In February of 1998 I was invited by the UN to conduct two GIS software training classes for the Palestinian Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation (MOPIC). One of the classes would be in Gaza and the other in Ramallah, the Palestinian capitol in the West Bank. My trip began with a flight to Vienna and then on to Ben Gurion airport located halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My UN contact, Ms. Giovanna O’Donnell, a Somali national who spoke fluent Arabic, met me at the airport and soon we were in a taxi on our way to the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian section of the city. From my hotel balcony I had a beautiful view of the hills surrounding the city. (It should be noted that this was a time when the threat of a war with Iraq was very real and came to fruition a few years later in Operation Iraqi Freedom) The following morning we took a taxi south to the Gaza Strip, making a short stop at an old Trappist monastery in Latroun, famous for its vineyards and fine wines. The old monastery resembled a large Italian estate built from beautiful local yellow sandstone, sitting amid vast fields and orchards.
We purchased a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from the winery since there would be no chance to buy any in Gaza. As we drove through many of the small Israeli towns we saw many soldiers carrying duffel bags and with machine guns slung over their shoulder, waiting for buses and to report for duty, in case of possible war with Iraq! When we reached the Israeli army checkpoint on the border with the Gaza Strip it was heavily barricaded and fortified with guard towers, high concrete walls, searchlights, and lots of barbed wire! Our passports were checked by several soldiers and permits to enter Gaza were issued, but only after many questions about our purpose for travelling to Gaza. (the week in Gaza will be another story)
At the end of the training class in Gaza, Frank, a Norwegian aid worker, along with one of the Palestinians from the class, picked us up at the hotel and took us on a wild ride through the crowded streets of Gaza City, past one of the many refugee camps and on to the heavily fortified Israeli Army border crossing. Since our Palestinian taxi was not allowed to cross the border, we had to get out of the car and haul our luggage through the 100 meter “no man’s land” to the Israeli side, where we would pick up an Israeli taxi. Our documents were checked again and our luggage searched before being allowed to exit the border post. As I passed through Israeli immigration control I felt like I was leaving prison! Meanwhile, we had to wait for our Palestinian colleague to pass through a much higher level of security. The whole process was very complicated and time-consuming, yet many Palestinians make the crossing every day to work in Israel.
Our taxi ride back to Jerusalem passed through verdant farmland and modern, neat Israeli towns. Finally, we arrived in East Jerusalem as a light rain began to fall and dusk descended upon us. Being the beginning of the Sabbath, our taxi had to take a longer route to avoid the Orthodox Jewish areas which were closed to traffic. My room at the Ambassador Hotel had a beautiful view overlooking the Mount of Olives. The next morning I took a taxi to the Ministry of Planning headquarters in Ramallah, just a few kms north of Jerusalem.
We had to pass through an Israeli army checkpoint where the Palestinian National Authority controlled the area on the right side and the Israelis controlled the left side. I learned later that “commuters” sometimes faced very long delays in crossing into and out of Jerusalem, resulting in many people arriving late for work! (on a side note, the taxi was from the “25 Hour Taxi Company”) Upon arriving at the training classroom it became necessary to remove the large portrait of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in order for me to project my slides. I hoped that Yasser didn’t hear about it. After a long day of training, our Palestinian representative, Michael, met me at the hotel and invited me for dinner at a traditional Arabic restaurant in Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem. The restaurant was located in the middle of a 100 meter long zone between two Israeli army checkpoints! In traditional Arabic hospitality, Michael ordered lots of food, including several dishes of mezzes (Arabic appetizers). There were cold salads, hummus, olives, and hot, fresh pita bread. Then came lamb shish tawook and spiced beef kabobs, followed by a huge bowl of fresh fruit for dessert, including a large grapefruit-like fruit called Pommel. We finished dinner with a small cup of strong Arabic coffee and a glass of an Anise flavored liquor called “Arak”, which was very much like Greek “Ouzo” and Turkish “Rakni”. Michael was a very gracious host and someone I would come to know as a good friend. As we drove back to Jerusalem, the sight of the Old City wall lighted at night, shining high on the hill, with the golden stone in sharp contrast against the pitch black sky was spectacular!
