We started our first day in Jerusalem by going under the Western Wall into a series of tunnels still being excavated. This is another area where the layers of time are obvious: there's an entire city underneath the one on the surface. It contains a lot of history and significance, including the largest single cut stone in the entire world, a Roman cistern, and an arch considered to be the closest point to the Holy of Holies that's not on the Temple Mount. Something I had never realized before was why the Wailing Wall was where it was and why it was a place of mourning, but it became clear when I saw people praying and weeping at this arch in the middle of this dank, dark tunnel. Even though the Temple Mount is technically a part of Israel, it is still forbidden for non-Muslims to pray there, and this restriction is enforced by the state police. A few people can come to this arch instead, but it is too cramped for many, whereas the Wailing Wall and the square next to it can accommodate hundreds or thousands. Despite having heard so much about this place in the news and history, it was an epiphany for me.
One of the tunnels under the Western Wall. It's particularly hard to snap any good pictures underground in low light conditions.
We emerged from the tunnels onto the Via Dolorosa, a road along a series of stations marking important points in the Catholic Easter tradition. The road ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the Catholic church believes the crucifixion took place, but this is obviously highly disputed even among Christians.
The church itself is unassuming from the outside, and could easily be missed if you didn't know what you were looking for. Inside, pilgrims wait in line to touch the ground in several places around the church where it is purposefully exposed through holes in the floor. The design alternates between being dark and austere to bright and ostentatious. There are plain walls without anything on them, and others inlaid with gold tile. There are three domed ceilings, one of which has a circular hole in its center and alcoves around it, sparking an intense feeling of deja vu in me from seeing the Pantheon in Rome.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
We went back to spend some time at the Wailing Wall. The square next to it is fenced off and split in half to create separate sections for men and women. I put on a yarmulke to cover my head and went to touch the wall. It was a moment I honestly never expected to have in my life.
The Wailing Wall.
Moving a short distance away we entered the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. It's basically a set of ruins in the middle of the city. It's funny at how it didn't feel out of place, but there's nothing like it in any city in America. We walked through an ancient marketplace, and got some great views of a cemetery and residences on an adjacent hill.
A view near the old Temple Mount steps in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park.
Residences on a hill across from us in Jerusalem.
Next was the City of David, a large-scale attempt at restoring some of the ruins to emulate old Jerusalem while educating people about it. We saw a short movie about a tunnel carved into the rock below us to bring water into the city in the event of a siege. And then we learned our next activity would be walking through it from end to end.
We were warned ahead of time that the tunnel would have ankle deep water, so I removed my shoes and socks. We were also told it would take about 30 to 40 minutes to walk through it. To get there we had to walk down winding metal staircases through a series of restoration projects in the middle of being worked on, loud saws and drills drowning out attempts at conversation.
Then we finally entered the tunnel proper. It was crazy. Imagine being barefoot on slick stone in a cramped, pitch black space barely wider than your shoulders and barely higher than your head. Had I been much bigger in any dimension - taller, fatter, or wider - I would have gotten stuck. I was shocked to realize there had been no warning or limitations on size before entering. And then I realized that because there was no one controlling the pacing of people entering the tunnel, if someone did get stuck, it would mean everyone in the tunnel would be trapped for a very long time. There was no turning around. No going back. Forward was the only option.
The tunnel was very uncomfortable. At several points it dipped and narrowed so much that I was walking bent over at an angle - hunchbacked and sideways - just to fit through. I had one hand above my head constantly scraping the ceiling just in front of me, feeling for bumps to avoid banging my head when the roof dipped unexpectedly, a lesson painfully learned early on. And the water was much higher than advertised: it was often above my knees and at its highest came up to my hips. When I could walk forward while standing straight up the tunnel was still so narrow that my pinky toes were consistently catching the edges and outcroppings of the stone on the sides. They were a bloody mess by the end. I tried not to think about the fact that others were probably bleeding in this same water.
After about 15 minutes without any light, I started hallucinating. Mostly I saw red dots or waves. Some of the others in the group near me also reported seeing red. I was thankful when we finally emerged into the white, scalding light over an hour later. The walk had taken longer than it should have due to several excruciating stops when we were not moving for 5-10 minutes at a time, the cause of which I never discovered. I was then surprised to learn that our group had been given flashlights. Because of the tunnel's twists and turns I had only caught rare, brief glimpses of artificial light ahead of me. It turns out that whoever handed out the lights just gave them to those at the front of the group, who then stayed clumped together at the front when entering. Of course there was no re-ordering once inside the tunnel - it would've been physically impossible for one person to get around another - but why someone didn't think to pass a flashlight back I'll never know. It was an idiotic situation.
The experience was something I'll never forget. The worst moments were at the beginning when I realized what I was getting myself into. But I never felt scared. All of my worries and fears were on an intellectual level, not a visceral gut one. For most of the time I just felt a sort of Zen calm. I never panicked, and I'm thankful for and proud of those in the group near me. We helped each other out by communicating about turns and sharp points. It was a definite bonding experience. And it proved to me once and for all that I am in no way claustrophobic. Not even a little. But if you are you should never go into this tunnel. It would be terrifying.
We finished the day by visiting and dining at the Ramat Rachel Kibbutz. It had a relaxed atmosphere and lots of open spaces, which was a welcome change.