Gaza, Egypt, and Unrest

I have only been here three weeks, but it feels like months already. Or maybe a lifetime.

I was worried about living away from home for the first time, but fortunately I’ve been too buys to get terribly homesick. Between the heavy load of schoolwork I have here, the articles I write for work, and my sightseeing…um…obligations, I never have a spare moment. This semester seems pretty relaxing compared to last semester, however. Taking a full-time schedule of classes and working three jobs nearly killed me. : )

We weren’t allowed in the Old City yesterday. Since Tuesday there has been a lot of unrest because of the situation in Gaza. If you haven’t been following the situation there, here it is in a nutshell: Hamas launched airstrikes on Israeli settlements from Gaza, so the Israeli government shut off Gaza’s fuel and other resources. On Tuesday, Hamas operatives blew down the border wall between Gaza and Egypt, and now hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza are pouring into Egypt to buy fuel and food. More than seven miles of the wall has been torn down, and the refugees have been flooding the border ever since.

We are leaving for Egypt tomorrow morning for eight-day trip. We’ll be crossing the Israel-Egypt border sometime tomorrow afternoon. We’ll have an armed guard on each of our busses, and we’re all hoping that there won’t be any complications–keep your fingers crossed!

Jerusalem is a true melting pot of Muslims, Palestinian Christians, Russian Jews and Christians, and Jews from all nations. But once we cross the border into Egypt, we’ll be in a land that is almost entirely Muslim. It will be an eye-opening experience, I’m sure.

We wont’ have computer access in Egypt, so I won’t be posting for a while. I love you all! Until after Egypt!

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Zedekiah’s Cave



Today we explored Zedekiah’s Cave, which is under the Old City of Jerusalem. It started out as a natural cave with the entrance on the north side of the city. In Solomon’s time, and then again in Herod’s time, the limestone from the cave was quarried out for the construction of both the temples. Now it is no longer a small cave–it is a huge cavern that extends all the way under the city of Jerusalem, and one finger of it reaches almost to Jericho!

Jaffa: Mediterranean Paradise

Some other students and I planned a trip to Jaffa, just down the coast from Tel Aviv. We played frisbee on the beach and wandered the streets (and the flea market, my favorite) of Jaffa. Unlike Jerusalem, which is like no other place on earth, Jaffa could be any port city. It’s relaxed, fun, and quintessentially Mediterranean.

The unique thing about Jaffa, though, is that it’s the oldest port city in the world. According to tradition, it was founded by Noah’s son Japheth after the flood (the name Jaffa comes from Japheth). Israel’s largest archaeological site, Caesarea, is only a few kilometers from here, and in Old Jaffa we saw ruins of a wall built by the Egyptians three thousand years ago.

Me, Dave, Brittney, and Jade (that thing above Dave’s head is a frisbee, not a UFO)

Jaffa is much more relaxed than Jerusalem. It’s not an Orthodox religious center, just a beach town, where everyone is Jewish and all the restaurants make kosher fish.

Kristi and I loved Old Jaffa’s flea market!

This is Real

Currently, only Muslims can go inside the Dome of the Rock, and you have to get lucky to get up onto the Temple Mount at all. Fortunately, heaven smiled down on us and we were able to make the ascent.

The view from the Temple Mount is amazing. You can see almost all of Jerusalem.

A woman begging on the stairs to the Mosque. There are beggars everywhere in this city.

Corinthian columns built during Ottoman times (and BYU students).

On the Streets of Jerusalem

I love the tunnel-like streets here and the crowded shops and stalls along the way. I usually venture out with my friend Dave, my roommates Jade and Madison, and other random guys who join us. (We always have to be in groups of three or more and we always have to have a guy with us to be out after dark. Security is a big deal here–we have a lot of rules!)

The Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea

At the church of the Holy Sepulchre, we got a tour from an Augustine monk who showed us the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (not the tomb that Christ was laid in; the one that he acquired after, since the fist tomb was overrun by Christ’s disciples). You have to descend down to the lower levels of the church to get to it, since that all happened two thousand years ago, and people have been building things over the old city of Jerusalem for two millenia.