After the training class the next day, which ended at 2:30pm, I changed clothes, put on hiking boots, grabbed my camera , my guidebook and headed down to the Old City. I had intended to walk along Nablus Road , which according to the map would lead me directly to Damascus Gate.
But somehow I “leaned” too much to the east and walked through an old Arabic shopping area before coming to Herod’s Gate instead. As I entered the Old City, I found myself immediately “engulfed” in a slow moving “sea of humanity”, winding its way down into the dark, narrow streets of the Arab Quarter, known as the “Souq”. At first it was a very eerie, claustrophobic feeling, but after awhile, I found myself adjusting to the “current” and began “swimming with the rest of the fish” – so to speak! Even though I had studied the map of the Old City before, and even checked it several times along the way as I “flowed” with the crowd, I found it difficult to orient myself and make my way to a particular place – so I decided to just “wander” in whatever direction that looked interesting!
As I looked around, the narrow streets, which were covered by tent awnings in many places, resembled “tunnels”, even on a sunny day. In some places there were small, arched doorways, barely large enough for a person to “squeeze” through, and often with steep stone steps descending into total darkness. (who knows what lurks beneath the Old City!) On either side of the narrow, dark, crowded streets were small shops selling everything from A to Z. As I passed the spice shops, the smell of exotic fragrances was often overwhelming at times. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the Arabic Souq were a real challenge to the senses – at times overpowering, and yet utterly unique and fascinating!
I wandered along through the Souq until I spotted a doorway to my right which looked inviting, so I turned and followed a much less crowded street that lead me to a small square next to the “Lutheran Church of the Redeemer”.
Surrounding the square were countless small souvenir shops with their owners standing out front hawking their wares. I declined to buy any of the cheap items by ignoring their questions – “Hello, how are you my brother. You want to see my shop?” As I wandered around the area, I suddenly found myself back where I had started! (so easy to do in the Old City) I had been trying to follow the map to find the “Church of the Holy Sepulchre”, and when I turned the corner and entered a large courtyard I suddenly found myself in front of the church!
It was “managed” by several Christian sects from around the world, each with their own special areas and separate hours for visiting. I entered the massive main door and stepped into a dark, smoky cathedral with a narrow passageway leading to a small underground chapel, from which I could hear the faint echoes of chanting. I followed the beautiful, eerie sound and came to a place where a priest and a group of monks stood in front of an alter, chanting verses from their liturgy – reading the small hymnals by the dim light of a small candle that each of them carried. It was a beautiful and ethereal experience in which I became lost in another world – very memorable!
Suddenly they all turned and began climbing the stone steps leading up and out of the chapel, and before I knew it, I found myself in the middle of a procession that lead to another chapel upstairs. There the priest offered lots of sweet, pungent incense in front of a richly decorated alter that had several large silver icons, and was lit by hundreds of candles and old oil lamps. It was a scene from a thousand years ago! Soon the “procession” moved on, now joined by a large group of elderly nuns from eastern Europe. They knew all the responses to chant along with the monks. Being the only one not chanting along in Latin, I began to feel conspicuously out of place, but no one seemed to notice, as they were almost in a trance-like state. Soon we all stopped in front of a large wooden structure situated under an elaborate gold and marble basilica. When the small wooden door was finally opened, we found ourselves standing at the entrance to the “Holy Sepulchre” – the site believed to be the tomb of Christ, and one of the most holy sites in the world for all Christians!
Nearby was the site where Christ was crucified, his body anointed, and then buried in the tomb (aka cave), now preserved in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Later in the afternoon, as I sat in an outdoor café in the Jewish Quarter, I had to pinch myself as I reflected back on the incredible experience I had just witnessed.
As evening approached, I walked to a terrace overlooking the eastern part of the Old City, where there was a stunning view of the Western Wall of the Old Jewish Temple, now known to all Jews as the “Wailing Wall”. And just beyond stood the brilliant golden “Dome of the Rock Mosque”, one of the holiest sites in the Muslim world.
