The Final Trip to the Old City and the Tunnels

My appointment for the tour of the Western Wall tunnels was finally confirmed…only 7 hours after the time that I requested. This meant that I needed to be in the Old City in the evening. Bearing this in mind, I took it easy yesterday morning.

Early in the afternoon I set out to the Old City again. I went in through the Jaffa Gate, in order to make sure that I got in with no problems. From there I immediately set out through the Armenian Quarter, wandering through a couple of tunnels and trying not to get run over by taxis (whom I insistently told that I did not want to go to Bethlehem). There really wasn’t much to see in the Armenian Quarter; most everything was behind large stone walls. From there I continued on to the Zion Gate, insisting that I didn’t need a private tour guide for any of this. I made my way to the Dormition Church, but I didn’t wander through (I did visit the gift shop), but in retrospect I should have. Then I made my way over to David’s Tomb, which of course is not really David’s Tomb. There was a whole boatload of soldiers there, so I didn’t go in. I did get to snap a picture of David in all his glory though:

From there it was back through the Zion Gate and along the city wall down to the Western Wall (“No, thank you, I really don’t want to go to Bethlehem”). I just wanted to confirm that they would be running the tour so late and where I need to be in order to go on the tour. First I went back to the wall for a bit and then found my tour. I was pretty excited about it.

Then I grabbed a late lunch at Al Buraq (which is the name of Muhammad’s flying horse that he supposedly rode from Jerusalem to heaven), a cafe just north of the Western Wall. For the first time here I ate Shwerma (it was excellent). While there I met a German girl from Wuppertal, who’s studying in Berlin, but doing a practicum in Tel Aviv. She was headed to the Western Wall to snap some photos, so I told her I’d walk that way with her, since I was going to the City of David on the south side of the Old City. While on the way to the City of David, however, I got distracted and went into the archaeological park there. It turned out to be way bigger than I thought it was going to be. It was a great experience and worth every cent. I could have spent much more time there, but I wanted to get to the City of David before nightfall. Here are just some of the things I got to see in the archaeological park:

The little outcropping here is Robinson’s Arch, named after the American archaeologist who discovered it. If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering, how does someone discover this huge stone outcropping 10 meters up in the air. After some consideration, I thought maybe he was the first person to recognize it for what it was: a supporting arch for the massive staircase leading up to Herod’s Temple. Sure that sounds perfectly plausible. This whole area was buried under junk for centuries though. Only recently have people begun clearing it away. That is, coincidentally, how the Dung Gate got its name: from all the trash piled up here. In the Byzantine era, the spiritual center of town moved from the Temple Mount to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. You see, these Christians didn’t pay heed to the Temple Mount and viewed its destruction at the hands of the Romans as a sign of Christianity’s victory over Judaism. As the Romans had really dismantled the temple, leaving just piles of stones they cast down, the Christians just continued the process in the most logical manner and began filling it with trash. The stones the Romans cast down can still be seen.

You can compare them with the people standing next to them. They are pretty big stones and must have taken some effort to cast down and presumably even more effort to set up in the temple in the first place. Also from this perspective, I was able to snap a shot of something important to the Muslims: The two holes in the stone on the left. This is one of the corner stones where the south wall meets with west wall (these walls are of course the retaining walls built by Herod the Great to expand the temple acropolis in Jerusalem). According to a Muslim tradition, these holes are where Muhammad tied up his horse Al Buraq on the night of his ascension. So, they had a practical purpose for the prophet of Islam. While there was lots more to see at the park, I won’t bore you with all of the details.

After a long while wandering around there, I noticed that it was starting to get dusky, so I figured I better make my way over to the City of David before it got to late. What I really wanted to see there was the Siloam pool, where according to biblical tradition, Hezekiah made a tunnel in order to provide the people of Jerusalem with water in the event of an Assyrian siege (which he was anticipating). Actually, I really wanted to walk through the tunnel, but as I didn’t have the appropriate shoes with me, I was going to skip that on this trip. On the way down there I saw ads for a touring company that provides you with waders and everything. Oh well, I know it now for next time. Once I arrived at the entrance to the City of David, I notice a huge number of police with their lights flashing. Well, I decided that was a sign and just left it at that. I wasn’t so intent on seeing it that I was willing to put myself at risk, even if this risk was only a phantom. I didn’t want to go there if anything was potentially going down. That meant that I had some time to kill before the tour that evening. I didn’t know what to do to kill that time though.

