The best way to understand Jerusalem is to avoid going there. Stick with your prejudices. That will be much more satisfying in the longer term. You may quote me.
A Gentleman with four proteges in hats/kippas in the lobby of the King David Hotel (see somewhere below) with what its Swiss designer believed to be ‘Biblical’ decoration.
Fifty shekels. Where are you going? Okay yes. 50 shekels. I’m here. You’re here. I’ve got a car. Taxi? Of course. This is a taxi. You want to get to the hotel. I will take you. Why are you waiting? Sure my son is in the front seat but I am taking him to music lessons. Electric piano on the back seat is nothing. That is his. It can sit on him. What is your hotel? Sure I know it. You give me 50 shekels and I will take you.
Fifty shekels (20AUD). Probably should have been more like 15, but he had our cases jammed violently into the boot before I could take more than one deep breath. It’s that On Arrival Thing that you discard after use and try never to think of again. Whaddayado? He’s here. We’re here. Who wants to fight over 10 bucks? What am I? I’m tired. We’d left Tashkent at 2.30 in the morning and spent a bad short night on the plane. We had to wrestle with the security at Ben Gurion airport. We want to get to the hotel. The light rail terminus is somewhere here, but the bus station looks like a bomb site and I can’t see anything that looks like a light rail terminus. Plus we’ve just done some heavy duty public transport on the bus from Tel Aviv, the number 893 I think, otherwise unspecified, a strangely informal and anarchic experience. The Israeli army has a lower proportion of officers to soldiers than any other army in the world. This is one of the reasons suggested for the number of Palestinian casualties: 18 year-olds with big guns and not much gravitas making up their own minds about what to shoot at. Maybe once you’ve been brought up Jewish it is assumed responsibility for public order has been internalized and minimal supervision is required. That’s how the bags went into the bowels of the bus; and that’s how they came out. A version of egalitarianism. Help yourself. But get on with it.
So. He takes us. The meter doesn’t get any exercise. Of course. In the front of the small car his young son does sit arranged around a large electric piano keyboard. He dumps us, congratulating us for our choice of destination on the curb of a main-ish road, frantic with traffic like all Jerusalem’s narrow arteries. Where’s the hotel? Down there.
Yeah, well it wasn’t. We were somewhere near but it took us another 15 minutes to actually find it on the other side of the road from where we’d been directed — our very fine hotel with a perfectly adequate room and a huge terrace just for us, completely charming, sympathetic and helpful gay receptionists and a breakfast of simply unparalleled splendor. Really and truly. (Pictured, about one half of the premium food that was on offer at breakfast.)Good enough in fact for our fellow guests to take huge platefuls of same off to their rooms to eat later. Might be another one of those customs you hear about.
But there. We had arrived in Jerusalem.
* * * * * *When we arrived I thought for whatever reason — maybe that sharp hard light — that it looked a bit like Sydney without the harbour, ripples of low white tower blocks, spread for kilometres over the hills, especially their peaks, glarey in the heat.
The next day on our way to the National Museum we found Toorak, Camberwell and Glen Iris.
But we also came across signs like this.For 15 years Lehi — also known, especially among British newspapers, as the ‘Stern Gang’ after its leader, Avraham Stern — was responsible for mayhem and terror including the bombing of various British administrative buildings in Jerusalem and the massacre of several hundred Palestinians at the village of Deir Yassin. (Palestine was a British protectorate as a consequence of the carve up of the Middle East after WWI.)
In one of those weird turn-ups infecting this part of the world, after its formation Lehi, an organisation of Jewish freedom fighters, sought alliances with Nazi Germany (and, as it happens, Fascist Italy) believing they were a lesser enemy of Jews than the British. (Just check back over that sentence again.) To this end, the Ha’avara Agreement was consummated in 1933.
The deal was to fight alongside them against the British in return for the transfer of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine. After Stern’s death in 1942, the new leadership moved their allegiance for a time to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Both Germany and Russia deported significant numbers of Jews, somewhere between half a million and a million, to Palestine.
