About the Blog

I recently accepted a position from Teach and Learn with Georgia, a Georgian Ministry of Education program designed to bring native speakers of English into classrooms around the country. I will be moving to Georgia in August of 2014 to begin my assignment.

Before this latest adventure, I studied at Bogazici University in Istanbul Turkey and at Azerbaijan University of Languages. I speak English German Spanish, Turkish Azerbaijani and Uzbek and am currently trying my hand at Georgian.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jerusalem's Allure

Me on the Mount of Olives
I didn’t expect to cry at the Western Wall. I hope people who have been reading this aren’t getting the impression that I’m the stereotypical blubbering female. I can assure you that I’m not. I’m not some hard ass punk rocker chick either but I consider myself to have a fairly tough exterior and I rarely cry in public. Funerals are just about it. Religious experiences also rarely have this effect on me but like I said, it’s pretty rare. I had expected the Wailing Wall to be a more cultural experience like visiting a mosque. These too are beautiful spiritual places—but it isn’t my form of spirituality. I appreciate them but it’s a very different than being in a church for me. I actually went to the Western Wall twice. The first time I just sat and watched and listened. I was there on a Friday around noon, I know that I shouldn’t try to go much later since the Sabbath would be starting in a few hours. The area was already buzzing and I observed with interest the comings and goings of both worshippers and tourists like myself. I made a loop and getting lost, ended up back at the wall. I noticed then that they were letting visitors approach the wall. I had assumed that the natural worship areas would be off limits but apparently no. They had modesty police at each entrance and I watched one women who was told to cover her shoulders say “well, in that case never mind”.  I don’t understand people who get annoyed by modesty policies at religious sites. They’re already letting you in, what else do you want? I was deemed suitable in my long pants and t-shirt but out of habit, and respect, I placed my scarf over my head and arranged it to cover my chest and neck. I walked slowly towards the wall and waited until a small place where I would be able to touch it opened up. I placed my full palm on the stones, uneven, but perfectly smoother from years of wear. I stayed only a few moments knowing that the true faithful were waiting on me. I left a prayer walked backwards towards the exit and left. But in that moment at the wall the full emotional burden of the place hit me. My chest tightened in that way which makes you know years are coming. And so they did, small and silent though as I left I think a few people noticed them. I don’t often cry in public but when I do I refuse to be ashamed of it. I don’t use tears to het what I want to influence or persuade. They are a reflection of me and I refuse to be ashamed of myself.  
The Western Wall
Leaving the wall I was accosted by an Orthodox man. He wanted a donation for something. I was going to keep walking but being from the Midwest it makes me feel like a jerk to not be friendly and he wasn’t threatening at all either. Before I knew it he had ascertained my name and hometown (I go by Hannah from Chicago when I travel) and given this combination plus location I’m fairly certain he decided that I was Jewish. He proceeded to tie a piece of red yarn on my right wrist, and even more surprising to me, placed his hand on my head and gave me a blessing for Shabbat asking for the best for me and my family and that I would find a nice boy and get married soon. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I probably won’t be having any Jewish babies. 
Street sign in Jerusalem
I didn’t end up making it to the Dome of the Rock. The current policy is that non-Muslims are only let into a single gate of the compound and are only allowed access to certain parts of it and only during certain times during the day. What these times are, I could not tell you. I tried to go 4 times at least and was turned back each and every time. Short faith pop-quizzes are also administered by the guards to make sure that anyone who says that they are a Muslim actually is. One girl in my hostel was brushing up on her basic prayers so that she could get in the next day. It all seems rather complex to me. But I got to see the complex from a distance so I cannot complain. The golden dome stands out so much from the city, which from a distance up in the hills seems a sort of light brown beige color, like sand. It looks fragile like sand too, small and tight and yet this city has survived attacks, retreats, being razed to the ground, burnings, massacres, revolts, rebellions, repression and all the rest. I read somewhere that Jerusalem is like a jewel, hard and bright and resilient. It’s an apt description of this city which has been Holy for so many over the years and yet through all the adoration and turmoil, has managed to survive.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was a remarkable place. It took me a while to get in since it was Orthodox Good Friday. They are only a few things in this world that I am afraid of, but one that I readily admit to is Russian grandmothers. Old Russian women terrify me. Tough as nails and then some, and not afraid to prove it. I have learned not to mess with older women while traveling, because they will always win. I learned something in Jerusalem though. If I find old Russian women terrifying, when they are on pilgrimage this fear is multiplied 10-fold. The crowds to get into the church were tightly packed and roadblocks had been set up to prevent too many people from getting to the church at a single time. The policemen or guards or whatever they were manning them did not radiate charm into the crowd. They were brusque and tempers were running high. I got stopped twice, once on the road to the church and then again before entering the front courtyard. This second time I was waiting for an eternity in the crowd in the hot sun and considered turning back, but being stubborn, I did not. Eventually we were let in through the tiny arched stone doorway and I was swept along with the sea of pilgrims to the church, whose façade I expected to be far more ostentatious. Since no single denomination has full control over the church the architecture does not really has a distinct style. It looks old and stone with strange additions jutting out at various angles. The exterior just isn’t pretty. The interior is a maze, with chapels, monasteries, crypts, and hidden rooms everywhere. Some are up a floor, though where the stairs are I could not tell you. Others are only up a few steps, some down long flights into the cellar, others you have to go through several rooms to get to the inner one. At the center (I think, I was pretty turned around) is a large central room and a smaller structure sits at its center. Pilgrims were ducking in and then leaving, though only a few were selected for this special honor. The walls of the church that go unclaimed by any particular group are unadorned, with the claimed spaces making up for it, being festooned with murals, icons, chalices, censers, candlesticks, embroidery, altars and all the lavish paraphernalia of the Eastern church that I can’t help but like. People were everywhere, taking pictures, lighting candles every which where (how the whole place hasn’t been accidentally burned down is beyond me) kissing, touching and even throwing things onto icons so that they might be blessed. A few men from Holy Orders wandered around with pilgrims speaking to them every few steps that they took. The bustle of the place was both deeply
The Church at the Tomb of Mary
overwhelming and perfectly satisfying. Everyone was excited for Easter, for the resurrection. Some people were settling down in the church for the ceremony of the Holy Fire, where a fire magically starts in the inner chamber and is then carried out distributed to everyone waiting in the church, around the church and to all the places of worship in Jerusalem and then further afield. The footage from this year shows an elderly orthodox priest sitting on the shoulders of several men who sprint out of the chamber and the crowd surges forward as everyone tries to light their torches and candles with the sacred flame. I did not make it to the ceremony, but I’m not disappointed. I saw the church. I walked the Via Dolorosa, where Christ made His final journey. I climbed the Mount of Olives, where His Ascension took place. I saw the Pool of Bethesda where He healed a sick man, and several churches that claimed to the site of the Garden of Gethsemane, where He prayed His last night. I do not need a mysterious ceremony to tell me that this city is Holy and beautiful and full of life after thousands of years of bloodshed. The city tells me that for itself.

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