Israel/Palestine: Day 11

Tuesday, May 29th

By now you're probably thinking, "This series of posts is never going to end."  Well, at about this point in our trip, I was starting to think something similar; the emotional and physical toll of the trip was nearly overwhelming.  Combine that with being sick, sometimes unsatisfactory food, and not much downtime, and you'll approach what I was feeling by the mid-point of the second week!  This isn't to say that I was unhappy to be there; I was definitely still interested, grateful to be on the trip, and looking forward to our last days; but I was also completely exhausted.  Visiting Jerusalem as a "justice tourist" (a term I'm still struggling with as a concept) is no vacation at all.

And yet, on Day 11 we rose extra early so we could be in line to visit the Temple Mount by 8:00 in the morning.  Non-Muslims are only allowed on the Temple Mount twice a day during restricted visiting hours, partly for security reasons and partly so as not to interfere with daily prayers.  (Orthodox Jews are not supposed to visit the Temple Mount ever, because they consider the entire site to be the possible location of the Holy-of-Holies of the Second Temple, and therefore too holy to enter.)  After going through a long line and several stages of checkpoints, we were up, and could see the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock up close.  We were not allowed to enter them, we just saw them from the outside.  I was struck by the number of soldiers and police strolling the grounds with their automatic weapons slung about; two or three different kinds of guards - Jordanian, Palestinian, special Temple Mount guards - were present, all in different uniforms.  Access has been restricted since the visit of Ariel Sharon in 2000, which sparked the Second Intifada.  I wish we could have gone inside; the exterior of the Dome of the Rock is beautiful, but the inside is too.  Maybe some day!

After our visit to the Temple Mount, we left through the Arab Quarter to begin our tour of the Via Dolorosa.  This seemed somehow appropriate to those of us, like me, who were exhausted from our travels.  The famous Via Dolorosa is both a real street in Jerusalem and a series of commemorative churches/sites, one for each of the fourteen "stations" (events) of Jesus' walk to his crucifixion.  These sites range from full-fledged churches to little chapels to (literally) holes in the wall with barely a plaque.  I wasn't able to keep track of all the fourteen spots, some of which I had never heard of, so you can read about it online if you're interested.  The actual street is just an ordinary street, full of vendors, people, security cameras...

We began at the Church of St. Anne, considered to be the birthplace of the Virgin Mary; this church is controlled by the French, and has amazing acoustics!  Nearby are the ruins of ancient cisterns, considered to be where Jesus healed the crippled man who waited by the water.

After that was the Church of the Flagellation, another Barluzzi church with an amazing mosaic in the dome, in the shape of the crown of thorns.  Many of the other stops sort of ran together in my mind until we reached the end.

The final set of stations are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, considered to be the holiest site in Christianity.  The church was bigger than I expected, even more confusing than I suspected, and compared to the solemn Muslim site we had visited earlier in the day, disappointingly full of people waving umbrellas, shouting, and pushing.  The different Christian groups (Orthodox, Catholic, etc) have divided up the interior into weird levels and areas so each can have their section.  I was mostly unimpressed.  We waited in the line behind the police barricades to take our 1-minute turn inside the Tomb, which is like a mini-church inside the bigger church.  When we had some time afterward to wander around, I saw the priest there having to re-arrange the police barriers since the crowds had subsided.  What a job!  Nothing in the church looked especially old or especially interesting; I was most struck by the awkwardly-placed steel support scaffolding on the tomb.  Compared to visiting the Temple Mount, it was disappointing.

From there we had lunch and then some much-appreciated free time, in which we took our clothes to the one laundry place we could locate in the old city.  This was a ridiculous outfit of one washer and one dryer operated by a tour/hostel company.  The staff told us to leave our clothes and they would have it ready in 5 hours.  We returned that night, to find the five or so men there in an uproar, since someone had failed to wash and/or dry my clothing (it was unclear exactly what happened).  They ended up asking me to come back in the morning, and gave me my wash for free.  Inconvenient, but hey, no complaints in the end since it was free!  My trip roommate & I then wandered through the souk looking for gifts for her family.  I acted as backup for her haggling adventures, since I'm generally too scared to haggle and didn't need to buy anything anyway.  We were mildly heckled by the (generally very young) storekeepers, with phrases like, "Would you a like a special gift?  Here, take my brother!"  Thankfully, we must have looked young and broke enough to avoid being hassled much, since some of our other trip members reported very different reactions.  Quite an interesting day!


