By David King
Jerusalem is probably a place where most Christians would like to keep the Feast of Tabernacles at some point in their lives. A city full of history, the place where Christ once walked and was crucified, where Solomon’s temple stood, and where King David ruled Israel from.
But keeping the Feast in Jerusalem this year was considered too risky by some church groups, who previously had planned to go there in 2001. Most felt it was too dangerous, with the Palestinian Intifadeh—their rebellion against Israel through active violence against Jews and other innocent civilians.
I went there to keep the Feast, with a small home fellowship group, who meet in the London area, England. We believed that the Eternal had placed His name there in Jerusalem for the Feast in 2001, and wanted us to celebrate there, so we went. This was not my first visit to Israel, I was there for the Feast in 1998, touring around Israel and Jordan with UCG. But for the rest of the group, it was their first visit, apart from one woman who had visited Jerusalem for a day while staying in Cyprus a few years ago.
Getting accommodation proved to be harder than expected. We initially booked a small bed and breakfast place, which our group of 12 was going to completely take over for nearly two weeks, in the west part of Jerusalem. However, due to the continuing violence since before the Feast in 2000, the owners decided to cancel our booking, as all their other guests (all from America) had cancelled, too fearful to go there. Instead they decided to lease the property to an American company for a year, which put us out of the picture.
So, after much prayer, we sought a new location to stay in, and found the Jaffa Gate Tourist Office in the Old City part of Jerusalem very helpful. They eventually found a place for us in the Knights’ Palace Hotel, near the New Gate, inside the Old City. For those who do not know much of the layout of Jerusalem, let me explain a little. The Old City lies in the eastern part of Jerusalem, and was formerly part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, but was captured by the Israelis in 1967. Evidence of the war can still be seen at the Zion Gate, where the wall is full of bullet holes. To the east of the Old City is the West Bank, an Arab area, including the Mount of Olives. To the west is the modern part of the city, inhabited by Jews and Israeli Arabs, a modern bustling city of commerce and banks, shops and buses, busy streets and restaurants.
The Old City is surrounded by a wall built by the Turkish ruler Suleiman El Hakim over an ancient Roman wall, in 1539. The Old City is split into four quarters: in the north-west is the Christian Quarter, (where we stayed), mostly inhabited by Arabs, containing a lot of Catholic places. In the south-west is the Armenian Quarter, to the north-east is the Arab Quarter and to the south-east is the Jewish Quarter. The Temple Mount is in the Arab Quarter, but close to the Jewish Quarter, situated at the eastern edge of the Old City, with the Mount of Olives overlooking it from the east.
Our hotel was very unusual—an old monastery converted into a hotel, from the times of the Crusades in the Middle Ages. The rooms were nice and modern inside, and the hallways had monastic arches, stone floors, and thick stone walls. This made it the ideal hotel to stay in, as the heat outside was very great in the afternoon (maximum temperatures we experienced were around 43 degrees Celsius, but averaged around 32°C most days), but the hotel’s thick stone walls and small windows meant it stayed very cool and comfortable inside.
We held services inside the hotel, either in one of our rooms, or in a meeting room which the hotel staff said we could use (at no extra charge). Normally this hotel would have been packed with guests at this time, but tourism to Jerusalem has suffered greatly over the past year, with only a fraction of the normal tourist trade. So the hotel was mainly empty most of the time, except for about three days when two large groups stayed there; I think they were Catholic groups from France and Germany. But most of the time we had exclusive use of the bar lounge and dining hall.
At our services we studied scriptures relating to walking in the truth, the armour of God, speaking rightly and not offending others (especially when in a foreign country where the locals might take offense at a careless word), God watching over us, and for us to involve the children more in our services and worship of God. We had three children with us and concluded that we had at times been neglecting them at services and should do more to include them and make services enjoyable for the young ones.
Any visit to Jerusalem is incomplete without visiting some of the historical and biblical sites. The Garden Tomb, which consists of a garden and a tomb where it is believed that Christ’s body lay for three days, was very peaceful and a beautiful place to visit. Although there is no absolute proof at this time if this is the actual tomb of Christ, nearby, at the end of the garden, we could look over the fence and see Golgotha — the place of the skull, where Christ was crucified, which is a rock face with hollows and shapes that seem to make a large skull. However, it had partly eroded but postcards from the garden shop showed it used to look more like a skull.
The Mount of Olives gives a magnificient view over the Old City. The western slope is covered in graves, where the richest Jews are buried, believing that they will be resurrected when the Messiah returns there. At the foot of the mount are three tombs of some of King David’s sons, now mostly in ruins, and the Church of All Nations next to the Garden of Gethsemane. The walk up the mount was steep and tiring, but we made it okay, if a bit slowly. A local Arab tried to sell us a ride on the “Jesus Taxi”—i.e. a donkey, but we declined. The valley that runs between this and the Old City, the Kidron Valley, leads down southwards past the site of the old City of David, now built up with Arab housing. Unfortunately, the inhabitants are in the habit of throwing their rubbish down into the valley, and we saw there piles of rubbish including rusting cars, old fridges, appliances, almost anything.
