alex to jerusalem, the history of the tower of david
june 12, 1999
it's 4:30 in the morning. the sky is pitch black. i'm at the main bus station in
alexandria. i have twenty four hours to make it back to jerusalem for lihran
morav’s bar mitzvah. i don’t consider taking a plane – it doesn’t fit my budget
- or my philosophy. but when i say "main bus station”, it’s a bit misleading.
there are three or four bus lines tumbled together in front of this larger
station. it looks like a marketplace, completely chaotic. i'm running back and
forth from one tiny stand to another trying to find my bus. no one speaks
english. i've tried all day long to figure out how to get back to jerusalem -
directly. it's impossible. i have to take this two hour bus back to cairo, then
a six hour bus back to taba, cross the border at eilat, then a five hour bus
back to jerusalem. but there's no schedule. it doesn't exist. time doesn't
exist. no one knows when the goddamm busses run. just where. i'm wondering --
finally, with the help of a translator, i locate my bus. it's on time. i board.
the tvs start their merciless assault. bruce willis with arabic dubbing.
comical, but cruel. by seven, i'm back in cairo; we’re plowing through the rush
hour crush. i'm dumped at the station, a different one than i arrived at.
where's the bus to taba? where is it? i'm scurrying around again. "where?"
"there." great. it's leaving in fifteen minutes. ok, get some cookies and
sandwiches for the trip. something to drink. damn, aren’t i twenty years too old
for this backpacker thing? never mind - too late now for second thoughts. i’m
back on the bus; it’s pulling out of cairo. five, six more hours of videos in
arabic – the home-made, non-hollywood ones are easier to ignore - and i’m back
in taba. we cross the border and then - it's hebrew videos. but at least the
israeli eggeds don’t keep the tvs on for most of the trip. thank allah, jesus…
someone - for small mercies.
my second trip across the sinai is uneventful. the desert is equally as harsh,
hot, barren, beautiful, and monotonous as the first time. but it's the way i
like my bus trips. monotonous. mindless. thoughtless. thoughtful. time to zone
out. be carried along. passive time. down time. non time. nothing to be
accomplished, learned, won, lost, achieved. like the waiting room in the
doctor's office. read a magazine. wait. or the examination room itself. wait for
the doctor to show. on his schedule, not yours. taken care of. no worries. time
- out of your own hands. like a ct scan. inching along the nuclear imaging
tunnel. vividly awake. but submissive. yielding. open... bus rides through the
we arrive at the taba-eilat border, and now the “real”security
investigation begins. if i thought it was tedious getting out of israel, it is
even more gruelingly so getting back in. my backpack is metal detected, bomb
proofed, unpacked - at least three different times. the israeli soldiers are
doing their job. nothing personal. just - their jobs. i get to the head of a
line only to be told to fill out another entry paper and start over again at the
back. i keep whining to anyone who'll listen that i have to get back to
jerusalem for a bar mitzvah. it's friday afternoon, shabbat, and i've suddenly
realized that the last bus leaves at four. it's 3:30 now. no one listens. they
don't care. they're doing their jobs. efficient. time-consuming. war-like.
i've missed the last bus - to jerusalem. merde! what the hell am i going to tell
maya and raphy? "so sorry, i can't videotape or photograph your son's
once-in-a-lifetime ceremony of becoming a man today - because - uh, because - i
got cheated – i mean, i forgot – the sabbath. i mean i didn't calculate my time
right - because there wasn't any bus schedule - time disappeared - like in a
doctor's office - you know what i mean - and now i'm stuck - selfishly and
hopelessly stuck-lost-detained in the middle of the fucking negev - you
understand, don't you?" right...
look, there's one more bus – it’s to tel aviv. really the last one. great! maybe
i can catch a shuttle from tel aviv back to jerusalem. "okay, one ticket,
please. thank you, todah.” okay. we’re rolling again -- back up the skinny of
israel. red sea eilat to mediterranean tel aviv. it's now ten o'clock at night.
it’s been sixteen hours on three busses. but i'm in tel aviv. one more hour and
i'm home. back in jerusalem. wait. what did i say? "jerusalem? home?" i think i
must have lost it on one of the three buses. maybe i better go back and find
myself. never mind, it's too late. i shuttle bus back across the country, and
i'm here on ben yehuda street at the foot of the russian compound, and there's
raphy in his trusty renault, waiting for me. "sholom. how was your trip?" he
smiles warmly at me. i smile back gratefully, safe once again, in the front
leather seat of my trusty host. if he only knew: sinai, camels, adnan, cairo,
sphinxes, mosques, alexandria, copts, justine, bruce - it's been a long haul
away from israel!
