Apr 15, 2015

April 14: Jerusalem with Jeremy

The wonderful coffee grinder / espresso dispenser at the hostel has been gone for repairs since Sunday, so Tuesday began without my customary hit of caffeine. I was feeling a little sluggish, so rather than explore on my own, I decided to take advantage of the free Old City walking tour in the morning. Several others from the hostel ‎decided to do the same, so we met in the lobby and walked to the Jaffa Gate together. Once there, we were sorted into groups and the two hour tour commenced.

I hadn't done as much background reading for Jerusalem as I normally do when I visit a place. In part that's because on a trip of this length and duration, it's impossible to adequately prepare for each location visited, but there's also a misguided sense of familiarity with Jerusalem from my reading of the Scriptures. I  say "misguided" because the Jerusalem we read about in the Bible has been conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt several times in the past 3000 years.

At the very start of the tour, our guide (Jeremy) used the Tower of David to illustrate this very point. ‎ The tower is a significant fortification located next to the Jaffa Gate. (The gate and current walls of the Old City are "only" 500 years old, having been (re)built by the Ottomans.) When the Crusaders entered the city in 1099, they slaughtered everyone they met indiscriminately - with the exception of the Armenians, for reasons unknown. Seeing this tower, and knowing from the Bible that King David had fortified the city when he took it from the Canaanites, they naturally assumed this was his work. Except, of course, it wasn't. The "Tower of David" was built during the reign of King Herod, with subsequent improvements and additions over the millenia. Still, the name the Crusaders gave it has stuck. Why not change the name, now that we know better? Jeremy's answer was quite simple. Tradition. 

The stories we tell are meaningful, even if they are not factually true. They are what make a section of exposed bedrock in a church an object of veneration instead of a mere geological formation. Facts and dates are not unimportant, but it's the stories around them that make them significant to the non-historian. Ideally, a good story will correspond to the historical facts, but sometimes it's just not possible to verify it. Case in point: on the night he was betrayed, Christ and his disciples ate a meal together in a large upper room of a house. In the Old City, there are two sites which claim to be that upper room. They can't both be right, and it's possible that neither of them are. The Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate has a church with an inscription dating back 1500 years which states that this was the place. It was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD, and rebuilt three years later. That's all well and good, but the inscription was made almost 500 years after the fact. Similarly, there are four sites on the Mount of Olives which have been identified by various churches as the site of Christ's ascension into heaven. They are all located at the top of the hill, but it's entirely possible the ascension took place somewhere on the slope partway down.

Anyway, the two hour Old City tour was well worth the time, and I was impressed enough with our guide that I decided to stick around and take the much longer Mount of Olives tour he was leading at 2:00 pm. This was not a free tour, but his knowledge, wit, and general demeanour convinced me that it would be 90 shekels well spent. If ever you find yourself in Jerusalem in need of a guide, I highly recommend Jeremy Collins. If you have a group coming, you can contact him and arrange for a personalised tour. 

It was 7:00 in the evening by the time I reached the hostel again. After a light dinner, I went to my room and started to read but I was out by 8:00. I'd provide a list of highlights from the tours, but it's now shortly past 9:00 Wednesday morning, and I'm eager to get moving. Today I plan to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, and also the Israel Museum. Tomorrow I'll be returning to the Old City one last time, and then Friday morning I plan to walk to Bethlehem.

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