From Jordan to Jerusalem

September 5, 2018
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WELL, my arrival into Palestine was by no means relaxing. After my Jordanian trip with a driver named Mohammed who could not tell us a thing about the country, he dropped us at the Allenby Bridge.

Also known these days as the King Hussein Bridge, the Allenby Bridge is a key border crossing from Jordan into the area generally known as the West Bank of the Jordan, or the West Bank for short. This area is occupied by Israel but otherwise controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and along with the Gaza Strip, forms the area known today as Palestine.

Map of the Palestinian Territories both occupied by Israel (Area C) and unoccupied (Areas A and B), by ‘Wickey-nl’, based on United Nations mapping (United Nations OCHA oPt) CC-BY-SA 3.0, showing the Allenby Bridge crossing and Jerusalem, among other details.

Palestine is a territory that has grown and shrunk on the map, depending on who was drawing the maps. I will have more to say about Palestine and the West Bank in my next couple of of posts. In this post, we head straight from the Allenby Bridge to Jerusalem, after some delays at the border.

For Sarah, my travelling friend of one week, had left her new iPhone charging in Mohammed’s car. We would not give him a tip, so he did not remind us of the phone. Sarah and I went through Jordanian immigration and she didn’t remember that the phone was still in the car till we approached Israeli immigration. We were entering Palestinian territory, but the Israelis controlled immigration all the same. Sarah was in tears as all her holiday photos and data were on this phone. So, we asked Israeli immigration and the army if they could help. They gave us wifi and I rang Mohammed, who denied having the phone even when we said we would tip him. So, then we had to stop the use of it.

Sarah’s brother had died five weeks before and was a devout Christian. He had always wanted to come to Palestine. Her husband had died six years before and had wanted to visit Jordan. And on top of that she had been ill the last few days. So, the tears lasted for one hour; I just think the emotion and losing her phone took a toll. Mohammed also managed Little Petra Bedouin Camp, a small camp outside of Petra; and he would be getting a very bad review.

As a result of all these happenings, we went through the Allenby Bridge and our luggage was not searched. When an immigration officer wearing a Jewish yarmulke cap started questioning us she continued to cry about her brother and her husband; and the Immigration official with the yarmulke offered comfort and just let us through.

East Jerusalem in 2007, showing settlements and existing and planned routes of the separation barrier or wall. The Old City is in the Middle. This is apparently the most recent image of its kind. Public Domain image, original source United Nations report,, via Wikipedia.

The Israeli Army routinely detain people up to five hours. I’d met about four young people who’d had to show their mobile phones, Facebook contacts and browsing history. I had taken most social media accounts off all my devices and deleted browsing history since I had been to Lebanon and gone to the Hezbollah Museum. On the other hand, wouldn’t the deletion of all this stuff look even more suspicious?

Border detention occurs for security reasons but makes holidays more stressful and less fun. And of course, it makes being a Palestinian more stressful and less fun, too.

If we’d been hassled similarly it would have just been the last straw. But we weren’t. And so we hopped straight on a bus to East Jerusalem and checked into the Azzahra Hotel, near the Damascus Gate. The hotel staff were quite patient while we urgently went online as soon as we got there, me giving Mohammed a bad review and Sarah stopping her phone and organising a replacement.

he Azzahra Hotel was about one minute’s walk from the Old City: what a convenient place to be. I paid $80 US a night. The hotel was rather old and quaint in an Art Nouveau style, and the restaurant served us an Italian Pizza from its very own brick-oven pizzeria, thin and great to eat.

That first day we managed to walk up to the biblical Mount of Olives. The heat and humidity were overbearing. We got lost but managed to find the lookout, after trying to get into the local Greek Orthodox Church and being told that we had to be Greek-Orthodox to get in.

We also stopped by another church called Mary of the Assumption, took in a great view of the city and the ancient Silwan Necropolis, and wandered by mistake into a French Catholic missionary house that was doing work to help the Palestinians and offering cheap board. Such missions are another place to stay in Jerusalem though I forget the name.