As I marveled at the scene, I couldn’t help feeling how truly “ironic” was the western wall of the old temple, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, but which served to divide them! It’s so amazing that the very same stone could be capable of such power. In order to approach the wall, I had to go through an Israeli army checkpoint. There were separate areas of the Wailing Wall for men and women. I stood there watching a scene of men in very traditional Orthodox Jewish dress (long black coat, large round black fur hat, black shoes) with full beard and long, braided pigtails, standing face to face with the ancient stone wall, and going through their complicated rituals. All were making emotional appeals to God on behalf of something of obvious importance in their lives. As I watched the scene unfold in front of me, it felt as if I was watching a documentary film, except it was no film – it was real life!
Looking back, it was an incredible experience, to be standing at the center of the world for all western religions – a moment I will never forget! As I walked from the Wailing Wall back into the Arab Quarter, I soon found myself on a narrow street named “Via Delarosa”. Walking along I saw a small shop named “Souvenirs at the 12th Station”, and it was at that point I realized I was walking the same route as Christ on his way to the crucifixion! Christians everywhere know this route as the “way of the twelve stations of the cross”, and during the time of Easter, thousands of devout Christians make the pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of Christ. By the time I reached the end of the Via Delarosa, the sun was setting and the dimly lit streets were becoming very dark. As I reached Damascus Gate, most people were leaving the Old City, madly rushing to catch taxis and mini-buses along the crowded, noisy street. Exiting the gate, I climbed the old stone steps and looked back to see the ancient stone wall illuminated by hundreds of floodlights, making the wall glow softly in the dark night. (had it been Disneyland, I’m sure there would have been fireworks and a laser lightshow to end the evening, thankfully not here!)
I walked back to the American Colony Hotel through dark, crowded streets, and went to the Cellar Bar for a drink before dinner. The bar had been converted from the estate’s original wine cellar and retained much of its ambience. It was very cozy and comfortable, and as I sat with a large, cold glass of Carlsberg, I heard the sound of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York”. Then, all of a sudden, Frank was “drowned out” by the evening call to prayer, at full volume, from the mosque next door! The “duet” was not pleasant, and the “duel” was clearly won by the caller in the mosque, not Frank! Leaving the Cellar Bar, I went upstairs to the restaurant overlooking the pool. There was a nice fire burning in the huge fireplace that took the chill out of the night.
Dinner was fabulous – grilled lamb tenderloin, topped with a wafer-thin slice of eggplant and covered in fresh mushrooms and garlic sauce. It was incredibly tender and delicious, accompanied very well with a half bottle of Israeli red wine. I finished dinner with a traditional Arabic dessert of creamed rice pudding, served with a small cup of strong Arabic coffee.
The next morning, and every morning for the next five days, I took a taxi to Ramallah, through the Israeli army checkpoint, conducted the training class, and then a taxi back to my hotel in East Jerusalem, once again through the checkpoint. Passing through the checkpoint could take anywhere from 15 minutes to more than an hour, depending on the amount of traffic, the level of “aggression” of the taxi driver, and most importantly, the “mood” of the Israeli army soldiers! What I never understood was the cost of the taxi, which was 35 shekels to Ramallah, but only 20 shekels for the return trip to Jerusalem. One afternoon, after the class, I walked down to the Old City under beautiful blue skies and once again sat at the Terrace Café in the Jewish Quarter. The café had the most spectacular view of the Old City, overlooking the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock Mosque, with its golden dome shining brilliantly in the sunshine. And just beyond, outside the wall, was the Mount of Olives , which is the site of a large Jewish cemetery and where it is believed that Jesus ascended to heaven. So much ancient history was there before my eyes – once more I had to pinch myself to really believe it wasn’t all a dream! As evening approached, I visited the Wailing Wall again and then exited the Old City through the Dung Gate to explore the ancient ruins of “David’s City”.
