Jerusalem's Old Town, One of the Most Interesting Places I've Been

A religious nexus for numerous people all over the world, the city has a certain energy as a result.  So many devout people all converging in one location, so much emotion in the air, you can feel it and get swept up within it – Jerusalem Syndrome, I mean how many cities are said to cause a mental condition in those that visit? It’s remarkable and fascinating, even for someone like me who is not particularly religious, or maybe it’s because of that…. I’m also naturally curious about people who think, believe, and behave differently than I do. As a result, I enjoyed and experienced the various religious sites equally.

While in the Middle East I also thought a lot about gender roles and it made me curious to know more about the women I saw there, in their various forms of dress. It was striking to see Jewish women praying so fervently in a cramped passageway during our touristy Western Wall Tunnel tour, one woman with an infant strapped to her chest and her prayer book pressed to her face. 

Our visit was, unintentionally, timed perfectly with President Trump’s visit and the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem Day. In a city where emotions always are running high, celebrations and protests took it up a notch. It’s a serious city, and depending on who you ask, an occupied territory. Soldiers are everywhere, armed and ready. It took a bit to get used to, flipping through my Lonely Planet while sidestepping packs of 20-somethings with machine guns. We visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Noble Sanctuary compound on Jerusalem Day. Waiting in line near the Western Wall to get into the Muslim site was an extremely tense experience. Many Israeli youth were also attempting to enter with their flags, aggressively pushing and cutting the lines. There was a heavy police presence, complete with riot gear. But once we walked past all of them and were allowed inside, I was stuck by the tranquility that existed within, birds chirping, leaves rustling... This was just two months before the shooting that caused Israel to shut down access to the mosque, resulting in large protests.

A quite moment inside the Chapel of Saint Helena at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built upon the site identified as the location of the crucifixion of Jesus. 

The city houses some of the holiest, if not the holiest, sites for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. When I think of religion and faith some opposing things come to mind: self-righteousness, oppression, war… but also acceptance, community, and love. A place of worship - whether a church, mosque, or temple – all lend a similar feeling of peace, serenity, and safety. You can find those places within Jerusalem, little sanctuaries where you can feel calm and comforted. Yet the city, as a whole, feels completely the opposite. It resulted in a sensation I hadn’t quite experienced yet in my worldly travels, an underlying feeling of unease, always a little on edge and anxious. For me, this emotional juxtaposition was intriguing and alluring. All of this and more, made Jerusalem one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited. 

In front of the Dome of the Rock at the Noble Sanctuary compound in Jerusalem. 

In front of the Dome of the Rock at the Noble Sanctuary compound in Jerusalem. 

A Day in Palestine


Admittedly, I was really nervous about this part of the trip. I imagined long lines at the check point, being separated from my partner and roughly interrogated by the Israeli military – especially with Trump arriving in Jerusalem that same day. But real life is almost never like the movies. 

For a couple of shekels, we boarded a bus and were on our way to the check point. Everyone else on the bus appeared to be a local. We were dropped off near a fence that felt like the middle of nowhere and followed everyone up some steps and along a ramp. Signs in Hebrew and Arabic were posted on the chain link fence beside us, announcing what seemed be border closing times due to Trump’s visit the next day. We passed through what amounted to a subway turnstile, down another ramp, and out into Bethlehem. There were no lines, no scary border patrols… no one to even look at us, let alone ask us any questions.

Of course, we immediately met a tight knot of semi aggressive taxi drivers at the exit. One of them, a clean-shaven guy in his mid 30s wearing a red t-shirt, spoke English and reminded us that the city was shut down due the statewide hunger strike. We nodded along as if we knew all about it, but much to our burning embarrassment, we did not. He assured us the tourist sites were still open but all else was closed. He arranged for us to ride with one of his colleagues, a much younger guy who didn’t speak our language. For one fee, he would be our driver for the day, easy-peasy – we thought. 

Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity – poorly timed with some tour bus groups. Stooping to enter through the Door of Humility, about 4 feet high and 2 feet wide, we arrived in the main part of the church. There appeared to be some restorations underway, we looked around and then joined the masses waiting to enter another room that lead down to the lower level - to what’s believed by many to be the birthplace of Jesus. It was very crowded and the entrance small with steep stairs. People within were singing hymns, many were crying, the air felt thick with so much emotion. The alter and supposed birth spot of Jesus didn’t look like much to me, but it was the energy in the room that felt special. 

Across the street in Manger Square a large display and tents were set up for those on strike. The goal was to get the attention of international news organizations and of course, Trump, who was planning to visit the Church the following day. Trump ended up canceling his visit to the church and, though I don’t think it was ever confirmed, it’s believed to have been canceled to avoid those demonstrating in the square. We eventually learned that everyone was striking in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners who were on day 36 of their hunger strike. The prisoners in Israeli jails were protesting the conditions and calling for better healthcare, more family visits, landline telephones, an end to solitary confinement, and the Israeli practice of detention without trial. 

We took a short walk around Bethlehem, it felt eerie with all the shops closed and the streets mostly empty. After a minor, but frustrating, dispute with another English-speaking man who spoke on behalf of our taxi driver on whether it would be open and the cost of getting there, we were on our way to Herodium and Shepherd’s Field. Though interesting, neither were highlights for me. I did enjoy the view from Herodium, a fortress and palace combo, built sometime between 23 and 15 BCE on the top of a hill in the desert. It was also great to be there during the call to prayer, the different calls echoing across the desert from the various neighborhoods below. 

While driving around we got a stronger sense of how desolate the area felt, with most everyone staying in doors for the strike. We also began to notice a lot of heavily armed Israeli security forces, and street closures in preparation for a visit from the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. There were some young Palestinian guys driving around in a red car with two giant Palestinian flags sticking out of the windows on either side. It seemed like they were trying to annoy the officers, but we weren’t sure. I wish I could have gotten a photo of it.

The last stop was a section of the separation wall. It’s hard to find the right words to describe it. It was a solemn experience and it felt important for us to see it up close and read the messages written on it - some of them referencing Trump’s Mexico wall. A bunch of Palestinian guys were there hanging out including one running a little shop selling Banksy souvenirs and spray paint - in case we wished to leave our own mark on the wall. We bought a few post cards in support of their operation. 

Unfortunately, we got into yet another argument with the taxi drivers, this time the redshirted fellow reappeared to argue with us. There was a misunderstanding over the price of things and eventually we ended up paying nearly three times the original agreed upon sum. At the end of it all he laughed and told us he liked us more than Trump, which we think was meant as a good-natured compliment, but it stung us a bit like an insult – he’s not a man we want to be associated with… We slowly walked along the wall, our taxi following close behind, until we settled up.

As the end of our walk, we arrived at Banksy’s The Walled Off Hotel. A trip highlight for sure. It felt surreal and out of place and but also a perfect artistic response to the political situation there. And let’s be honest, I love Banksy and it was my first time seeing anything he’s done in person. Greeted by a monkey bellhop spilling clothing all over the sidewalk, we entered through red velvet curtains into an opulent lounge with Banksy artwork on the walls and a piano that played itself. It felt a bit like walking onto the set of a Wes Anderson film with the piano from Westworld as the centerpiece. Fanciful and humorous. The wide windows and balcony facing an intentionally oppressive view of the separation wall just a few yards away, allowing the visitor to sit on a plush seat sipping a mocktail and contemplating all messed up things humans do to one another. All the guest rooms in the hotel have the same view from the same artfully ironic vantage point. 

Behind the lounge is an excellent museum devoted to documenting and explaining the political situation to visitors, helping everyone to understand how we all ended up in this mess. On the floor above is a gallery space for local artists to display and sell their work. The woman working there was so friendly and excited to hear we were from the US. She was full of hope for Trump’s visit thinking he’d be the one to finally bring peace to her homeland. We just smiled and nodded, not wanting to take that away from her. As MLK once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”