Traveling With History © Allan Seiden, 2012
There is a very real divide that separates Israel’s two largest cities, with holy Jerusalem steeped in history and populated by those of ardent belief, and more secular Tel Aviv, having only recently celebrated the centennial of its founding, facing the future rather than focusing on the past.
Tel Aviv was founded by ideologically secular Zionists in 1909 on land bought on the unpopulated sand dunes north of ancient Jaffa when this was part of the Ottoman Empire. Tel Aviv was meant to be a Jewish city, tied to tradition and history, but free of the religious orientation that defined Jews in their countries of dispersion. The Zionists saw the Jews as a people, their identity more a matter of genetics and shared history than religion.
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have grown dramatically since Israel’s founding in 1948. Each city is now surrounded by suburbs, covering the coastal plain in the case of Tel Aviv and the Judean hills in the case of Jerusalem, which lies at 3,800 feet on hillsides where sheep and goats once grazed, as they did in the times of Abraham, David, and Solomon. Jerusalem has a cooler climate than Tel Aviv, with light snow not uncommon in the winter.
Demographically, each city has a distinct population
mix. Jerusalem, with a metropolitan area population approaching 1 million, is 68% Jewish and 31% Palestinian. Tel Aviv, with a metropolitan area population of 3.3 million, is 92% Jewish and 4% Palestinian, 4% a mix of Europeans, Americans, Asians, and Africans.
While in Jerusalem tradition reigns and a conservative mindset prevails, Tel Aviv goes by a more tolerant moral code, with an active night life year-round and a social scene that attracts an international mix of straights and gays once cool, wet inters are replaced by warmer weather prevails between May and November.
- The story starts with Jerusalem. BCE dating refers to Before Common Era, CE for Common Era. I assume the historical existence of biblical characters like Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and Jesus, although there are those who doubt their non-literary existence. Dates as to when they lived are also disputed and are provided in the most widely accepted time frame.
Part 1: JERUSALEM
In Jerusalem, tradition keeps progress modestly at bay, at least in the Old City with its many holy sites providing tangible links to the power of Jewish, Christian and Muslim history and beliefs.
The city’s origins long-precede its biblical rise to prominence when David and Solomon made it their capital, sometime around 1,000 BCE. Jerusalem, originally called Salem, was a fortified settlement of the Jebusites, a Canaanite tribe who were Semitic cousins to the Israelites.
Jerusalem’s links to the Jewish past begins in the time of Abraham, perhaps as long ago as 2,800 BCE, when this progenitor of the Jewish people departed Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and settled with his flocks on Canaan’s hills. Many
believe it was to Mount Moriah, in the heart of the Old City where the Dome of the Rock now stands, that Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed, absolved of God’s command once his steadfastness had been proven.
That bond of
the Israelites to Jerusalem was restored centuries later (sometime between 1,450 and 1,200 BCE), after Moses led the Israelites back to Canaan after centuries of exile in Egypt. Under Joshua’s leadership they fought their way to control of a portion of the Judean hills, expanding their control under David and Solomon, who created a regional empire, with Jerusalem as its capital.
During Solomon’s reign, a fabled temple was built to house the Ark of the Covenant. Built at God’s command, the
believed to have held the hewn-rock tablets carved with the Ten Commandments, establishing a covenantal link between the Israelites and their God. The Temple was maintained by a priestly class that wielded considerable political power and influence.
Sanctified by the Ark, which represented God’s presence on Earth, the Temple would remain the center of Jewish worship, with some interruptions, for the next thousand years. Twice yearly it was the destination of pilgrims who came to offer animal sacrifices in hope of God’s blessing. The Ark was lost when the Temple was be plundered by the Babylonians, who sacked Jerusalem in 587 BCE, burning the Temple to the ground, exiling the Israelite elite to Babylon and making Israel a Babylonian province.
Jews were allowed to return to Israel when Babylon was defeated by the Persians under Cyrus the Great, who would also make Israel part of his Empire. During the reign of his grandson Darius, a modest replacement to Solomon’s Temple was built. It would survive four centuries of war and episodic plunder as the center of Jewish worship and ritual, rebuilt on a grand Solomonic scale by King Herod at about the time Jesus would become part of Jerusalem’s history.