The tomb is a small cave with no lighting; you have to take a candle in with you. Of course, the candle light adds to the early-Christian effect. : )

The Via Dolorosa

Via Dolorosa means “Way of Pain” in Latin. The Via Dolorosa is the road on which Christ carried his cross through the city of Jerusalem. Along the way, Catholics and other Christians reverence the fourteen stations, or fourteen spots where incidents occurred along Christ’s journey. (For example, one station is where the Catholic Saint Veronica is said to have wiped Christ’s brow with her veil.)

We were walking near the third station, where Christ is said to have fallen while carrying his cross. There is a church, more than a thousand years old, that stands on the spot. We toured the chapel, and when we came out there was a group of Franciscans doing a re-enactment of Christ’s journey and carrying a cross. They carry it all along the Via Dolorosa, following the route that the Savior took. They stopped at every station and read from the accounts in the Gospels of Christ’s crucifixion, and they sang hymns in Latin. We followed them on their journey.

Shabbat

As the sun begins to set over Jerusalem on Friday afternoon, a feeling of impatience falls over the city and an air of hushed excitement falls over our group. We are going to the Western Wall to see the Jews welcome in Shabbat.

We enter the Old City through Lion’s Gate. The streets are barely wider than a car, so we press against the wall as cars come through. All the Palestinians are going home for the day, some to homes within the Old City and some to homes outside. The vendor of every shop that we pass is anxiously packing up his merchandise. Everyone is trying to close before the Sabbath at sundown. All the Orthodox Jews pass us quickly on their way to the Wall; some are almost running. No one wants to be late.

Contrary to popular belief, the Wall is not actually a remnant of the temple. It is a remnant of the retaining wall built to support the large temple mount where the Herodian temple sat. We arrive, and Wall is already packed with people.

The area near the wall is fenced off into two separate sections: men and women. As we enter into the women’s side, everyone is greeting friends and family. We crowd in, and some women are singing and dancing, while others are holding their Hebrew prayer books and rocking back and forth as they pray. One singing group welcomes us in. We don’t know the words, but we clap along and then later we join hands and dance with them (we don’t know what we’re doing, but we try our best to fake it). The whole time, we are careful, like the Jewish women, not to turn our backs toward the sacred Wall.

I go to touch the wall itself; it takes about ten minutes of waiting because the crowd is so dense. Hundreds of Jewish women press their faces against it as they pray. Finally it’s my turn; I touch the cold stone and think of all the prayers that have been uttered there. I say a quick prayer of gratitude to be in the Holy Land, then leave the women’s section to go watch the men (walking backward the whole time, of course!).

The men are having a very different experience. Their side of the wall is bigger, but much more crowded–there is hardly standing room for everyone. And their celebration is much livelier. The men sing loud songs in Hebrew to welcome in the Sabbath. Then they form circles and begin dancing. And things get even rowdier from there.

In the circles, three men link arms and spin around the circle as fast as they can (one frail-looking old man looks as if he’s about fly away!). Other men wave their arms and shake them–I am absolutely serious–like Tevye in “If I Were a Rich Man.” The rest of the men in the circle jump up and down, clap their hands, and sing louder than ever. The rule about not turning your back to the Wall definitely does not apply on the men’s side!

As the other girls and I watch from behind the fence, the Jewish men welcome in our guys completely. The old men and the young men, the most Orthodox and our American boys, dance and sing together. This is not a show put on for tourists; they are sincere in their fervor. They are expresssing complete joy in welcoming Shabbat. As I watch them, I feel an overwhelming sense of brotherhood (and a twinge of jealousy).

Maybe on other days of the week, the Western Wall is a wailing wall, as it is commonly nicknamed. But on Friday night, it is a place of excitement and celebration. The Jews are welcoming in the Lord’s day with complete joy and reverence–not quiet reverence, but worshipful reverence nonetheless.