After my two new Israeli friends dropped me off near the Old City of Jerusalem, I began scanning the streets for WiFi networks so I could lookup the address of Heritage House, a hostel where anyone of Jewish heritage can stay for absolutely free.
Man, unlike Birthright, this place was all about religious propaganda.
Everyone inside dressed very very orthodox, and the first thing I was handed upon checking in was a schedule of the following day’s courses on Judaism, Torah study, and the like. Their rules were very conservative – guys and girls stay in different buildings, and everyone had to be in by midnight and out by 9am. I was the only person there without a yarmulke. The guy at the front desk must’ve asked me 10 times if I’d be attending any of the following day’s classes at Aish Hatorah. It’s very, very nice that they provide a free place to stay – but somehow I can’t imagine staying there long 🙂
The first thing I did after checking in was to head across the street for a piece of pizza. I knew of a place right nearby, where I stopped to ask for directions to Heritage House. The guy saw me with my backpack and knew I was a budget traveler. When I went inside and asked for a slice, here’s what he said:
Pizza Guy: “To tell you the truth, it’s quite expensive here – if you don’t mind walking about ten minutes in that direction it’s less touristy, and I’m sure you can find something for much cheaper.”
Justin: “Wow, thanks so much for your concern! I’m absolutely exhausted and starving though, I think I’ll go for just one…”
PG: “No problem – I just wanted to give you a heads up, because sometimes people are surprised at costs in Israel, especially after coming from somewhere as inexpensive as Egypt. I hope you’ve got the budget for it!”
J: “Actually, I really don’t – I’ve been on the road for two months and am right about to head home to try and refill the bank account. That’s alright though, after all, it’s only a couple more days, right? 🙂 ”
PG: “Well, here then – how about a discount? The price on the menu is 12 sheckels a piece. How about 7?”
Man, Israelis are so nice!
Since I had to be out of Heritage House by 9am the next morning, I found myself waking up early and waiting 45 minutes for a nearby laundromat to open before starting the day’s activities. I travel VERY light while backpacking, usually washing each piece of clothing right after wearing it – but since Dahab only had saltwater faucets I found myself with a bit of an accumulation.
Then I started going through my day’s checklist. I had a number of things to see, most of which required a very specific and tight schedule. By sheer luck, things went smoothly and I managed them all.
First I went to buy a ticket to enter the Kotel Tunnels – an underground tunnel exposing the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in its original full length. Normally these tickets must be bought days in advance, but I managed to squeeze in at 4pm.
Then I went onto the Temple Mount itself, where tourists are allowed to go right up to the Dome of the Rock – but only before 10am. It was 9:55. I put my bag through the X-Ray machine and was told that I couldn’t bring a laptop inside…and that they wouldn’t watch it for me. Crap!
Luckily, a friendly nearby soldier offered to hold it and gave me her number so I could find her when I was done. 9:59 – just made it!
Next I continued to the City of David to wade through the waters in Hezekiah’s tunnel. It’s crazy how EVERYTHING in this area has so much historical significance:
Jerusalem’s main water source was the Gihon Spring, which flows from the lower part of the eastern slope of the City of David. During the Middle Bronze II Age, a secret underground tunnel leading to a fortified pool was hewn into the eastern side of the wall. Some people believe that this system is the ‘tsinnor’ – translated variously as watercourse or pipe – through which David conquered the city: “And David took the stronghold of Zion; which is the city of David. And David said on that day: ‘Whosoever smites the Jebusites, and gets up to the watercourse'” (Samuel II 5:7).
…Sennacherib, king of Assyria, laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BCE. In his preparations for the defense of the city, Hezekiah, king of Judah, fortified the city and surrounded its new quarters with a wall. He also diverted water from the Gihon into a pool that he had built inside the southern walls of the city. “Hezekiah stopped the upper spring of the waters of Gihon, and brought them straight down on the west side of the City of David” (Chron. II, 32:30)
After wading through the length of the tunnel, I stopped by Oscar Schindlers grave – since the cemetery was closed when I tried to visit it a couple weeks earlier with Peder. It was such a small, ordinary tombstone that it took nearly half an hour to locate it in the tiny cemetery.
Next I walked to the nearby Time Elevator, a cheesy but interesting documentary/flight simulator/carnival ride about the 3000 year history of the city. The 3:00 show finished with just enough time to make the 4:00pm appointment at the Kotel Tunnels.
The Kotel Tunnel tour was filled with interesting information, about how the temple was built and its religious significance. The center of the temple, the “Holiest of Holies,” is actually the very spot where Jewish tradition says the creation of the world began. The tour described how the entire Western Wall used to be exposed but was filled up about 600 years ago to make a platform for what’s now the Muslim Quarter of the Old City; these tunnels, which pass under the Mulim quarter, allow a view of the full length of the original wall. It also told about why the Jews pray where they do at the wall – because the actual site of the Holiest of Holies is also one of the holiest places in Islam, and by Islamic law, Jews cannot be allowed inside. So instead they pray at the Western Wall – the closest they can come to the Holiest of Holies without causing some major religious feuds.
And that was Day 1 in Jerusalem. I spent one more night at Heritage House before waking up bright and early to do something I’d been debating for quite some time.
Take a tour into the West Bank.
(Note: This entry was originally posted on Aug 4; I later changed the date to fit the chronology of events.)