That night I took photos of the Church of All Nations with its beautiful exterior, and we finally found our way home.

Another beautiful church is the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, which contains the remains of two Russian Orthodox saints and is an active church of worship, as many Russian Jews come from large families that are intermarried with Christians. There are about 40,000 Russian Orthodox believers in Israel.

The Allenby Bridge; the Mount of Olives (top right and bottom left); and a gate of the old city

That first day we managed to walk up to the biblical Mount of Olives. The heat and humidity were overbearing. We got lost but managed to find the lookout, after trying to get into the local Greek Orthodox Church and being told that we had to be Greek-Orthodox to get in.

We also stopped by another church called Mary of the Assumption, took in a great view of the city and the ancient Silwan Necropolis, and wandered by mistake into a French Catholic missionary house that was doing work to help the Palestinians and offering cheap board. Such missions are another place to stay in Jerusalem though I forget the name.

That night I took photos of the Church of All Nations with its beautiful exterior, and we finally found our way home.

Another beautiful church is the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, which contains the remains of two Russian Orthodox saints and is an active church of worship, as many Russian Jews come from large families that are intermarried with Christians. There are about 40,000 Russian Orthodox believers in Israel.

The Church of All Nations and an image of the Jerusalem skyline at sunset

Church of All Nations in the daytime, photo by Yosarian, CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Church of Mary Magdalene, photo by ‘Moataz 1997', CC-BY-SA 4.0

There are different quarters of the City. At the hotel I saw one that showed the city divided into Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and Christian areas (confusing, given that the Armenians are generally Christians too!). The Azzahra Hotel was in the heart of the Muslim Quarter

The roots of this arrangement probably lie in Ottoman times. The Ottomans arrived at a system in which each subject belonged to a ‘nation’ or millet,which was defined in ethnic-cum-religious terms and thus did not have boundaries. Each millet largely regulated its own affairs. The Sultan and his provincial governors and lieutenants ruled the empire through the equivalent-level leaders of each millet, each of which had its own villages in the countryside and its own part of town in the bigger cities. The millet system was probably as sensible a way as any to run an empire that stretched from the Balkans to the Middle East, with divided populations almost everywhere.

The Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall

After the Mount of Olives, we went to the Temple Mount, the historic site of Jerusalem’s ancient Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans, and of which only the Wailing Wall and various architectural foundations remain.

The Temple Mount at sunset

An aerial view of the Temple Mount from the south, with the Al-Aqsa Mosque under a dark-coloured dome in the foreground and the golden Dome of the Rock and smaller, dark-coloured Dome of the Chain in the middle. Photo by ‘Godot 13', CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Since the very earliest days of Islam, in the 600s and 700s CE, the Temple Mount has been dominated by the small prayer-shelter known as the Dome of the Chain, which dates to the 600s CE and, next to it, the larger Dome of the Rock from the 700s, a key inspiration for all the domed buildings in the West.

The Dome of the Rock sits above a beautiful blue shrine. The interior is even more astonishing than the outside, but access is forbidden to non-Muslims. Fortunately there are photographs of the interior that have been shared online in the Wikipedia entry on the Dome, by permission one presumes, and quite possibly in books on Islamic art as well.

At the south end of the Temple Mount, called Haram al-Sharif (‘the Noble Sanctuary’) in Arabic, are the ancient Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most holy place in the Islamic world and the newer El Marwani Mosque. Al-Aqsa means ‘the farthest’, that is from Mecca and Medina, and it was supposed to have been visited by Muhammad in the course of a supernatural journey at night. Opened in 1996, the El Marwani Mosque is under the flat roof surface of the Temple Mount, in an area known as ‘Solomon’s Stables’, and caters to an overflow of worshipers and pilgrims.

