I was worried about Jerusalem for the kids because Temples, Mosques and Churches are basically uninteresting to a child. We’ve been trying to explain the religious significance of Jerusalem for the past month, but as a non-religious family, the scale of religion here is very hard to convey by words alone. Last night Emma reminded me that she really likes Christianity because we have Santa Claus. Um, yeah, exactly. And on top of that, explaining the Israeli/Arab conflict is challenging because we don’t want to make them afraid. But also because it has no familiar plot line that they would recognize. It lacks a hero and an ending. We explained what we could and surely they got some of it, but it couldn’t do Jerusalem justice.
Well, Jerusalem surprised us. The city is very vibrant, accessible, full of sounds, and exhibits that are touchable. We started off with an exceptional breakfast at the American Colony with lots of smoked fish and then a short taxi ride to Damascus gate, the most elaborate gate on the old city. We took an early morning stroll through the Muslim quarter, smelling a mix of fresh bread and the mini-garbage truck navigating the narrow streets. I planned first to walk the ramparts of the old city wall so we hunted for the stairs leading up and unexpectedly found our first great fun of the day back at Damascus gate: the Roman Plaza and Zedekiah’s cave.
One of the main themes of ancient Jerusalem is the many times it has been built, shifted, destroyed and built again. They often just filled in the old layer and rebuilt on top leaving strats of the old city below. (Emma said ‘There might be hundreds of old cities down there’ excitedly) Old versions of Jerusalem are still being excavated underneath and near the modern-day old city and these remains provided most of our Jerusalem excitement for today; not the buildings of religious significance above, but the excavated buildings of ancient Jerusalem below.
Directly underneath Damascus gate are parts of the original Roman plaza and gate. You enter dimly lit stone areas with long benches, arches, stone game boards and the ancient street itself in a cave-like atmosphere. We had amazing access to this old city, the girls could touch decorated pieces of the old gate, climb around the space, and see ancient olive presses. Back outside, we jogged a few hundred yards on the other side of the gate to Zachariah’s cave/King Solomon’s quarries. It’s an artificial cave/quarry below the muslim quarter that was created in Biblical times to construct many of the sites in the Old city. The ceilings and walls have stright cuts in them where they took out blocks of limestone for building. It’s moderately lit, even dark in some spots and very open to explore. Lily, having done so well rock-climbing in Petra, declared herself the best rock climber in the family and spelunked every corner of the cave. It’s huge for an artificial cave, and like the Roman Plaza, was essentially empty but for one or two other families. We had a blast.
Back into daylight, an application of sunscreen, and another 40 shekels, we were walking the ramparts of the old city walls. The views were not as spectacular as I hoped, and climbing up and down the old steps was tiring, but it was a great way to get down to Jaffa Gate. Lily really liked it. At Jaffa gate, we grabbed some snacks, it was only 11am, and ate them in the outdoor Mosque outside the Citadel of the city. Inside the catadel are towers, a few exhibits about the history of Jerusalem, and more excavations of the city(ies) beneath the city.
We headed to the Jewish quarter and found lunch at a lousy Pizza place (Oh well, what should we expect?) We went to the wailing wall and Trisha and Emma got up close.
Out Dung gate to the south and across the avenue we walked to another of the excavated old cities: the City of David. Here we did one thing only, but it was a doozy: Hezekiah’s Tunnel. I had read about this in the guide book and didn’t believe it was true that you could walk the length of an underground, quarter-mile water tunnel with the water still running in it! Well you can, and it’s freaking scary but we did it. I bought Lily and Emma some tiny flashlights and we wound down the side of the cliff to the entrance. With almost no warning, you get off the stairs and enter a tunnel barely high enough to stand, and shoulder width. The water runs waist cold, deep and fast at first. It’s pitch black and we were the only people there. I had to carry Lily who seized my shoulders with a death grip. Trish starts to hyper-ventilate. Emma is in front boldly leading, although later she says it was frightening.
The water eventually recedes to our calves and Lily walks, thank god, because we still have 20 minutes of sloshing in the dark. About 15 minutes in, Emma whimpers ‘I don’t want to be in front anymore’ and Lily takes the lead. Lily had gotten over her fears and was a daredevil, racing ahead and turning her light off periodically to freak us all out. We get out the other side, fairly wet, numb feet and adrenaline shivers. We luck out and get a taxi right away and the kids chatter about the experience for the whole ride. Trisha and I keep thinking how something like that in the states would be sealed up for the liability.
Last stop was the cheesy Time-elevator. It was a ghetto-Disney production on one of those rides where the seats lurch and shudder to simulate a moving experience. It was dubbed hilariously in English, and the depicted story of Jerusalem was, well, one-sided and random. I found it hard to follow even though I have a decent handle on the major historical events. But it was air conditioned, and the girls thought the ‘ride’ part was fun.
We had dinner at the Hotel and Trisha and I ordered big salads, which we’ve been avoiding for a week for fear of getting sick. Wish us luck…
[Photos by Trisha Creekmore]