We managed to leave our hotel in Bethlehem, the St. Gabriel, after devotions, in time to drive to Jerusalem to get to the Dung Gate by about 9:30. We were “pulled over” at the entrance to Jerusalem/Israel, after passing through the wall. A couple security officers walked down the aisle of the bus, one of them with an automatic weapon in his hands, to check our passports. They verbally harassed our Palestinian guide and driver, but we were permitted to enter. What other choice would they have had?
We entered the Dung Gate, which is the gate to the Old City nearest the Western Wall, and were delighted to see that there was no line at the checkpoint at the entrance to the ramp up to the Dome on the Rock. Often it is an hour-long wait. It’s been like that everywhere on this trip. Predestination, I suppose.
We walked across the vast square that spreads out between Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome on the Rock. Actually, we were also walking across where Jews believe the First and Second Temples stood. For both religious traditions, this is holy ground. For Muslims it is the third holiest of their pilgrimage sites, after Mecca and Medina. Each Friday tens of thousands of Muslims gather in the open air on the plaza for noon prayers. Jews are allowed to enter only with armed escort, and they do not come up to the highest level, near the Islamic buildings. We saw a small group of Jews walking cautiously around the edges of the plaza, with an armed contingent.
Only Muslims can enter the Dome on the Rock, which is the stunning gold-topped building constructed over the rock where it is believed the Prophet Muhammad flew up to heaven to say his prayers and then returned. Jews, by the way, believe it is the site where Abraham almost sacrificed his only son Isaac. Competing claims.
At one point Meghan spotted an older Muslim woman struggling to get up the stairs to the plaza, carrying a bag. She was bent over so much that her face was nearly at her knees. Meghan went over and motioned that she would help her. She carried the bag and helped the woman navigate the stairs and then walk across the plaza. Quite a moving sight…Meghan, obviously a foreign Christian woman, in her walking boot (foot problem), helping a local Muslim woman make her way home (she didn’t enter the Dome on the Rock; she seemed to be cutting through the plaza, having done some shopping, going from one gate to another). Meghan said that as she gave the woman back her bag and indicated she was leaving her, the woman hugged and kissed her in gratitude. A parable was enacted that day at the Dome on the Rock.
From the Holy Muslim site we walked down to the Western Wall, the holiest of places in Judaism because the exposed stones in the wall date from the time of the Temple. We joined the throng of Jews praying at the wall to insert our own prayers into the tiny cracks – the men in one section and the women in the other. Small groups of boys were dancing and singing, led by young adult men. The boys were clearly learning the traditions of their religion – and I thought of the biblical injunction to teach your children the ways of God’s people.
After about 20 minutes at the Western Wall the group began a tour of the large archaeological site, called the Davidson Center. It’s an amazing walk through the history of the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. The stones tell the story of the Second Temple and its destruction by the Romans in 70CE, and the later occupation by Muslim groups. One of the most dramatic finds was the huge stone toppled by Roman soldiers form the corner of the wall around the Temple. There is an inscription in the stone that indicates it once sat at that spot, high above.
While the group was in the dig, Beth and I hightailed it up to a gallery near the New Gate (as far away from the Dung Gate as you can get in the Old City, and all uphill) where we had purchased some photographs for Westminster’s collection. We wanted to get one more. We practically ran all the way there and back, and got to the Dung Gate just as the group was leaving the site. We bought a bunch of Jerusalem bagels to keep everyone happy for the half hour ride to Jericho for lunch. A Jerusalem bagel is a long, oblong-shaped piece of bread, sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds. Wonderful!
Lunch in Jericho was at the same restaurant as a week earlier. We managed to get in, eat, use the restrooms, and be back on the bus in 35 minutes – a record, no doubt. We were in a rush to get to Beit She’an, an enormous site that was closing at 3:00, and we had about 60 minutes to get there. We left the restaurant a little before 2:00!
We made it, and it was a good thing, as Beit She’an is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the Middle East. It was the site of the main Roman Decapolis, a series of ten beautiful Roman cities. The location was well-suited: at the juncture of the Jezreel Valley and the Jordan Valley, making it a major cross-road in the trade routes of the time. The city dates from long before the period of the Romans. It played a key role in older testament biblical times. King Saul’s body was hung from the city’s walls.
Today it is a well-preserved ancient Roman city, with wide streets lined by columns, a theater and hippodrome, a large bathhouse complex, and many markets streets and homes. Earthquakes, conquests, and time have all taken a toll, but walking through the city one gets a sense of how magnificent it must have been in its Roman heyday.
After Beit She’an it was back on the bus for the hour ride up to Tiberias, and The Scots Hotel – the final lodging for the trip, and the best, by far. It was established in the 19th century by Scottish Presbyterian missionary doctors as a hospital. Today it’s owned and managed by the Church of Scotland as a luxury hotel. Dinner was, well, absolutely delicious – and the beds were much needed!