The Dome of the Chain, the older of the two dome structures, gets its name from a Jewish legend in which King Solomon is supposed to have suspended a chain from Heaven. Whenever two litigants went to grasp it, the chain would elude the one with the weaker case.

The Roman Pantheon is a still older domed structure. But its dome is much lower and flatter than those of the Dome of the Chain and the larger Dome of the Rock, which became the templates for later structures such as St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The dome atop the Dome of the Rock has been rebuilt several times (strictly speaking, only small parts of either dome and its supports are truly original) and it has not always been golden in colour either. The gold that is currently on top was supplied some decades ago by the Jordanian monarchy (at least 80 kilograms, beaten very thin). The domes and the mosque are currently managed by a Jordanian religious foundation called the Waqf.

The Israeli Knesset, or parliament, restricts access to the Domes. Non-Muslims can visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque, though they are not allowed entry into the inner sanctum of the Dome of the Rock. Only Muslim worship is permitted anywhere in the dome complex.

Although there is some evidence that Jews and Muslims both prayed under the domes in the early days of Islam, in an ecumenical way, the reason for the present ban on non-Muslim prayer is to avoid trouble between Muslims and Jews, as some Jews wish to aggressively reclaim the site for Judaism whatever the present-day Muslims might think, and would do so if they were allowed to.

Having said that, some of the strictest and most orthodox rabbis also believe that Jews should not try to reoccupy the old temple until the coming of the Messiah. These rabbis support the secular ban on Jewish worship on the Temple Mount, for religious reasons of their own.

The placement of the Domes and the Al-Aqsa Mosque atop the ruins of the old Jewish temple is typical of Islam. Many if not most mosques in the Middle East are built on the sites of old Jewish temples, Christian churches, and even pagan temples to the Greek and Roman gods among others.

Partly, this reflected a spirit of continuity in early Islam, a desire to appropriate the heritage of earlier religions along with their believers. Lately, there have been discoveries of early Islamic coins and artwork decorated with the Jewish Menorah, the seven-branched candelabra that is today the symbol of Israel. Along with the evidence of past ecumenical worship, some people find this encouraging.

We went to the Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall. It is said that this is where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Issac. The Jewish temple, which is supposed to have endured for 2,000 years, was destroyed twice: first by the Babylonians, and then by the Romans. It is the holiest of places for Jews, who are able to worship at the Wailing Wall. The division of the Temple Mount between its two principal claimants is thus accomplished in ways that Solomon might have approved of.

The Western or Wailing Wall of the Temple Mount

Worshipers at the Western or Wailing Wall (video)

Ironically, in the Holy City, there is no day that exactly corresponds to a Western Sunday. Sunday is the day of rest for the Christians, Saturday for the Jews (the Jewish Sabbath actually begins on Friday afternoon) and Friday for the Muslims.

At the Wailing Wall, there were different prayer areas for men and woman and of course you were supposed to be an observant Jew as well. Everyone had to have a head covering, as in Saudi Arabia or at the Vatican. Though you were supposed to be Jewish, many Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land approached the wall with their heads suitably covered and placed paper in the wall and walked backwards after they had done that.

At our hotel, there was a tour guide who had an English name. We overheard him criticising the Muslims as being divided, most obviously between Sunni and Shia.

Actually, the Jewish population of Israel is itself rife with divisions between Palestinian-sympathising moderates and combative hard-liners, secular Jews and a spectrum of Jewish sects ranging from the liberal to the deeply Orthodox, and the Sephardi/Ashkenazi ethnic division among Jews whose ancestors lived in Europe, along with small numbers of black Jews from Africa and Chinese Jews from China amid a white majority.

Israel, as a country, is even more divided because only three quarters of its population is Jewish by any definition. Most of the remainder is Arab or Druze, much as in Lebanon to the north; along with smaller minorities such as the Russian and Greek Orthodox Christians and the Armenian Catholics.

