Tuesday was our first full day in Jerusalem. We started out by travelling to the mount of Olives. This is a hill overlooking the city, now filled with houses and buildings. The words “mount’ or “mountain” do not really mean what most of us think of us mountains (especially to those of us who have spent much time in Colorado). The mount of olives is only a few hundred feet higher than Jerusalem, but provides a wonderful view in the morning, since the sun in behind you.
From the mount of Olives, you can see how the Dome of the Rock dominates the view. In Jesus’ day, the temple was much larger and ornate than the dome, and would have appeared even more magnificent next to the more simple stone buildings of that time.
We then went to the Garden of Gethsemane. This is one of those “nebulous” sites. That is, the original garden of olive trees was certainly in this area, but to me it is doubtful that it is on this exact spot. The place we were shown was a about an acre in size, and enclosed by a wall. A couple dozen olive trees and a path filled the inner court, which was inaccessible (you had to keep on a sidewalk behind a rail all the way around the garden. There were perhaps a hundred people in this place. With the crowd and a few vendors hawking goods with a loud voice just inside the entrance (Memory cards! Memory cards!) it was hardly a place for quiet meditation. Nonetheless, it still managed to bring tears to my eyes (not that this is any great feat) as I sat thinking about Jesus praying among a grove of trees like the ones before me, in this same general area.
After this Jacob took us to the Old City, which is that part of Jerusalem enclosed by medieval walls, and the only part inhabited before the 20th century. We entered through the Jaffa Gate, and Jacob led us to what is called The Citadel, which is a tower that still stands from the time of Christ. This has been converted into a sort of museum depicting Jerusalem’s history (as well as giving a commanding view of the city up close).
After this we actually got to walk on the city walls, and headed over to a church built on the spot where many believe is the spot of the Upper Room. Of course, Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times that the room, even if legit, looks nothing like a first century Jewish room (more like a medieval vault). Personally, it did nothing for me.
We then had a bite to eat (Jacob’s Pizza) before heading to explore a few more of the ancient ruins. We then headed to the Jewish Market, then the Arab Market, which are both underground in a very ancient part of the city. We walked this whole time on lanes (that used to be streets) now a good 15 feet below the present street level (in ancient cities, the past is always underground).
On Tuesday Rachel and I made a trip to the Temple mount, which now houses the Dome of the Rock. I had seen it in the distance of course, but I desired to stand on the place where we know David, Solomon, Jesus and the apostles stood. We had to pass through a metal detector to get up on the mount, and we were not allowed by the Muslims to go into the Dome of the Rock. About that building: It looks more impressive from afar than up close. The tiles were beautiful, but the gold on the dome seems dusty and dull up close. Again, crowds or people surround you, and there is nowhere to pray. I tried to get a sense of what it was like to stand like Jesus and see the temple in its glory, but found the images in my mind fleeting. I was glad I went, but it certainly did not affect me deeply. Perhaps, after all the years of reading and studying about the temple, to see now only its empty seat was bound to be anti-climatic.
We then headed to the Valley of Elah, where David fought Goliath of Gath. You can still see signs for Gath (about 20 miles away). The site itself is very well attested to be authentic, for the Bible (I Samuel 17:1-3) gives a rather specific location, and there is only one brook in the area. This brook is actually a Wadi, that is, a seasonal stream. Sometimes it has water, and sometimes not. At the end of a very dry summer like now, of course it does not. We could see the two hills the armies would be encamped upon (less than a mile or so away from each other) and we went down into the dry brook to pick out stones. Of course, the stones of battle in those days were not little ones depicted in the flannel graph stories of my youth; they were close to the size of baseballs.
After a late lunch we headed to the Israel Museum. This is one of the premier museums in the world, and contains four branches. We started by viewing a huge model of the Jerusalem of the first century, done with exacting details. This was a huge help to me in understanding more clearly much of the Bible stories relating to that city.
You can see how much the temple dominated the city, especially looking from the east. Here is a view from the west.
Finally, we made our way to the Archeology section, and I was both in heaven and in torment. Heaven because I was now seeing in real life things I had only seen small photos of in all my Bible dictionaries and commentaries. Torment, for we only had about 20 minutes before closing. Jacob (our guide) kept rushing us along, pulling me from things I dearly wanted to study. Finally we decided I would skip the Holocaust Museum tomorrow afternoon (where the family would be going) and go back to study the archeology.
We headed back to our rented apartment, and then headed out to the Waffle Bar for dinner (one word: amazing).
I had decidedly mixed feelings about my first two days in the Holy City. Frankly, it didn’t seem that holy. The crowds, the modern buildings, the bustle of cars and diesel trucks, the street merchants selling Jesus junk (oh, sorry…religious merchandise) all felt…very unlike all the pictures in my mind when I read the Bible stories. Of course, I knew it would be this way. But still, I guess I had hoped that holy sites might retain their own sense of holiness, even in the modern city with its crowds and noise. These holy sites (with the exception of Gethsemane somewhat) did not, at least to this man.
But then, Jesus never spoke much (at all, really) about building shrines and visiting holy ground. His focus was on a change of heart, not seeing if his followers could build the biggest monuments. Holy Ground for Christians is every ground, for it all belongs to Him. Yes, He surely used certain spots (like the temple mount) in time past for special purposes; but now those purposes have been fulfilled. Jesus shall reign over ALL the earth. He starts with the human heart.