This parcel of land, girdled by hills and valleys, had spawned a loam of dreamers from prophets and poets to caliphs and conquerors. This was the ancient city of Salem, which would later be known to the world as Jerusalem. Although Jerusalem would see scores of enemies charge its grounds, it was the patriarchs and kings of Judah’s tribe who would defend the city and dream of a united people, proving their vision to be a significant element in Israel’s history.
Accompanied by a resolutely mild-mannered local guide named Ziv Cohen, I journeyed through Jerusalem and the Judean province to follow an exiled people’s quest—and ensuing fight—for the Promised Land. Breathless, Ziv and I crossed the unfortunately named Dung Gate on the southern end of the old walled city of Jerusalem to enter the Western Wall plaza. At the base of the 130-foot-tall structure, a sea of faithful swarmed in the shadow of Mount Moriah. Suddenly thrown into a sober mood, I sauntered towards a demarcated women’s prayer wall, pausing to scale a wooden divider for a peek at the separate men’s prayer area. The sight of Orthodox men in traditional black garb captivated me, their side curls spilling out of their fur hats and their foreheads pressed against the venerable wall as they swayed back and forth in meditative prayer. Ziv said this motion, which bore a resemblance to the trance-like devotion of the whirling dervishes or Buddhist monks, was called davening.
The temple and the Wailing Wall
The Western Wall is, in fact, the remains of a massive retaining wall built by King Herod in 19 B.C. Right behind and above it stood the bedrock of Mount Moriah, otherwise known as the Temple Mount. It was here that Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his favored son Isaac, but later on warned not to lift his hand against the youth. Aside from the fact that the Temple Mount is in Muslim control these days, the Jews have not been able to ascend this area due to their fear of transgressing upon the holiest of holy places. So, in a case of faith-by-proxy, the Western Wall below came to be a gathering place for them to say prayers and lament their losses.
From here, it was a short walk to the Dome of the Rock—that eponymous golden-capped shrine which had me thinking about this area that arouses the most vitriolic contentions between Jews and Arabs.
The Dome of the Rock
It was not until the next day, however, that we rushed to the subterranean tunnels of the Western Wall. Israeli archaeologists have unearthed 1,640 feet of Herod’s retaining wall, which is a continuation of the exposed Western Wall section above today’s living grounds. Some stone slabs were found to weigh up to 570 tons each, held together by nothing more than their sheer bulk. When I placed my tiny hand against the cold, massive stones, and caressed the tiny grooves and knots on the surface, I felt connected to something that goes back more than 2,000 years.
It was at this moment that I envisioned Jerusalem’s manifold layers that reveal up to two or three levels of life built one on top of the other. And here, underneath it all, were the proofs of ancient life: stone quarries, antiquated water cisterns, and a spring-water pool, all of which were unearthed in their primordial condition. My imagination immediately retraced the very steps of the Jerusalemites when they went about their daily chores thousands of years ago.
Jerusalem's Temple Mount
Yet once upon a time, there was a king from the tribe of Judah by the name of David who catapulted Jerusalem to the spotlight in 1000 B.C. Three thousand years ago, he conquered this Jebusite enclave, brought the Ark of the Covenant there, purchased a piece of land in which to build God’s Temple, and subsequently established it as the capital of Israel’s united tribes. In 950 B.C., David’s son, the wise King Solomon, would fulfill his father’s dream and erect the First Temple at the very site of Abraham’s sacrifice on Mount Moriah.
Mount Moriah, where Abraham was said to have almost sacrificed his son, Isaac
However, the generations after King Solomon failed to produce notable leaders who would unite Israel. By this time, they were divided into the ten northern tribes carrying the name of Israel and the two southern tribes of Judah, leaving Jerusalem as Judah’s capital. Detecting a fracture, the Assyrians laid siege to the northern kingdom, exiled the tribes of Israel, leaving Judah trembling with fear. But underneath it all, a ruler from the Davidic line named Hezekiah had plans unfolding.
I expressed an interest in learning how Jerusalem assuaged the attack of the Assyrians, so we descended upon the City of David’s archaeological site on Ha-Ofel hill. I noticed dark clouds rolling across the sky and slowly morphing into a soft drizzle. It was the perfect time to seek shelter among the various excavated tunnels that weave into the mountains and under the city.
An instant surge of energy charged through me, like the one that gets your heart racing for whatever reason. I was in the wilderness— the land of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Herod.
