Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Rifts and Seams

When thinking of Israel I am sure that many images and ideas spring to mind, but predominent amongst these is the image of the Dome of the Rock, which sits atop the Temple Mount, the most Holy Site for Jews and for Muslims (other than Mecca and Medina). It is a site prominent on the Jerusalem sky line, but it is a site that few Jews ever get close to. The reason for this is that most Rabbi's say that because on that site there was the most Holy Place in Judaism ie. the temple and more particualrly the Holy of Holies (a room in which only the high priest could enter on Yom Kippur), and as we do not know where on the mount it was the Rabbi's rule Jews can not go on the mount. It is also talked about as being an area of great tension, and so not a particularly safe for Jews to venture and certainly not as Jews.

You can therefore imagine our surprise when we are told we were going to go up the Temple Mount, it was akin to when we were told we were going to Hebron. Actually if my memory serves me correctly it was on the same day, a double whammy. On Monday morning we arrived at the gate to the Temple Mount in the Jewish Quarter at around midday. A big sign next to the gate stated that going onto the Mount was prohibitted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. This stern warining did not stop us, and at 12:30 the official visiting hour we ascended the wooden ramp which lead from the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter to the Temple Mount above it. We had been warned that there would be strict security measures and that we were not allowed to carry any Jewish items with us, however, we managed to get through security very quickly and it did not take us very long before we were in the sacred enclousre.

On the Mout we encountered absolutely no strange looks, although that could be because outwardly we were not Jewish as we had nothing to identify us as such. In fact much to my surprise the Guard of the Al Aqsa who came to tell one of our group to cover their bare arms was smiling jovially. In fact the hour spent on the Mount was spent in complete harmony in the beautiful Israeli heat. It was lovely to be able to stand right next a group of young Muslim school boys praying without any feeling of conflict. Of course these impressions were entirely false, I was standing on one of the biggest rifs and causes of tension in the Middle East. Any talk of a peace process must contain discussion about the Temple Mount, and therefore the peace was just an illusion on that quiet Monday morning.

Clearly all is not right on the Mount, as although we were free to wander all around it amongst the salesman and playing children we were not permitted to go into either of the two sanctuaries. On the Temple Mount there are two main building the much more famous and noticeable Dome of the Rock with its gold plating and beautiful blue ceramics and the very plain Al Aqsa Mosque. Of the two the Al Aqsa is the more Holy of the two, it is meant to be where Muhammed prayed before he was taken to heave, the Dome of the Rock is supposed to contain the Foundation Stone which Muhammed touched before it went to heaven. It has always been the case that non-Muslims were not permitted to enter the Al Aqsa Mosque although there is probably nothing to see in side. However, it was only in 2000 following the visit of Ariel Sharon that non-Muslims were forbidden from entering the Dome. In response to this many salesman on the Mount seized the opportunity to sell pictures of what is inside to those who are not allowed in. Following an hour of touring the Mount and taking many photos we were asked to leave as visiting time was over.

To get back to the Jewish Quarter we had to walk briefly through the Muslim Quarter an area that is usually restricted to us, and this area is usally off limits to us and entry into it can you see you been thrown off the program. We stayed for only a couple of minutes within the Quarter as we only needed to walk a couple of hundread meters before we took a turn and quickly found ourselves back in the much safer Jewish Quarter.

We spent the next couple of hours in the hustle and bustle Jewish Quarter having lunch and looking around. This woud have been very nice indeed had we not been constantly pestered by cats who were trying to get to our lunch (which to be honest was not particulalrly good). I should take a brief tangent at this moment and took about cats in Israel, they are quite literally vermin. I'm not quite sure what the story is but I think the Brits brought them over here and now there are strays everywhere, I think kicking is not only legal but encouraged, and for every peace of cat roadkill you bring you can get a monetary reward (I am of course joking). Although it must be said I have seen more roadkill in Israel than anywhere else in the world, another example of just how bad Israeli driver are.

But I digress, after out brief sojourn in the Jewish Quarter we drove to our final port of call of the day the Museum on the Seam. This Museum is located on the former border between Jordan and Israel and served as a guard post before 1967. I had been to the Museum on the Seam before, then the exhibit had been about violence and co-existence and I had very much enjoyed my time here. However, they recently changed the exhibition and now it was entitled 'Equal and Less Equal' and it used art-work to look at the ideas of slavery and exploitation in the modern world. The exhibition was really interesting and thought provoking it was however completely runied by the most awful guard who made it sound like a geography lesson (without the colouring pencils) and sped us through the exhibits without giving us any time to engage with them. What could have been a really nice experience was ruined.

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