There’s probably no city in the world more fought over and divided than the Holy City of Jerusalem. Able to claim 4,000 plus years of history, the city’s name in its current form is most likely to have derived from the Canaanite (that’s Phoenician to you and me) god of dusk, called Shalem. The city is considered holy to all three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity). However, the length of time when the city was ruled by non-Abrahamic religions (when combined) actually tallies greater than any of the other major monotheistic religions on their own. Which nicely illustrates, that despite what anyone might say, this great city is not the exclusive domain of any one people.
We’ve arrived during the Jewish holiday of Passover which commemorates the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The origins of the word are believed to be linked to the idea that God “passed over” (pasach) the Jewish during the 10th plague on the Egyptians, where first-borns were slayed. Belle take note.
Passover lasts a week, during which no leavened food products can be bought or eaten. This has arisen (excuse the pun) due to the Jewish belief that when fleeing Egypt they did not have enough time to wait for their bread to rise. In practical terms, it means that we’ll be experiencing a gluten-free diet for five or so days, with no “real” bread, pasta, rice, cakes etc.
If you’re wondering about the wine thing up there, don’t worry it is kosher, as it is prepared in a certain way. As for the beer, for some reason we’ve had no problem getting that as well, which slightly baffles me as it is definitely wheat based, but given I’m a goyim I’m not even going to try and understand this part of the kosher puzzle.
We’ve pitched up pretty close to the old city of Jerusalem, in the Russian Compound area, which is one of the oldest districts in central Jerusalem. This is a fascinating area full of striking contrasts where trendy bars rub shoulders with notorious prison detention centres, whilst looking out at all manner of different religious sites.
As we arrived well before our accommodation was ready (damn you efficient Israeli Customs agents!), we randomly wandered down to what turned out to be the happening pedestrianised (save for the odd tram and police vehicle) Jaffa Street area.
The thing we immediately noticed was just how westernised Jerusalem was, having spent the past eight or so months in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. There was alcohol being sold and consumed freely, funky cafes and a large variety of different dress styles, from that sported by the ultra conservative Jews to the modern, shorter styles.
We quite happily chilled out on the grass people watching as the place got busier and busier due to the large number of Jewish families coming out to celebrate Passover.
After settling into our new place for the next couple of nights, I headed a couple of hundred metres up the road to check out the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, also known as the Kidane Mehret Church. Probably little known, is that Ethiopia has one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world and monks have been coming to the Holy Land as early as the 5th Century AD. The deep connection between Ethiopia and Jerusalem is further enhanced by the claim that an Ethiopian delegacy has been in the Holy Land since the time that Queen of Sheba travelled 1,400 miles to meet with King Solomon 3,000 years ago.
Forming part of the Debre Genet monastery (meaning Monastery of Paradise), the church is located on Ethiopia Street, which is said to be one of the most beautiful in all of Jerusalem. The narrow laneway was indeed lovely and the views of the church from the outside equally stunning.
Unfortunately, I’d arrived too late to view the inside, which receives a lot of plaudits, so instead had to be satisfied with walking around the church in the tranquil surroundings away from the earlier hustle and bustle.
The next morning we made our way to Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral. This striking church was built in 1860–1872 and welcomes tourists, gladly. We happened to turn up during a service, which was both good and bad. Good, because we got to hear the religious chanting, but bad because it didn’t feel right to take any pictures of the wonderful interior whilst people were praying.
It all seems a bit bizarre arriving in Jerusalem with our first tourist encounters being of Russian and Ethiopian origin, although I think it nicely illustrates just how cosmopolitan Jerusalem has been through the ages. Coming up, things are about to get real biblical as we make our way to the Old City and travel up the Via Dolorosa.