And the third country which drives on the right side of the road is Israel. Having missed it for long in China, I was on a lookout from the very beginning here. I don’t know if I was just tired and imagining, but from the bus Israel appeared to be mix of things I am familiar with, but no one thing. At one time I saw those dull coloured houses, all alike, like the houses provided by some government department. At other time I saw shiny buildings like in the electronics city in Bangalore. While walking up the hilly areas it reminded me of the drive in the lower regions of Himalayas. And some of the areas this bus took us through one morning reminded me of the markets in my hometown.
The breakfast at a place beside a port was cool. What is it with beaches though. Either terribly humid (like most beaches in India and here in Israel) or extremely chilly like in bay area. I wish there was something more moderate somewhere.
Whatever be the political complications, I’d not be surprised if Israelis started driving on the right side of the road, just because Americans did. Probably its an effort to separate their identity from the rest of their middle eastern neighbours, or probably its just the mighty thing US is in the present day world, Israelis work hard to portray that they are very much like Americans. But at the same time, given their turbulent history and the need for an Israeli identity, Hebrew as a language has a very good stronghold. Given the fact that Hebrew had become a dead language for a very large period of time in History, this situation seems extraordinary. And people use Hebrew in professional circles despite the fact the most of them are fairly comfortable with English. This is unlike Japan or China, where using local language is a compulsion because people do not know English.
The mind-blowing part of Israel was, however, Jerusalem tour (surprise! surprise! :D). While being an Indian, exposure to other religions is hardly an issue, what we always miss out on is the lack of history of religions other than Hinduism in India. If there is an ancient religious place I would think of, it’d invariably be a Hindu temple. The historical sights in Japan were also restricted to those of Buddhism, which with its roots in India, hardly gave me any new feelings. But Jerusalem opens the door to the things completely different. It tells the history of all major religions other than Hinduism! Jews, Christians and Islam – all can come here in search of their roots. Seeing the church made of old-world stone walls was what made me realize as to how I could never see anything historically related to these other religions in India. Churches, and to a lesser extent mosques, seem like a modern day phenomenon in India with brick and mortar structure. The religion and politics are so intermixed in the history of Jerusalem, that you could easily spend your whole life analyzing it.
Jerusalem is divided into four quarters. Jews’ quarters, Moslem quarters, Christian Quarters and Armenian Quarters. Although Armenians are also essentially Christians, they have their separate quarter for some historical reason. Western Walls and The Church of Holy Sepulchre are the two major sites we visited. Two temples were built in the history of Judaism on the Temple Mount. None exist now, having been destroyed by the attackers at different points of time. What exists is a mosque built by Moslems called Al-Aqsa mosque. When the temple was still around, it had different parts. The innermost part called the “Holy of holies” is considered the most holy spot for Jews and with years of foreign occupation etc. Western Wall is the closest one could get to the the “Holy of Holies”. Hence, its importance. As to the story of the construction of the wall itself, it was explained well using models by the tour guide in the tunnel besides the holy wall. The wall is essentially is a result of trying to build an artificial plateau on the top of the hill to have space for a huge temple. It is not a wall around the temple, rather a wall of the raised platform on which the temple was built. It appears as a wall from the valley besides the platform. Obviously there are four walls like that, but the importance of Western Wall comes from the reason stated above that this is closest to the “Holy of Holies”.
When Moslems came to live in Jerusalem and built the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they wanted to be able to see the mosque from their houses. So, they tried to raise their houses being built beside the wall so that the mosque could be in sight. To do this, they built arches over arches, until it got higher than the wall and they could see the mosque from their houses. The houses still exist, and the tunnel that one takes to walk near the Western Walls indeed pass from under those houses.
The guide also told us some other tidbits about the things in those tunnels. Arches built by the Moslems were clearly visible. And there were arches beneath us too, as visible from the transparent glasses they had put at some places on the floor. Although not constructed for this purpose originally, the tunnels were fitted with Aqua-ducts at times to carry water. There was also a place used as a water pool by the Romans. Also, the Western Wall apparently was constructed in a way so that the successive layers of stones were put few centimeters away from the valley. This was supposedly done to let the wall seem like leaning away from the valley, so that people walking on the street in the valley did not feel scared that this huge wall could fall on them.
There was also a market place surrounding the area, which was used to exchange money by the pilgrims who came there to buy the sacrifice and of course to buy the sacrifice too. I would guess other implements of worship would have been available as well. Much like the market outside temples in India! We also walked through a place where a street was being constructed in the market place, but then the construction was halted. Either because they ran out of money or because the kind Herod, who was constructing it, died.
Like almost all the ancient buildings across the world, even the Western Wall has its share of one heavy, huge thing, about which people wonder as to how was it ever fitted in there. This is a huge stone in this case. It apparently weighs as much as 150-200 Asian elephants.
When we came out of the tunnels beside the wall, we were in Moslem quarters. And for some reason, we were supposed to walk between two armed guards. Although the reason was not at all clear. All the Israelis around us refused to accept that we were in any kind of danger. Apparently, this is just a regulation. Not sure why this is so. Once they had escorted us out to the Western Wall Plaza, we were fine. It is this Plaza, where people go up to Western Wall to pray. There is a tradition of writing your wish on a paper and stick it in the wall there. Thousands of paper chits can be seen stuck in the wall all over. There are separate prayer areas for Men and Women.
The idea of armed guards in the Moslem quarters is not quite as simple as requiring protection in the Moslem quarters because we did pass through the Arab Markets later on. Not quite sure what was going on there.
The most interesting story came out in front of the Church of Holy Sepulchre. The ownership of church by different sects is quite a messy issue. Currently the different chapels and parts in the church are occupied by the different sects. But since they could not decide on which sect should hold the key to the church, the key is held by a Muslim family. Actually there are two of even those. One keeps the keys, the other opens the lock! There is also an interesting story of a ladder kept near one of the windows on the upper floor in the church visible from outside. This was taken there probably for some kind of renovation, when it was decided that nothing could be done to the church because of the feud between the different sects. So, the ladder lies there for almost a century and a half in the same position.
Wikipedia article gives more details on some of these stories. There are 14 stations of the Cross, which trace important places where thing happened to Christ starting from the trial to the burial. Apparently we crossed some of them when we walked out of the tunnel near Western Walls and were protected by armed guards. Last 5 are located in this church. these are the places where he was stripped of his possessions, where cross was put upon him, where he died, where he was prepared for burial and where he was finally buried. Since, I used the 45 minutes time we had on our own to go back to the church with the guide, I could see the tomb believed to be that of Christ by most sects, except for some Protestants. The guide also took us to one Chapel, in fairly decrepit state, that of Syrian orthodox sect, where through a really small entrance you could go in and find some tombs. These are believed to be of some other Biblical figures, whose names I do not remember because I do not know much of the Biblical stories.
Inside the church is a place where Helena, Constantine’s mother, is supposed to have found the real cross and hence built the first Church. The Church had been built and re-built over time by various sects of attackers, and the guide showed us a place where different kinds of pillars were there. Apparently old remnants were used in one of the renovations. Overall the experience was rightly summarized by one of my American colleagues, “These are almost as entertaining as your temples”. I nodded vigorously!
And while I was thinking about Jerusalem on our way back to Tel Aviv, I suddenly realized what a religious bombshell lies in that old city. If Ayodhya or Mathura are so sensitive with temple and mosques next to each other, just how sensitive Jerusalem would be, to which the claim of various religions is so well historically grounded. Now that it is under Israel, Jews only have to try to rebuild their temple… Thank God, they aren’t!