Monday was a day of playing tag with security forces preparing for Donald Trump’s visit to the Old City of Jerusalem, trying to work in what we could amid the upheaval of business as usual. We started early, as usual. Trying to avoid some traffic, we entered the Old City through the Zion Gate, hoping to walk downhill through the Jewish Quarter to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other sites along the “Via Dolorosa.”
All began well enough, though the scene inside the Zion Gate was unusual, as hundreds of military and police forces were gathered in various groups, preparing to deploy throughout whatever path the presidential convoy planned to take. One upside is that we were one of few groups who dared come to the city on the same day, so it wasn’t crowded.
We went first to the Western Cardo, where remains of the first century Roman street from the time of Jesus have been preserved, and not far from there saw a section of wall known as the “Broad Wall” that may date from the time of Hezekiah, in the eighth century BCE.
From there we turned toward the Holy Sepulcher, walking through the Arab market. The place is usually teeming with activity, colors, and smells, but was strangely quiet. An influential Palestinian leader who has been serving time in an Israeli jail for some time had called for Arabs to strike as a way of calling attention to what he says are deteriorating conditions for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, and most of the shopkeepers were honoring the strike.
Moving quickly, we came close to the Holy Sepulcher, but found the path blocked by a white plastic screen, so we altered our plans and headed down toward the Western Wall, in hopes of arriving there before access was denied.
We succeeded in that, but the scene was vastly different than usual. Police or soldiers are a common sight at the Western Wall, but this time the place was swarming with them, including off-duty police without their uniforms, but with their assault rifles. A huge screen and a hospitality tent had been erected to block the view of the wall, but it had not yet been closed, so we were able to get to the wall for a time of personal meditation and prayer.
We next walked down to the Southern Steps, discovered through a massive dig in the 1980s. The Southern Steps are where pilgrims coming to the temple from the south would climb up to the large retaining wall holding up that end of the Temple Mount and walk through one of several gates, climbing up an underground stairway to emerge atop the Mount. There Tyler Kliewer led our devotional time, reminding us of the story of Jesus coming to the temple at the age of 12.
Knowing that Trump’s visit was drawing near and that buses would be kept at a distance, we exited through the dung gate and walked through the Kidron Valley between the Old City and the Mount of Olives, pausing occasionally to look down at ancient tombs and up at the huge Jewish cemetery on the slopes of the Mount of Olives.
Meeting our bus near the Garden of Gethsemane, we pointed toward the Israel Museum, but spent a good deal of time sitting in traffic caused by security forces blocking roads. We wondered why, because we were leaving the Old City, but understood when we noticed security forces with guns on top of every building, and looked down to see an empty parking lot with a bevy of limousines bearing American and Israeli flags – the touchdown site for the presidential helicopter bringing Trump from the airport to the Old City.
We moved more quickly then, arriving at the Israel Museum in time for lunch. As we toured a large outdoor model of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, we saw a convoy of five helicopters fly over, and knew Mr. Trump had arrived.
Our visit to the Shrine of the Book (where samples of the Dead Sea Scrolls can be seen) and the amazing Israel Museum was too short, as always, but we had other things to do, so we boarded our bus again and drove south to Jericho, which we had bypassed on a previous day. Taking a back way into the city, we first drove by the entrance to Qasr El-Yahud, the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism at “Bethany Beyond the Jordan,” which is just across, on the Jordanian side.
We then came by Tel Es-Sultan, the archaeological tel that was the site of ancient Jericho, but were not able to climb up because it had closed for the day.
We paused briefly by a large sycamore tree that recalls the story of Zacchaeus before letting folks off the bus for a photo opportunity at a desolate mountain traditionally known as the “Mount of Temptation,” a traditional site of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation. A monastery is built into the side of the mountain, and a cable car leads to a restaurant.
We ended the day at a large souvenir shop that specializes in Hebron glass before heading up the old Jericho Road to stop at a place overlooking the Wadi Qelt, where St. George’s monastery sits near the bottom. The wadi is so deep that parts of it are always in shadow, leading to an image of the “valley of the shadow of death.” Wayne Bennet led us in reciting the twenty-third psalm. Finally we made our way back up the winding road and back to Ramat Rachel for dinner and a debriefing session.
On Tuesday we plan another foray into the Old City, hoping that the extra security will have moved to the Israel Museum and the Yad VeShem (the Holocaust Museum), which Trump reportedly plans to visit next.
It’s our last day in Israel, and we’re plenty tired, with an 11:10 p.m. flight planned for tonight. Flying against the time zones, we’ll fly nearly twelve hours but still arrive in Newark around 5:30 a.m. I’m betting that more of us will sleep on this flight than on the way over.