Saturday, February 16

Transjordan, Day Two: The Holy Land

We actually landed at around 4:30am.

Entry into Israel was relatively painless. Judging by what we had been told, we were expecting to be held at the airport for a good five or six hours; we played a little sweepstake to guess the actual time and I was surprised when my pick of three hours won.

There were actually three phases to the interrogation process. We were immediately stopped and briefly questioned when disembarking the plane, just after getting off the skybridge. That was just the beginning though - border control kept us waiting the longest and asked the most questions. These were simple things regarding our families, origins, lives and careers and we got to keep our phones and wallets on our persons. The third and final phase was having our luggage scanned, but not opened.

We had been expecting much, much worse and were thankful it didn't go further. In fact we may have even gotten a bit cocky. After getting our pieces of paper stamped with Israeli entry (leaving your passports "clean" is very important if you wish to use them to travel to certain other countries - like Pakistan for example), we were free to leave and go about our business.

We arrived at the hotel proper at around 9am. Thankfully our rooms were ready and we were able to get a couple of hours kip before heading out for Zhur or midday prayer at Masjid Al-Aqsa.

On entry to the Al-Aqsa complex we were questioned by uniformed Israelis. We were asked for identification (you should always have your passport with you in Israel) and then asked about our origins. We were then required to prove our faith: be it by reciting a chapter of the Quran, or demonstrating our Islamic knowledge ("how many prayers are there in a day?"). We all passed easily but the experience was strange anyhow and just felt like yet more artificial control over movement and access. Within the gate's complex, Arab security asked us the same, if not in as much detail.

We had made it. Here was our first clear view of the Dome of the Rock and, behind it, the Masjid. For me, I had finally done the hat-trick of the three holiest sites in the religion of Islam, the other two being relatively easy to access by Muslims. However as glad and flattered as I was to witness it, I couldn't help but notice how different Al-Aqsa was to the first two. In short, it's no way as grand or indeed "awesome" as the mosques in Makkah or Madina, and it was quite upsetting to see how much it relied on its adherents for funding. Such a concept doesn't exist in Saudi Arabia.

We befriended an English speaking curator of the mosque and without realising it we had suddenly enlisted him to give us a tour of Jerusalem. He showed us around the complex proper, visiting each of the four or so mosques in it. We also wondered around the Old City, including views of the Western Wall and a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was interesting seeing the various Christian practices present in the one church; this isn't something you'll see in any one mosque for the Islamic equivalents, that's for sure. We also visited Masjid Umar, the place where the Second Caliph prayed on first entering Jerusalem in preference to the Church he was offered opposite.

Our first taste of getting ripped off was with lunch. Quite naively we ate without asking prices and found ourselves being charged a whopping 80 US Dollars for five people, expensive even by UK standards. We became quite upset with the guide (who took us there), and then even more so when he stitched us up by "introducing" us to a friend in need he had. Quickly learning that this was the way of life here, we quickly got rid of the curator (and if he was expecting anything in return for his services he didn't get it). Still, at least we got an efficient tour out of the situation.

Talking of money, this is the first time I've been on holiday with friends where a "kitty" system is in play. This is where everyone in the group puts money into a single pot, used to pay for shared things like taxis and food. Apparently it's a very typical, fair and popular system but its nevertheless totally new to me. It all makes sense, of course, but that doesn't mean that I don't find it amusing or even a little weird. Maybe I've just been lucky in that money never seemed to have been an issue before - it all usually seemed to have worked itself out during my previous times away with friends. I'm actually interested in how well it works (or not).

After a short break in the hotel, we returned to the mosque for Maghrib or evening prayer. When we had completed that, we walked to the Mount of Olives, checked out the sealed Golden Gate and took in Jerusalem at night.

On reflection I think that Jerusalem is a pretty strange place, mainly due to the historical context it finds itself in. The pluralism is both comforting and disconcerting at the same time, as is the paradoxical situation of a clear peace on the street despite the continual presence of armed Israeli guards. My male colleague and I did discuss whether it was appropriate to check out the local women in such a holy place. I'm not sure we actually came to a conclusion with that particular question but did decide that although there were some hotties the place was generally a mixed bag.

But for now an early night beckons; after a single night in Jerusalem we leave for Jordan tomorrow. This is not as rushed as it sounds since I think we've pretty much seen all there is to see here - it feels like we've been here for days already instead of the hours we really have.

Pictures from my whole time in Jerusalem can be found here.