Movie Review: "The Art of the Steal"

Abstract: Decent documentary film, whose value is more in raising questions about the ethics of access to art than in telling the story of the victimized Barnes Foundation.

The Barnes Foundation opened its new museum in Philadelphia this year despite the years of legal battles described in this 2009 documentary, The Art of the Steal.  The movie left me feeling soundly depressed about the state of the fine arts in this country, but also feeling caught in the middle of a bigger argument.  That argument is about the proper place of elitism in art.  But first, to summarize briefly the history of the Barnes Foundation:  Assembled by a wealthy industrialist, the Barnes art collection is considered to be the best collection of impressionist and early modern paintings anywhere, and valued at $25 billion.  This man, Albert Barnes, established an art school based on this collection, and endowed the school (the Barnes Foundation) to remain as an educational institution in perpetuity, with the paintings never to be moved, sold, lent, reproduced, etc.  He built the Foundation's building in a town outside of Philadelphia, where he expected his collection to remain forever, with limited public access, to serve its primary purpose as a teaching institution.  The documentary argues that he did this not just because he wanted to teach people about art, but because he specifically didn't want his collection to become part of the Philadelphia art scene (the Philadelphia Museum of Art in particular) and because he opposed both the commercialization of art and its use as expensive "wallpaper" for powerful people.  After his death and the death of his appointed trustees, through a series of legal maneuvers, his will was superseded, resulting in the touring of the collection abroad and finally its transfer to a new building in downtown Philadelphia, which opened this year.  The film argues that this was done through the conspiracy of a number of public figures and charitable groups who stood to benefit from the transfer of the art (either financially or by gaining power), and through wilfully misleading and lying to the county judge who approved the move.  The Friends of the Barnes group attempted to stop the move by calling for the judge to reopen the case upon discovery of this wrongdoing, but the judge dismissed the petition and the new museum opened this May.  The new museum facilities supposedly recreate the original settings for the art in terms of scale, arrangement, etc, but with improved lighting, access, and the addition of dining facilities, classrooms, etc.  (Of course, the museum website does not contain any information about the history of the collection between the time of Barnes' assembling of it, and its current situation.)

The film itself was just ok; the lack of interviews with the antagonists (the politicians and charities who engineered the move) makes it very one-sided.  I think a stronger case could have been made for the move, which would have brought more tension and, ultimately, interest to the film, even if the filmmakers still came down in favor of Barnes' original intentions.  The pacing was ok, sometimes a bit slow, and there were a lot of repetitive shots; I don't even know how many times the filmmakers re-used the image of the front of the museum - couldn't they have gone on a tour and filmed the grounds, at least?  (Maybe they were prevented by the Foundation staff.)  The proponents they found to interview were interesting and personable, though, and the editing clearly built the case.  One couldn't help but sympathize for all the art historians, art critics, and artists who opposed the move.

My personal interest in this story has less to do with the legal aspects and ultimate conclusion of the case (I think we can all agree that what was done violated the terms of the will, and quite blatantly) but with the principle behind what was done.  I'm also not interested in complaining about the big business that is art museums today, although that's fodder for another post entirely.  I'm interested in weighing the claims of private versus public control of the art.  Arguably, Barnes' original terms created an elite institution for the purpose of catering to artists and art aficionados, not to the public.  The new museum is intended to make the collection as widely accessible as possible while bringing in tourist dollars to the city.  As someone known to voice the phrase, "That belongs in a museum!", I'm not sure what to think; what is the ethical solution here?

On the one hand, as someone trained in art history and a lover of art, I am deeply sympathetic to those who argue, as the Friends of the Barnes and the art historians/critics/artists do, that great art has its own aesthetic-ethical imperatives.  It should not be exploited for its commercial value and it should be respected and preserved.  We would never agree, for example, to cut up the Mona Lisa and distribute pieces of it around the world so every museum can have a bit; I don't think any museum would agree to that.  The Barnes collection was assembled and organized in a specific way, through personal contact between the owner (patron) and the artists, and that organization and purpose-built venue was part of the art collection itself; moving the art out of this venue destroys this historical link and devalues both the building and the artwork (not in a financial, perhaps, but in an aesthetic and historical sense).  Moving the art in this case is the equivalent of cutting it up and distributing it, or rather, lobotomizing it, separating the art from the setting.  It is so rare today to see art in-situ, as it was meant to be seen by its original patrons or by the artist, that willfully destroying that situation seems indefensible.  This includes both the physical building and location of the works, not just their arrangement on the wall and the look of the wall itself.  The Barnes Collection, like the Frick Collection in Manhattan (website), is (was) not just a bunch of valuable paintings but an ensemble with its own value as a whole.  (Unlike the Barnes, the Frick was intended by its owner to become a public museum upon his death, although perhaps regrettably his original arrangement of works has been changed over time.)

