably, all peace plans for the Middle East leave a sort of blank space where discussion over the future of Jerusalem should be, for fear of not bringing parties to the table. Nobody really knows that the future of the city will be.

Anyways, aside from politics, it is an amazing city. Ori first took me to the Old City, where the streets and archways are around 3,00o years old. It is here where the Western Wall is, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, and where men and women (separately) come to pray. Many write their prayers on small pieces of paper and stuff them in the cracks. The stones that were used to build the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) are up to 2m thick, and no one knows how the stones were put in place. They were built before the Pyramids. I have to admit to not going up to the Wailing Wall myself, mainly because I am a non-believer. With so many people coming to make religious pilgrimages, I would have felt bad to just wander up and check it out myself. I think that harks back to the same reason why I cannot take pictures of monks. Maybe because of my lack of relgion I have a fairly large respect for those who are.

The streets of the Old City are compact, narrow, and filled with people. They weave in all directions, and I never knew where I was going. This was a good time to have a guide, but even if I hadn´t, it wouldn´t have been too hard to have latched onto one of the many tour groups being shown around the city. These comprised mainly of Eastern Europeans, who had, without a doubt, the worst fashion sense I have ever seen. There was one woman in jeans that were pvc from the knee down. Another woman had a fitted flower printed pvc shirt. And it was hot out. I can only imagine how much she was sweating. It was truly grim.

Through the windy streets we went, and ended up in a very important church - that where Jesus was buried. I have to admit to not being to hot on the whole ascension thing, but I saw an amazing building, said to be his tomb, that was decorated with a glorious mismatch of candles, and some very, very holy dudes who were allowed inside to pray. I also saw a broken piece of rock - I have a feeling it broke when Jesus lay on it, but I´m not too sure. Anyways, I think this church was the last stop on the Via Dolorosa - the walk of tears, on which Jesus carried his cross. Anyways, the church itself was extremely beautiful, and not in an over the top, grandiose, European Catholic way. It was large, certainly, and had amazing high ceilings and art-work, but it was lacking in the masses of gold that is so often used in Europe. To get to this church, we walked through some of the oldest Christian churches in the world, which were being tended by what seemed to be Ethiopian monks. These were tiny rooms, small, dark, low-ceilinged and almost stark. All incredibly fascinating.

After exploring the Old City, it was time for modernity. A couple of days later, we went to Yad Vashem - the Holocaust Museum. I have been to Holocaust museums all over Europe, and the famous one in DC, but to go to one in Israel is particularly special. Of course, there was little new to tell, but that didn´t make the memorial any less special. In fact, it was the "extras", that which was outside of the museum, which was particularly special. Ori told me how he would take his soldiers there, since education in the IDF was particularly important, and seeing all the soldiers there was interesting. The most special, or touching part of the whole area, was Children´s Memorial, an amazing trick of light and dark and mirrors, where 6 candles are endlessly reflected against mirrors in the dark to represent the 6 million who died. It was amazing. More amazing to think that the modern state of Israel, and many of the people who live there today, had lost so many to the Holocaust itself. A very intense place.


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