Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Leisurely morning in the Old City

This morning there were no formal responsibilities. For me the day started with BBC World News and a scan of the Australian newspapers online. At 8.00 am we had our usual fullsome buffet breakfast (I had a modest continental breakfast followed by an immodest hot breakfast, with coffee and pastries to finish). Then Gregor Henderson, Frank Carroll and I braved the commercial hard-sell in the streets near our hotel, where there are many small shops selling tourist junk, religious relics, carpets, Eastern clothing and oddments such as opium pipes, tins of wall paint, and (my favourite) T-shirts printed with the words "Guns'n'Moses".

We explored the beautiful (some would say austere) Lutheran Church of the Redeemer (where I picked up an excellent booklet titled "The Holy Places Today" by M. Basilea Schlink), and then the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulcre (which I visited on Sunday, although this time I discovered a garish Golgotha on the upper floor (pictured - left-click to enlarge if you dare), which I had somehow overlooked previously, possibly because of the crush of tour groups). And yes, I can confirm that the famous ladder, placed on a ledge above the main entrance some time before 1852, was still there this morning (4 December 2007).

Anglican Primate and Archbishop of Brisbane Phillip Aspinall arrived from Amman, and he joined us for Turkish coffee at a street cafe (where, as we stood to leave, the proprietor implored us to take just two minutes out of our schedule while he introduced us to his father's shop up the alley). Fortunately we managed to escape to the Tower of David Museum, where we were exposed to a different kind of pressure - the Israeli state's interpretation of Jewish history from ancient times to the present. The displays were informative and dynamic, with a great deal of attention paid to ancient and modern history, but little coverage of the period from AD132 to the 19th century. Interestingly, Jesus of Nazareth received positive treatment in one display, but there was no mention of Muhammad despite the centuries of Muslim and Ottoman rule of Jerusalem, the existence of a large Muslim Quarter in the Old City still today, and - of course - the controversial presence of world-famous Islamic worship sites on the Temple Mount. Some would say the Museum's overall message was triumphalist; others would call it necessary education. The view from the top of the tower is magnificent.

Then we slipped by the spruikers and into the Nafoura restaurant (again) for a traditional Palestinian lunch in an enclosed outdoor courtyard, right beside the Old City wall, and in the shade of an old olive tree. Apparently the courtyard was once a parking area for caravans and chariots. We had a fine vegetable soup, followed by plates of assorted Eastern dips with flatbread, followed by a huge dish piled with rice, shredded chicken and lamb mince, scattered with parsley and roasted pine nuts. And fresh home-made lemonade on the side. That cost 300 New Israeli Shekels (NIS), or close to $100, for four.

A morning well spent, followed by an intensive afternoon (see the previous two blog entries), and then back to the hotel for another buffet dinner. The authors of the Lonely Planet guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories observe that visitors to Israel often leave somewhat heavier than when they arrive, and I believe them.

Of course, submersion in the local culture is an important part of serious travel, and I'm sure you understand if identifying with our hosts means a little culinary excess.

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