Friday, April 24, 2015

JERUSALEM: THE SOUK AL-QATTANIN AND THE WESTERN WALL

One of the exits from the Temple Mount is Bab al-Qattanin, or "Gate of the Cotton Merchants." It is an architectural masterpiece of nestled arches and domes built from three alternating colors of stone and adorned with muqarnas, hanging embellishments that resemble ornate stalactites.
Bab al-Qattanin, or Gate of the Cotton Merchants, Jerusalem, Souvenir Chronicles
The gate leads to the Souk al-Qattanin, or Cotton Merchants Marketplace, which was built in 737 AD, prior to the Crusades, and then re-built in 1394 AD after Muslims regained control of the Temple Mount.

The patterns on the doors remind me of a crazy quilt:
Once through those doors, we descended into the 310-foot-long souk, or market, marveling at its barrel-shaped vaulted ceiling comprising thirty sections, each with a skylight to let in natural light.
The protruding metal bars and racks were high above our heads and are for holding up goods for display when the 60 shops of the souk are open for business--unfortunately, not while we were walking through, though we did catch them open later. The sidewalk is an ingenious combination of stairs and ramps:

I have a thing for old doorways. This one in the Muslim quarter was beautiful in its simplicity, the patina of age reminding me of a beloved grandparent:

We made our way from the Muslim quarter to the holiest site in Judaism, a 187-foot-long section of a 1600-foot-long wall that is and is not part of the Temple Mount. There could hardly be a bigger contrast to the Temple Mount, with its landscaped space and grandiose buildings, than the Western "Wailing" wall.
The Western Wall Plaza, Jerusalem / Souvenir Chronicles
We were greeted by a sign stating the rules, including modest dress, no pets, and no begging. It was noted that contributions could be placed in designated charity boxes. In the area around the wall marked off for prayer, visitors are asked to wear required headcovering (I'm guessing this applies to the men, but don't quote me), to turn off their cell phones, and to refrain from conversation or anything else that will disturb the worshipers. On the Sabbath or Jewish festivals, smoking, photography, and cell phone use are strictly forbidden.
This wall was likely part of Herod the Great's project to expand the terrace around the temple. The retaining walls enclosed a complicated substructure hidden beneath the platform. However, the wall was probably not completed during Herod's reign. The largest blocks on the bottom of the visible section of the wall are from the Herodian period, but the medium stones above them are from the 7th and 8th centuries, and the smallest stones near the top of the wall are likely from the 16th century and later.
The Western Wall, Jerusalem / Souvenir Chronicles
Nevertheless, of the four walls supporting the Temple Mount terrace, the Western Wall is the one thought to have been closest to the Holy of Holies in the Temple, which is why it is such an important site for Jews, and has been since as early as the 4th century. After the Jews lost control of Jerusalem in 1187 AD, however, this area no longer belonged to them. They made several unsuccessful attempts to purchase rights to the wall and the area around it, and in the 20th century, it became the site of frequent outbursts of violence. During a period of Jordanian rule of the area (1948-1967) Israeli Jews were completely banned from access to the Wall.
A view of the Wall showing al-Aqsa Mosque's
Minaret of Israel just on the other side
At the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, Israeli Jews once again had control of Old Town and the Wall. As a side note, when Israeli forces raised the Israeli flag from the Dome of the Rock shrine, Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military leader, ordered them to take it down immediately. The Temple Mount and its important sites were left under Islamic control.