Ironically, the Old City of Jerusalem was built upon the crumbling 3000 year old stone walls of David’s City. It appeared as if the entire area was a series of remains from several civilizations, each built upon the one before it. That makes one wonder just who was “first”? Everywhere around Jerusalem new construction was underway and everywhere it constantly encountered the remains of an older era. Perhaps it was like building on top of an “archeological waste disposal site”. In many areas of the Old City, the present level of the streets was sometimes two feet above the level of the floors in the adjacent buildings, having been raised by the accumulation of waste from many generations of residents!
After a dinner of traditional Jewish corned beef sandwich and potato salad at a small New York style deli in the Jewish Quarter, I walked through the Armenian Quarter to a very old part of the city called David’s Tower. It forms what remains of an ancient gate to the city, which at one time was surrounded by a deep moat. As I walked back to the hotel that evening, I passed a large sign for “Holy City Rent-A-Car”, if one dared to drive in the chaotic traffic! The following morning, on my daily taxi ride to Ramallah, I got quite an earful from the driver about the inequities and injustices of the current Israeli/Palestinian situation – he was very emotional, with a deep undercurrent of anger, yet he still wanted peace. (I found that was a very common and pragmatic view shared by the majority of Palestinians that I met) After class the next day, I once again walked down to the Old City and passed a lot of tour buses, one of which caught my eye, having a sign in the front window that read “Reverend Snipe’s Guiding Light Tours”. It begged the question of who was the Rev’s guide? Upon reaching the Old City, I walked to the entrance leading to the Dome of the Rock Mosque, but I was prevented from entering by Israeli army soldiers who told me it was closed to all non-Muslims until Saturday. So I wandered around the old streets and did a bit of shopping, where I found some posters of ancient Jewish prayers inscribed in beautiful Hebrew script. Returning to the hotel that evening, I met up with Frank, along with another Norwegian aid worker, and we drove to the “Al-Karawan restaurant” in Bethlehem for dinner with Michael. As usual, it was a huge table of 20 different dishes of delicious mezzes, excellent tabbouleh, and a massive plate of many grilled meats, including a very tasty lamb shish kabob. After dinner, Michael ordered a bottle of Rakni and a couple of Hookahs (water pipes). Then came a large plate of fresh fruit, with oranges, bananas, persimmons, tangerines, and a large Pommel. Finally, after being totally stuffed, as is the Arabic custom of hospitality, we were served a cup of strong Arabic coffee. Then it was time to drive back to Jerusalem, once again through an Israeli army checkpoint.
The next morning was the beginning of the weekend and Frank Frank invited me to join him and his Norwegian colleagues for a day trip to the historic town of Nablus, north of Jerusalem. After passing through several Israeli army checkpoints, we were beyond the crowded urban area and into a beautiful pastoral countryside of new green grass, wildflowers, and blossoming almond trees, all celebrating the beginning of spring. As we descended into the Shiloh Valley, the hills became lovely terraced fields built from the local white limestone, probably well over 2000 years ago. All of the fields were neatly cultivated with new crops, as well as olive and almond groves sporting new blossoms.
Occasionally there were large fields of brilliant red poppies. As we descended from the hills of Jerusalem, we had gorgeous views of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, many thousands of feet below. On the road to Nablus we passed through the region of Samaria, the homeland of the legendary Samaritans, an ancient tribe with a rich culture thousands of years old. Nearby was the small village of Sebestaya where we found some very well preserved Roman and Greek ruins, including a large forum and amphitheater.
The site also had many old Roman tombs, as well as an ancient church where the body of Saint John the Baptist was buried, although his head remains buried beneath the Umayyad Mosque (Great Mosque) in Damascus. Early in the afternoon we arrived in Nablus, a very old city established over 2000 years ago. Besides the historical sites in the city, the thing I remember most was the sight of old, aging electric lines and rusting water pipes in very precarious positions. We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant run by a Palestinian refugee from Kuwait.
