There’s a picture on our refrigerator of the girls and me walking on our first trip to the Old City, last August 20. This is where we started: sun dazed and jet lagged, jostled by crowds, overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells. I had to carry Margaret the whole time and sometimes Hannah as well. I remember thinking: we’re going to explore this historical place, damn it. (But remind me, what’s good about it?).
This all feels so long ago. Now all four of us love the Old City. My favorite time is Sunday morning when we walk to church at 8:45-ish a.m. Stalls and shopkeepers are just starting to open up. The streets are nearly empty save for a few nuns, priests or extra-motivated tourists. Hannah and Margaret can sprint down the stairs and cart ramps of David Street without too much risk of collision. If we’re running early, we can stop in at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for a few minutes. There Margaret likes to light candles (“I wished everyone in the world would have candy!”) and Hannah likes to prostrate herself on the Stone of Unction, where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. It’s a funny sight, a little six year old body surrounded by weeping pilgrims, rubbing the rock with scarves which they will take home to others in Russia, or Uganda, or Korea. Early in the morning or late at night, the emotional scene in the Holy Sepulcher is always intense, overwrought, fascinating. Then we go next door, to a spare, stone Crusader chapel where, at nine o’clock, the bells explode in song.
The Old City is where we go to church, and also get haircuts, have meetings, eat cheap delicious falafel, shop for random sundry items like basketballs or kids’ sunglasses. I love feeling like a local, using the Old City for more than the “big three” sites of Holy Sepulcher, Western Wall and Dome of the Rock.
Not that these are not spectacular. They, too, never get old. Last week we hosted our last Jerusalem visitors, who were exceptionally curious and energetic. Through their eyes, I noticed new things in familiar sites. The Gold Dome turns out to have flaps that open. I saw the big kids playing soccer and little kids in class at the Haram al-Sharif.
I saw a ceremony of Jewish first graders being handed their first Bibles at the Kotel, becoming ‘kids of the Torah’ complete with crowns. At St. Anne’s, a crowd of international pilgrims was testing out the best acoustics in the Old City by singing: dona nobis pacem. Next door in the ruins of a Muslim madrassa, a Byzantine church and a Roman temple, wild poppies bloomed.
Right near the entrance to the Ethiopian Monastery, I saw a sign for the Coptic Church and an ancient water cistern below it. When in doubt, go through the Old City door. Our intrepid visitors braved the steep staircase down, down, down into the darkness. We were alone in the huge space. It was pretty spooky and incredibly cool. All over the Old City, cool ancient remains must lie several layers deep, left by civilization upon civilization as they moved through, conquered, lost or left this place.
It may be a major cliche, but I could go to the Old City every day for the rest of my life and never get bored.