Around this time a British High Commissioner said to David Ben Gurion, leader of one of the Jewish militias and first Prime Minister of Israel: ‘If you temper your activity it is likely that we will grant Jews independence in Palestine’, to which Ben Gurion replied: ‘You are mistaken sir. Independence is never granted. It is taken.’
One person’s terrorist is someone else’s freedom fighter: a truism, never more relevant than this very day.
After dining at Nagila, a vegetarian restaurant where we ate very well, we walked home through Fitzroy. (Hmmm you’re sure? Okay. A version …)
* * * * * *
Control of Jerusalem since the birth of Christ
- 0 – 390AD Romans (polytheism, Christian after 313)
- 390 – 634 Byzantines (Eastern Orthodox Christianity)
- 634 – 1099 Muslim Caliphates (Islam)
- 1099 – 1187 Crusaders (Roman Christianity)
- 1187 – 1260 Muslim Caliphates (Islam)
- 1260 – 1291 A battle front between Mongols and Mamluks (?)
- 1291 – 1517 Mamluks (Islam)
- 1517 – 1917 Ottomans (Islam)
- 1917ish – 1948 British (Christian)
- 1948 – present State of Israel (Jewish)
Aggregate (approx.): Muslim — 1090 years; Christian — 440 years: Polytheistic — 313 years: Jewish — 70 years
* * * * * *
Jerusalem is the Holy City, yet it has always been a den of superstition, charlatanism and bigotry; the desire and prize of empires, yet of no strategic value; the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes that the city belongs to them alone — the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples, the temple of three religions. …
Jerusalem has a way of disappointing and tormenting both conquerors and visitors. Every visitor in all ages arrives with a vision of the authentic Jerusalem and then is bitterly disappointed by what they find, an ever changing city that has been destroyed and rebuilt many times.…
Holiness requires not just spirituality and faith but also legitimacy and tradition. … and nothing makes a place holier than the competition of another religion.
No other place evokes such a desire for exclusive possession. Yet this jealous zeal is ironic since most of Jerusalem’s shrines, and the stories that go with them, have been borrowed or stolen, belonging formerly to another religion. The city’s past is often imaginary. … Most but not all conquests have been accompanied by the instinct to expunge the taint of other faiths while actually commandeering their traditions, stories and sites.
From Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Jerusalem: The Biography. Montefiore, a distinguished writer and historian is a member of the British Jewish family who could claim to have done more than any other group to establish Israel as a nation state, especially Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) a towering figure in this process and, with his relatives the Rothschilds, in British history more generally.
In more recent times, the Six Day War in 1967 was a marked turning point in Israeli history with a major impact on Jerusalem. In essence Jewish forces destroyed the Egyptian airforce and pursued its ground armies across the Sinai Peninsula to the Red Sea. Some of the land taken during this time has been retained for an expanded Israeli state. (Palestinians refer to this time as an-Naksah ‘The Setback’, and the 1948 partitioning when more than 750,000 Palestinians left Israel as al-Nakbah, ‘the Catastrophe’.)
As part of the Jewish victory spoils in 1967, East Jerusalem was reabsorbed into the city’s municipal boundaries for the first time in 19 years, and Jews returned to the Old City from which they had been expelled by the Arab Legion (among other anomalies, largely populated by Chechen soldiers with British officers) in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
After the 1967 annexation, each religious group was granted administration over its holy sites. For the first time since 1948, Jews could visit the Old City of Jerusalem and pray at the Western (‘Weeping’) Wall, the holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray. Jews remained barred from praying on the Temple Mount although they were allowed to visit. Jews also gained access to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron for the first time since the 14th century. Previously they had only been allowed to pray at the entrance.
The success in the 1967 war generated a world-wide wave of enthusiasm for the Homeland among Jews and support arrived in all imaginable forms. We visited one of these. Jerusalem’s Israel Museum is a world class institution with stunning exhibits.
How could a country of 8.5 million (2 million in 1960) which is 70 years old have such a thing? Read the tags. ‘Donated by the Glimcher family, New York’, ‘by Ada and Gerry Morgenstein, Austin Texas’, ‘by the Schleimann Consortium, Chicago’ and so on. You can see, and feel, how the money has poured in, the vast nation-sized sums of money.