This second temple would also be destroyed, this time by the Roman general Titus, who in 70 CE, in retaliation for a four-year-long Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, laid waste to the city, destroying Herod’s Temple and using the Temple Mount as a setting for a temple dedicated to the Roman gods. Thousands were killed and many more sent into exile, with Jews forbidden to enter the city.
With the Temple gone and the priestly class discredited, Judaism entered a new phase, with teachers…rabbis…becoming leaders of dispersed, independent congregations that maintained continuity with the past through common ritual and adherence to biblical law, with Jerusalem at the heart of Jewish longing.
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand loose its cunning,” the Old Testament admonished, and so it was that Diaspora synagogues face Jerusalem and that prayers at Passover end with the communal wish, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
Of Herod’s Temple, only a portion of the western retaining wall that held the hilltop platform atop which the Temple once stood, remains, a place of spiritual longing for Jews. Called the Western or Wailing Wall, it is a place to connect to God and history and to leave prayers behind on papers pressed into the crevices between the wall’s giant stone blocks.
Christianity, linked to Jerusalem through the Old and New Testaments, would also define Jerusalem as holy. It was here that Jesus lived, taught, confronted the authorities, and fulfilled his destiny. His Jewish disciples would set out from Jerusalem to spread the word of messianic redemption, first within Judah and israel and then to lands far beyond.
The Christian pilgrim’s trail, called the Via Dolorosa (Way of Grief), traces Christ’s route through Jerusalem, dragging the cross on which he would be crucified (today’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher).
Muslims would later claim Jerusalem as holy ground as well, not only through its links to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but even more significantly to Mohammed, who arrived in Jerusalem on a night-flight from Mecca, ultimately departing for heaven from the rocky summit of the Temple Mount. Replacing the Temple, It would also become a place of pilgrimage, with the iconic Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque built to mark these events after Jerusalem fell to advancing Muslim armies in the seventh century..
In 1099 Crusader armies would restore the city to Christian control, creating the Kingdom of Jerusalem, with most of the city’s Muslims and Jews murdered in the process. Within a century Jerusalem reverted to Muslim control when Saladin defeated the Crusader forces in 1187.
It was Saladin who rebuilt the wall that surrounds the Old City today, incorporating portions of far older fortifications. Something of a backwater, Jerusalem would pass from the control of one Muslim empire to another in the centuries that followed. In 1614 the city would be ruled from Istanbul as a province of the expanding Ottoman Empire. Ottoman control passed to the British in 1920, with a Mandate authorized by the League of Nations, predecessor of the U.N., in the aftermath of Turkey’s defeat in World War I.
When Palestine was divided the United Nations following WWII, Jordan took control of the Old City, refusing entry to all Jews. That restriction came to an end in 1967 when the Old City and Arab east Jerusalem were captured by Israel in a war against the United Arab Republic (the temporary merger of Syria and Egypt) and Jordan. The Old City and Jerusalem were later annexed by Israel and united with Jewish West Jerusalem several years later.
That created a porous border between Israel and the West Bank territories. When the Second Intifada (Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule) began in 2001, suicide bombers made their way into Israel, leading Israel to build the concrete separation barrier, that winds its way along Jerusalem’s eastern border, a reminder of seemingly irreconilable differences that have often defined Jerusalem’s place in the world.
Even in biblical times Jerusalem had expanded beyond the city walls, in place since Canaanite times, with places like the Mount of Olives, holy ground to both Jews and Christians, and places like Kidron a reminder of lives lived here for more than a hundred generations.
TRAVELING WITH HISTORY
*** The Western Wall
The giant cut-stone blocks were set in place as a retaining wall for the hilltop platform on which the First and Second Temples had stood, the first destroyed by the Babylonians, the second by the Romans. It is also called the Wailing Wall, recognition of the lost temples and their godly inheritance. Men and women pray at separate sections of the wall in keeping with Orthodox tradition, but Jews and non-Jews can visit the site, where ultra-orthodox Jews may seek to involve Jews in specific prayers. Notes, left behind by those with a prayer or need, are wedged between the wall’s giant stones.
