Since there were no buses to Aqaba on Friday (Juma'a) and only two buses from Eilat to Jerusalem on Saturday (Shabbat), I arrived well after the old city's shops had closed. Thanks to a few inconvenient stamps in my passport, the border crossing was delayed for hours by a long interrogation session with a bored young customs official. Luckily, the bag inspection didn't turn up my other passport, the one I've used to enter some of Israel's absolute least-favorite places. When I took off through the city the next morning almost all the shops were closed for Sunday (Sabbath), so I spent much of the day relaxing in the sun on the roof of my hostel, glancing up from a Karen Armstrong book every now and then to stare down at the Dome of the Rock.

As usual, I never quite knew where I was going in the old city. In running circles though, I did manage to stumble into the Wailing Wall, the Muslim cemetery just across from the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, its old wooden ladder still leaning against the second-story wall, unmoved since 1854 (due to an interfaith dispute over ladder-moving rights). Every inch of the place has been fought over for centuries, from long, bloody crusades to priestly tantrums over unauthorized sweepings.

But far more preplexing than Jerusalem's conflict-breeding sites are the diverse and sundry people that trot up and down its cobblestone streets. Hasidic Jews in thick Russian hats and long, curling sideburns, white-bearded, black-gowned Orthodox Christians, Taiwanese tourists in color-coordinated caps, elderly midwesterners with khaki vests and film cameras, and young backpackers from all corners of the earth wearing checkered keffiyehs loosely around their necks. On one short walk through town I spotted some BYU girls haggling with an Arab shopkeeper, an unidentified troupe of white-scarved maybe-Russian ladies hurrying off to some unknown ceremony, and a tearful entourage of Filipino pilgrims hauling a cross up the Via Dolorosa. But these weren't even the most interesting ones.

At my first hostel, I was joined on the roof by a friendly, older man with a grey beard. He offered a cigarette before launching into an hour-long discourse on the Bible. Among other things, I learned that Noah's ark had been found, that extra-terrestrials had slipped secret codes into the Bible, decipherable only by a painstaking process fit only for experts on the topic, and finally, that since the Bible was written so clearly there is no need for organized religion. Just read it yourself, believe it, ask God about it and then know it (but also do check out the bible code online because it is awesome), in that order. I managed a polite smile the entire conversation, although I honestly thought he was joking when he mentioned meeting Jesus in 1977. I laughed out loud before getting that there was no joke. I moved hostels.

At the next one was another old man, a nearly blind mathematician with a long, white beard and a wooden cane. He found me in the common area and planted himself for the ensuing lecture. Like grey-beard's, the theme of white-beard's talk was finding God. All you have to do is read the Bible and ask God about it. Organized religion is unnecessary once you realize how simple is that set of 66 books written by over 40 authors over the course of 1500 years. He couldn't see me sitting in front of him, but he seemed to feel it important that I get his message. For the last twenty minutes before I excused myself, the lecture turned to his other most passionate of pleas: "gravity is in, not down."

In this city, these two characters are nothing special, and by no means crazy when compared with full-fledged victims of the Jerusalem Syndrome. Apparently there's a mental institution nearby to treat surprising numbers of self-proclaimed prophets, prophetesses, Virgin Marys and Messiahs. A bearded dude caught roaming around the Mount of Olives in nothing but an animal skin isn't entirely uncommon here, and he's quickly identified as just another John the Baptist. At one point, two Messiahs in the institution were put in the same room as an experiment: neither changed their minds. Most cases of the syndrome involve Protestants arriving on package Bible tours from Middle America with no intention of staying, but becoming overpowered by the spiritual whisperings of the city, have a hard time leaving. I was more than happy to get out.

1 comment:

Kristen said...

haha. great description and I love the lectures that kept finding you. This is really well written as usual.