It was here we found this, the Tel Dan stele.Dating from around 900 BC, it provides in ancient Aramaic the first reference outside the Bible to the House of David, slightly weirdly highlighted in white on this stele fragment. Weirdly? Because why you would disfigure this very precious artefact to emphasise a fairly wafty ethnic historical claim? Just a clear account of priorities I guess.
For the sake of interest, it says:
And the King of Israel entered previously into my father’s land. Hadad made me King. And Hadad went in front of me, and I departed from the seven [……]s of my kingdom, and I slew [seventy] kings, who harnessed thou[sands of cha]riots and thousands of horsemen (or: horses). [I killed Jeho]ram son of Ahab King of Israel, and I killed Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram king] of the House of David. And I set their towns into ruins and turned their land into desolation … etc etc. That’s how things rolled in those days.
Nearby, the same age, is this magnificent wall panel, a relief decorated with cuneiform of genies flanking a palm tree suggesting the bestoyal of abundance on the kingdom. It comes from Nimrud, capital for some time of the ancient Assyrian empire and 20km from what is left of Mosul. In 2015 the quite substantial remains of Nimrud were first looted then demolished by bulldozer and explosives by the Taliban. That’s how things roll in these days.It was donated by Baron and Baroness de Rothschild, Paris.
Support is multi-lateral. On one of the walls of the buildings backing onto the Weeping Wall plaza above me in this photo is a sign saying ‘Colel Chabad, Free Kitchen for the Needy, Sponsored by the Luxenberg Family N.Y.’.
One of the most interesting sources of this support was, and remains, the community of Evangelical Christians in the USA who believe that two of the pre-conditions for the Judgement Day were met by the outcomes of the Six Day War: Israel was restored, and Jerusalem was at last fully governed by Jews. Somewhat perversely, after a complex set of events which can now be anticipated, including St Michael fighting the Anti-Christ on the Temple Mount, the outcome will be the conversion or destruction of the Jews, the Second Coming and the Thousand Year Reign of Christ. [Does this in any way help to explain how Donald Trump might come to be re-elected?]
* * * * * *
Fifty shekels. Where are you going? Okay yes. 50 shekels. I’m here. You’re here. Taxi? This is a taxi. Yeah another one. This time outside the museum. We could have walked but it was very hot.
The nature of the deal is such that we both know it’s a rook, if a very low key one. That’s all on the table sitting up, barking. But that’s part of its attraction. We should be pleased if not honoured to be involved in such a transaction, lying back into it, enjoying the frisson of the interaction. The Law is irrelevant, nothing. It’s between us, one human to another. That’s the only way the deal can be made to mean anything. Is he going to get what he wants? Sure. Are we going to get what we want? Sure. Is it going to cost more than it should (Should? What is ‘should’? Pffft)? Most certainly. But for the difference, to accommodate and explain the difference, he’ll add colour. In addition we are going to get entertainment, advice, philosophy.
How old do you think I am? Don’t know. I was born in 1965. Look at me. Do I look like I am 53 or do I look like I am an old man. Mmmm hard to say. I live in Jerusalem. I live under pressure every day. I am an old man. I have seen many things, but like everyone in Jerusalem I live with a weight on my shoulders which is never removed. The missiles? Rockets? Maybe. But I live with the weight of history, all the weight of history that the rockets are a part of. How about moving? What, am I moving? How can I move? I am a Jew living in Jerusalem.
He was most engaging and, as far as his own circumstances went, had a real perceptive sharpness, the keenest eye. I doubt whether he would have had much interest in the nature of other people’s experiences, but he would have been interesting to talk to for longer.