I made my way back to the Western Wall, as I noticed that tons of people were coming there to welcome the new day (in the Jewish tradition, the day begins at sundown; cf. Genesis 1: It was evening and it was morning; the first day). So I sat down there and did some reading. After a little while the minarets began their evening calls to prayer; so while I watched the Jews praying at the wall, I listened to the minarets of Al-Aqsa calling the faithful Muslims to prayer. After a while, I was freezing, so I went back to Al Buraq and had a late coffee and some Baklava. Then I headed into the Old City a bit again to see what it was like at night. It was dark and pretty well abandoned, though some people still had their stores open and were playing games and such. They immediately tried to sell me everything that they had. Of course, I wasn’t interested, but they didn’t seem to care. After a while of wandering and seeing just how many police and soldiers were there, I made my way back to the Western Wall. I got my ticket for the tour and sat down to read again for a few minutes before it started. Then I went back to the Wall itself, where I managed to get (unintentionally) wrapped up in some Jewish prayer. There was a group of men praying together. One would pray (it was amazingly fast) and the others would respond; and then it would start over. It was like a chorus and a refrain, then a bridge, where the whole group would pray something very fast together. After that, I was ready for the tour of the tunnels.

This series of tunnels run underneath the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem and follow the length of the Western Wall, eventually going on into an old aqueduct from the Hasmonean period. It is an incredible sight to wander through these tunnels. Plus you get to see some exceptional things from a religious standpoint.

The picture on the right is the point that is closest to the Holiest of Holies of the second temple. While there are usually people praying there, we had it all to ourselves (on the way back through, it was full of such people). About 90m behind that wall was the location of the Holiest of Holies in Herod’s refurbished temple. Because of the Dome of the Rock sitting on the site today, this is the closest that Jews can get to pray. This was probably about halfway through the tour. We continued on for a while until we got the aqueduct.






So the picture’s a little out of focus, but I had to take it on the run. We were on the move and I didn’t really have time to stop and set up the shot. You can see just how tall the walls are by comparing them to the pedestrians walking in front of me. Keep in mind that above us are the shops and houses of the Muslim Quarter, which was built right up against the Western Wall. Must of the time the tunnels were tall, but sometimes we did have to crouch a bit and watch our heads. We wandered through theses tunnels for a while, and eventually came into the cisterns that still naturally collect rain water under the city. The whole time we were in there, water kept dripping from the ceiling and getting us wet. That was where the tour ended.

Normally, we could exit at that point onto the Via Dolorosa, which was my plan, as I could then take in a couple of sites on that route that I had missed up to that point, such as the Ecce Homo Basilica and the Damascus Gate. However, due to the late hour and security concerns, the gate that let us out that way had been closed, meaning that we had to return the length of the tunnels again and exit at the Western Wall. While I had originally planned on exiting the Old City from the Damascus Gate and walking back to my hotel (about 15 Minutes by foot), I was now going to have to take a taxi or wander all the way back through the Old City to the Jaffa Gate, as there were no sidewalks on the street going west from the Dung Gate. I made my way out and found some taxis (actually, someone had already called me). I went over and said that I would like to go my hotel and asked if he would use the meter. “Lot of traffic, 40 Shekel.” “Will you use the meter?” His boss, who was standing there, translated. “40 Shekel.” Aha. “Can I get a receipt?” “45 Shekel.” At that point I left. I mean there are way too many taxis in Jerusalem for me to have to put up his shenanigans. After I walked of, his boss ran up to me, said he would use the meter and give me a receipt. Amazing how that works.

He drove me back to the hotel (and he made some wrong turns, which made it a little more expensive) and when we arrived the meter was at just over 30 Shekels. I gave him 35 and told him good night. Hopefully he will remember this. I mean, I am someone who doesn’t mind giving tips for good service, but I feel that it is up to me to decide how much extra I give. The people here see it as their job to try and rip you off for as much as they can. I mean, that one taxi driver felt that for his bad attitude and ass-hattery that he deserved 15 Shekel extra. That’s a bit of money…a tip of 50%. Maybe they would make more money if they would treat people with respect and treat them fairly. They would get more customers if people trusted them. And if they did good work and made good impressions (instead of the impression that they are going to rob you as soon as you turn your back, if you’re lucky; often they give you the impression they are robbing you right in front of your eyes) they would probably get better tips. It doesn’t make a good impression on customers to have a hearty laugh with your colleagues right after they have paid. At any rate, I made it back to hotel and settled in for the night, eating some dinner and packing my bag. Then I passed out trying to read. It had been a long day, and a long week, with lots of wandering and physical activity. All things considered, it was a great time.

Now I am waiting for my Sherut to the airport to catch my flight. I will most likely be there way too early, but it’s better that way than to have to rush everywhere. I am looking forward to being back in Germany, where the prices are what they are, and while the customer service people generally aren’t friendly, they aren’t robbing you. When I arrive tonight I will most likely be utterly exhausted, but it will be a great feeling of exhaustion. I’m looking forward to it.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael

     /  16/03/2010

    Thanks for all the info, I really am glad you wrote so much with your style of humor included.


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