The size of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities raises some awkward questions. What would happen to the ‘Jewish state’ if Jews became the minority sometime in the future? And how reasonable is it, in this non-racist day and age, to try and insist too hard on Israel remaining a Jewish state by means of population manipulations? Could it be that Jerusalem and its vestiges of the millet system pointed to a more integrated future, albeit one in which good fences made good neighbours?

(Apartheid, one is tempted to object. Well, no. It’s only really Apartheid if things like land are unfairly distributed and if one group is clearly on top. Otherwise, it’s Belgium. Or Lebanon, a more troubled example but once again because some groups were more prosperous than the others.)

The Armenian and Christian Quarters

We went back into the Old Town and followed the narrow lines through to the Armenian Quarter, seeing as the Jewish holy day meant everything Jewish was closed. We went to the Christ Church Café, run by a London-based Protestant missionary organisation called the CMJ, which had come to the Holy Land in the nineteenth century in the fond hope of gathering the Holy Land, its Jews in particular, to the bosoms of Anglicanism, Presbyterianism and Methodism, the religions that had put the Great into Great Britain or so they thought.

As abject failures go, this was surely one of the most abject. Though there are a few Christians in the Middle East generally, and rather more in the Holy Land and Lebanon, just about all of them are Catholic or Orthodox in some way. But the English vicars would soldier on undaunted, eventually pouring their energies into other sorts of good works; the present-day café raised money for charity. It had amazing food, and the cappucinos were even more amazing. We came here twice.

We tried to get into the Temple Mount were told to come back the next day, Sunday. Exactly who was allowed up there seemed to change from day to day.

A Jewish Guy gave us a map of Jerusalem that only had a Jewish Quarter marked on it and nothing else. Perhaps for that reason we got lost, and then found the Abbey of the Dormition, built on the spot where by tradition the Virgin Mary was either assumed alive into Heaven (the Assumption) or after a brief delay in a death-like sleep (the Dormition). It is a Roman Catholic basilica, even though the Dormition is more usually an Orthodox belief. We also discovered a room on the spot where the Last Supper was supposed to have been held; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is supposedly on the spot where Jesus was briefly entombed before rising from the dead.

People were fighting in the line to see the sights and it was a nightmare.

Some people were reserving places for others in the line, and the Greek Orthodox Priests were letting people in. It was chaotic really. People fight over the Holy Land in many different ways!

The Holy Sepulchre Church is administered by three religions: Roman Catholic, Armenian Catholic and Greek Orthodox. Many of the Christian sites in the Holy Land are now owned or run by the Greeks in a day-to-day sense. Ethiopian Copts are also a presence in East Jerusalem.

The Zion Gate, which leads mainly to the Armenian Quarter

Sign in the Room of the Last Supper

The Room of the Last Supper

The Room of the Last Supper (video)

The Abbey of the Dormition, with belltower and effigy of the Virgin Mary as if asleep

Alleyway, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (video)

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Sarah at right

Lanterns in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (video)

East Jerusalem used to be mainly Christian, along with Bethlehem and Nazareth. However, many Christians have left the Holy Land, fleeing its strife for other Christian countries (more or less) such as Australia. In the meantime, East Jerusalem has been annexed by Israel and strongly Judaized, with Israel authorising the construction of twelve internationally illegal settlements housing about 200,000 people within East Jerusalem.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem hold only permanent residency status and find it hard to get permits to build more houses, with several dozen illegally constructed houses being demolished by Israel each years, in marked contrast to the assistance given to Israeli settlement villages. The Israelis regards all the local Armenians as Palestinian and other local Christians in East Jerusalem likewise.

I noticed that were also a lot of sacred spaces where women couldn’t get in or had to go in separately from the men. This seems to be fairly endemic as well and not limited to one faith.

Up the Temple Mount, at Last

On Sunday we came back, entering via the Dung Gate in the City Walls (also known more appealingly as the Morocco Gate) and heading for the Moroccan Gate of the Temple Mount, the only one that non-Muslims are allowed to enter by.