In his lifetime Israel’s Defence Forces have been involved with: 1964–1967 War over Water (control of the Jordan’s resources), 1967 Six-Day War (the Big One), 1967–1970 War of Attrition (hostilities in the Sinai), 1968 Battle of Karameh (vs the PLO), 1973 Operation Spring of Youth (raid on PLO in Lebanon), 1973 Yom Kippur War (major war with three Arab states fought largely in the Sinai and Golan Heights), 1976 Operation Entebbe (hostage rescue), 1978 Operation Litani (PLO in southern Lebanon), 1982 Lebanon War (same), 1982–2000 South Lebanon conflict (with the Christian militias against the Palestinians in the Lebanese religion-based civil war), 1987–1993 First Intifada (Palestinian uprising), 2000–2005 Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), 2002 Operation Defensive Shield (invasion of Palestinian areas for the purposes of counter-terrorism), 2006 Lebanon War (vs Hezbollah), 2008–2009 Operation Cast Lead (Gaza Strip: Palestinian deaths c. 1200; Israeli 13, four from friendly fire), 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense (Gaza counter-terrorism), and 2014 Operation Protective Edge (Gaza counter-terrorism: 2000+ Palestinians killed, 8000 homes razed, 89,000 damaged; 34 known tunnels destroyed, two-thirds of Hamas’ rocket arsenal used or destroyed).
I haven’t included the number of missiles fired by Hamas and Hezbollah at Jerusalem: a lot. This is some weeping sore that Jared Kushner is going to sort out for us.
Our driver dropped us at the Jaffa Gate, its walls pock-marked either side with bullet holes from the 1948 war.
The Holy City looked hot, bright and glarey.The Jaffa Gate is quite small and, for defensive reasons, L-shaped in plan view. What we are looking at is a massive anachronistically paved area which flows from a large break in the wall. Both are consequences of the wish of German Emperor Wilhelm II to enter Jerusalem in 1889 astride his horse just as the Crusaders did in 1099. Just as an aside, such was the slaughter in 1099 blood is described as being calf deep which I can’t believe if only because of the slope of the site. I am however inclined to believe an account which suggests that six months after the bloody entry by the Christians the city still stank quite literally from the carnage. All inhabitants were killed.
We ran the gauntlet of the touts and plunged into David St visible at the end of this plaza. I have just noticed that in this photo you can also see the Mount of Olives with the tower on top of it in on the horizon. We plunged in looking for some sustenance. We went for a menu without prices — salad, hummus, felafel and granita — in a somewhat derelict shop at the butt end of an alley. It was, you may say, satisfactory.* * * * * *
In an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ (2000, 176, 86-90), Bar-El and others identify and describe a specific syndrome which can emerge in tourists to Jerusalem with no previous psychiatric history.
A previously mentally balanced person becoming psychotic soon after arriving in Jerusalem is the most widely evident type of this disease. A distinct pattern of behaviours is noted.
- Anxiety, agitation, nervousness and tension.
- Declaration of the desire to split away from the group or the family and to tour Jerusalem alone.
- A need to be clean and pure: obsession with taking baths and showers; compulsive fingernail and toenail cutting.
- The need to shout psalms or verses from the Bible, or to sing hymns or spirituals loudly.
- A procession or march to one of Jerusalem’s holy places.
- Delivery of a sermon in a holy place. The sermon is typically based on a plea to humankind to adopt a more wholesome, moral, simple way of life. Such sermons are typically ill-prepared and disjointed.
- Paranoid belief that a Jerusalem ‘agency’ is after the individual, causing their symptoms of psychosis through poisoning and medicating.
The authors report 42 examples of such cases studied over a period of 13 years. Critics subsequently have pointed out that Jerusalem has around 3.5 million tourists each year and although several hundred are admitted to mental hospitals, the proportion is no higher than other intensively visited sites.
However when David Ben Gurion returned to Jerusalem in 1948 he did describe the population as ‘20 percent normal, 20 percent privileged, and 60 percent weird’.
* * * * * *
Breakfast this morning hadn’t been quite up to its usual standard, a little bit ragged and we couldn’t get a proper coffee for some reason. Ah, of course … that would be Shabbat. The Sabbath.
And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you. Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work [melakha – מְלָאכָה] therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD …. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. (Exodus 31: 12-17)
It had begun the day before. It was about 2pm and we wanted to go for walk round the Ramparts. Closed. ‘Madam’, the security chaps said, ‘Madam, the word is “closed”. Don’t you know the meaning of the word “closed”?’ And it was closed because of Shabbat which according to the letter of the law begins a few minutes before sunset on Fridays and finishes a few minutes after sunset on Saturday. During that time Orthodox Jews refrain from melakhot, 39 categories of activity. Over the years there must have been some tremendous fun sorting these out. Decades could have been spent on a single sentence, careers made and destroyed by the employment or removal of a single word.
