Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Guided tour of the Old City


Part 2 
Mark’s ability to sniff was amazing. Apart from a general, “It’s always great to do the tour of this wonderful city, but, in the company of such attractive women, it is even better.” He also managed to sidle up to each female for whispered conversations.
Our next stop took us to a church with a myriad of onion-shaped domes. “Which country do you think built this church?”
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“Belgium.”  I chipped in.
Susie picked it up with, “Italy.”
“Poland.”
“Close.”
“Portugal.”
“San Marino.”
“It’s Russian.”
“Oh yeah, I see it now, a bit like Doctor Zhivago.”
“So, why do you think they built it here?”
“It’s close to Russia?”
“It’s because everybody wants a piece of Jerusalem, so they increase their influence by building churches and hospitals.”
“Oh, yeah.”
We passed a courtyard that housed a beautiful Florentine tower. It was once a hospital but was converted to the Ministry of Education. At a crossroads was a memorial plaque to 4 soldiers killed in an ambush. Mark asked us to lower our heads as a token of respect. This I could not do as I would not take sides. At least it stopped him sniffing.
Further down the hill we crossed the Green Line, not the District line like in London, but the frontier between 1948-67. The sight of camels, headscarves and hookahs signalled our arrival to a different world- East Jerusalem.
Mark nodded to the guards on the battlements, I think for his security. He stopped us and pointed towards the King David hotel.
“Must be old.” said Susie.
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“The wing nearest to us was destroyed and rebuilt, as you can see. It was a stray shell during the 1948 war; 99 people were killed.”
I found out later that he had lied. The hotel was blown up by a terrorist bomb planted by the Jewish resistance against the British Mandate, the hotel being used as the administrative headquarters. If there is such a good story to tell, why embellish it with fiction?
“If you look behind you will the site of the Anglican site of Jesus’s crucifixion.” Only 6 churches have residency in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Church of England was not one of them. General Gordon had a vision and saw the shape of a skull in the cliffs. It had been a chalk quarry but that was enough; a new church was born.
“Before we enter I would like you all to check your money and to watch it very carefully when we are inside. Are you ok, Sarah?” This was standard procedure for all tourist groups. He only had our interests at heart.
As soon as we entered we stopped at a café and we drank over-priced tea and coffee. Well, commission has to be paid for somehow. I sat next to an Afrikaans policeman called Clive, blonde, blue-eyed and broad-shouldered. He had played Rugby till an injury forced him into early retirement. Despite my initial wariness, he proved very open. He was in a total culture shock as to the openness of people. At that time Israel was the nearest place to visit for a South African, as no other country would let them in.
We chatted away watching the milling locals busily rushing past. Any one of them could have been a terrorist. Both Clive and I were relaxed as the smiles were genuine. I had been within feet of a 200 pound bomb.
When I was at college I had a gap year between my 2nd and 3rd years. I worked for a year as a milkman for the Co-op at Parson’s Green. I drove my 3 wheel electric cart round the streets of Westminster. In 1973 the very first mainland car bombs were planted by the IRA. The one outside New Scotland Yard did not go off, just as well.
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I was blissfully unaware of the problems until that evening. The next day was chaos as the police blocked many of the streets due to hoax phone calls.
“But I’ve got to deliver the milk.” was my insistent response when being told access was barred. The folly of youth!
One of my deliveries was to the Ministry of Defence. I regularly entered without any security clearance, as far as I know. One of my clients was the liftman. He owed a few weeks money so the receptionist told me to go and look for him. This proved rather difficult because as I was going up in one lift he was coming down in the other. I realised that perhaps it was not such a good idea and left.
After Mark had spoken to every female in the group we left, along the narrow alleys, for the Via Delarosa. Station 9 had some Palestinian graffiti next to it. Mark was disgusted by this as politics and religion should not mix.
We passed through a small door and into the Ethiopian church. The colours were red, green and yellow.
“Like Rasta colours.” I said.
“Apart from the black.” replied Sarah correctly.  She also noticed that their icons showed white European figures despite the priests being black.
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There are 6 churches that have the rights to the Holy Sepulchre and they rarely agree. Mark pointed out there were frequent fights amongst them. “Did you know that it is a Muslim family that holds the key to the building and every morning they are responsible for opening it? The Ottomans got so fed up with all the problems that they formed the Status Quo. This meant that nothing could change unless all 6 agreed.”