Last night marked the start of the Jewish New Year at sundown. I went to the Kotel (aka the Wailing Wall or Western Wall) to watch the festivities. I didn’t know how crowded the Kotel Plaza would get, or how early it would fill up, so I decided to stake out a place on the Western Wall Road, which is more like a steep pathway (lots of steps!) that hangs in the air like a balcony overlooking the Kotel plaza. The road gives access to a few houses, a “soup kitchen” and (I think) a yeshiva (Jewish school). There was a Torah lesson (in English, but obviously limited to males) happening at the very top of the road where the view of the Kotel was best, so I sat on a step about halfway down… in front of a plain blue door.
I got there a couple of hours early, so I got out my Kindle (electronic book) and settled in for a good read. While I was there, several people knocked on the blue door and were let in. I tried very hard to NOT peek inside, as it didn’t seem polite to do so. Later a little old man came out to sweep the street in front of his house and struck up a conversation with me and another tourist I was talking with by that time. It turns out the man is a Muslim whose family has owned the house for the past 800 years! He apologized for not inviting us in for a drink, but his family was celebrating Ramadan (no food or drink before sundown). He tried VERY hard not to bad-mouth anyone, but did have some complaints about Jews… including that they all were trying to rewrite history. As far as he was concerned, there NEVER was a Jewish Temple on top of the Mount Moriah (Temple Mount)… the whole thing is a lie created by the Jews.
It occurred to me that this is a fairly wide rift between the two traditions… I don’t know how you make peace with two groups that are so diametrically opposed in their view of history! I know that there isn’t any archeological evidence for the FIRST Jewish temple (Solomon’s Temple) but I’m pretty sure that most archeologists feel confident in the certainty of the SECOND Jewish Temple (Herod’s Temple). I wish I could have asked who built the walls and courtyard of the complex that the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque sits on… and why the Romans would have bothered to destroy the Temple Mount if it wasn’t, in fact, the seat of the Jewish faith? It didn’t seem like a good time to open up the subject while the plaza was filling up with Jews coming to celebrate one of the holiest days on their calendars! I haven’t taken a Temple Mount tour yet as it is closed to non-Muslims during Ramadan… maybe I can find out the answers to these questions (from the Muslim tradition) then.
So, anyway… I eventually ended up at the top of the balcony-road with another tourist while night fell and the plaza came to life with men in traditional religious garb of all sorts. They were singing and jumping up and down and in general having a really good time. I was surprised that the plaza never completely filled to capacity (I thought it would be sardine-standing room only), and I only heard the traditional ram’s horn sound in the afternoon, well before what I thought was sundown. I also had expected to be joined by more “observers” on the balcony, but there was really only me, a younger man from the Seattle and an Australian there as “tourists”.
Of course we WERE joined by about 20 other people at one point… mostly Jews… and I wondered why they were more interested in a locked door than in the festivities on the plaza. It turned out they were there for the soup kitchen. I must say, they were one of the cleanest batches of homeless and destitute that I had ever seen! One man seemed to have a sure case of “Jerusalem Syndrome”. This is a REAL psychological condition where people in Jerusalem are overwhelmed by the “Holiness” of the place and come to believe that THEY are the next prophet or messiah. This guy was sure that he was in direct, regular conversation with Yahweh (don’t call Him “GOD”, that was a filthy German word that was the same as calling Him “Satan”!) He was sure he knew when the end of days was coming. He was an intelligent man… and not entirely “crazy”. It was also interesting that AFTER the people were let in to the soup kitchen, about an equal number of feral cats showed up on the balcony and were also fixated on the soup kitchen door. They must get fed after the people were done eating!
It was all very interesting!
Someone asked me to explain more about the Kotel and the Kotel tunnel archeological digs. After the Jewish rebellion against the Romans and destruction of Herod’s Temple in the early first century AD, Jews were expelled from the city and forbidden to reenter for generations. When they were finally allowed to return to Jerusalem (don’t ask me what year) the Temple Mount was already occupied by Muslim holy places and most of the valley that had been along the Western side of the temple mount retaining walls had been filled in and occupied by Muslim houses. What is now the Kotel was the closest place that Jews were allowed to get to the “Holy-of-Holies”, the place that they believe to be the dwelling place of God (which most people believe is on the rock that is under the Muslim “Dome of the Rock”). So this became the place that Jews came to weep in joy at being able to return to Jerusalem, and to weep in sadness that their temple had been destroyed.
After Israel claimed independence in 1967, they set their archeologists to dig along the outside of the entire length of the Western Wall, down to bedrock. It was a long and difficult dig, as they needed to tunnel under centuries of layers and the current houses and shops of many (mostly Muslim) residents. Our tour guide claimed that the residents above the dig are all happy to have it happen because as the archeologists dug they shored up foundations and updated utilities. However, generally Muslims were aghast at having Israelis dig so close to their holy spots… how could they be sure that the archeologists weren’t undermining their territory? There were riots in which a couple of people lost their lives in relation to the dig.
Politics aside, the archeologists learned a lot about the construction of the Temple Mount and uncovered many clues to the historical timeline since. On the tour you are shown nicely preserved Herodian walls all the way down to bedrock and walk along a first century street. A really well done model and demonstration explained the original Jerusalem topography and how it was altered by subsequent generations. It allowed me to really wrap my head around the lay of the land… which has changed SO MUCH since it was first settled!
The other day I took a two hour tour of the Tower of David citadel and museum. In two hours, we barely touched on things and had to skip a couple of rooms. I will need to go back and do that slowly on my own one of these days!
Life’s a trip!