The guidance (rules really) for a tiny subset of one activity, borer.
Examples of Permissible and Prohibited Types of Borer:
- Peeling fruits: Peeling fruits is permissible with the understanding that the fruit will be eaten right away.
- Sorting silverware: Sorting silverware is permitted when the sorter intends to eat the Shabbat meal immediately. Alternatively, if the sorter intends to set up the meal for a later point, it is prohibited.
- Removing items from a mixture: If the desired item is being removed from the mix then this is permissible. If the non-desired item is being removed, the person removing is committing a serious transgression according to the laws of Shabbat.
On a less domestic scale this means a lot of things stop (in Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv): restaurants close, shops and businesses close, no public transport. This is Jaffa Street, the main street, about 3pm on Shabbat.Just round that visible kink in the road there was a coffee shop open, non-kosher, probably run by an Arab or a Palestinian. As we sat there I watched a Jewish family with two young children playing with policemen’s horses before a portly middle-aged Orthodox Jew appeared and began chastising them. I couldn’t understand the language of course, but I did understand his tone and the way they slunk off. You’re supposed to be at home.
Between that point and and the 15 minutes required to walk back to our hotel we were accosted three times by young Orthodox chaps policing the streets asking in a somewhat threatening manner where we were from and if we were Jewish.
About 35 percent of the Jews who live in Jerusalem (65 percent of its population) describe themselves as Haredi, or ultra Orthodox. Haredim average 7.6 children per family, are not likely to participate in the workforce, can avoid conscription, and are disinclined to accept secular authority — a challenge therefore to govern. About 19 percent of Jerusalem’s Jews describe themselves as ‘secular’ (cf. 45 percent in Israel as a whole and 64 percent in Tel Aviv).
At 9.45pm we were starving and thought the restaurants must be open again by now. Surely. But no. That would be the chronological religious insurance policy that we might call the Shabbat Spill Over Effect. In the course of going back to check the vegetarian restaurant we liked, we found an Ethiopian restaurant next door which was open.
One interesting thing about this was that there was a lot of noise coming from a back room. I poked my head around to look and on the telly it was Uruguay v. Portugal (2-1, Ronaldo goes home) being watched by a crowd of young Haredim both using electricity and getting stuck into the grog. That’s certainly not work of course.A second thing was the food. It wasn’t a complete novelty. We’ve been initiated into the delights of this type of African food previously, but there it was in a lane off Jaffa Street, Jerusalem. Mind you, there have been Jews in Ethiopia for at least 15 centuries, so perhaps not a real surprise.
The third was that the only other people in the section of the restaurant where we were sitting was a family, a couple with an 18 year-old girl, from East Bentleigh, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Remarkable enough in itself. They were also Christian Jews — luminously alive (the 18 yo evidently less so) with the fact that they were Christian Jews — and ScoMo-like wanting to testify to the fact. They had brought 80 other Australian Christian Jews to Jerusalem where a world-wide conference of Christian Jews was being held. (Should that be Jewish Christians perhaps? I’m going with what they said.) They were in fact co-organisers of this conference, and the woman of the party was aglow with the experience.
Christian Jews, eh. Why not? Although that’s not everyone’s view. We shared a cab getting back to Ben Gurion airport with a stubby and mature ‘Holocaust Educator’ from Houston Texas who, when we mentioned this, said, ‘What are Christian Jews? You can be Christian. You can be a Jew. Nothing else.’
* * * * * *
About 37,000 people live in the Old City of whom only about 3,000 are Jews. Before 1967, of course, there were none. Jews were banned from living there. Now there are about 6,000 Christians, but more than 70 percent its population is Muslim.
The Muslim Quarter is not generally much frequented by tourists. It has wider streets, less clutter generally, several schools. We were there because we’d wanted to avoid the crowds and to go out through Herod’s Gate to the Arab shopping centre outside the Old City, at left, quite a different proposition to the main Jewish shopping centre a kilometre away.
