After lunch on 24th February we explored the Mount Zion area. The streets of Jerusalem are very steep because it’s built on two hills – Mount Moriah (Temple Mount) and Mount Zion, the area originally captured by King David about 1000 BC. In this area is the Cenacle – the Upper Room – a bare room, now a mosque, similar to that which might have been used for the Last Supper. To get there, you go through Zion Gate, climb a lot of steps and explore some narrow alleyways.
From there we went to the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu, on the eastern slope of Mount Zion; this is built on what was believed to be the house of Caiaphas, where Peter denied knowing Jesus three times before the cock crew twice.
When we came out of the church there was a lovely rainbow over Temple Mount. Earlier in the afternoon we’d been conscious of a helicopter constantly circling overhead and while we were looking at the rainbow some of us thought we heard two gunshots in the distance. It was soon after this that one of the students received a phone call from her boyfriend back in Wales checking that she was all right because her family had seen TV news reports of rioting in Jerusalem. It transpired that Muslims on Temple Mount (Haram esh-Sharif) had started throwing things down onto Jews praying at the Western Wall, fighting had ensued and tear gas had been fired. The Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque are Muslim shrines built on what was Temple Mount; the Western Wall is all that remains of the Second Temple, built by Herod the Great, and is part of the wall surrounding the platform on which the Temple was constructed. This photo shows how close the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall are.
Because of this eruption of violence, there was some doubt about whether we’d be able to go to the Western Wall for the start of the Sabbath. We gathered in the hotel foyer at the appointed time and waited until we had the OK, then followed our professor and the local guide through the darkening streets until we reached the checkpoint by the Wall. (You can’t go into the plaza without going through an airport-style scanner.) We could hear the noise long before we got there – not the noise of rioting, but the noise of singing and dancing, like a huge birthday party.
You aren’t allowed to take photographs at the Western Wall on the Sabbath so I can’t show you what was happening, but there were parties of people – men and women, but segregated on different sides of a barrier – dancing in circles, singing at the tops of their voices, shouting and cheering and generally acting as though being at the Western Wall was the one thing they had always wanted throughout their lives and they’d just managed to get there. And, who knows? Maybe that was so. We stayed watching them from outside the barriers for about half an hour and the joy never abated in that time; it was a huge, exhilarated party, mingled with prayer. One singing and dancing circle of young women even included two women soldiers with their guns slung on their backs.
We returned to the Western Wall on a calmer day, so I’ll leave you with a couple of photos of typical streets in Jerusalem – one inside the market (the souk) and one not far from where we were staying.