Once again it seemed we weren’t going to be allowed up. The Israeli soldiers asked Sarah if she was Muslim and she said she was. Then they wanted proof, such as a passport which stated your religion. She answered and said that she was. Then they said they would arrest her is she was lying (her British passport does not state religion, so it couldn’t be quickly proven one way or the other). They asked me and I said that I was Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist that I was all religions, they said they would arrest me and I said loudly, “please fucking do”. They said stop yelling. I said please arrest me. Eventually they let us go up onto the top of the Temple Mount.

This all sounds a bit crazy. But we wanted to see the famous shrine, and on top of that it was getting on for fifty degrees C. People do some pretty mad things when it’s that hot.

Beneath the Temple Mount

Heading up the Temple Mount

On top of the Temple Mount, looking toward its Moroccan Gate

Jewish would-be worshippers and Israeli security forces

The Dome of the Rock and the smaller Dome of the Chain

Dome of the Rock (video)

A closer view of the Dome of the Chain; the lower Moroccan gate; a street scene; and views of the partial colonnades, and a minaret, on top of the Temple Mount

The South End of the Temple Mount

The Jewish Quarter and the Hurva Synagogue

Next on out list was the Jewish Quarter and its most distinctive landmark today, the controversially rebuilt Hurva Synagogue.

We’d actually passed through the Jewish Quarter, between the two Moroccan Gates, on the way to the Wailing Wall and the Temple Mount. Between the two Moroccan Gates there was a non-Jewish subdivision of the Jewish Quarter known as the Moroccan Quarter (this may sound confusing I know). The Moroccan Quarter was demolished in three days in 1967 after the Israeli armed forces arrived; at least one local perished in the rubble. The demolition of the Moroccan Quarter improved access to the Wailing Wall and that was why it was done.

About 2,000 people live in the Jewish Quarter today and it contains a number of synagogues and yeshivas, or Jewish religious schools.

We got into the Hurva Synagogue no problem, though officially you have to join a group either beforehand or at the door. Hurva means ‘ruin’, because the synagogue has quite literally been in the wars, demolished and rebuilt several times.

The Hurva Synagogue, and a street of the Jewish Quarter

It was first built at the beginning of the 18th century CE and was then destroyed only a few years later. It remained a ruin for about another 140 years before being rebuilt in 1864 only to be destroyed a bit over eighty years later, once again, by the Arab Legion (that is, the Jordanian army) during Israel’s war of independence.

In alliance with Egypt, Syria, and an Iraqi expeditionary force, the Arab Legion invaded the lands west of the Jordan River on 15 May 1948, a day after Israel’s declaration of independence.

British Mandatory Palestine (today’s Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza) was partitioned by the United Nations in 1947. It was expected that there would be a Jewish State (Israel) and a Palestinian state which was to be centred on the West Bank of the River Jordan. At that time, Palestinians in the territory (1.2 million) outnumbered Jewish settlers (about 700,000).

The Palestinians also outnumbered the Jordanians in the Kingdom of Transjordan, another semi-colony of the British Empire east of the Jordan River, which was also on the verge of independence but only had 400,000 inhabitants.

Upon becoming independent in 1948, Transjordan would be renamed Jordan. The population of Jordan has increased twenty-fold since independence. A similar population explosion in Syria helps to explain that country’s instabilities and difficulties. The average age of the Syrian population is 22, and that’s often bad news for political stability, especially if about half those 22-year-olds haven’t got jobs or can’t afford houses.

Because many Arab countries had small populations until the middle of the twentieth century, the Palestinians were numerous by local standards, and fully expected to achieve statehood on a par with Israel. After all, they outnumbered the Jordanians about three to one.

However, both the Jewish settlers and the Jordanians were nervous of the potential power of an independent Palestine, not least because the most famous and powerful Palestinian of the time was the notorious and intransigent Grand Mufti (religious leader) of Palestine, Amin al-Husseini, an increasingly autocratic and anti-Semitic ruler who had, ironically, been appointed by the British at the beginning of the 1920s.