june 13-14, jerusalem
well, maybe they should have hired a professional camera man. i mean, maybe i
shouldn't have made it back from egypt. i mean, maybe the sixteen hours just
scrambled my brain cells a little. or maybe it was just that damn auto focus.
mea culpa. mea culpa. in any event, let me just say, more than half the photos
were -- less than they were intended to be.
the bar mitzvah ceremony itself was – fascinating. simple. down to earth.
practical. without all the hoopla and pressure i remember being imposed on me
and my friends as we marked our entry into the jewish-american community of
manhood. here it seemed to actually be part of ongoing daily life in the
jerusalem community. the language, the ritual, seemed to have cultural context.
that is, the congregation actually understood what was being said. this was not
the case in westbury, long island, where i resentfully had to memorize my hebrew
"haf-torah” (the portion of the old testament read weekly) without understanding
more than even ten words of it. what a ridiculous concept: standing in front of
this frightening collection of your parents' best friends and family, dressed in
“yarmulke” (skull cap) and “tallit” (prayer shawl), thirteen years old, trying
anxiously to get through and survive the most formalized, stress-producing event
in your young life - hoping not to screw up too badly; finally addressing the
congregation in english in a speech your mother had you write, facing the
humiliation of the rabbi's clever remark as he announces the unremoved price tag
he's just discovered on your newly purchased tallit... “oy!” that's about all
that can be said for what i remember of the traumatic event. and that's not even
hebrew. “oy!” that's yiddish (the german-like language of eastern european
but here, the young "man", lihran, is smiling. he seems almost -casual about the
whole thing. his hair is long and free-flowing; he's not wearing a suit or tie.
his parents are up there on the dias with him, so are his younger brother and
his grandparents. it's only a small group that's been invited to the actual
ceremony on saturday morning; most will come later in the afternoon for the
party. most of lihran’s friends will only come to the party. there won't be any
girls invited - no social pressure, no awkwardness - just fun. the boys run
around, play soccer, sweat, the adults sit around the pool and chat. just
another day at the office. i like it. once again, my head is turned, i see
another side of judaism, another insight into my difficult upbringing.
the next day, before departing for my next adventure up north to the golan, i
soak up another day of historical jerusalem. maya, ever the enthusiastic
hostess, takes me on the “ramparts walk”, an almost 360 degree tour and view of
the holy city from the top of the old city's walls. it's spectacular - as we
navigate from jaffa gate around to the arab quarter, descending at the damascus
gate into palestinian east jerusalem. stopping for a drink of cool tamarindi,
climbing again around to the armenian and christian quarters, descending again
at the lion's gate, making our way along jesus’ infamous via dolorosa. such a
cacophony of sites and sounds. jerusalem, city of all religions – encompassing
the sacred site of christ's final walk with the cross, within a stone’s throw of
the wailing wall and the dome of the rock. gracefully minaret-ed arabic mosques
almost next door to onion-domed russian orthodox churches. where you can hear
the haunting call to worship of the muslim “muezzin” five times a day, mixed
with the strands of eastern european “schtetl” music and the sonorous tolling of
christian church bells. orthodox jewish men in long black coats, devout muslims
in caftans and kaffias, habited nuns, ordinary tourists, all mixed together,
hurly-burly, in the cobble-stoned streets of this contested, complicated city.
tower of david
maya has an afternoon appointment, so she leaves me at the tower of david, just
inside the jaffa gate. formerly the towered sentry and fortress of the
ever-changing rulers of the city, the immaculately kept, white-marbled compound
now houses the exhaustive “museum of the history of jerusalem”. i enter
hungrily, and once again, i am a sponge for the fractious, convoluted history of
mideastern civilization: from the city's early pre-canaanite period all the way
to its current metamorphosis into the capital of the state of israel. armed with
an annotated headset, i follow the well laid out topography of the museum,
starting with archeological evidence of the city's canaanite existence 2000-3000
before its "actual" foundation by king david around 1200 bc. after solomon's
death, at the height of the first temple period, around 933 bc, i see jerusalem
has been established as one of the capitals of the ancient world, still almost a
thousand years before the birth of christ.
