Observations of the Old City of Jerusalem

Posted: March 4th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Thoughts | 2 Comments »


On our way to Jaffa Gate.  The rail track is to the right.  See the snow?  It snowed a foot the week before we arrived.

Rick and I had high expectations for Jerusalem, and perhaps, that’s what doomed us from the start.  We’d only heard good things from other people, how the experience had been life-changing.  I, in particular, longed to walk through the places I’d only read about.  It’s a particular thing of mine, seeing the same sights, breathing the same air, and matching up scenes from books, from my imagination, to the real deal.  And, yeah, the Bible is a pretty epic book (regardless of your belief, it’s got some crazy stories in there and some interesting Truths).  Jerusalem, well, met our expectations in some ways and defied them in others.  Not necessarily in a good way. 

Soldiers & Guns


Now that is a bad-ass police vehicle.  We stayed down the block from the police station.

The first thing we noticed about Jerusalem, and Israel in general, is the preponderance of guns everywhere, and the soldiers carrying them around. In fact, on our bus ride from the Tel Aviv airport to Jerusalem, half the bus was full of young soldiers. We quickly became used to them, and their huge black guns slung across their shoulders. In fact, it became slightly ridiculous how many large black guns we’d see each day. We once stopped by David’s Tower to check the admission price, and there was some guy lounging in front of the door dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with a large black gun swinging on his side, just casually, like it was no big deal. I think it was supposed to make us feel safer, but it had quite the opposite effect on me.


This represents Jerusalem to me: tourists and soldiers coexisting side-by-side.


The second thing we noticed about Jerusalem is that, for the exchange rate, Jerusalem is quite expensive, especially in the old city. We talked to our tour guide and he said that he’s had to move out of the immediate city of Jerusalem because it was getting too expensive to live there on his income (though he hopes to move back as soon as he’s able). We splurged on Chinese food one night, and it was the most expensive Chinese food we’ve ever paid for in our life (tasted good though). Which is saying a lot, considering how much Chinese food we’ve had in our lives.

Overly Touristy

Not only is everything quite expensive, but much of it is overly touristy. We’d go to holy sites and there’d be hawkers yelling out about SD cards and batteries, about silver necklaces and bracelets (I overheard one tour guide telling his group they were all fake). There was stalls near the Via Dolorosa, selling crowns of thorns and faux copies of the “widow’s mite”. Now, if you know the story of the Widow’s Mite, buying a copy of it is, to me, the height of irony. Everywhere we looked, there was someone trying to profit off of someone else’s religious pilgrimage. Fine, it’s to make money to support their family, and I have no problem with that reasoning. And, of course, it wouldn’t exist at all if tourists didn’t buy it all up like crazy.  It just left a bad taste in my mouth and marred the sanctity of many sites for me. Jerusalem, the Holy City, seemed like a tourist trap. That’s economic reality, but it sucks.

Don’t get me started on the actual tourists, but that’s not Jerusalem’s fault.  I’ll just leave you with this picture to illustrate:


These are the tourists following the Franciscan friars along the Via Dolorosa.



The bench with bread.

Ok, this is more Rick’s issue with Jerusalem. But, it’s worth a mention. The thing with living most of your life in California is the variety of cuisines to choose from. Call us spoiled if you wish, but we’re used to changing up our meal routine quite a bit over the course of a month. And, Jerusalem doesn’t have a HUGE variety of meals. Mostly, it has bread. A lot of bread. Which sucked for Rick, because he gets tired of bread very quickly. And after a while, so did I. In fact, we saw a huge bench completely full of bread, and even the birds and nearby animals (or homeless people) seemed uninterested in the bread. That’s how much bread is in Jerusalem. Which is why we splurged on Chinese food in order to save Rick’s sanity.

Simmering Tension

Jerusalem is actually the only country in which we felt remotely physically threatened. At one point on our walking tour, a few kids chucked ice balls at our head from the second story of a house, the ice missing us and smashing into the ground a few inches away. Another time, something else crashed at our feet, again narrowly missing our heads. We have no idea whether it just fell from the roof or was intentionally thrown, but it rattled us. We’ve had an Orthodox Jewish man running towards us full-tilt to tell us we were trespassing. I swear it was an honest mistake. We were looking for the Room of the Last Supper and the only signs posted were in Hebrew. But, nevertheless, the man look pretty pissed. At many of the major religious sites, there are ramps for bomb-defusing robots and bomb-defusing containers. At the end of each day, my neck and shoulders and back would be knotted up with tension.


Bomb-defusing container near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Jerusalem tries to be a place of religious tolerance, but the tolerance clings on with the sheerest of veneers. Let me explain my reasoning. When I was at UCI, I took a Chemistry Lab class. I had two lab partners, one Jewish, the other Muslim. We weren’t the best students in the class. Truthfully, we were all lost most of the time. So, we’d joke around, saying, “Let’s all pray that we finish this experiment semi-correctly. God’s bound to listen to one of us.” I’m not saying America is so much better. We have our own problems (too many to name), but the way I grew up, the environment in which we lived, allowed us to accept the many differences around us as natural, so natural as to be virtually unnoticed.  To us, our beliefs are important to us, but we accept & respect that the other person believes differently and it makes no difference how we treat the other person. This is the way we’ve been taught. And we can joke about it, as long as we don’t cross into mean/intolerant-territory.  In Jerusalem, beliefs are no laughing matter, not even a little. The balance of tolerance is too shaky for that. Riots have started, people have lost their lives, from something as simple as drilling a hole 6 inches too far (I’ll tell you that story another time if you’re truly interested). . 



Candles in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Ok, I have to end this post of a good note. It wasn’t all bad. We met some genuinely nice people in Jerusalem. Rick and I enjoyed many long conversations, just the two of us, while lounging in the gardens of the Garden Tomb. I do love how literary the inhabitants of Jerusalem are, with bookstores everywhere. I always enjoy diving into a used bookstore and not surfacing for air for a couple hours, especially if I stumble upon treasures. And, it’s super easy to communicate with everyone. Everyone we encountered had a basic grasp of English, with most having a very good grasp of English, so we never had any communication difficulties.


While this is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime city to visit, especially as a religious pilgrimage site, you can probably tell that this is one of the few cities Rick and I have no desire to revisit. At least anytime soon. One, we’ve seen most of what we came to see and it’s highly unlikely the sites will change much within our lifetime. Two, the constant tension we were under along with the generally unfriendly vibes we encountered personally doesn’t really lend itself to something I’d want to experience again. Perhaps, if we leave the Old City part of Jerusalem, things would’ve been much better, but I’m not too sure of that.

I hope any future visitors aren’t deterred by this post if they truly want to visit Jerusalem.  It’s just one experience among many.  I know others have had different experiences than us, and I’m glad for them. Perhaps your visit will be different.  I hope it’s different.  The city is so rich in history and culture, I hope Jerusalem can step out of its shadowed history and be an example to the world of how tolerance is supposed to work. 

2 Comments on “Observations of the Old City of Jerusalem”

  1. 1 Olivia said at 4:58 pm on March 6th, 2014:

    Haha, the common sight of guns on men makes it seem like guns are to men as purses are to women.
    Also, was the bread good? I laughed out loud when I saw the bench with bread and no one caring
    Keep posting! I love reading your updates :)

  2. 2 ctbideas said at 3:17 pm on March 10th, 2014:

    Yes, the bread’s actually quite good…the first 20 times you eat it. And when you buy the bread (like the ones on the bench), sometimes they’ll give you a little packet of spices to dip it into. It looks like weed which gave us a little illicit thrill =)

Leave a Reply