Much of the wall is hidden behind structures in the Muslim Quarter of Old Town, buried underground, or being excavated, but the exposed section is where Jews come to offer up prayers to God that are often so heartfelt that the British, after their conquest of the Ottomans in 1917, gave the wall the nickname "The Wailing Wall," a moniker that apparently is not appreciated by traditional Jews and is falling out of use. One of the most common of the prayers said at the wall is a recitation of the 79th Psalm, not exactly a cheerful bit of scripture. In addition, tiny bits of rolled up paper that contain written prayers to God are squeezed into every crack of the wall:
The Jewish tradition is that the Divine Presence rests upon this wall, and the Kabbalah teaches that all prayers ascend to heaven through the Temple Mount. Therefore, placing a note here is quite literally communing with God.
Notes in the Western Wall, Jerusalem / Souvenir Chronicles
The tradition of filling the cracks and clefts with cries to God began about 300 years ago, and now over a million notes are placed there annually. They are collected by the Rabbi of the Western Wall twice a year, and since Jewish law prohibits their destruction, they are buried in the Jewish Cemetery on the Mount of Olives. By the way, it is forbidden to read any note left in the wall. Only God is allowed to do that.
It's a tradition not so different from writing names on the prayer roll in the temples of my own LDS faith. I'm sure there is a lot of weeping and wailing going on over those names as well.
It's a good thing pigeons can't read. 
I would have loved to take some pictures of the supplicants at the wall, but it felt too disrespectful. They usually place their foreheads against the wall and whisper their prayers, sometimes rocking back and forth as they pray, and often kiss the wall before they leave. It is a lovely thing to watch.

All the photos and videos I have ever seen of the Western Wall show swarms of people. We were lucky to be there on a day when the crowds were very light. There were still many interesting people to watch, and a few who WEREN'T praying whom I felt I could snap a surreptitious picture of. I love the Orthodox Jew's plastic bag-covering of his big black hat. (Note his long forelocks, called payot.) The crown on the little boy in the picture on the right is intriguing, as is the fringe (called tzizit) peaking out from underneath his vest.


Two gentle Gentiles posed for me in front of the men's section of the Wall:
There are two sections of the Western Wall, one for men and one for women, since they are not allowed to pray together. However, if you stand on your toes, you can see over the top of the dividing wall.

Washing stations around the plaza give visitors a chance to ritualistically wash their hands before entering this sacred place to pray:
Washing station, Western Wall Plaza, Jerusalem / Souvenir Chronicles
The relatively new Western Wall Plaza has some dark tragedies. Just two days after the end of the Six-day War in 1967, and without any official permission, the Israeli army demolished a labyrinthine section of homes known as the Moroccan Quarter that stood just thirteen feet from the Wall, opening up the area to form the plaza there today. About 650 people from 106 families were forced to abandon their homes that night, and when some of them refused, the bulldozers came in anyway, taking not just their homes and possessions but a historic mosque as well. As a result, what was once a street is now a plaza that covers almost five acres.

The irony of the once displaced Jews having a hand in such an act is disturbing.

Even with the Moroccan Quarter gone, the layers of housing so characteristic of the Old City can still be seen bordering the far side of the plaza:

That's a lot of flags. Is it a symbol of their joy and pride, or are they making sure everyone knows who is in control here?


READING
The Lion's Gate by Steven Pressfield / Souvenir ChroniclesReviewing the history of Israel, I realized with some embarrassment how little I knew about any of the wars that had occurred there since Israel's statehood in 1948, so I picked up the five-star Audible.com version of Steven Pressfield's book The Lion's Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War.  It was a great choice. Written from a series of interviews with dozens of soldiers of all ages and ranks who served on the front lines of the 1967 conflict, at first it was hard to keep up with who was who, and in that regard it might be easier to read this book than to listen to it.  Eventually, however, the pieces began to fit together, and the passion of a people fighting for their homeland was very moving. The scene where Moshe Dayan enters the Old City through the Lion's Gate and stands with paratroopers at the Western Wall, a place that had not been under Jewish control for centuries, was especially powerful. While certainly not an objective account of the War, Pressfield does occasionally acknowledge Israeli cruelties and misdeeds while recognizing valid issues relating to the Palestinian cause.

BIT OF TRIVIA: Pressfield, surprisingly, is also the author of the golf novel The Legend of Bagger Vance. 

4 comments:

  1. When standing at such a site, I imagine it's interesting to discover the layers of history mimic the layers of the housin at the perimeter. Fascinating.

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  2. housing (edit my comment, if you can)

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  3. Learned lots of stuff I didn't know before. As said above, many layers of history we don't have a clue about. Fun to continue learning as we get back and get some more nuanced context.

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  4. I like the comparison of putting names of the temple roles and notes in the wall. Great info commentary here--will you be tour guide next time I visit Israel?

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