Day 8: Herodium, and Jerusalem phase 1

So when I believed yesterday that there would be a halt in the incessant tel-visiting, it turned out that it was a lie.  Because what was the first thing we did today?  Climb a tel.  And not just any tel.  A tel twice as high as a normal tel.  Because what tel was it?  It was Herodium, built by the eponymous Herod the Great because, hey, you know what you get for the man who already has ten fortresses?  An eleventh, of course!

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Herod decided he wanted his nice shiny new palace fortress to overlook the city of Jerusalem, and when it was gently explained to him that none of the hills in the nearby country were tall enough to make that happened, he told his engineers to take one hill and put it on top of another.  Herod literally moved mountains to get that fortress together.  Which gives Matthew 17:20–about what faith the size of mustard can do–a different kind of spin.  And also results in a great view.

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After touring Herodium and looking at the giant wooden shack enclosing Herod’s Tomb–because that’s still being excavated, btw, having only been discovered in 2007–we travelled into Jerusalem.  We stopped outside the city at the Haas Promenade to take it all in:

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And then we beelined for the Old City, arriving at the Western Wall.  It was a very special place, as I’m sure you can imagine.  To see hands touching the walls and bodies rocking and prayers stuffed in ever crevice in the wall is unforgettable.  But there’s also the force of contrast, since there’s not only the devout but also the tourists and everyone in between, all flocking to the same site.

Men and women are segregated here, and on the men’s side there’s the entrance to a Talmudic library–basically a library of Jewish law.  Ironically, the two people most excited to get to see something like that in our group were both women. 

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The Western Wall is the edge of an enormous wall that once formed one side of a likewise enormous platform on which the Temple rested, as we got to see later on a scale model of Jerusalem around the time of Jesus:

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When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., they also tried to destroy the platform walls, but friends, those stones are enormous, and are fitted together so precisely that you can’t even fit a knife between some of those stones.  So the remains are still very much there, though a lot is buried under new building the city has undergone.  But you can totally tour the buried portions in the Western Wall tour, which we did.  It’s incredible how much there is under the city. 

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Incidentally, on the way back we got to walk through the Muslim Quarter of the city, which was AMAZING.  They had the most interesting-looking shops, and the coffee.  Oh, the coffeeshops.  There were ornate coffee pots and delicious smells and pastries with dates in them, and just enough that was mysterious because it was going by in a rush and blur of colors and sounds and smells that now I really want to go back. 

When passing into the Jewish quarter, we had to empty our pockets and go through metal detectors, under the eyes of Israeli army soldiers: mostly kids younger than I am who are casually slinging AK-47s.  (Not casually.  Very responsibly.  It’s just weird to see assault rifles in market streets and tourist spots.  I hardly need to tell you this.)

Lunch happened on an “every person for themselves!” sort of experiment, which was necessary, because a horde of 43 descending on a single shawarma shop in Old City Jerusalem would just be mean.  But we all managed to feed ourselves and not get lost and meet on time at the prescribed spot, which I felt was really quite an achievement.  And some of us even managed to find ice cream at a shop featuring the single most fabulous word I’ve seen on a sweet shop sign:

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“Sugariness” should definitely be an option on more menus.  Possibly “cookis” too.

The afternoon was devoted to museum-y type stuff, including that tour of the scale model of Jerusalem I mentioned before.  That model was tremendously helpful in getting a working picture/map of Old City Jerusalem into my head, and was awesome for help in visualizing the Temple, but possibly the very best part was when the raven landed in the middle of the 1:50 scale model and stalked around like Godzilla:

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The scale model was followed by a visit to the Shrine of the Book, where fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls are on display, as well as pieces of the Aleppo Codex: an early medieval copy of the Bible, and one of the four oldest Bibles (we call them “codices”) we had before we found the Dead Sea scrolls, which are over 800 years older.  The Aleppo Codex, it turns out, has a fascinating history of getting moved around all over the place.  It was commissioned in Tiberius, the town we stayed in on the Sea of Galilee!  That makes total sense, because Tiberius was a sort of home for rabbinic Judaism after the fall of the Second Temple.  But then the Codex ended up in Egypt, then in Aleppo, then it was smuggled back into Israel in the 1950s, and all along the way it seemed in constant danger of being lost or stolen or destroyed.  It could basically have its own movie, is what I’m trying to say here.

After the Shrine, we went to the Israel Museum, where my brain immediately short-circuited in the face of rooms and rooms and rooms of artifacts and only 80 minutes to explore.  Lord, have mercy.  Lands of the Bible study group, you all have no idea what a blessing you were to me at this point, because putting that class together was the only thing that helped me focus enough to get through the museum without everything being a wonderful blur.  I kept recognizing artifacts we talked about, like the silver amulets from around 600 B.C.E. with the Benediction we still use every Sunday (“May the Lord bless and keep you”) on them:

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And the one stone that mentions Pontius Pilate we’ve ever found that was originally at Caesarea Maritime:

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And the Caiaphas ossuary, where perhaps the bones of that high priest were entombed, which is even prettier in real life than in pictures:

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And more.  Lots more.  So much more.  I had to practically sprint through entire wings.  I was so sad and so happy at the same time.  There were so many wonderful things to see, and no possible way to see all of them.  It was like being a kid in a candy shop, except that I’d been in a candy shop already that day, and actually this was better.

We loaded our tired selves back into the bus and went to our hotel once the museum closed at five.  I think we’re all a bit tired.  We’ve been going at 110 m.p.h. all week, and we’ve still got another week to go!  And we’re in Jerusalem, for crying out loud.  And there is something different about being here, something that feels more real, in a way, than other places in the Holy Land.  It’s like Jerusalem is a concentrated version of everything we’ve been encountering already–all the different religions, the political tension, the sense of ancientness and history–with aggressive street vendors thrown in.  It’s intense, to say the least.

Tomorrow we’re doing more of Jerusalem, including a bit I’m really looking forward to–Hezekiah’s Tunnel!

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