On the other hand, one could argue that there's no point in preserving the art and its ensemble if no one can see it.  Art is meant to be viewed.  One could go further and say that art is meant to be viewed by as many people as possible, thereby giving the artist the chance to bring his message (or lack thereof or whatever) to as many viewers as possible.  This position denies that art is only for elites and promotes "art for the masses."  Moving the Barnes collection to a bigger, better, location with more parking and a fancy cafe serves this purpose, as does loaning the art out to raise money to ensure the continued existence of the big fancy museum.  As someone who loves art and would like the chance to see as much of it as possible, this view has some appeal for me.  Art that's accessible to all is certainly accessible to me!  And I would certainly benefit from seeing it, so shouldn't it be made accessible to all?  That's only fair!

But then the historian part of me wakes up.  Art has rarely, if ever, been intended for the masses.  Only in recent times have artists sought for the (world)wide consumption of their work; the only "art" intended for all in the past was advertising.  Besides, it takes education and training to "get" a lot of art in the first place; someone without any knowledge of a work of art, its history and context, intended viewers, etc, will not be able to appreciate much about the work if they appreciate it at all.  I have experienced this myself from both sides, as appreciative and un-appreciative viewer.  I am apt to pass by something about which I know little, and can fully appreciate only those works with which I am familiar.  Of course, anyone can be affected by a work of art without really knowing why, but I think true appreciation comes from understanding.  I don't want to undermine the importance of art education here - I would be the first to support greater art education for all students, so that everyone can better appreciate art and experience its effects in their lives.  I just don't think that putting a Matisse on every child's lunch box, or crowding people into commercialized art museums, will do the trick.

So is there an argument to be made for the return of elitism in art, for the preservation of art in settings with limited access, for appreciation by the few rather than by the many?  Maybe it's too easy for me to think so because I'm closer to the elite than most; I have an art history degree and will soon have a master's in an art-related field.  But I feel compelled to think that the imperatives of the art, the rights of the patron and artist and aficionado, are somehow more important than the recently determined rights of the masses, who, I regret to say, rarely seem to appreciate what amazing access to art they've been given.  I hesitate, however, to say that patrons should be given the last word in how the art that they bought/commissioned should be controlled after their deaths.  They were able to enjoy and determine its viewership during their lifetimes; shouldn't the rest of us get a chance once they've gone?  Couldn't the art revert to the public then?  But perhaps the real question here is who (or what) is the public.  The Barnes Foundation was never closed to the public entirely; in fact, it was to be open (no more than) two days a week according to Barnes' will.  And of course, anyone who became a student at the Foundation had full access to the works.  Don't these individuals count as part of the public?  Why should we take away their ability to study the works carefully and in-situ so that less-appreciative, less-educated men-on-the-street can drop by whenever they want?  There's also the problem of the difficulty of conserving works that are constantly on public display, and thus are exposed to higher levels of light, dirt, etc, than works in more limited-access settings.

I think my ideal solution here would be to keep the Barnes artwork in its original location, unmolested, and with reasonable visiting hours, so those who really want to see the art (like me) can do so.  This may violate some terms of the original will, but not many.  I don't think we should compromise the artistic integrity of the ensemble to achieve unlimited public access; I don't think there's a good justification for doing so.  All that's needed is "sufficient" public access, the amount to be determined by trustees who keep Barnes' vision in mind.  More than that is just exploitation of the art for purposes of tourism.

I can't say I have an answer to the question of elitism in art.  Architecture, my chosen field, is perhaps even more dependent on elitism as a driving force than other types of art, since we architects can hardly afford to build our designs without patronage; the expenses incurred in our "art" are exponentially greater than the expenses of painting and sculpture, for example.  So I am perhaps naturally inclined to find in favor of the elites, the patrons, the educated, the students, and not "the public."  But since I also think art is so important, I want it to be accessible to all, or at least to all who are interested in seeing it.  These days, public architecture projects also tend to be the ones with the most financing, and thus with the best chance at succeeding as artistic statements.  I expect that this will be a difficult question for me throughout my career.  Thanks to this film, I'm getting a head start on considering it.


