French Israel

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Where were we? That's right: the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount. I should give you an idea first of what we are talking about.

This panorama was slapped together from nine photos that I took with a PDA (a Palm Zire 71), and though I think it turned out better than the one I made from photos at Ma'arat HaKeshet; you be the judge. (Disclaimer: the process of taking the best material out of nine lousy shots and pasting it together has rendered some architectural elements slightly out-of-proportion with the others. This is not due to any religious bias that would, for example, take land that belongs to the Palestinians and give it to the Israelis.)

So let us orient ourselves. We're on the eastern side of the Old City of Jerusalem. On the extreme edges of the panorama you glimpse the walls of yeshivat Aish HaTorah, whose balcony affords this lovely view. This was my first physical visit to Aish, although my visits to their web site go back maybe seven or eight years. Some friends and I poked our head into Aish after last Wednesday's tour. A few went into the Beit Medrash, and I went to this deck. That's when I took these photos.

On the left you see a mosque and a gold-leaf dome from the seventh century. They are, respectively, the Mamlouk Ghawanima Minaret and Haram al-Sharif, the Shrine of the Rock (which incidentally is not a mosque, but protective housing around a rock which is believed by Muslims to be the point at which creation began). In that area you see a lot of housing, which is the Muslim "Quarter". To the right of the Dome of the Rock is the Temple Mount, where you see a lot of trees growing. Directly underneath those trees is the Western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, with the famous "Kotel" portion, its plaza, and steps leading up to the Mount for non-Jews on the hill to the right of the plaza. To the right of that begins the Al-Aqsa mosque (on the Temple Mount) and the archeological garden (on the ground). And beyond this mount, fuzzy in the background, is Har HaZeitim, the Mount of Olives.

That's what the canopy that looks like a picnic shelter is, to the right of where the retaining wall ends, and behind the turnabout. This is a slightly better photo of the area. To the right of that is another wall, this one dating back to Ottoman rulership the 16th century, and denoting an artificial end to the Old City. Beyond that wall and sloping down is the Ir David (City of David), which is where the historical Jerusalem spread out before the Second Temple period. For the moment it is mostly inhabited by Arabs, with but few idealistic Jewish families interspersed throughout.

We arrived at about 9:30a.m. and joined Rav Beryl Wein, who began by pointing out what's where, and telling of how Herod, the meglomaniacal ruler with dubious religious credentials, spared no expense and no amount of lives to built up this complex and the city around it.

He then led us to the entrance of the park below. Thirteen shekels per student (and yes, we were "students", not bakhourim, following his last incident at a museum -- recommended reading).

I could describe everything and show some snapshots, but it seems pointless since the Ophel's Archaeological Park's website is beautiful (albeit shock/flash-heavy; try here if you want to skip the intro). Even this tour company's site covers most of the basic historical context and physical explanations that Rav Wein gave us, and illustrates how this pile of stones from the Western Wall got here.

What I will offer is a few observations. First, that being out in the bright sunlight on a perfect, humidity-free warm day, and seeing stuff like this, below, is as about as good as I can get for a morning of yeshivah-sanctioned study. Think: these stones were thrown down from the top of the Temple Mount retaining wall by Romans when they destroyed the place in the year 70. By a couple of centuries, Jews were out of the picture, and the site has since been occupied by various religions. It was the pagan capital of a short-lived Roman province; it was they who called it "Aelia Capitolina" instead of Jerusalem and the land "Palestine" instead of Israel (somehow the latter stuck, and the present-day Arabs identify with this ignominous name from a fallen empire). It was a trash pile for That Other Religion, which was giddy with the symbolism of the defeat of the Old Law by the New Law. It became living quarters for the Knights Templar and their horses (who, with a limited grasp of history, called their stables "Solomon's Stables"). At present it is the largest mosque in Jerusalem. And for most of time these foreign occupations, these rocks, as well as other artifacts from the bustling city life that had been centered down here, have been covered in dirt, well preserved for discovery in the 20th century.

The famous song "Ki Ba Moed" takes its quote from this Tehillah (Psalm 102.13-14)
Thou wilt arise, and have mercy upon Zion; For it is time to have pity upon her, Yea, the appointed time is come.
For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, And have pity upon her dust.

A street down here, running parallel to the Western Wall, was a veritible Champs-Elysées for Jerusalemites and provincial tourists (lacking only the Virgin Megastore and the Gap, but including, I suspect, the Bistrot Romain). One could buy rare cloths and spices here, as well as animals for sacrifice (and ultimately, in many cases, for food), and change Roman currency or prutot for the holy half-shekel.

By the end of the two-hour tour I was entertaining notions of enrolling, NOW, in a degree programme that would lead to daily archeological or historical junkets like this. I don't really know why. I cannot explain the fascination, but it does not hit everyone. There are some persons, even those closest to me, who do not really see anything here but old stones and broken columns. Yet I have little means of explaining to them what is obvious to me, that this much more, and that everyone in this religion should be familiar with these things. (Of course, that's just my opinion, not a psak halakhah.)

And that is why I must go back to the classroom, where details of artifacts can be connected to real life. But when I say the "classroom" now, I mean the Beit Medrash. For now.

[Pause. Reflection. Should I go into this or not? It's a big can of worms, and worms are perhaps inappropriate at this point.]

The Huldah Gates are on the Southern Wall, where Jews used to enter the Temple Mount. There are no gates now, just as there was no Huldah when the gates were built, and named after her in the place where the prophetess used to sit during the period of the First Temple (possibly). I assume I am the last one on earth to know about her, because until this day I did not.

The steps that persons would take leading up to those gates are broad and short, but of varying width; Rav Wein said this was so that no one could run up quickly, but would approach the Temple Mount with reverent slowness.

Several of us asked why this area is not as big an attraction as the Kotel Plaza, considering that this is the same Wall, and is in fact the original point of entry to the Beit HaMikdash. A kehillah could come here for prayer, provided of course that they pay the 15-shekel entrance fee. One reason, explained Rav Wein, is that the Kotel is closer to the area of the Kodesh HaKedoshim, the Holy of Holies, which is somewhere beyond, underneath the Temple compound. Plus, up until 1967 we did not have access to this Southern Wall area, only the Kotel Plaza, and people got in the habit of going there instead. "Essentially, we are standing in Jordanian territory", he quipped sardonically.

Indeed, beyond these steps, on the eastern end of the wall, a crew was working on the blocks of the wall itself. Upon discovery of a bulge in this wall that could cause it to collapse in a short time, a Jordanian commission took over the repair work, since Israel and the Palestinians mutually distrusted each other. We saw them picking at the upper stones, their scaffold swinging wildly with the effort, and large chunks flying out and falling to the ground. I'm sure they know what they are doing; they are dealing with the more recent part of the structure which was (as I understand it) also built by the Ottomans. I just regret the unfortunate politics that got them to that point.

By two and a half hours, we were sunburnt, and proceeded inside to the air-conditioned museum portion. It was lavish, and sought to put things in perspective with film footage of the history of the excavations. Following this was a melodramatic reenactment of a pilgrim coming to bring a sacrifice in a computer-generated model of the Temple complex (complete with a side plot of an attractive woman who kept crossing his path, everywhere except in the steaming waters of the mikveh, thankfully). A good time was had by all.

(Adi Neuman also blogged this expedition; see his story here.)
PinḼas Ivri 08:25


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