I just came back from a trip to Israel. I was invited there to give a couple of lectures on Alice Guy Blaché at the International Women’s Film Festival of Rehovot. After the festival we were able to spend a few days in Jerusalem.
Anyplace like Jerusalem would have a huge impact on any writer, but I was especially interested because I’m working on a novel (working title: Road to Santiago) that, among other things, follows Raymond of Toulouse’s group of first Crusaders to the Holy Land. So I walked into the city more interested in the traces of the Crusaders that were still visible, but found much, much more.
Israel is a place full of dichotomies, and I don’t even mean the obvious one of Jewish Israelis versus Palestinians. The contrasts are built into every stone, every street, in the arrangement of lamps in the Holy Sepulcher.
We started in Tel Aviv, dubbed the White City, because it has a large collection of Bauhaus architecture and because the city planners have decided to take that and run and make everything white. We were able to sample many of the cities famed outdoor eateries thanks to the generosity of the festival organizers.
We would sit outside, under flowering trees, and were brought dish after dish of middle Eastern food, olives, hummus, eggplant with a salty cheese, grilled marinated peppers, flat breads, and light rosé or white wines, Lambrusco being the favorite brand. It was too hot to drink anything heavier. When the festival was over, we went to Jerusalem.
A video of our first day walking through Jerusalem is here.
It would take a whole book to describe Jerusalem. For example, there are at least two tourist information offices: one for the Jewish crowd and one for the Christian.
It was the same with the souvenir stores. Some Jewish, some Christian and some Arab/Muslim oriented, though those often also sold a few Christian things like guidebooks to the 12 Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa. For Catholics like us, even lapsed, cynical Catholics like us, walking up and down the Via Dolorosa, the REAL 12 stations of the cross, to rest our hand where Jesus (supposedly) rested it, to see the stone where the crucifix was, to walk around the Mount of Olives, it was really, really moving. Even while at the same time we became increasingly aware of the way Old City Jerusalem has been sort of sloppily restored, and filled with all these souvenir shops. It sometimes made me think of Disneyland. Even so, it was really moving. And as different from secular Tel Aviv as a city could be.
The feeling of extreme atomization by religion went further than dividing Jews from Muslims or either of them from Christians.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, (this link takes you to a video) a must-see for any Christian at least once in their lifetime, is cared for by five different Christian religious groups, among them the Armenian Christians (the oldest Christian presence in Jerusalem), the Copts, the Roman Catholics, and I couldn’t even keep track of the others. These five Christian groups are represented by the Jerusalem Cross, which is a large crucifix in a center with four smaller crucifixes centered around it. Although Christians are the minority in Jerusalem (so are the Jews, at least, that is the impression we got, maybe because it was Ramadan), they don’t seem to get along too well together, and their divisiveness is reflected in the way the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is divided into five sections, each group taking responsibility to care for one section. The division applies to everything, down even to the oil lamps and candles, but the effect is to make the Church feel like a house inhabited by a disparate group of college students rather than a unified family. It’s neat and tidy, but there is no single vision behind its maintenance and preservation.
Not much remains of the Crusader era architecture, I was interested in -- so many wars since then -- but I did get a kind of sense of it, it gave me more insight into what the Crusaders saw, how they thought, what their spaces felt like, even how some of the people in my story might have dressed, as a few things such as how veils are worn have not changed much. What little I could see did give me a better sense of who the Crusaders were and what they were up against. I could see how taking Jerusalem would have been very tough, from the Mt. of Olives side, and I felt transported back in time when I walked through Herod's Gate, the gate the Crusaders finally breached in 1099.
And then to see the graffitti they carved on the walls of the Holy Sepulcher Basilica -- crosses everywhere. And the two first Crusader Kings of Jerusalem are buried in one of the Holy Sepulcher’s chapel. I stood in front of one of their portraits, painted life size, and felt like I was being introduced to a celebrity, like someone I had only seen on TV was being introduced to me in real life.
Jerusalem is a sensual bath. In a later blog I will talk about the soundscape, but it is also a place of smells and textures, most famously in the long souks that stretch through the city’s tight, dark alleys, but also in the underground tunnels, in the occasional colorful burst of bougainvillea hanging from an otherwise inflexible wall of Jerusalem stone, in the skinny feral cats that were constantly underfoot.
The most lasting impression that Jerusalem gives is the way it personifies the faith of humans, that humans had once upon a time, that the higher power is one that can be conversed with one-on-one, and that humans can have an impact on events set in motion by God. The focal point for all of this energy is the Golden Gate.
On our last night in Jerusalem we climbed the Mt. of Olives and watched the sunset over the Old City. You have to look hard to find olive groves on the Mt. of Olives. What most impresses the senses first are the rows and rows of white graves, both Muslim and Jewish, which now cover almost the entire Mount. The graves are there because their owners wished to be as close to the Golden Gate as possible. This gate is famous to all the religions. Christians venerate it because at that gate the parents of the Virgin Mary first met and Jesus rode his donkey through on Palm Sunday. To both Muslims and Jews the gate is the portal through which the Messiah will come back to Jerusalem at the end of days.
The gate was sealed by Sultan Suleiman the first in 1541, to prevent the Messiah from entering and seizing his city from him, and remains sealed to this day, but the graves at its foot continue to increase, an army waiting to be re-awakened.