By 9 A.M. the bar mitzvah processions were marching in force. I returned to the Western Wall plaza six times that day and each time I could hear the drums and dancing. The bar mitzvah boy, typically embarrassed and wearing a white shirt, proceeds under a white canopy, around which dance his family and two drummers/singers. A bearded young man proceeds them, trying to get the stunned bar mitzvah boy to dance, as everyone claps enthusiastically and takes pictures. The first time I encountered this procession, I thought it was funny; the second time it was embarrassing and after the 20th time I beseeched the Divine Presence – which, according to the sign at the plaza entrance, “has never moved from the Western Wall” - to shut the drums up.
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I was there to visit the Temple Mount and its immediate vicinity. The Mount, occupying 140 acres in the eastern part of Jerusalem’s Old City, is the Jews’ holiest site and one of the most sacred to Muslims. Millions of people, both Israelis and foreigners, visit the Western Wall and its environs each year, making the sacred site Israel’s most popular tourist attraction.
I had booked a place on an organized tour of the Western Wall tunnels and the City of David, checked the hours of entrance to the Temple Mount and equipped myself with a hat and water. The noise, bustle and carnival atmosphere of the bar mitzvahs doomed to failure any effort to achieve a spiritual experience or sense of sacred. The term “disKotel,” coined by Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz many years ago, seemed completely apt.
Quiet on the Temple Mount
A separate entrance and inspection booth is set up at the southern end of the plaza for those who plan to visit the Temple Mount. While the plaza is open 24/7, visits to the Mount are restricted to Sunday to Thursday, between 8 A.M. and 11 A.M. The policeman at the inspection booth asked if I had any prayer books with me and then passed me through.
What is most striking as one climbs the wooden bridge to the Mugrabi Gate entrance to the Mount is that there are no Israeli visitors. Also striking, as we went through the Mugrabi Gate, was the near-total silence that reigned. A few small tour groups wandered around the huge square of the Temple Mount, while, under the trees, Muslim men were praying. I also saw a separate group of Muslim women and a cluster of policemen wearing flak jackets.
Visitors have been forbidden to enter the mosques for several years. Our visit included a lengthy tour of the square and the gardems that surround the mosques. Near the Al-Aqsa Mosque there are long, orderly rows of ancient column capitals, among the largest and most elaborate I’ve ever seen, and presumably indicative of the size of the columns that bore them. It’s tempting to believe they are 2,000 years old and had adorned the Temple, but I don’t know if this is true.
The golden Dome of the Rock, a symbol of Arab and Palestinian nationalism, was erected in the seventh century. Its blue tiles shimmer spectacularly in the sun. Alongside the Dome of the Chain, which is east of the Dome of the Rock, shelters provide shade for the worshipers. Especially prominent are the large white parasols, which make it look as if a huge café had been built on the Temple Mount.
The day after my visit, I tried to understand why Israelis in general, and my circle of acquaintances in particular, so rarely visit this fascinating site, which is of such historical, archaeological and political importance. The most common answer I got was that people are afraid. There’s a fear surrounding the Temple Mount that has no logical explanation, because the place is far better secured than many other sites. And yet, people say with a shrug, they just wouldn’t go there.
Baruch Gian, a Jerusalem tour guide and talented photographer, agrees that fear is the main reason for avoiding the Temple Mount and notes that many Israelis don’t even know that it’s open to visitors. It’s a place that makes the news a lot and seems like a focus of problems, yet very few tourists include the Temple Mount in their Old City tours, he says.
The Western Wall Tunnels
Lavi Kreisman, who led the tour I took of the Western Wall tunnels, says that in its time the Temple was the most beautiful building in the world, with people coming from distant countries to see it. Kreisman, a young man in a skullcap and with long side curls, a thick beard and a wide smile, works hard. He doesn’t have an amplifying device and for an hour-and-a-quarter he struggles to overcome the ambient noise.
Kreisman explains the history of the Temple Mount, using a computerized three-dimensional model of the Temple to illustrate where we are and where we will be going. The underground route runs eastward, to the continuation of the Western Wall, and then about 400 meters north, under the houses of the Muslim Quarter. At one of the stops, Kreisman asks, “What is the holiest place for Jews?” and someone calls out, “The Azrieli Mall.” Everyone, including Kreisman, laughs.
We walk through a narrow, dark tunnel for most of the tour, making it a bit hard to be impressed by the glorious past. In some places you can feel it, however, most especially near the Nidbakh Raba, the “master course,” which contains a huge stone 14 meters long and weighing 600 tons. It is part of a layer of stones that apparently reinforced the walls of the Temple Mount 2,000 years ago.
We see some women praying near another stop on the tour and Kreisman explains that this is the closest we can get to the site of the Temple’s Holy of Holies. The sign on the wall reads: “By standing here in front of this sacred place, your prayer joins the eternal chain of faith and prayer.” The continuation of the tunnel leads to the end of the road built by Herod, where we see several large and impressively chiseled stones. From there, we continue to the northern end of the Western Wall tunnels and walk about 80 meters alongside a narrow and beautiful Hasmonean water tunnel.
The tour ends at a gate in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Kreisman explains that from this point two armed guards will escort us back to the starting point at the Western Wall plaza.
Dark in the City of David
The tour I took of the City of David began at 3 P.M. and lasted three hours. It started at the large plaza built at the site and descended slowly downward and southward along the mountain to the bed of the Kidron stream. Along the way, we passed several archeological sites, saw a 3D movie that provided a very one-sided and unequivocal version of the site’s history, visited the Gihon spring and Shiloah tunnel and finished in a big pond at the bottom. About two hours into the tour, one of the girls asked Tzvi, our guide, “When do we get to the interesting part?” He, being experienced, replied, “Very soon we’ll start walking through the water.” Indeed, the walk through the 530-meter long, completely dark Shiloah Tunnel, in water up to 70 cm. deep, is the high-point of the visit, but the earlier parts are also interesting, especially if you notice what is not said in them.
The City of David site has been controversial from its inception. It is located south of the Dung Gate entrance to the Old City, about a five-minute walk from the Western Wall. The controversy has surrounded several issues – for example, the fact that the Israel Nature and Parks Authority allows the right-wing Elad Association to run the site. There isn’t even the slightest hint in the tour that the entire site is located in the Palestinian village of Silwan. During the 3D movie, an incredible acrobatic leap takes us from history 2,000-years ago to the flag-draped Israeli present; there are no stops or other people along the way. All these lead to the primary dispute – whether the archeological findings at the site actually link it to King David.
Though there is no need to elaborate on these disagreements, it’s too bad that they were not explicitly mentioned during the tour, to expose the public to them and to confront them courageously. Not a single scientific question was presented, nor was any doubt or skepticism evident, neither on the part of the guide nor of the participants, who just wanted to get to the water. In the end, to everyone's delight, we indeed groped our way blindly through the darkness of the Shiloah Tunnel.
At 6 P.M., after I’d climbed back up to the Dung Gate, passing the homes of the Jewish residents of Silwan village, all I wanted was to buy some tea and a bagel with za’atar. But the bar mitzvah party at the gate asked if I could wait a bit, because they were in the middle of taking pictures.