Israel/Palestine: Day 10

Monday, May 28th (Memorial Day)

Note: Long post ahead - skip to pictures at the end if you need a break!

Second full day in Jerusalem: a half-and-half day of meetings and sightseeing.  We began the day with a visit at our hotel from Fajr Harb of the Carter Center - yes, former President Carter's Carter Center.  The Center has a small office in Ramallah where the staff monitors elections  and promotes peace through politics.  The official stance of the Center is behind a two-state solution.  Fajr was an excellent speaker, and we all appreciated his candor as he expressed both his personal views on the conflict and the views of the Center.  Educated in the US, Fajr is clearly a bright young man who could be doing great work for his country, and he told us he wants to work in development; but as it stands, the best he can do is to work for the peace that's needed before any development can happen.  He told us that as a resident of Ramallah, in the West Bank, it's easier for him to get to the US than it is for him to get to Jerusalem.  The only reason he could meet us in Jerusalem at all is that his work with the Carter Center, an international (specifically, American) organization, allows him to obtain the required permit.

He concurred with an opinion we've heard here several times that the two-state solution is already dead: the "facts on the ground" created by Israeli settlements have made it impossible to negotiate a viable Palestinian state from what's left of the territory that Palestinians control.  But making the necessary changes in Israeli government and political opinion that could support a one-state solution, of Israelis and Palestinians living peacefully together, is extremely daunting.  Yet this is what we have heard over and over from Palestinians: they are would like to live at peace with their Israeli neighbors, and even to become Israeli citizens, but they demand full rights and acknowledgement from the government of what they have lost.  I personally cannot believe the response that Palestinians "will never want peace" or that they "hate" their Israeli neighbors etc; this is probably true of some people, but definitely not all, and probably not most.  It was not true of anyone we met.  (To be honest, the only people we encountered who had words of hate for anyone were the Israeli counter-protestors we saw demonstrating against a silent protest; but more on this later.)  Similarly, some Palestinians argue that the problem for them is not an Israeli state for the Jews, but a Jewish state for Israelis, since non-Jewish Palestinians would, by definition, be excluded from a Jewish state.  Some people we spoke with said they would be happy to live in an Israeli state with and for Jews, as long as it was not a "Jewish state" that excludes or discriminates against non-Jews.

After talking politics with Fajr, we took our bus up to the Mount of Olives to visit the Augusta Victoria Hospital, with a great tour led by Anna Johnson.  She was a Lutheran youth volunteer at the hospital (a YAGM, similar to our own Presbyterian YAVs) and returned after college to continue working here.  Augusta Victoria is a specialty hospital that serves Palestinians from all over, with departments (eg, pediatric oncology) that are not available at other hospitals.  The hospital is in what used to be a very large German guest house, and is hoping to expand if they can ever get the building permits approved.  (Remember my earlier discussion on building permits?)  Even major Palestinian institutions, like hospitals and schools, face the same lengthy and nearly-impossible permit process that is typical of the Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank.  From the hospital grounds we could see the Wall cutting through the middle of neighborhoods right outside Jerusalem, and the point where it ends, incomplete.  From this view, it seemed clear to us that the wall was doing little except make life miserable for ordinary people, since someone seeking to enter the city illegally could just walk right around it.  (See below, a little left of center in the photo.)

We asked Anna what is the biggest issue facing the hospital, and surprisingly, she answered that it's patient access - patients find it extremely difficult to get to the hospital because it's in Jerusalem, where it's so difficult to get permission to enter.  The hospital has tried to address this by having a department that does nothing but apply for permits so patients can enter Jerusalem, and has set up a bus service so staff (doctors, nurses, etc) and patients can more easily pass through the checkpoints.  They even have places for family members to stay, since one of the issues is that patients may be allowed in one day for a chemo treatment, and not the next, which is actually worse for the patient than not starting chemo at all.  To prevent this, patients and their families stay at the hospital accommodations for the intervening period so they are guaranteed to finish their treatment.  One of the most moving stories Anna told is about children from the Gaza Strip who need radiation treatment, which is only available at August Victoria.  These children are generally given permission to leave Gaza to come to the hospital with their grandparents, but not with their parents, who are denied permits.  The hospital views this as a "blessing in disguise" because the grandparents can also be seen and treated while they are there at the hospital's elder care department, since medical care for the elderly is very limited in Gaza.