Even more ancient are the archeological digs that reveal portions of the city dating back to Old Testament times, with portions open to the public and others works in progress, enhancing what we know of Jerusalem’s past.
*** The Arch of Titus, Rome
Head to the Roman Forum where the Arch of Titus commemorates the subjugation of Judea and the plundering of the Temple treasure.
*** Church of the Holy Sepulcher
This is where Jesus is said to have been crucified and entombed, in a cave that is part of the multi-level interior maintained by clergy of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholic faiths. A temple to the Goddess Aphrodite once stood here, dedicated after the Roman rebuild of the city.
The oldest portion of the church dates back to 326, built by Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, and like him a Christian convert. Only a few pillars remain of the original church, which was destroyed when Jerusalem was under Muslim control. Today’s church dates back to 1048, followed by numerous renovations and additions. There’s a near-constant hubbub of pilgrims and tourists inside, with lines forming for chapels at the crucifixion and burial sites.
*** Dome of the Rock/Al-Aqsa Mosque
Opened twice daily to visitors, the Noble Sanctuary as Mt. Moriah is known in Islam, is home to the Dome of the Rock, built in 691 by the Omayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik to honor the place where Mohammed was said to have ascended heaven, transported from Mecca in a night-journey that ended atop Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Only Muslims are allowed within either. All others are allowed to wander the grounds that surround them, after passing through a strict security check at the entry, adjacent to the Western Wall.
*** A Walk in the Old City
You can walk atop the 12thcentury wall that surrounds the city for an interesting overview, but the real reward lies in the maze of streets that link the Old City’s neighborhoods. The Old City’s fascinating marketplace is a maze of shops and restaurants awash with local color: fully covered Arab women and Hasidic Jews in medieval Polish garb; tall blond Swedish tourists and Catholic nuns in full habits; sharp-eyed vendors and casually alert Israeli soldiers all
rub shoulders, part of a passing scene that makes this one of the great places anywhere to take in the exotic passing scene and the ever-changing mix of shops, with plenty of bargains to be found. Negotiating is mandatory, with a final price likely half of what is initially quote, even less if your resistance is taken as real.
The Damascus and Jaffa gates provide easy access to the market and the Old City’s historic sites.
*** The Mount of Olives
Several historic churches honor Christ’s delivery of his end-time sermon on the Mount of Olives, a hillside overlooking the Kidron Valley and the Temple Mount. Adjacent to the churches are the graves of an estimated 150,000 Jews in a cemetery that goes back to biblical times.
*** Kidron Valley
At the base of the Old City’s eastern wall, a park now meanders past a series of rock-carved tombs dating back to antiquity. Canaanite Jerusalem was located in the Kidron Valley, its stream providing what to what is now called the City of David. Extensive excavations, begun back in the 1850s and continuing to this day, reveal the oldest part of Jerusalem, with a 3D film and guided tours bringing it to life.
*** The Israel Museum: In addition to the Shrine of the Book, where portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed, this museum features cultural treasures dating back to
Neolithic times, 10,000 years ago and longer. In addition, there are art collections, an impressive sculpture garden, and a fascinating scale model of biblical Jerusalem. First rate in every way, with collections that are stunning, beautifully displayed, and informatively identified.
*** Yad Vashem Memorial
A powerfully sobering place that documents the Holocaust in ways that honor those lost.
*** Rockefeller Archeological Museum
Located in east Jerusalem, the collection focuses on finds made during the British Mandate (1920-1948). A quiet place to discover the past.
Hotels: A long history makes the King David, just outside the Old City wall near the Jaffa Gate, the recommend. The Dan Panorama is a less pricy alternative in the same vicinity, with the YMCA’s Three Arches Hotel an even lower-priced option in the same neighborhood.
Restaurants worth considering: Acadia, HaSadna, Machneyuda, Adom, & Chakra.
Night Life: There are several clubs in the Russian Compound.
Israel Ministry of Tourism www.goisrael.com
Israeli Museums: www.wikipedia.com
Next Traveling With History
Tel Aviv: Where Israel Looks Toward the Future