The Muslim Quarter, or this part of it anyway, also has a different flavour. Rather than being the backdrop for exotic religious theatre there is a clear sense that people really do live here.
The young chap in the pic above gave me a light but cross punch in the back when I was taking a photo of what I imagine to be his school (at left). To which I say, quite right. Tourists probably should stay where the tourists are rather than invade more private precincts. He was more convivial a little later when we bought a granita from his dad.
It was a bit the same when we got something to eat at Uncle Moustache Resturant,a bit prickly at first and then when he discovered we were Australians he became the soul of polite and generous hospitality. And they were very good meals: kebbe (lined up on the side of his fryer), felafel, salad, bread and the best hummus I’ve ever tasted. Cost? Minimal.
A little later we were poking round, still in the Muslim part of the Muslim Quarter, and I saw this erm … neck garment in a shop window. It took my fancy. Who would buy such a thing? Under what circumstances? An intending Cleopatra maybe? Our mate here was only too happy to explain. He had sold two recently, one to an American who came in and didn’t even haggle, just slapped his card down on the desk. Sold. Bang. US$1200 just like that.
He asked me if I liked it. In my most cautious and culturally sensitive fashion I said I thought it was teetering on the edge of being startlingly awful. He said they were his sentiments exactly, and we had bit of a giggle about selling such things.
We had quite a chat, about religion among other things. He didn’t much care for it one way or the other and didn’t feel any compulsion to change his view, a happy atheist, perhaps one of many, swimming along in this religious ocean. He was a lovely guy. In September this year he intends to complete his scuba diving certification near Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef.
Look at the mountain peak. Spicy. Fabulous.
* * * * * *
This photo contains a number of Jerusalem-y items.
A bit of archeology: King OG’s finger (That’s what it says. ‘High monolithic pillar, abandoned because of cracked rock. End of Second Temple era. Discovered 1871’). A bit of kitsch: a fibre glass Lion of Judah. A bit of nationalism: a flutter of Israeli flags. A bit of climate: random banks of air conditioners (Jerusalem is not in Europe, nor is it European. In so many ways it is in the Middle East.) And a bit of discipline/ control: that’s the wall of Jerusalem Prison.
* * * * * *
It was hot. We’d seen the things we had on our list and thought we’d like a swim. Clearly you don’t go to Jerusalem just for a swim, in fact there seemed to be an acute shortage of accessible pools. But then there’s no Nobel Prize for swimming is there, and the beaches of Tel Aviv are not so very far away. The 50m Jerusalem Pool was closed in 2014 after a community campaign that lasted for six years and ended in a judgment by the Israeli Supreme Court. It was replaced with a block of luxury units.
While the presence of a YMCA in Jerusalem caused just a moment’s pause, that it had a pool made perfect sense. Our route took us through a delightful park and within shouting distance of Mr Trump’s new Embassy in Gershon Agron St. We went down George Eliot St and George Washington St to get to King David St, a very grand commercial and institutional thoroughfare, and we found the YMCA okay. It looked something like this, except that that is 80 years ago, and black and white.
It’s not a model. That is the real building. I tried to take a contemporary picture of the tower but I couldn’t, partly because it is so high but also because there were thick stands of trees in the way.
Here’s Elias Messinas in the ‘Jerusalem Post’ describing it: The historic YMCA building on King David street is a truly inspirational architectural jewel in the city, built in 1933 by American architect Arthur Loomis Harmon of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, the architect of the Empire State Building in New York City. The building is a mix of styles, combining stories from the Bible, the New Testament and the Koran, and local architectural historic styles that characterize the city – Herodian, Byzantine, Mameluke, and Ottoman – in its rich decoration. Interior and exterior. For architects and architecture students it is a great site for inspiration, exploration, and sketching — and so indeed it is.
It also says quite a lot about American architecture of the early/ mid 20th century. Hugely ambitious with a presentiment that if you could draw it, it could be built. The interiors in particular are a statement of this sort.
In 1924, Archibald Harte, General Secretary of the International YMCA, raised one million dollars for the construction of this building. Perhaps representative of a time when the US was at the apogee of its idealistic creativity and wealthy open-handedness, Harte had a startlingly detailed vision for a permanent YMCA building in Jerusalem. For years, he cultivated donors who shared his vision of a ‘Sermon in Stone.’