Exiled ultimately to Egypt after collaborating with the Nazis and appearing to endorse the Holocaust during World War II, Amin al-Husseini ruled the Palestinian-controlled parts of Palestine by terror, assassinating moderates who supported the United Nations’s proposed two-state solution, as opposed to driving the Jews into the sea which was what al-Husseini wanted.

(Bundesarchiv)The Notorious Amin al-Husseini, in 1941 (Bundesarchiv)

It seems very much as though some kind of a deal was cooked up between the British, the Zionists and the Jordanians to suppress Palestinian nationalism and depose al-Husseini at the same time. Ironically, this was to include a war against Israel that would result in the ‘liberation’ of the West Bank by other Arabs.

A day after Israel declared independence on 14 May 1948, a coalition of Arab powers called the Arab League invaded Israel/Palestine. However, the only invading army that was in any way equal to the army of the infant state of Israel was that of Transjordan, which was still commanded by British officers holding British commissions. It was essentially a leftover from World War II, and was known not as the Jordanian army but by the more colonial-sounding name of the Arab Legion; which sounds confusingly similar to the Arab League, but did not mean the same thing.

Though it came from a demographically tiny country, the Arab Legion was well-trained and had plenty of experience fighting the Axis powers in the Middle East. Its most senior commander in World War II, and still in 1948, was a British general known to the locals as ‘Glubb Pasha’.

In a secret 1947 meeting with Golda Meir (later Prime Minister of Israel), Transjordan’s King Abdullah had indicated that he didn’t really want to cross the River Jordan at all. However by 1948 the situation had become more inflamed, and on 15 May Transjordan did invade.

‘Glubb Pasha in Amman, Jordan, during the celebrations of the 24th anniversary of the Arab Revolt in September 11, 1940’. Public Domain image, Matson Photograph Collection, US Library of Congress

The Arab Legion occupied the West Bank but didn’t try to cut Israel in half, which would have been the logical next step if the Jordanians were more serious. Then in December 1948 King Abdullah, having by now annexed the West Bank, formally deposed Amin al-Husseini and replaced him with a new Mufti.

And so one of the region’s chief troublemakers was deposed in ways that worked for everyone, including the British; who must have green-lighted the whole thing somehow in view of the number of serving British officers fighting on the Arab side. A member of the House of Commons, who presumably wasn’t in the loop, called for Glubb to be court-martialed. But that never happened.

The only collective losers were the Palestinian people, whose aspirations for a state of their own were frustrated once again. They were now stuck in the role of being one of those small peoples who are forever betrayed by historical forces beyond their control.

Although the Jordanian invasion was a bit of a stitch-up, there were some places that were genuinely fought over by the Arab Legion and the Israelis. Chief among these was Jerusalem, which had been designated as a free city under the UN plan and was, as such, up for grabs once everything want crazy. And so the Hurva Synagogue was destroyed once again.

Reconstruction of the Hurva Synagogue began in 2000 and was finished in 2010. The rebuild was controversial because it was carried out by the Israelis on a site that under international law was not recognised as part of Israel. The rebuild was condemned by many Arab, Islamic and Palestinian organisations, along with the government of Iran.

Anyhow it has now been rebuilt, at great cost and after ten years of reconstructive effort. Whatever the politics, it would be a shame if it got ruined again, I think.

The Muslim Quarter

The Muslim Quarter of the City had Israeli troops guarding different areas and small boys yelling insults at the soldiers. I went in and had kebabs for dinner, and kenafe .

Eateries, foodstalls and street scenes in the Muslim Quarter

Life in the Muslim Quarter is so much like in the now, buying and selling, marketing their wares on the street, a leaf of mint, chickpeas, eating, buying material, shoes whatever you want.


Hopefully, the recent relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, with part of the site actually intruding into a no-man’s land area not internationally recognised as part of Israel, won’t disturb the delicate balance of this city!

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