Jessamyn McArdle (AC 07-09, UK)
We walked through the ‘Old Jaffa Gate’ and entered a different world. So far away from the conflict that we had come to examine yet a microcosm for it, a condensation of people, with no space between each other to breath and an intensification of religious significance. The sheer history contained within the huge, ancient walls overwhelms. And all of it is visible from our hostel roof. The old city is laid out on all sides, platforms of rooftops, pierced by church spires and minarets, contours of smooth domes. One in particular, resplendent in its golden dome, rises out of the sea of buildings as if it is bringing a tidal wave with it. There lies all around it this space; the buildings have moved back with respect, away from the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa mosque, the Western Wall. Beyond these holy buildings, nestled in the nearby shadow of Kidron valley appears a miniature settlement. The tiny white buildings cover the ground entirely, tiny gravestones in fact. They rub shoulders, fighting for place on the most expensive land in the World. It is in this valley (according to some Jewish and Islamic scriptures) that Judgement Day will begin, and these dearly departed are the first in line for a place in God’s heavenly kingdom.
We were thrown into this world suddenly after a week of bus rides, tours around Jaffa, blisteringly cold excursions across Ramallah, checkpoints, eye-opening conversations in Bethlehem. Here, in this bustling city we actually found time to relax, absorb what we had seen and act like real tourists. Clutching our paper maps we lost ourselves in the identical cobble stoned market streets, narrow enough for us to get stuck behind three old ladies doing their shopping, yet wide enough somehow for men to wheel down carts of produce or steaming trays of baklava. You stop to sample, sniff or touch. You walk away, content. ‘Twenty Sheckles!’ someone yells from behind you, you continue walking, oblivious, (obviously a seasoned barterer), ‘Alright ten Sheckles’ they offer hopefully as you duck into another stall momentarily.
Far from the total confusion that we had all felt at some time or another on the trip, Jerusalem offered hope of illumination. It was easy to become disorientated between the quarters, leaving the Jewish one, entering the Muslim area, then turning into the Christian quarter – not forgetting the slightly smaller Armenian quarter – however they remain together, contained, protected, squashed by the solid walls. In one day you can visit the place where Muhammad ascended to heaven and stand before two possible sites of Jesus’s crucifixion, having lodged a prayer into the cracks of the original wall of the first temple the night before. Your day is punctuated by competing calls to prayer and church bells clanging out the time every fifteen minutes. When they finally signal that it is time to go to bed, the whole city falls asleep simultaneously as the soldiers start their rounds…