We had lunch on our own back in Jerusalem, and then returned to the Mount of Olives for the sightseeing part of our day.  We spent the afternoon walking down the Mount, visiting many of the sights on the way.  Unfortunately it was really hot and there was very little shade, so we were nearly dead by the end of the afternoon...  but I discovered my favorite church there, so it was worth it.  At the top we took photos of some great views of the city, including the large Jewish cemetary on the slopes of the Mount, and then began our descent. 

First stop was the Church of Dominus Flevit, another Antonio Barluzzi church, built near a Christian necropolis.  The chapel is sited so that there's a view of the Dome of the Rock from the window behind the altar.  This church also had a great assortment of cacti!

Next up was the Church of All Nations, next to the Garden of Gethsemane.  This was my favorite church: another Barluzzi, it had blue alabaster window screens that made the interior look like it was bathed in ultraviolet light.  It was dark and cool inside despite the extreme heat outside.  The ornament, from the mosaic to the bronze olive tree reliefs, was fantastic.  There were even interesting plants outside!  (Not in the garden, though; that's not actually accessible and was pretty silly looking, a small plot of olive trees with flowers planted around them.)  A must-see church; the photos don't do it justice.  (This is fun: a virtual tour.)

Last stop was Mary's Tomb, the Orthodox Church of the Assumption of Mary.  Frankly, it was dark and smelly, and not very interesting.  The most interesting part was the huge number of lamps hanging from the ceiling.  From afar we also saw the golden onion domes of the Church of Mary Magdalene, a Russian Orthodox church that was not open for viewing.

For anyone wishing to follow this route, be warned that it's a very steep road with basically no sidewalk - wear shoes that won't slip!  After Mary's Tomb, we split up, and I went with Craig and a couple of others to walk through more of the city.  We walked back in to the Old City through the Lion's Gate and walked through the Arab Quarter and out the Damascus Gate to an Arab neighborhood just outside the walls.  Aside from the obviously new trams, this area looked like a normal city instead of the tiny winding cobblestone streets in the Old City.  We visited an English-language bookshop that was like a tiny version of  Barnes and Noble, complete with over-priced pastry counter, and then headed back to the hotel.  It was bit surreal to sit in a virtual B&N (same smell, wood paneling, music) in the middle of the Arab part of Jerusalem.  But at that point I would have been happy to sit anywhere, as long as I could sit!  We got some Arab sweets on our way back (think "variations on baklava") and had dinner at the hotel, as usual, thus ending another very full day.


Jackson (1997-2012)

My family adopted Jackson as a puppy for my sister's 8th birthday in 1998; I picked him out at the puppy store because he was the cutest one there by far.  After that he was always my sister's dog.  We named him for Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a place we had visited recently on a family vacation.  He had the most expressive face because of his little brown eyebrow spots; you could usually tell what he was thinking just by looking at his face.

Jackson was a miniature Australian shepherd, with no tail, a tendency to herd furniture and children by running around them in circles, and a method of lying down that involved crossing his front paws over themselves and splaying out his back legs.  Guests to our house would always remark on how prim and proper he looked with his paws daintily crossed.  He didn't learn how to bark until he was nearly an adult, and would only bark at visitors who came in the front door, having learned that anyone who came in through the back or the garage was a friend.  He considered himself a lap dog and would plop down into the lap of anyone who was kind enough to sit on the floor for him.  He learned how to open the latch on the front door by jumping on it, and would saunter into the house afterward, very proud of himself.  As a puppy we fed him cottage cheese mixed with his dry food, on the vet's suggestion, and so I will never be able to eat cottage cheese because it's "dog food."  When he was sick we fed him scrambled eggs, so the smell of eggs cooking would bring him running across the kitchen, since he figured any time we cooked eggs, they must be for him.  His fondness for dog treats earned him the nickname "Snackson."

He was deathly afraid of thunderstorms, as many dogs are, and would even venture up the stairs to the forbidden second floor, where my family slept, in the case of a severe thunderstorm, only to run back down the stairs to his permitted area of the house if one of us opened our bedroom door.  He would hide in the laundry room during the frequent Florida rains, taking comfort from the sounds of the washer and dryer.  He also seemed fearful of the answering machine, and when he thought he was alone in the house, he would howl loudly if the phone rang.  He loved music, though, and would sit in the music room to listen to me play the piano.  He always wanted to be wherever we were in the house, as close to underfoot as possible.  He hated being left on the porch and loved being in the middle of a party.

