Geography of the Holy Land for $100, Alex

Today marked the first official day of our pilgrimage and it was all about geography. In order to better understand the stories in scripture and get a sense of the area, we spent the day getting to know our immediate neighborhood where we will be staying for most of the pilgrimage and we received a crash course in the geography of Jerusalem.

We woke up bright and early at 7:00am for our wonderful breakfast of various meats and cheeses, vegetable salads, and hard-boiled eggs. The food has been typical of a Mediterranean diet with dairy, fruits, and vegetables readily available along with some meat, usually chicken though beef and lamb are also available. We then moved into the cathedral for morning prayers; which is appropriately named Saint George’s Cathedral because it was established by the Anglicans in the Holy Land in the early 1900’s and Saint George is the patron saint of England. After our prayers we took our group photo and then we set out for the day.

With any trip to a new and foreign land, one should always get a sense of their surroundings; where they are, how to get where you are going, and to see how the land impacts daily life for the people, especially in the Holy Land. And so we left Saint George’s campus and walked around the neighborhood. Saint George’s campus is located in East Jerusalem, which for sake of time and simplicity, is the Palestinian Arab controlled section of Jerusalem. Most tourists don’t stay in East Jerusalem because there is a significant disparity in the quality of life and access to basic services than in West Jerusalem, which is controlled by Jewish authorities. Even though the Palestinians control East Jerusalem, the Israeli Police and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) are the enforcers of peace and civility, which means they can shut down roads in East Jerusalem without warning, along with many other ways in which the Jews make their presence known even in Palestinian controlled territories. This conflict between the Palestinians and the Jews is extremely complicated and I am not doing the conflict justice with my simple explanations, but one begins to sense that the Palestinians are truly voiceless and helpless to direct the future of their people in an occupied land. This is why I encourage everyone to come and visit to see first hand that is happening here and to make their own informed decisions around how best to respond to the ongoing conflict.

As I mentioned in my last post, Saint George’s beautiful campus lies behind high stone walls and is located only three blocks east of the Old City of Jerusalem. And so we walked around the neighborhood with our guide Iyad who helped us to see that the popular narrative around the conflict between Jews, Muslims, and Christians may not be entirely true. As we walked around the neighborhood on our way to the Damascus Gate, one of the two primary gates into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, we felt perfectly safe and at ease, which is not always what people will say when you tell them that we are staying at Saint George’s.  We saw the many shops and stands selling everything from fruits and nuts, to clothing and children’s toys. What we witnessed were Arab Palestinians trying to make a living in what is their ancestral home, but occupied and controlled by someone else. We sampled the food and I think the pilgrims realized that this was not what others had told them to expect when traveling to this area.

The sign for the Guest House, our home away from home.
The ever present Jerusalem Cross, with my lovely reflection in the background.
The Gothic tower of Saint George’s Cathedral.
One of the several cloistered walkways on campus.
One of the paths through the gardens.
Olive trees are everywhere.
A Bay Tree in the garden.
Iyad purchasing fresh fruit for us in the East Jerusalem neighborhood.
Herod’s Gate, one of the several gates into the Old City.
A closer look at Herod’s Gate.

After spending thirty minutes of exploring the neighborhoods, our Arab Muslim bus driver Omar, who works regularly with Iyad, an Arab Christian, picked us up and we headed to Mount Scopus, one of the four mountains that surround Jerusalem, to get a view of the city and surrounding landscape. As an aside, the close collaborative relationship between Omar and Iyad, a Muslim and a Christian, cuts against another popular narrative that says the reason Palestinians Christians have left the Holy Land because of persecution at the hands of Muslims, when in fact that is not true.

When we made it to the top of Mount Scopus we were met with a stunning view of Jerusalem and the surrounding landscape.

A view westward of the Old City, with the golden Dome of the Rock, as seen from atop Mount Scopus.
A look at the Mount of Olives from Mont Scopus.
Yours truly!
A view eastward towards the Judean Wilderness.
A shepherd with her sheep and goats on the side of Mount Scopus.
A panorama of the eastern view towards the Judean Wilderness.

