April 11, 2022 70°F/21°C
We were anchored off the port of Ashdod yesterday while Israeli government health department staff boarded and swabbed the nose and mouth of every passenger and crew member intending to step on land. None of us were sure why our daily PCR testing was not acceptable, but as one crew member mentioned, Israel has had plenty of reasons over the years not to be trusting. By the end of the day we had QR codes and paperwork to allow us to take today’s 5-1/2 hour included excursion called Old City & Modern Jerusalem.
I was worried we wouldn’t feel like we’d seen enough, but it turned out to be the perfect excursion for us: low key, relatively secular, and interesting. Jerusalem was also the first place in which we felt a strong Canadian connection.
Ashdod and Jerusalem are both full of new development. Our guide told us that the birth rate in Israel is the highest in the western world, at 2.8 children per family – which explains all the well-equipped playgrounds we saw. As a result of the increasing population, more and more housing is needed, and being built, but is extremely expensive. Tel Aviv was just named 2021’s most expensive city in the world in which to live.
I was surprised at how green the area was. Back in the 1970s and 80’s my mother annually made a donation to have a tree planted in an agricultural kibbutz in Israel. Part of that was commemorative, part atonement, and part ecological since trees would help prevent soil erosion and work to keep moisture in the ground. In the mid 1980s Israel built desalination plants, as well as purification plants that convert 80% of waste water into irrigation water. Those two initiatives have turned things green and fertile.
We passed by miles of vineyards. All Jews drink at least one glass of wine per week at their Sabbath dinner, but it must be Kosher wine, meaning the grapes cannot be cultivated, cared for, or harvested by non-Jews. Our (Jewish) guide commented “that’s a bit racist”, but given that the population of Israel is 85% Jewish, 14% Muslim, and 1% Christian – and Muslims don’t drink alcohol – it’s hardly an issue here.
Our first stop was the scenic overlook at Mount Scopus Forest, where we noticed our first Canadian connection. This park and overlook were sponsored through funds raised at Negev dinners in 1993 in Windsor Ontario, snd in 2003 at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario. The sponsor wall is filled with Canadian names and places.
Back on the bus, we passed the Victoria Augustina Hospital, built by Germans in 1902, an Orthodox monastery, an Islamic Charity Hospital, and a Benedictine monastery, all evidence of how important this city has been to multiple cultures and religions.
Next we went to the Mount of Olives, from where we had a wonderful view down into the old city of Jerusalem. We had a great view of Temple Mount, crowned by the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
The stone wall surrounding the entire area containing the mosque is the perimeter of the original temple.
The gold onion domes of the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene (consecrated in 1888)shone in the sunlight.
We also saw the relatively new (1955) Roman Catholic Dominus Flevit (the Lord wept) Church, with its tear-shaped dome related to the story that Jesus cried the first time he saw Jerusalem.
Our guide talked about the huge, and very crowded, Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. Jews believe that those interred in Jerusalem will be the first to rise when the Messiah returns, so everyone wants to be buried as close as possible to Temple Mount. It has been used as a cemetery for almost 3000 years, although its current configuration only dates to around the 16th century, and it has between 70,000 and 150,000 graves. In 2012, Israel predicted the cemetery would run out of room,but a Canadian tycoon was recently buried there. A little further away, we saw buildings that looked like apartments, but were actually high-rise cemeteries; not as prestigious, but still “in” Jerusalem.
We drove through the area housing the Knesset and other governmental buildings, as well as the Israeli Museum, the Art Gallery with its Louvre-like glass pyramid, and the Cultural Centre. The city is bright and really clean, and the streamlined architecture makes even older buildings appear modern.
Our last stop of the day was at the Western Wall of the second temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Mourning that destruction is why people used to cry (wail) at the wall – although not so much any more. After I posted this episode, a reader told me that there is now a specific day set aside fir mourning the temple’s destruction.
I’d heard so much about this solemn place from my mom’s friends when I was growing up that it was a disappointment. Instead of the quiet place of reflection that I expected, it had an almost carnival atmosphere, with lots of people laughing, posing and taking selfies – although there were a few women praying with their foreheads against the wall.
Our guide told us that women are required to visit the wall on the day before their wedding “to practice talking to a stone.”
The party atmosphere was heightened by the fact that Mondays (today) and Thursdays are “bar mitzvah” days, so the site was filled with celebrating families who’d brought their 13-year-old sons to the wall. There were balloons, klezmer bands, canopied processions, and – quite bizarrely – a rabbi mascot. On the men’s side of the wall (the sexes are separated upon entry), there were many bar mitzvah rituals happening, which the female family members could only see by standing on the conveniently provided bench and peering over the dividing barrier.
When I went through Ted’s photos tonight, I was glad to see that the men’s side of the wall seemed to be a more introspective place.
En route back to the ship we had the opportunity to see the Church of Gethsemane, with its beautiful Byzantine mosaic. Apparently there is an even more magnificent one inside.
It really was a great overview excursion, made even better by perfect spring weather. Hopefully tomorrow’s included excursion to Haifa and Acre is just as enjoyable.