Jackson was a beloved pet, and we will miss him.


Israel/Palestine: Day 9

Sunday, May 27th - Jerusalem

Our first day in Jerusalem was a Sunday, so we went to the English-language service at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the middle of the old city.  This is the largest Protestant church in the city, with regular services in Arabic, German, and English, and occasional services in Danish.  (Their website here.)  It was Pentecost that Sunday, and so it was fitting that we were able to attend a service in our own language.  (For those unfamiliar with the Pentecost story, at Pentecost the disciples of Jesus spoke in tongues, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem understood them in their own language.)  I think we were all especially thankful to be in Jerusalem to celebrate the birthday of the Church in its birthplace in Jerusalem.  The service was held in the chapel, not the main church - which I never did end up going to see - and was packed full of people.  During the service the minister asked all the different groups present to stand and introduce themselves; it turns out that around 80% of the people there were tourists like ourselves!  We enjoyed the mostly familiar hymns, meet & greet afterward, and then were released for lunch on our own.

After locating an ATM at a shopping mall just outside the old city, I got some pizza and headed back to the hotel.  Pizza was welcome after having hummus for what seemed like two meals a day, every day.  The mall was interesting since it's only about 10 years old, and is full of American stores, like Abercrombie & Fitch, the Gap, etc.  Odd to think that it's so close to thousand-year-old buildings and churches.

We met up after lunch for a tour through the Jewish Quarter of the old city.  It was very hot and with little shade; we could see why June-August are the slowest months for tourism in the area.  Ibrahim led us through the souk in the Christian Quarter, where we were staying, over to the Jewish Quarter, which was mostly closed for the holiday (Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that occurs the same day as Pentecost).  We saw some ancient city ruins with kids playing near and on them and the outside of the new synagogue. 

We then went to a look-out point from which we could see the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (more to come on them later) and the Western Wall below it.  This is considered by  many to be the holiest site in Judaism, the last (known) remaining piece of the Second Temple, presumably built on the foundations of the First Temple.  We went down from the look-out point to the Western Wall Plaza and had time to observe and reflect for a while.  I went up and touched the wall with my trip roommate.  It wasn't very crowded, but we were not allowed to take photos because of the holiday - photo-taking counts as work and thus is forbidden (the final image below is from a different day).  Soldiers with guns and volunteers in bright t-shirts surveyed the area to prevent unknowing tourists from violating the Sabbath.  I was struck by the way the spaces in front of the wall are arranged: a very large area is given over to the men, of whom there were not very many present that day, while a significantly smaller area is reserved for women, who filled the space reserved for them.  It was also interesting to recall this same division of space in the small synagogue we visited, although there the gender ratio was reversed.  The range of outfits of the Orthodox men was really interesting, since many men wore much more elaborate clothing than I'm used to seeing on the streets of New York, where there are a fair number of Orthodox gentlemen around.  The women's clothing, by contrast, was not very remarkable except in consideration of how hot it was, since the Orthodox women fully cover their arms, legs, and heads, even in the heat (as do the men).  Of course, Muslim women do the same, and we were impressed throughout the trip with how the women we met seemed not even to notice the heat despite the long clothing, and sometimes long coats, that they wore!

We had a bit of free time that evening after dinner, and I finally felt like I was starting to recover from my cold.  Unfortunately the next day was a killer sightseeing day of site after site after site - but we managed it somehow!  Stay tuned for the next exciting installment!


Israel/Palestine: Day 8

Saturday, May 26th

Saturday was another sight-seeing day, with one meeting thrown in.  We visited more sites in the Galilee region before finishing the day in Jerusalem, where we spent the rest of the nights of the trip.  First off we visited the Church of the Wedding at Cana (Kufr Kanna), also known as the First Miracle Church or the Marriage Church.  As usual, there is a more recent church sitting on top of Byzantine and Crusader churches.  This one was less interesting than usual, though, with a hunk of stone (what's left of a water jar) as its main attraction.  The most interesting part was all the money thrown into the different parts of the church - into the water jar, onto the rocks around the foundations, into a pit of some kind (not sure what it was), etc.  There were also places where people had tucked photos of themselves or their children to bring luck or healing, according to our guide, since this church commemorates a wedding.