After seven years of construction, the new Jerusalem YMCA was dedicated in 1933 with Lord Appleby’s words: ‘Here is a spot whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.’ Harte retired to his home on the shores of Galilee which, in due course, he bequeathed to the Jerusalem International YMCA as an international conference facility.
There were a few tricks to get to the pool. We needed to walk through the hotel, the rest of the building, at which you are welcome to stay, although: ‘Some guests commented the rooms were small & dated, and that maintenance could be improved. Some guests also said the bathrooms were small & cleanliness could be improved’. But, hey, you are downtown in Jerusalem in a city landmark. Quit moaning.
Down the stairs round the back and into the entrance, all recently refurbished and very nice. This was going to be a very pleasant swim. Myrna went to pay. 95 shekels each. 40 bucks for a swim! Each! How could that be? You can stay for a whole day; you can use the spa; you can sit around … But we just a want a swim for half an hour. Up and down a bit and we’ll be out. No. Is there like a pro rata thing for a short time? No. But this is the YMCA. Creating opportunities to grow in body, mind and spirit; making a positive difference by providing opportunity to each and every person to be healthy, happy and connected. You know, ‘each and every’, ‘connected!’… We’re even members at North Melbourne. Surely … etc. etc. He got sick of us. Shutters down. Clonk. Well that’s the price. Flat and square. Just so very final. The Hard Man of the Jerusalem YMCA. 95 shekels each. Phoooof.
We sat and thought. We had walked some distance and it was hot and a swim really would be quite nice. Aha. Is there a concession maybe? Old people? By the time we’d had this stroke of genius he’d gone and been replaced by a pleasant young woman. Yes indeed there was a concession. 10 shekels. That sounds more like it. 10 shekels. Even erring on the side of generosity. Let’s go. Two people, that will be 170 shekels. Whaaat? 70 bucks! Oh the concession is 10 shekels, not the price of the ticket. Mmmmmph.
I was starting to really feel like a swim, so I said bloody hell okay let’s do it: two old people concessions paying a fortune please. Here’s her Seniors Card and I’m obviously very old. And she said, ah in five minutes time it’s women only for the next two hours.
This is what we missed. Nice, but, even if the Israeli Squad trains here, its still only a pool.
We repaired over the road to the King David Hotel for some lunch to salve the wounds from the battering we had given ourselves.
The King David is another Jerusalem landmark. (See the photo beginning this blog.)
In 1929, Palestine Hotels Ltd. purchased 4.5 acres on Jerusalem’s Julian’s Way, today King David Street. There are photos (above, 1931, from the back, now with a terrace and dramatically re-landscaped) which indicate that it was nakedly out on its own. The only other building nearby was the YMCA (after 1933, but actually visible in part to the left in this photo). I might say that like a lot of buildings in Jerusalem, it is built out of limestone threaded with pink, ochre and a strong chrome yellow, providing an exquisite visual effect.
From its earliest days, the King David Hotel has hosted royalty, often in flight from their kingdoms: for example, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, forced to abdicate in 1931, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, driven out by the Italians in 1936, King George II of Greece, who set up his government in exile at the hotel after the Nazi occupation of his country in 1942. They all lived there on a more or less permanent basis. During the British Mandate (1923-48), the southern wing of the hotel was turned into a British administrative and military headquarters.
On July 22, 1946, the southwestern corner of the hotel was bombed, an attack led by Irgun, another Zionist paramilitary group — 91 people died and 45 people were injured. An earlier attempt to attack the hotel had been foiled when the more ‘official’ Jewish forces learned of it, and warned the British authorities.
When the British Mandate expired (? I have no idea of the correct verb; ‘was relinquished’ perhaps?) in 1948, the building became a Jewish stronghold and an important venue for politicking. It also, just as it happened, was right on the armistice line that divided Jerusalem into Israeli and Jordanian territory. So from your room you could reach your arm out more or less into No Man’s Land. In a gesture of confidence, when East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War, the hotel added two floors.