As we enjoyed lunch outside on the street, lots of children came by, constantly asking “what’s your name?” or “how are you”, but that was pretty much the extent of their English. We finished lunch with a cup of strong Arabic coffee flavored with Cardamom, and then came a traditional dessert known as “Kanofle – a delicious dish of toasted shredded wheat, honey, pistachios, and soft cheese. On our return to Jerusalem, we stopped at “Jacob’s Well” to partake of the water from a 2500 year old spring, the same spring from which Christ also drank 2000 years ago! It was an amazing moment and we were given small bottles of the water as we left. Later in the evening, as we approached Ramallah, we passed many new Israeli “settlements”, which were always located on the highest hills and surrounded by high concrete walls topped with barbed wire, tall guard towers, and high powered searchlights! They all looked like military installations or prisons – perhaps the “residents” also felt like prisoners, especially since they needed an army escort whenever they had to leave the settlement, as all of the settlements were located in the West Bank, Palestinian territory.
After the training class the next day, I walked up the hill to the new Hyatt Regency Hotel, situated in West Jerusalem behind the large Central Police Headquarters compound. From the hotel lobby bar there was a spectacular view of Jerusalem and the Old City, beautifully lighted in the evening. From looking at the “Shabbat menu” and seeing the inhouse Synagogue, as well as the “Shabbat door” and the Kosher restaurant, it became clear the hotel was specifically designed for American Jews. As I sat down to enjoy a cold glass of local Goldstar beer, writing in my journal, I overheard many conversations in a thick New York accent. The design of the hotel was beautiful, with lots of gorgeous white limestone, as well as a stunning view of the city and surrounding hills. But in comparison to the American Colony Hotel, it seemed to be a very sterile place. So after finishing my beer, I walked back down the hill to my hotel, but as I encountered an area of road construction, I stumbled and fell head first onto the sharp edge of the asphalt pavement. I hit my head really hard, knocking out one of the lenses in my eyeglasses. Immediately I felt blood streaming down my face, but I made sure to pick up the loose lens before grabbing my handkerchief to stem the flow of blood. I picked myself up and continued on my way to the hotel, by which time, my handkerchief was soaked with blood. As I stepped up to the front desk to pick up my room key, it was a bit disconcerting to see the “anguished “ look on the face of the desk clerk. When I finally got to my room and looked in the bathroom mirror, even I was shocked! I had a deep gash in my forehead and the whole right side of my face was bruised, puffy, and swollen. It quickly became a priority to apply antiseptic ointment, and just then I noticed my right hand was deeply scarred, but not seriously bleeding. My first thoughts focused on how to cover up the wound, but I had nothing for that purpose, unlike a woman having her cosmetics. I even considered, briefly, trying to use my shoe polish to conceal the wound, but quickly rejected the idea. Finally, I had to resign myself to appearing in public with my large black and blue face, though I was concerned that people might assume I had been “mugged” in a dark alley, which couldn’t be further from the truth. My next task was to fix my eyeglasses, and having successfully reinstalled the lens, I headed for the hotel restaurant, where I enjoyed a fabulous dinner of lamb chops, pan fried in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary. The hotel staff were curious about my accident and offered any help they could give. After the delicious dinner, I sat in the Cellar Bar and wrote in my journal as I sipped a cold Maccabee beer. But I couldn’t help “imagining” that everyone was staring at me, even when there was no one looking at me! I think it was a paranoiac state of “self-consciousness”. Before retiring for the night, I fashioned an “impromptu” bandage out of toilet paper, antiseptic ointment, and scotch tape!
The following evening, I decided to try the “Arabesque” fine dining restaurant in the hotel. It was richly decorated with many traditional pieces of folk art that represented several regions of the Middle East. I began dinner with a glass of Baron Rothschild Chardonnay from the Mount Hermon Vineyard in northern Israel, and it was a very nice, crisp wine with a subtle note of grapefruit. As I was perusing the menu, I read the very interesting story of the history of the “American Colony” and the hotel.
