Trip to Israel: The holy city of Jerusalem

The Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on a rainy February day.

The Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on a rainy February day.

Tomes have been written about Jerusalem and the fact that it is home to holy sites for the world’s three great monotheistic religions.

The Temple Mount is the third holiest site in Islam and home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. By tradition, the Dome of the Rock is believed to be the site where God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, a story significant to both Islam and Judaism.

It’s also the location where the Temple of Solomon and the Second Temple both stood, the holiest of holiest for Jews, the place where God was closest to man.

Jews pray at the Western Wall because they are allowed to. They are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, where the temples stood. Small notes containing prayers are stuck in the Wall, which is separated in to a section for men and a section for women.

There was a cold rain during our visit to the Western Wall and sparse crowds, but the solemnity of the place was still evident.

I offered a prayer for my children, sticking my note among the countless others stuffed into every crack and seam. I asked that they be blessed with wisdom and happiness, and given the strength to do what is right.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a church traditionally considered to have been built on Calvary.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a church traditionally considered to have been built on Calvary.

Nearby is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which tradition says was built on Calvary, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. The church also contains the Stone of Anointing, where it’s believed Jesus was prepared for burial after his death, and the location of his empty tomb.

Jerusalem is a metaphor for the larger conflict in the Middle East. Jews, Christians and Muslims are jammed together in tight quarters, sharing holy sites built one upon the other, too close to be separated, too far apart, it seems, to come together.

All have a claim to the city and to a piece of their shared history. Today, there’s an uneasy, fragile peace.


A Detour in the Old City

Anyone who knows me, knows I have a terrible sense of direction. I get turned around in the mall. I get turned around in the West End of Portland; I’ve lived in the city for 15 years. I can get turned around in a room with two doors.

Magellan, I am not.

During a brief break on our tour of Jerusalem’s Old City, we had about 30 minutes to shop. Close by were two gift shops that were recommended. Easy to find, centrally located, close to lunch, safe to use credit cards.

And boring.

I took a brief circle through and then started wondering around. I met a merchant, we talked, friendly, gregarious, overbearing. He told me his name. I have no idea how to spell it.

He wanted me to come to his stall. Why not? It’s just around the corner, he said.

We rounded the corner and another and another. I’m not sure if I was in the Muslim Quarter or the Armenian Quarter. The alleyways, antiquity old, got narrower and sketchier.

We stopped at a metal door, no sign. He unlocked it. Inside was a narrow passage, stacked floor to ceiling with scarfs and other things. The passage through the entryway was barely wider than my shoulders.

For some reason I went right in, I feared I had made a dangerous mistake. (Did I? It was broad daylight in a safe, world city. We all carry our biases with us, even if we don’t know it.)

He showed me scarf after scarf, cashmere (maybe) and silk (maybe). I found one I liked. It was nicer than the scarfs I had seen outside, pretty, soft and large. It would be a beautiful gift for my wife.

He started at 300 shekels, about $80.

Too much for a scarf.

I tried to leave, but we were just getting started. The negotiation was on. He complimented me, accused me of being a savvy businessman, flattered me. He took my hand, asked about my wife, asked about my job, asked about me, he put his hand on my shoulder. I checked my wallet. (Racism again? Caution?)

I may have been less than honest with some of my details. I said I was a writer, from Virginia – true to a point but not quite honest and not in many years.

By the end, I walked away with the scarf for 120 shekels, about $32. He shook my hand, mildly cursed me for robbing him, with a smile. The games had ended, and we were both pleased with the outcome, I think.

Walking around the Old City, I saw similar scarfs, maybe not quit as nice or maybe even nicer, for a lot less. $10.

He had fooled the American.

But for the premium I paid, I got more than a scarf. I had a little adventure, perhaps mostly in my own mind, and got a story about a detour in the Old City. That’s worth a few dollars.

By the way, I found my way back – eventually.

I traveled to Israel from Feb. 12-18 with the American Israel Education Foundation, the nonprofit arm of AIPAC. The foundation funds educational seminars to Israel for members of Congress and other political influentials. These AIEF-sponsored trips help educate political leaders about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship through firsthand experiences in Israel, briefings by experts on Middle East affairs, and meetings with Israeli political elite. Traveling with me was a group of 12 other people from New England.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at