The last ten US Presidents have all stayed there. And Prince Charles. And Madonna. But none of them appeared to be there while we were ordering our smoked salmon and beer for the terrace. Similar price level to over the road but it was food and delicious and the service was exemplary. We were overlooking the hotel’s back garden and its 50m pool which looked extraordinary. Our waiter thought it might be 200-300 shekels for a swim down there. We let it go.
For dinner that night we had sushi and Maccas at the food court of a supermarket/ medical centre built into the heart of a military post in the Israeli countryside. Russia beat Spain on penalties. Next day we were in Montenegro.
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This is where this series of blogs began, the Muslim Street in Xi ‘An. China.
On our first night in Jerusalem we had eaten our vegetarian meal and needed a bit of a wander round before sleep. A random path took us west towards some noise and suddenly we found ourselves in the Mahane Yehuda markets, even while winding down brimming with noise and vitality. The little bar/ eateries were going full tilt with crowds clustered around TV sets with the soccer on (England v Belgium, 0-1), some people watching, some people not, most engaged in rowdy conversation. Pastries, confectionary, halva, fruit, vegetables, spices, shashlik, two dozen sorts of meat in bread, groceries, pies and other baked goods, but above all drinks and noise.
It was just so like Xi ‘An 6720km away. The hats were different but not by much, only by about 50mm of raised collar.It struck me many times on this trip, that regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion or any other barrier, how hard it is to stop people socialising. Among other things commerce crosses all borders and, as that smart American gentleman quoted at the very start wrote, when it stops we’re in trouble. Soldiers become the substitute.
The prospect of making money will take people on all sorts adventures as will simple human curiosity. These things often exist in combination as I am sure they must have in Zhang Qian, the first recorded person to make the long and extraordinarily arduous journey from eastern to central Asia, and back again with a new family, an injection of Sogdian or possibly Uyghur into the Han population. Did anyone object I wonder? Was it a subject of gossip at court, or was his standing so elevated that convention and politesse put a plug into the mouths of the rakers and purveyors of muck?
Romeo and Juliet relies on an archetype of transcendent relationships: amor vincit omnia, romantic attraction conquering by taking no account of, disregarding, the artificiality of social barriers. At every national/ ethnic/ racial intersection on the Roads, and of course elsewhere, there is muddle of inter-relationships, extending far beyond borderlands. It’s everywhere.
And that was as true of the various forms of religion which had been our constant companions, from the impossibly paradoxical attitude to Islam in China — celebrated wildly in Xi ‘An, subject to a vicious crackdown in Urumqi — to the furious muddle of religiosity manifest in parts of Jerusalem. What did Simon Montefiore write? Most but not all conquests have been accompanied by the instinct to expunge the taint of other faiths while actually commandeering their traditions, stories and sites.
Religions ought to be studied in school. Ought to be, … but not as taught by people from ACCESS Ministries’ Christian Religious Education. So much can be learnt from the study of various religions, from the extraordinary insight into human motivation and marketing genius of the Roman Catholic church to the phenomenal talent for narrative embroidery of Japanese Shingon Buddhists. If we want to understand human nature, they provide some of the most accessible entry points.
And we would also find this.
Everywhere too is a history of dominant groups trying to change that muddle of inter-relationships, trying to tidy up and get things in a bit of order. Push them out, pull them in, stick those ones in gaol, kill them over there, shift that annoying border — trying to assert rights of ownership to property through often spurious longevity or history, or even religious edict. This of course is just as human as commerce and curiosity. You could call it the triumph of the irrational, except that that gives rationality a standing that might be hard to justify.
What is left in our formal histories is the big events and the big names — Darius, Alexander, Baldwin, Chinggis Khan, Temur the Lame, Stalin, Mao — all killers, all generators of cataclysm, all disruptors, the people who asserted their dominance through conquest and separation, the people who buggered things up properly. They must get their run in any history of the Silk Roads, but another and just as real historical story, here and elsewhere, is what happened despite them.
Swapping stories, exchanging items of clothing, going on visits, providing guests with food and shelter, doing deals: that’s more like it. There are thousands of differently coloured tracks contributing to what was never single highway, just a great swarm of activity moving indiscriminately but animated by all the things that make us human. That’s what we had been part of.