Dateline: January 28, 2023
Leah and I were up at dawn, waiting for the car that would shuttle us from Amman W Hotel to Allenby Bridge, while the balance of our Viking posse was flying from Queen Alia International Airport to various destinations across America. We were excited about 9 extra days of travel throughout Israel, but we were having a last-minute case of shpilkes (anxiety) about our decision to cross the border by bus on Shabbos (Jewish sabbath).
Long before the start of our Middle Eastern adventure, Leah and I had vacillated between flying into Tel Aviv from Amman or completing a land crossing–so we did a time analysis of the two. By flying into Ben Gurion Airport, wading through long security lines before reaching Customs and Immigration, waiting at the luggage carousel, finding an airport taxi during Sabbath, and driving to Arthur Hotel in Jerusalem, we figured it would be a five-to-six-hour ordeal… for about $700.
Or we could taxi to Allenby Bridge, cross between countries, and hire an Arab on the Israeli side to drive us to Jerusalem–all for a hundred bucks and half the time! It seemed like a no-brainer to me.
In addition to our driver, we were accompanied by a handler (packing a pistol) whose job it was to massage the bureaucracy… and he made all the difference.
The ride from Amman was unremarkable–only half-an-hour to the Jordanian border. The immigration terminal was just awakening at 8 AM, with handfuls of early arrivals already waiting for officials to begin processing visas. The handler approached an open window on our behalf with our passports and $30 in hand for departure tax. After that, it was a waiting game.
Another half-hour passed before we were ushered to an open square where transfer busses were boarding for another $10 per person and $2 per bag–all for a 10-minute drive across no man’s land.
Once underway, I lost count of the number of checkpoints we crossed until we finally arrived at the first Israeli immigration building. No one told us what to do or where to go, so I watched what the others were doing and mimicked their behavior.
I grabbed our bags from the cargo hold. They were scanned against our passports, and joined an avalanche of luggage being fed into an x-ray conveyor disguised as a black rubber flap, where they disappeared inside the terminal.
Leah and I joined a chaotic queue outside the terminal that inched toward the entrance and eventually merged with a rowdy, serpentine line inside the terminal that crept toward a block of AIT scanners flanked by Israeli security. Today, being Shabbos, only one scanner was operational, which only exacerbated the crowd’s irritation and frustration, especially when VIPs were intermittently ushered past us in their special lane.
It took an hour to reach the scanner, which led to another half-hour wait in a subsequent line before we were interrogated by an immigration officer who finally issued our tourist cards, and directed us through a makeshift wall that revealed a warehouse of suitcases and packages waiting to be collected.
Picking through piles of Samsonite, Tumi, and American Tourister might have taken hours had it not been for our electronic tags. After reuniting with our suitcases, we had one final queue to master, staffed by a baby-faced security agent who double-checked our IDs against the luggage registry created outside. We were now free to travel about Israel for the next 9 days.
Once we were officially on Israeli soil, we were introduced to Abdul, the taxi driver who reeked of smoke and spoke limited English. Nevertheless, we negotiated a 200 NIS fee ($55) to our hotel in Jerusalem… or so we thought. Forty minutes later, we were standing outside Damascus Gate, where Abdul mimed that he could drive no further due to a military high-alert.
We learned from a passer-by that a 13-year-old Palestinian boy had shot and wounded an Israeli father and son near the entrance to the City of David National Park, while in a separate event the night before, 7 worshippers were killed and 3 were wounded outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem by a West Bank militant, making this the deadliest attack on Israelis in recent years.
In response to the attacks, authorities countered the violence by positioning officers from a counter-terrorism unit “permanently” in the Old City to “promptly respond to exceptional events whenever necessary.” Troops seemed to be omnipresent around the perimeter of the gate.
“Just our luck,” said Leah. Her voice was filled with resignation. “This was my biggest fear! Now what!?”
“I think we’re actually safer than before,” I answered. “The threat of violence is always a real possibility, but Israel knows how to respond to situations like this, especially with the arrival of Secretary of State Blinken.”
“That may be true,” Leah offered, “but many of these soldiers don’t even look old enough to shave!”
Once we got our bearings, we drudged down deserted Jaffa Street–our roller bags bumpety-bumping behind us–until we reached Arthur Hotel.
Since we were far too early to check in, we parked our bags at the hotel and set out on foot to get lost in the Old City and trust our instincts to get back. We discovered the Armenian Quarter, one of the four quarters of real estate within the ancient walls,
which somehow led us to the Christian Quarter, where we stumbled upon the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity’s most revered site, and home to six Christian denominations–Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox–
that have accepted from religious scholars that this church consecrates the ground where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected, as seen in a mosaic interpretation of Jesus’s journey that hangs in the church vestibule.
We were unsurprised to find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre crowded with pilgrims and worshippers from around the world who were here to light a candle and prostrate on the Stone of Anointing;
or worship at the uber-ornate Calgary, under the Altar of the Crucifixion, where the alleged Rock of Calvary is encased in glass;
or hug the Aedicule, a shrine protecting the tomb of Jesus,
under the dome of the Catholicon.
We even came across some Crusader graffiti…
on our way to the lower level to admire the Chapel of St. Helena.
We exited the church with a profound respect for the millions of devotees who have made this their purpose.
And we were captured by the solemnity of the moment, as we sauntered down Via Dolorosa, now aware that this was the fateful route taken by Jesus as he dragged the cross to his final destination.
It was enough to process for one day. We were weary from walking, and it was time to find our way back to Jaffa Street.