In the morning we hailed a taxi and asked to go to the Mt. of Olives. Since there are four of us, we normally fill up a taxi, but this driver was already carrying one passenger, so Timothy negotiated a lower price and we crammed in. Unfortunately for the driver, the police didn't like this arrangement very much. We were stopped at a checkpoint near Jaffa Gate, where the driver received a ticket after 20 minutes of animated conversation.
This driver was a real character. When he got back in the car he lost no time in insulting the police: "He doesn't even know English: what does that tell you?" He apologized for the delay, but told us good-humoredly that at least it gave us an opportunity to see how the Israeli Police function.
When we were finally dropped off on top of the Mt. of Olives, we walked up the road a short ways to the Church of the Ascension. For a few shekels we were able to enter the church and climb the tower, which offered an expansive view of the surrounding area. We were told that on a good day you can see the Dead Sea.
After leaving the church we wandered through an olive grove in the Arabic section of the mount. Joseph and I made the mistake of stroking an old horse on the premises, which proceeded to follow us for several minutes, along with his donkey friend.
The day had started out gray and threatening, and by now it had started to rain. We walked down the hill, hoping to find the classic Jerusalem overlook spot, all the while getting wetter and wetter. Eventually we decided to give up and head over to the Israel Museum. (Joseph and I were able to return to the Mt. of Olives the next day, in much better weather, and found the vista point without difficulty.)
An unmarked taxi stopped on the road and Joseph negotiated a price to the Israel Museum. This driver, Abraham, spoke excellent English and turned out to be a constant stream of information and amusement. On the way to the museum he explained that he was a "Born-Again Muslim." Pretty cool, eh?
The main attraction of the Israel Museum is The Shrine of the Book, an exhibit that houses the Aleppo Codex and fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Jews are called "The People of The Book" for a reason. In contrast to other ancient cultures, they perceived time as linear rather than cyclical, which is why they were the first to develop a comprehensive history. (A culture that views time as cyclical has no consciousness of or use for history.) As Thomas Cahill writes in The Gifts of the Jews:
Since time is no longer cyclical but one-way and irreversible, personal history is now possible and an individual life can have value. This new value is at first hardly understood; but already in the earliest accounts of Avraham and his family we come upon the carefully composed genealogies of ordinary people, something it would never have occurred to Sumerians to write down, because they accorded no importance to individual memories. For them only impersonal survival, like the kingship, like the harvest, mattered; the individual, the unusual, the singular, the bizarre - persons or events that did not conform to the archetype - could have no meaning. And without the individual, neither time nor history is possible. But the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov - no longer your typical ancient divinity, no longer the archetypal gesturer - is a real personality who has intervened in real history, changing its course and robbing it of predictability.*
Viewing the scrolls and codex was profound. I will need more time to do it justice. The scrolls were written by the Essenes, (pronounced in three syllables,) a sect of devout ascetics ascribing to a modified form of Judaism and living an isolated life in the desert:
They regarded the desolation of the desert as a symbol of purity, an eschatological paradise and a refuge from the corruption of society and culture.
The Aleppo Codex is a Bible that was written in Tiberias and dates from the 10th century A.D. A thousand years later, over 75% of it is still intact. I purchased a book about the scrolls and codex so I can return to this subject and explore it in greater depth later on.
Another prominent feature of the Israel Museum was a large outdoor model of Jerusalem, about the size of our lawn back home. This is a representation of what the second temple (70 B.C. - 70 A.D.) might have looked like. Unfortunately, due to the cold and rain, we weren't able to spend a lot of time around the model.
We ate a backpack lunch in a cafeteria-type area near the museum entrance. I discovered my relish for raw bell peppers is not shared by my traveling companions. After lunch we called Abraham on his cell phone to see if he would take us to see Bethlehem.
There seems to be four main categories of people here: Jews, Muslims, Christians, and those like Abraham who wish that everyone would just get along:
This land - it's not for the Jewish, it's not for the Muslims, it's not for the Christians - it's for everyone. Why can't they live together?
The name Bethlehem means "City of Bread" in Hebrew and "City of Meat" in Arabic, but the divisions within this city run far deeper than the meanings of names. Bethlehem is Palestinian controlled, and Jews are afraid to enter the city because of the ethnic hostility. Palestinians also harbor anti-American sentiment because of Bush's foreign policy and his part in closing the Gaza Strip.
But the knife of apartheid cuts both ways. The economy in Bethlehem is in sorry shape, and Bethlehem's Christian residents are dependent on foreign aid from the U.S. and Britain. To travel internationally, Bethlehem Palestinians must take a circuitous route through the West Bank and fly from an airport in Jordan.
This all adds up to a pretty tense and chaotic environment. Several days ago an Israeli soldier was shot at a checkpoint on the border of Bethlehem. Inside the city, it seems like just about anything goes. In Abraham's words, "The law is in the hands of the one who has the weapon."
As we drove up the hill to visit the Church of the Nativity, Abraham said "Here you have three churches built on top of a manger." When you think about it, it's a striking metaphor for how top-heavy Christianity has become over the last 2,000 years; countless bells and altars and statues all piled up on top of a tiny little manger built from sticks.
The Church was gaudy and reeked of cheap oil, so we did not linger. Despite Abraham's contention that this was the holiest place in the world for Christians, I found Skull Hill and the Garden Tomb to be much more spiritually affecting. It is Christ's resurrection - not his birth - that is Christianity's raison d'etre. (1 Corinthians 15) No one denies He was born. Muslims deny that He died, and Jews deny that He rose. Christians believe. Selah.
As we headed back to Jerusalem, Joseph quizzed Abraham about driver licensing and transportation laws. It seems that driving in Israel is serious business. Taxi drivers must carry a special license, have mechanical knowledge, and be trained in first aid and emergency response.
Abraham: "A taxi license here costs $4,500.... 20,000 shekels."
Joseph: "That's a lot!"
Abraham: "It's a Holy Land."
On the way back to the hotel Abraham took a short detour, explaining that in certain neighborhoods Orthodox Jews will throw stones through the windows of cars that are driving on the Sabbath. (Funny how driving a car breaks the Sabbath but throwing a stone through a car window does not.) So the city has adapted itself to these inconveniences.
Unfortunately this is not the greatest picture, but that is Abraham selling us some books about Israel out of his trunk. He was an incredibly charismatic person and difficult to refuse. Really, Middle-Eastern merchants make their living by being friendly. Their ability to create instant rapport is astonishing, and very different from the stand-offish Western style.
That concludes Saturday. Tomorrow, Hezekiah's Tunnel and the Dome of the Rock!
*Thomas Cahill, The Gifts Of The Jews, (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 94