Day One of Seven: My sister-in-law comes a visiting

My sister-in-law has come and gone. She was here for seven days in early December. My wife and I live in a very different world from my sister-in-law. We were not entirely sure what we would do with her for seven days.

If my wife controlled the world, which sometimes she thinks she does, we would have taken my sister-in-law into the West Bank for the entire seven days. We would have shown her everything that is wrong with Israel, everything that is wrong with the occupation; and by being there she would see the resilience and humanity of the Palestinian people. However, we love my sister-in-law; she is family and she was after all on vacation.

My wife was going to be occupied much of the time my sister-in-law was in Israel and so it was going to be up to me to show her around. My wife, being the clever sort she is, decided that her sister needed a goal while she was here. She decided, in consultation with my her sister of course, that the goal would be to visit Christian sites; to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. My sister-in-law is Catholic, not Jewish like us. I was going to get to experience what the “other” religion believed.

Of course, much to our delight, you cannot visit the Christian sites throughout Israel without encountering Palestinians; without running into the occupation. And so it was that my sister-in-law arrived into the land of Israel and we introduced her to another narrative, one that would run counter to her Republican leanings.

On arriving

We had rented an Airbnb accommodation on the edge of West Jerusalem across from the old city. It was here that we took my sister-in-law in a sherut after meeting her at the airport.

The sherut was actually a great choice. As chance would have it, we were the last passengers to be dropped off. As a result, we were driven through several different neighborhoods before arriving at ours. This allowed a quick glimpse of Jerusalem, its neighborhoods and the accompanying religious mix. It looked like our accommodation was secular, while all around us was orthodox, but not so orthodox that I couldn’t hold my wife’s hand.

On the first day

Everyone’s place of “ascension” all in one morning.

Sometimes starting at the end, is the way to go. Perhaps this is what we do when we are on our death bed. We remember yesterday before getting to the first day. Maybe this is the approach we use when we loose something and try to remember where we might have left it. However, we chose the end first because that is what we were closest to. The pilgrimage with my sister-in-law began at the Augusta Victoria Hospital. This was the Protestant site where it is believed that Christ ascended to heaven.

West Bank with encroaching Israeli settlement in background
West Bank with encroaching Israeli settlement in background

The hospital’s location in East Jerusalem presented a great starting point for a walk that would take us pass a series of churches and cemeteries connected to Christianity. The Church’s tower also provided a wonderful view out over Jerusalem East and West, as well as the West Bank and the ever encroaching Israeli settlements.

Augusta Victoria tower, Russian Orthodox tower, and East Jerusalem
Augusta Victoria tower, Russian Orthodox tower, and East Jerusalem

We left Augusta Victoria and continued our walk through East Jerusalem, missing the Orthodox Russian Convent of the Ascension (it was closed) before arriving at the Chapel of the Ascension. From here we went onto the Church of the Pater Noster. There was an admission charge to this site which I did not feel like paying so my wife and her sister went in while I waited outside.

Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem
Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem

There I am sitting outside waiting and across from where I am sitting there is a huge Israeli flag waving in the wind. It is set on top of a glassed in stairwell like structure that appears to join two buildings. I am in East Jerusalem; a Palestinian neighbourhood and I have to look at an Israeli flag – worse, the local Palestinians are forced to look at this flag.

I am sitting looking at the building and wondering why it is that the Israelis cannot be happy with what they already have. I am wondering why they find it so necessary to jam their presence in the faces of the Palestinians. It’s while these thoughts are running through my head that I notice movement on the second floor balcony. It looks like a soldier. He walks over from behind some blinds on the porch and into open view. He is smoking. It is a soldier. He is there to protect the settlers. He is there to safeguard the settlers and their acquisition.

Bab Al-Rahma, with Dome of the Rock in the background
Bab Al-Rahma, with Dome of the Rock in the background from Dominus Flevit

We moved on from the Church of the Pater Noster and continued our walk through the Mount of Olives. Along with all the sites of ascension, the Mount of Olives is also home to a Jewish cemetery, in usage for the last 3,000 years. On the other side of the Kidron Valley, there is the Muslim graveyard of Bab Al-Rahma adjoining the eastern wall of the Old City.

Jewish, Muslim, and Christian graveyards are located here because it is believed that it is in this valley that the dead will rise from their graves; the Messiah will arrive; Jesus’ Second Coming will take place and that the Day of Judgement will occur, depending on what belief system one subscribes to.

We visited the Tomb of the Prophets, but it looked closed. We looked at the Old City from the Mount of Olives’ Jewish graveyard and then from the Dominus Flevit Church. We walked by the Church of Mary Magdalene (also closed: Russian Orthodox sites are only open Tuesdays and Thursdays).  We had coffee at the All Nations Cafe and went down to Gethsemane.

Looking out of the entrance of the Tomb of Mary
Looking out of the entrance of the Tomb of Mary

When we left Gethsemane, we found ourselves entering a wave of Muslims worshipers who had just completed Friday prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It was very exciting, two Jews and a Christian going against the stream as we made our way to Mary’s Tomb.

Once we had finished descending one side of the valley and ascending the other, we found ourselves going through the Lion’s Gate and into the old city looking for the Via Dolorosa. We needed to locate the first stage before moving onto the second – both my wife and sister-in-law insisted.

Dome on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Dome on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The only problem with insisting on starting at the first stage was that it was inaccessible since it was located inside Umariya Elementary School. We were to learn this at the second stop when we met a tour guide that was only too willing to throw himself into our pilgrimage. For a mere $150 US, he was willing to guide us through the entire Via Dolorosa. My wife and I said we weren’t interested while my sister-in-law negotiated a price of $50 seeing as she was the only one interested in having a guided tour. We tagged along until our guide parted ways on top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a quick $50, but it was my sister-in-law’s.

Day Two of Seven: Life is circular so back to Bethlehem we go