Our next stop was at Sindyanna of Galilee, a really neat organization of Palestinian Muslim and Israeli women.  Sindyanna is a co-op where all the production, including packaging, bottling, etc, is done by women; they produce spices, olive oil, soap, and baskets, and train women to weave the baskets at home since many women are not comfortable working outside their homes.  We spoke with two of the women who work there, with Ibrahim as our translator, and watched a short film they have about the work.  They weave baskets out of the leftover branches of the date palms after the dates are harvested, and the baskets were really quite beautiful!  But I didn't have any room in my suitcase to bring them home with  me.  The woman we spoke with said that one of their missions is to bring Israeli and Palestinian women together, and that they manage to do this more or less successfully, while trying to raise awareness among the Israeli women of what life is like for Palestinians.  I was impressed with their courage and goodwill in trying to work together with Israelis while challenging them to acknowledge the effects of the occupation.

We dragged ourselves out of the basket shop and went on to Bet She'an, yet another well-preserved Roman city, this one much better-preserved even than Caesarea.  And unlike Caesarea, it hasn't been "restored" extensively.  If I hadn't been feeling sick (and if we had had the time, and if it hadn't been so hot) I could have spent the entire day there, looking at the theater, baths, colonnaded streets, temples, etc, and climbing up to the look-out point.  As it was, I had time to take a quick look at the theater and baths and then had to rest - my cold was making me feel pretty awful.  Unfortunately also while we were there we learned that an older American man had somehow gotten lost from his group while visiting the site the day before, and the Israeli military had come out to find him, but to no avail.  They were still searching while we were there.  We learned a few days later, when his body was found, that he had somehow wandered away to an industrial area and gotten locked (or collapsed) in a shed.  Our thoughts and prayers were with his family during the days that we waited to find out what had happened, and our condolences go to his family.

Feeling mixed emotions, we left Bet She'an and went on to Jericho.  We did a "drive by" of Zacchaeus' sycamore tree, (more potential tree options listed here) which has been restored? replanted? recreated? on the grounds of a very large church paid for by Vladimir Putin for the Russian Orthodox Church, and then drove to a look-out point to see the Greek Orthodox Church/Monastery of the Temptation, also known as Mt. Temptation, from afar.  There's something right below the monastery on the mountain that has a cable car going up to it, which kind of spoils the effect of the monastery perched high on a mountain - no longer so inaccessible - so this was one of the less convincing sites.  I was distracted here by the sight of some men laying rebar in preparation to pour concrete.  We looked over the edge of the look-out point and discovered that the entire area we were standing on was built on concrete-filled gas drums being used as a retaining wall and foundation.  The whole thing looked extremely precarious, and the man was literally throwing the rebar around on the ground, not bothering to position it in any logical way.  I just hope the whole hillside doesn't give way!  But then again, excellent retaining walls can be made out of tires or other rubbish filled with concrete, so perhaps it's sturdier than it looks.  Let's hope so.  Did I mention there was also a camel?  You know, for camel rides.  Since that's clearly why a group of tourists would drive to this look-out point: for the camel rides.

After these two detours we made a real stop at the old city of Jericho, which I'm sure Ibrahim would want me to point out is still being excavated and doesn't have any good literature published on it yet and so what we saw was still speculative.  What we saw was piles of rocks and dirt, so I don't feel like I was too misled by visiting it before its official write-up has been made public.  From the top of this giant dirt pile we could see the city, including a shepherd directing a lot of goats and sheep down a road with cars nearby.  Jericho is built around a spring, a desert oasis, and so is apparently now a resort area for Israelis.  I couldn't figure out why, since it's not really much of a city, there's limited water, and it seems kind of run down, except for the cable car.  But to each his own resort town, I suppose!

We left the dirt pile and drove, finally, to Jerusalem, where we checked in to the Knight's Palace Hotel.  This is a really cool hotel, because it feels like a crusader castle.  Apparently there was a crusader building there at some point, but most of it is of more recent vintage; still, it has a great location in the Old City and coats of arms in the hallways, so what more do you need?  We had dinner at the hotel, as usual, and then spent a little time walking through the city at night to get acquainted.  The twisting cobblestone streets reminded me of Venice, without the water; most of the streets are too narrow for vehicles.  Most of the buildings are only a few stories tall, and despite the modern veneer, the city feels old.  After some ice cream and wandering, we were ready for bed and ready to start a new week's adventures!