from these early heights, i watch the city and twelve tribes of israel weaken
and be divided by an assyrian siege. i see king nebuchanezzar destroy the first
temple and the entire city, driving the vanquished jews to their babylonian
captivity in 596 bc. fifty years later, king cyrus of persia has defeated the
babylonians, and he allows the jews to return from exile to their holy city.
rededicating the second temple in 515 bc and rebuilding the walls of the city in
445 bc, the jews enjoy a period of relative normalcy, until alexander sweeps
into jerusalem in 332 bc. then, after a century and a half of hellenization, a
brief period of control by egypt's ptolemists, and the banishment of shabbat by
the seleucids, the jews revolt under judah maccabeus and establish the hasmonean
dynasty in 164 bc which rules an independent jewish nation until the roman
general pompey seizes control in 64 bc. for the next century, jews are relegated
to the roles of bandit and outlaw - until the roman commander, titus, tires of
them in 70 ad and savagely destroys the second temple, razing the city, hauling
off the arc to rome, and in the process scattering the defeated jews to their
homeless and painful diaspora for almost the next two thousand years.
but jerusalem survives without the jews. by the time roman emperor constantine
legalizes christianity in 331 ad, his mother helena decides to visit the city
and both identify and consecrate various and sundry holy christian sites: jesus
was buried here. his mother mary worshipped here. john the baptist slept here.
etc. etc. subsequent byzantine rulers continue her legacy by constructing other
various and sundry churches and basilicas dedicated to the glory of christ.
after a brief period of persian rule in the early 7th century, six years after
the death of the prophet muhammed in 638 ad, jerusalem is taken by muslim
caliphs, and the dome of the rock is completed in 691 ad. jews are allowed to
trickle back into the city under a more tolerant islamic rule, until the brutal
egyptian fatamids destroy all synagogues and churches in 1010 ad, passing on
their intolerance to the conquering seljuk turks. in 1095 ad, the rumor of
closing trade routes unleashes king godfrey's wrath upon the islamic world, and
with the zeal of crusaders like richard the lion hearted, a ferocious religious
war is foisted upon the holy land until the christians capture jerusalem in 1099
ad. for their next 90 years of control, the christians slaughter muslims and
jews alike, desecrating and destroying all non-christian sites of worship.
in 1187 ad, the fabled muslim savior salah ad-din (saladin) successfully (and
somewhat mercifully) expels the city's christian occupants, and under his
ayyubid muslim dynasty and the subsequent mamluk rule from the 13th-15th
century, jerusalem again becomes home to both muslims and jews, enjoying a
thriving revival of islamic scholarship. in 1516 jerusalem surrenders to the
powerful ottoman turks, and in 1537 emperor sulieman the magnificent begins the
reconstruction of the city and rebuilds its still-standing walls of
fortification. ottoman rule lasts 400 years until 1917, when the city falls
without resistance to the british army. whereas religious tolerance has been
accepted or demanded during the long-standing ottoman rule, testy and immediate
conflict between arabs and jews breaks out into repeated acts of violence during
the messy british mandate between the two world wars.
by 1948, britain evacuates troubled palestine, and the newly formed united
nations divides it between jewish and arab states, leaving jerusalem an
international city. the jews accept this division, the arabs vehemently do not.
the consequent bloody “war of independence”, during which jordan destroys the
captured jewish quarter of the old city, but the jews prevail, results in the
establishment of a new jewish state of israel and a precarious new division of
the city into jordanian and israeli sectors. this partition lasts nearly two
decades until the “six day” war of 1967, when king hussein's jordanian forces
are permanently ousted from the city, and israel captures east jerusalem,
tearing down the walls of separation and declaring the newly unified city its
the “yom kippur war” of 1973, israel's conflict with syria and its subsequent
annexation of the golan heights in 1981, the intifada of 1987, long-term israeli
occupation of southern lebanon, and the ongoing unresolved state of palestinian
sovereignty, these continued problems and conflicts persist in coloring and
constructing the history of the "eternal" city.
no one knows what the future may bring. some think that the troubled city's
three millennia history of discord and strife bode only poorly for a peaceful
and shared settlement. others, mr. barak, mr. clinton, ordinary peace-loving
christians, muslims and jews, continue to pray and believe in a more optimistic
settlement. me? i'm just an accidental tourist - not a mediator or
prognosticator. i graze with camels and observe. i too, wish for peace. but my
visit to this historic museum of mideastern civilization and its discontent does
not give me a lot of heart…
to be continued....
pictures were collected from various file pages on the web.
If anyone objects or would like a credit, please contact Rebop