The hotel buildings were originally built by an Ottoman Pasha named Daou Amin Effendi al-Husseini in the mid-1800’s. He lived there with his harem of four wives until his death in 1895, and it was sold to a group of messianic Christians from America. In 1896 they were joined by a number of Swedish settlers, and the group became known as the “American Colony”. Then in 1902, hotelier Plato von Ustinov, the grandfather of famed British actor Peter Ustinov, turned the estate into the hotel it is today. Since 1980, it has been managed by a Swiss company and has become a preferred hotel for diplomats, politicians, and foreign correspondents. Some of its most famous guests have included Lawrence of Arabia, Bob Dylan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and author John LeCarre, who wrote one of his books while staying in the hotel. The hotel remains one of the most famous and preferred hotels in the Middle East.
Dinner began with a sumptuous, rich “Persian Soup” of sweet rice, garbanzo beans, fresh parsley, saffron cream, and spiced lamb meatballs. The main dish was a delicious shish kabob of grilled shrimp, onions, tomatoes, and lemon, served over a bed of Persian rice and covered with a sweet, yet pungent curry sauce. The plate was topped with fresh parsley and it was absolutely fabulous! Then my server insisted that I try a traditional Arabic dessert called “Mulacabieh”, a cornflower crème custard served chilled and topped with walnuts, dates, fresh mint leaves, strawberries, and spiced sugar. It was divine, not overly sweet and very smooth, delicate and fragrant! It was like what might be the “flavor” of a woody perfume – incredible! It was a memorable culinary experience and finished with the traditional cup of thick, strong Arabic coffee.
At the end of the training class the next day, Michael picked me up at the hotel and drove to Bethlehem, passing through two Israeli army checkpoints, before stopping near the center of the ancient city to show me the historic and sacred “Church of the Nativity”.
It’s here that Christians believe is the site of Christ’s birth, in the manger of a small stable. We entered the 1500 year old church through a small door meant to keep out large animals, after the church had been converted to a stable during the Ottoman period. Inside the dark interior we saw the remnants of the original tiled mosaic floor under the present-day stone surface. To the right side of the large alter was a steep, narrow stone staircase leading down to a small room directly beneath the alter, where there were two lavish golden shrines, lit only by the light from many small candles, softly glowing in the darkness. They marked the spot believed to be where the manger had been and where Christ was born. We were standing at a most holy site, revered by all Christian faiths, though at least five denominations lay claims to various parts of the church. In addition, access to the ancient stable beneath the church is restricted. For instance, Catholics can only enter from a small passageway leading from the new chapel! As I stood in front of the small, golden shrine, I tried my best to imagine what it must have been like almost 2000 years ago – a very humbling experience. As Michael and I emerged back into daylight and the present day, we were immediately thrown back into the noise, hustle and bustle of modern Bethlehem – a far cry from the time of Christ! Michael was eager to share the plans that the city had for celebrating the dawn of the new Millennium, 2000 years after the birth of Christ, with a spectacular festival. It would attract millions of people to visit the most ancient of lands. Leaving Bethlehem, we drove to Tel Aviv where I would meet with staff of our Israeli office. Along the way we passed through beautiful, pastoral countryside, with old fields surrounded by low stone fences, and cultivated today in much the same way as for hundreds of years. There were men in traditional long robes and the traditional Arabic keffiyeh on their head, plowing the fields with donkeys!
It was as if time here had stood still. At one point, shortly after leaving Bethlehem, we could see all the way down to the Dead Sea, thousands of feet below, and far beyond to the Jordan Mountains. Soon we could see the bright lights of modern Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast, and before we knew it, we found ourselves among hundreds of cars speeding along a modern freeway, past new 30 story high steel and glass skyscrapers – a stark contrast to the Old City of Jerusalem! At last we reached the new Radisson Moria Hotel, located on a lovely beach not far from downtown Tel Aviv.
Later, as I sat on my hotel room balcony overlooking the beach and the Mediterranean Sea, I reflected upon my first visit to the Holy Land and the amazing, unforgettable experiences I had been given, and I looked forward to returning someday. (little did I know at that point, that I would be given another opportunity to experience Jerusalem and Gaza two months later – stay tuned!)