After seeing out from both sides of the mountain, we headed deeper into the West Bank for lunch. We stopped in a the village of Beit Sahour, which is a few miles south of Jerusalem and southeast of Bethlehem. There we had the privilege of eating at the restaurant of a Palestinian family who still use a traditional technique of cooking where the food, in this case chicken and potatoes and carrots and onions, were put atop a metal grille and then inserted into an olive wood burning stone oven. Rosemary and other herbs were added to the coals underneath the food so that it absorbed the flavors of the herbs and the olive wood. Once the food is in the oven a heavy stone door is place in front of the oven and it is sealed with mud. This prevents oxygen from getting to the coals so that the food cooks at a low temperature which prevents charring and burning the food. Check out this video to see this traditional method of cooking in action.

After snacking on the usual plates of humus and salads, and a 45 minute wait, we were served the main course and it was delicious, and well worth the wait. Feeling sufficiently stuffed and energized, we board the coach once more and headed to a different mountain for a different view of the area; though this one is further away from Jerusalem than the four surrounding mountains.

We traveled to the Herodium which is located in the Judean Desert. Herod the Great built a palace fortress and a small town at Herodium, between 23 and 15 BCE, and is believed to have been buried there. Herod was not necessarily a popular king for many different reasons, which often forced him to leave Jerusalem and take refuge in other villages and cities. So instead of being a refugee with nowhere to go, he built several palaces around Israel; including the palace and port at Caesarea Maritima on the coast, Masada which is another mountain palace located by the Dead Sea, and Herodium. Herod wanted a place in which he could see Jerusalem, and when he couldn’t find a suitable location he instructed his slaves to double the size of the mountain upon which the palace was to be built.

Archaeologists believe that the palace was built by slaves, paid workers (contractors if you will), and architects. Herod was considered one of the greatest builders of his time as is evident when he nearly doubled the size of the Temple in Jerusalem, and was not daunted by geography; his palace was built on the edge of the desert and as I mentioned was situated atop an artificial hill, with a smaller village built at the foot of the hill to support the palace and house minor guests; important guests stayed in the palace with Herod. The largest of the four towers was built on a stone base 18 meters in diameter. This was most likely where Herod lived; he decorated his rooms with mosaic floors and elaborate frescoes. The other three towers, which consisted of living spaces and storage. Outside, several cisterns were built to collect water that was channeled into the palace. After hiking to the top of the hill from the visitor’s center we explored the ruins and cisterns, and heard the different stories about Herod the Great while he was at Herodium.

A scale model of Herodium at the time of Herod the Great, with the palace on top, the amphitheater, and Heord’s mausoleum.
The lower Herodium.
A look inside of that the palace would have looked like during Herod the Great’s reign.
A panoramic view from atop the Herodium.
A look down at the lower Herodium.
One of the several mikvahs that were used for ritual purification.
A look up from inside one of the great cisterns.
Pilgrims navigating the winding steps down into the cisterns and the tunnels that were dug by rebels.
The largest cistern in Herodium.
Another view inside the largest cistern. Notice the black line on the right wall; that was the water level.
The amphitheater at the Herodium.
Rolling stones used to roll down the hill at oncoming soldiers.

Tired, hot, and slightly sun burnt we boarded the bus to head back to Saint George’s for a short rest and dinner. I however did not go back with the pilgrims. I instead was dropped off at the Jaffa Gate, the main gate into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, so that I could make my way to visit Wassim Razzouk at his family’s tattoo shop in the Old City. Tomorrow I will share about my adventures at Razzouk, but i will tell you now it was awesome and well worth the effort of going to their shop. I just might be famous in Turkey. More tomorrow.

The Old City at night.

After dinner and an evening walk, we called it a night, ready to rest for what will lie ahead tomorrow.


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