We took a walk down this valley one day to reach the Pool of Siloam at the bottom. This was the most nerve-wracking experience of the whole trip. As we drew closer to where the pool was, a number of local Arabs came down towards us from all directions. They did us no harm, but I think they could have quite easily robbed us, although I do not know what their intentions were. I think that God protected us and kept them at a distance. There was also an Arab boy who walked with us, he had keys in his hand and was asking us if we wanted to see the pool. He, and two men, led us to the pool and opened the locked gate. Normally it would be open all the time, but with the tourist trade so bad places are often closed.
They let us in for a few Shekels. We walked down the old stairs to the pool, where it was cool and peaceful. The water was cool and looked clean, and the Arab man who went down with us told us about the place, how Jesus had healed a blind man here. The boy sat on the side, while we dipped our feet in the water. We offered him money, 10 Shekels (about $2.50) but he refused. This was the first Arab we had seen refuse money. This boy was very well behaved and we felt safe with him.
In Israel the local currency is the Shekel, and there are about 4 Shekels to one American Dollar, 6 Shekels to one British Pound. Although all major world currencies are legal tender here, mostly people liked to be paid in Shekels or US Dollars, so I took plenty of each of those currencies.
Shopping in the Old City is a new experience. Nothing has a set price. There are numerous streets which form the market, very narrow, very old, and with steps up or down everywhere. The shops are very small too, and each shop usually has an Arab in the doorway begging tourists to go into his shop to buy something. With very few tourists, they were desperate for our custom. The goods on sale are varied—lots of intricate ornaments, brightly coloured clothing, a lot of beautiful and interesting items. I managed to get a few items, haggling on price. I was surprised at how well I managed it, being a total newcomer to that form of trade. But we were advised by the hotel staff how to do it; whatever the shopkeeper says is the price, you should offer half, and then he will bring the price down and you keep haggling until you get a price that is mutually agreeable.
We also visited Mount Zion, the place where King David is apparently buried. So much has been built over everything that was there in the Old and New Testament times, it is impossible to say where anything from ancient times is now. But there is a place which is believed to be directly above his tomb, where Jews go to pray, and the local guides like to take tourist’s money and talk about it.
During our stay we walked around most of the Old City, except the Jewish Quarter. It seemed safe enough there, except in crowds and where it was busy. But no bombs or real trouble. We were warned by the hotel staff not to go there in the mid to late afternoon as this is when most pickpockets operate (preying on tired hot tourists).
The new city is quite different, and also worth seeing. A bomb did go off in the new city during our stay, but that day we were in the Old City, and saw it on the news. It was away from any area we subsequently visited.
The Dead Sea is a few miles away (its northern end where the River Jordan flows into it). One of the hotel staff arranged a trip there, hiring a small van with driver, for a good price (he did not want us to get ripped off). He also got some food from Arab shops cheaply (everything is cheaper for local Arabs than for tourists) for us, and we went off to the Dead Sea. This is the sea that is full of salt, where people can float. Be careful not to get it in your eyes. It is also the lowest point on the Earth’s surface, about 400 metres below sea level. Our group included three children who all loved going in the swimming pool that was also there. It was a relaxing day.
The hotel staff where we stayed were very helpful and friendly. They were Palestinians, but certainly nothing like the violent ones you see on television. One said he lives in the mountains near Ramallah, but it is impossible at the moment for us to go there because of the troubles. He said we are welcome to return some time in the future when things are quieter, to visit his home and his family, and also to visit his relatives in Jordan. Another staff member took us to his sister’s home in Jerusalem (he himself lived further north and had quite a journey to get to work), and we enjoyed some Arab hospitality. Their home was small, just one room with bathroom and kitchen, and their main room seemed quite small. Father, mother and three children lived there. They seemed happy enough and their rent was cheap. However, education there is very expensive, especially considering how little they earn compared to British or American workers.
We saw on television the Americans starting to bomb Afghanistan during the Feast. A few hours earlier that day we had heard the sound of supersonic jets flying past, but we could not see them, nor were sure exactly how far away they were. We had news from the BBC on the TV, and sometimes saw some Arabic news.
The police have a strong presence in Jerusalem, especially around and just outside the Old City. On the day when a group of religious zealots annually try to lay a stone to start building a new temple the police were out in force. Some look like regular police, but some wear military uniforms. All carry guns, mostly M16s. They made the place feel safe, in that no one would dare cause trouble with them around.
We saw no trouble there, nothing bad happened to us, and we had an enjoyable Feast time. Worth visiting, when the time is right and the troubles stop.