We visited the 18th-century B.C. Canaanite Tunnel first, where at times the path twisted into tight passages with little headroom to maneuver. But more excitingly we also had a chance to slosh through the knee-high water of the 8th-century B.C. water channel called Hezekiah’s Tunnel, which served as the conduit to reroute the Gihon springs to the Shiloh pool inside the city. During those long sieges, this was King Hezekiah’s brilliant engineering plan to assure the survival of Judah’s tribe, whom we now know as the Jews.
But not all strategies were invincible, for the enemy grew stronger each time they came. Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, European Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottoman Turks would eventually conquer Jerusalem, pillage the city and exile its people to remote lands. One such expulsion, which caused the loss of many of Israel’s tribes except two, was the Babylonian exile. The Babylonian conqueror, King Nebuchadnezzar, had banished those who survived the siege and made slaves of them, as told in Psalms 137:1, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
These lonesome thoughts of hundreds and thousands of years of exile and expulsion had me quickly taking two side trips as a temporary distraction from the intensity of Jerusalem’s history. I longed for a more relaxing jaunt to the countryside but found myself unable to escape history.
As we drove out of the lush hills of Jerusalem and into more barrens lands, I noticed Bedouin camps set up in the rocky valleys of the stark Judean desert. Arabic road signs proliferated in the area, marking the way to various Palestinian-controlled towns such as Jericho. Qumran was on our way, but we headed straight to Ein Gedi.
When I placed my tiny hand against the cold, massive stones, and caressed the tiny grooves and knots on the surface, I felt connected to something that goes back more than 2,000 years.
The oasis of Ein Gedi was where David hid from the wrath of Israel’s first king, Saul. We tackled rugged paths that led to hidden waterfalls and freshwater springs amid the craggy escarpment, all the while pondering whether King David had walked the same path. Along the main trail, we had chance encounters with ibexes (mountain goats), as well as cuddly hyraxes, rodent-looking creatures that are actually related to elephants. And when the sun came out from behind alabaster clouds to warm the air, I removed my sandals and sat motionlessly, my foot dipped in the cool water pools. Beside me, some fresh-faced bathers thought it would be fun to strip for an impromptu swim. Their shrieks and laughter pierced the air, reminding me of my own carefree summer days spent gallivanting with friends.
Afterward, we headed farther south to Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage site. At one thousand feet above ground, it was once King Herod’s lavish summit fortress, dominated by a resplendent three-tier palace that cascaded down the precipitous cliffs. Today only ruins of the massive citadel lie hardened on the mountaintops, eroded by the winds of time. It was here on Masada’s mesa that the rebel group known as the Zealots hid, 60 years after it was abandoned upon Herod’s death. Meanwhile, as the summer of 70 A.D. closed in, contingents in Jerusalem suffered the Latin plunder. Masada remained standing as the last Jewish stronghold in Judea, to the detriment of the Romans who were intent on bringing death to the Zealots.
An aerial view of Masada
As the wind blew a sinister and rugged gust, I started to wax poetic. I let my gaze rest on the harsh lay of the land: the undulating moon-like Judean desert, the placid Dead Sea waters and the looming mountains of Jordan. That was when I heard the story of Masada’s tragedy: 1,000 Jewish men, women, and children in a mass suicide, choosing to end their lives with a dagger rather than be slaughtered by vengeful Roman vanquishers. It could be a questionable story presented by the chronicler Josephus Flavius, a Jew who became a Roman subject, but no matter where Masada’s truth lies, the blood and tears of fallen Jews are a perennial part of the legend.
The Dead Sea
I descended Masada in a heavy, forlorn mood. My guide thought a jeep safari around the desert would cheer me up. We transferred to a Land Rover and for the last one and a half hours drove past tall, jagged salt cliffs in ghostly formations and across bone-dry riverbeds in the desolate Judean desert. I was overwhelmed by a sense of eerie vastness. And though I had come in search of facts and proofs within the fantastical Old Testament tales I had grown cynical of, I found something more profound along the way—faith.
En route to the UNESCO World Heritage Site
As we zoomed past the rough desert, I looked back at the track of dust clouds mushrooming behind us. The only sound I heard was the crunch-crunch-crunch of our tires ripping through the rocky surface. I plugged in my earphones and New Order’s “True Faith” began to play on my iPod while the winds beat down on my sunburnt face. An instant surge of energy charged through me, like the one that gets your heart racing for whatever reason. I was in the wilderness—the land of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Herod—and there was not one soul in sight for miles on end.