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A Night Journey

3 July 2008

Last night, tired of being cooped up in classroom all day, my friend Ben and I reached the conclusion that a bit of exploring was necessary on our second day in the city.  Where else does one go in Jerusalem at 9:00 at night, but the Old City?

I’m studying at Hebrew University, which is on Mount Scopus, a hill that overlooks the Old City and East Jerusalem–the latter being comprised of largely Palestinian neighborhoods, separated from the West Bank only with the assistance of a 10 meter concrete barrier.  So just after sundown, we set off in a vaguely Southern direction.  We didn’t really have much of an idea where we were going, save for a road sign or two that pointed toward the Old City, and evidently wandered into what we later learned as a not-very-nice neighborhood (as one of my flatmates put it: “I don’t know how it is for Americans, but few Israelis would go there after dark”)–although the fact that we were completely unaware of any danger says something, I think.

The most striking thing about the Old City, however, is that it has a way of approaching you out of nowhere.  We essentially crossed a small valley , and as we crested the hill, we found ourselves at the edge of an imposing, bullet-marked wall–the Jaffa Gate.  In so many ways, it reminded me of the Medina in Rabat–gates nestled between modern buildings, streets that rarely–if ever–continue their original bearing for longer than fifty feet.  And true to medina form, we proceeded to become as lost as I think I’ve ever been.  This situation was only enhanced by the fact that we arrived just as the last tour groups were heading for their buses, and the shops in the Souq and butcher district were closing up for the night, leaving us as two of the only people on the street.  It was an intensely eerie experience, to be honest–most of the streets are covered, leaving only the few shop lights, and the street lights at the end of distant tunnels as to cast a faint glow across cobblestones that are soaked with water and blood from washing up at the end of the day.  

We tried to hug the outside of the wall, and eventually find our way out that way, which is considerably more difficult that you might imagine.  But the most striking thing about the Old City is that with the few sight lines available from the towering walls and narrow streets, even the most anticipated of landmarks, the places that appear in dreams and history books, have a tendency to pop up in front of you completely unannounced.  So as we progressed down the wall, we turned a corner near a small grocery store…

The Dome of the Rock was maybe a hundred yards away, and below it, even at 10 o’clock at night, hundreds of people standing transfixed below the Western Wall.  No signs, no sounds, no lights visible from a distance.  Two of the most storied, holy religious sites in the entire world, standing literally on top of each other, and had we made a turn five feet earlier, we’d have been two ships passing in the night.

I could talk about the wall, which was an incredible experience (and I never went beyond the observation barrier), or the hour and a half that it took us to get out of the place, but I’m sure I’ll go back.  I want to spend time there, hours even, staring and watching.  But as far as nighttime strolls go, this more than I think any other left me with the distinct impression of being unchangeably, beautifully small in the face of such wonder resting completely obscured by mere feet of dust and rock.

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