After visiting the Garden Tomb, we decided to wander around Old Jerusalem for the afternoon and visit the Pools of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a man. There is a wall around Old Jerusalem with seven gates to enter or exit the city. The walls of Jerusalem have a long and tumultuous history, being completely destroyed on several occasions by invading armies. The walls that remain today were built in the 16th century when Jerusalem was under the control of the Ottoman empire.
Damascus gate was busy, and down some stairs, so we decided to head to Herod gate, which was much less busy except for some fruit vendors. We had our stroller with us because we walked from quite a distance to reach Old Jerusalem, but we soon found that even though it seems like Jerusalem was built on a flat plateau, it was not! There were stairs and elevation changes throughout the city. Luckily, our trusty Phil&Ted’s inline double stroller was up for the challenge!
By going through Herod’s gate, we landed ourselves in the Muslim quarter of the city. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the entire Old City was captured and under Jordanian control. In the Six Day’s War of 1967, Israel captured the Old City and annexed it to be part of Israel. Although under the control of the Israeli government, the international community declared their annexation void. So, technically, East Jerusalem is part of Palestinian occupied territory. Whew! The politics here are quite confusing! If it clears anything up, Israeli soldiers were guarding each gate. In the Muslim quarter, we found snack shops and graffiti. The streets were narrow, paved with stone and the buildings were so old! Wires and lines were strung across the pathways from building to building, because being made of stone, there was no way to hide the lines and install them discreetly when electricity, internet, and TV became available!
In the Muslim quarter, near Lion’s gate, we found the Pools of Bethesda and St. Anne’s church. St. Anne’s is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who may have been born in this area of Jerusalem. In 1130 A.D., a church was built over the caves where they remember the Virgin Mary. It was taken over by Turks and made into a Koranic law school before being offered to the French in the 1850s as a goodwill gesture after the French helped the Ottoman Empire during the Crimean war. The church was then restored and the surrounding area excavated and protected. The church itself was quite plain in architecture and decoration, but the acoustics were wonderful. One of the good things about visiting sites at the same time as tour groups is that they will often sing and test out the acoustics for us!
Next, we came to the actual pools. In earlier times, the pools were water reservoirs, where rainwater collected behind a simple dam to form a lake. From the reservoir, there was a canal that led the water to the temple. Later, around the time of Christ, a healing center developed east of the pools. A large water cistern, as well as baths and grottoes were built, and invalids that were barred from the temple would wait at the baths to be healed. In John 5:1-9, Jesus visits the pools and heals a man who had been waiting at the pools for years to be healed. It was awesome to see the actual pools and grottoes where this happened! It was set up differently than I imagined- the pools and grottoes were smaller, so only a few people could fit in each pool, but there were multiple pools. The invalids would wait for the water to be “stirred up” and then the first one who could hop in would be healed (traditionally).
After being used as a healing center, between 200 and 400 A.D. a temple and other buildings were built over the site, with mosaic floors and frescoes. During the Byzantinian era, a basilica was built over the pools to commemorate both the miracle, and Mary’s birth.
One of my favorite things about visiting places like this is exploring them with Landon and finding interesting things. He led me down a few flights of stairs among the ruins to an underground Roman-era cistern. It was still full of water! We did not stay long because the viewing platforms were small and there were more people coming down to have a look, but Landon was so proud to have found it himself, that Austin and I switched watching over sleeping Owen in the stroller so that Landon could show him too.
The pools of Bethesda were on my “maybe, if we have time” list for Jerusalem, but I’m glad we took the time to visit. Everything is Old Jerusalem is so close together that it makes it possible to see many different sites throughout the day. In fact, we were done with the pools and had a few hours before we wanted to start heading back to Haifa, so we decided to try to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I had not researched how exactly to get there, so we wove our way through Old Jerusalem, looking for the path with the least elevation change/stairs, through the Muslim quarter, to the Jewish quarter. Since Jewish Shabbat is Saturday, the streets were empty, and everything was immaculately clean. After the noisy and busy Muslim quarter, the difference was night and day! We managed to walk along a portion of the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Grief, traditionally the walk Christ took to the cross. Since we believe that he was crucified north of Jerusalem, and we’re not Catholic, this did not have quite as much meaning for us as it does for many other Christians. There were plaques with the different stations of the cross along the sides of the road. We were just trying to follow signs to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and got lost a few times, but soon found the entrance. There was a huge line to go in. At the time, we thought that it was just a very popular site, and that everyone wanted to go in. We had already visited the Garden Tomb earlier on in the day, but I mainly wanted to go because I wanted to see how six different Christian religions shared one church. I thought that was intriguing. Well, seeing the crazy line to get in, we decided to just head home after snapping some pictures out front. Turns out, it would not be that easy to leave Old Jerusalem.
From where we were in the Christian quarter, we figured it would be easiest to head out of Damascus gate to reach our car way out at the BYU Jerusalem center on Mt. Scopus. The Christian quarter was bustling as well, with tons of shops selling all kinds of things on each side. Landon was magnetically drawn to all the toys and treats, but we managed to get to Damascus gate, finally. It was very odd, there seemed to be a line to get out of the city! And, it wasn’t moving! There was a big crowd of people around the gate, and after a few minutes of getting squished, we decided to head east and leave out of Lion’s gate, the closest gate to our car. We walked all the way over to that gate, just to find out that all the gates in Old Jerusalem were closed. This was slightly unnerving, as we had been walking around the city all afternoon and had not noticed anything out of the ordinary, except an ambulance moped come by once. We found a place to camp out near the gate and waited for quite awhile. Tour groups came up, and the tour guides were just as confused as we were, which did not settle my nerves at all. There was a line of cars waiting to get out of the gate, as well as a crowd of people. Landon and Owen ate snacks and chased pigeons, Austin googled articles about gates closing in Old Jerusalem, but could not find out what had happened.
Later that evening, to my dismay, I read online that this happened. I’m pretty sure we walked on the street where the stabbing occurred. It makes sense, now, that they closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to tourists, and the gates of the city. They do not mess around with terrorist attacks here. I’m happy we were safe, and I did not feel unsafe during our time in Old Jerusalem, but it was a reminder for me that tensions in this area of the world remain high between different religious and ethnic groups.
Our time in the Old City was awesome. Just wandering the streets and imagining what life was like here a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, three thousand years ago, was a surreal feeling. Because of our itinerary and the long distances that we walked, the stroller was the best option for us. There are so many stairs in some sections of the Old City that a baby carrier may be a better option. There are so many things to see here, but they are all very close to each other so it is possible to see many of the sights in Old Jerusalem in just one or two days!