The Three (un)Wise Men, Episode 3
We headed out through the gate of the Augusta Victoria hospital and onto Martin Buber Street; I was awestruck by what was upon me. I could look down across the valley and see—just a few thousand yards away—the Dome of the Rock. I checked my handy pocket map and, to my amazement, it showed that we were standing on the summit of the Mount of Olives. The Old City was standing firm, as it had for the last couple years or so, its ancient fortress wall protecting it from any intruders. Any intruders but us, I hoped.
We walked the steep hill into the Kidron Valley and stopped at the Garden of Gethsemane for a little break. (Walking downhill is hard.) I looked around the property and was impressed at the relatively small footprint that the garden had, yet it was certainly a peaceful place. with birds chirping and the breeze whistling through the cedars. Orange and purple flowers littered the landscape and conifers shaded and cooled the rocky soil. (Anyone with any sense of beauty would have immediately known the floral varieties on display. I know them simply as “flowers.”) There were several olive trees in a grove in one section of the garden. They were twisted and knurled, almost square in their dimensions. The trunks were fat and thick; their limbs were tightly woven into themselves, like a tugboat’s hopelessly knotted mooring line. The leaves were delicate, a light drab green that was the definition of “olive.” Mark called the attendant over and asked (in his broken Arabic) how old they were. The man thought for a bit and replied, “Maybe three thousand?” Suddenly, I felt a bit less significant to the world. These very trees were older than Jesus.
We headed into the Old City through Lion Gate. I asked Mark why they named it this. He pointed to the two lions carved into the wall on either side of the gate pillars. “Ahhhh…” I replied in amazement. It all made sense now.
Continuing up through the stone street, we passed a sign marking the entrance to the Church of Our Lady of the Spasm. To my amazement, none of my threesome made comment on the name. We simply observed, snickered internally, and moved on.
Around the corner and down El Wad HaGai, the street narrowed to just a couple meters wide. The walls formed an arch as the street turned into a tunnel. A short walk through the narrows took us to a guarded checkpoint. Young boys armed with M-16 rifles checked our passports and watched the monitors for weapons as we passed through the scanning machine. Passports back in our hands, we continued through the tunnel and were stopped by a crowd. A crowd of well-dressed men played loud music through horns and skinned drums as we fought our way through the mass. The people all seemed jovial—far too happy to be witnessed by someone lacking as much sleep as myself. I muttered and grunted as I pressed against the cold stone wall in an effort to release myself from this deathly clasp of happiness. This Jewish wedding celebration was becoming too much for me. I noticed that they had one guy held above their heads and were throwing him up in the air in time with the music, his head just inches from the ceiling stones on every downbeat. Fearing I could be next, I made haste toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
Emerging from the dark, cool confines of the tunnel into the openness of the courtyard was eye-opening. Technically, it was eye-closing due to the intense sunlight of the late morning. The courtyard was a place of orderly chaos. People seemed to be moving everywhere, yet few seemed to know where they were going. My squinting eyes followed crowds of tourists as they eventually made their way down the steps to a large stone wall: the Western “Wailing” Wall. I walked to the edge of the terrace overlooking The Wall and observed the Jewish faithful praying, writing, crying. It was a bit surreal as I had just emerged from a somewhat dank and dingy, trash-filled tunnel into what is essentially the holiest place on Earth for the Jewish faith. I turned to my left and saw a young man about 19 years old wearing khakis, a white Oxford shirt, a dark blue yamaka, and a large caliber rifle slung over his shoulder. It seemed odd to me, since we had just passed through the security checkpoint, not 75 meters away. I asked Mark for some insight.
“They only check for bombs. Pretty much everyone is packing heat in this country.” It made sense. Almost.
We made our way west, up the hill of the Old City, through the Jewish Quarter and eventually into the Armenian Quarter. There were storefronts and merchants everywhere, crowding the very narrow streets, the arched ceilings making them more tunnels than streets. Everything seemed to be for sale: bakeware, baskets, music, tacky T-shirts, jewelry, spices, and produce were cluttering the stands and ceilings. Walking through modern glass double-doors of an ancient rug shop, it became very apparent that we were in a very old place. Rugs hung from rungs attached to smoke-stained cave walls. The store, like nearly every other one on this street, had been carved out of rock, yet had running water and full lighting: a collision of ancient and modern. The rugs on display sported rich colors and fine threadwork. They were beautiful examples of the craft, best reserved for those that could appreciate such artwork and had the money with which to do so. We moved on.
A few streets down, Mark led us to the entrance for the tower of the Church of The Redeemer. It looked so majestic and innocent from the outside. He lured us into the stairwell with tales of great views and quiet solitude. I felt brave and decided to lead the ascent, with Mark bringing up the rear and El Jefe sandwiched between us. It didn’t take long for us to escape the sunlight and enter the sealed confines as the stairs wound their way in a circular pattern toward the rooftop. The going was incredibly steep, but navigable, thanks to the bright, bare lightbulbs hung from the ceiling every 180 degrees of rotation. The troubling part came when we reached about the level of the 4th floor. The stairs grew dimmer and dimmer as we reached a section where the bulb was burned out. It didn’t concern me until we reached the second burned-out bulb and found ourselves climbing blindly in total darkness. I slowed the pace, feeling for each step in front of me, hoping that the ancient constructors hadn’t decided to play a little trick on me by dropping the next step by a few feet. I also moved more toward the outside of the stairs due to the wider purchase they offered my feet. I didn’t want to risk slipping and plunging to my death with toes failing to find grip on the narrow steps, leaving only a sound reminiscent of baseball cards in bicycle spokes for my companions to remember me by. This deceleration of mine resulted in an awkward exchange as Jefe couldn’t tell I was slowing and rammed his forehead directly into my buttocks, which set off a chain reaction of yelping, scrambling, and slapping. This seemed to confuse and irritate Mark as he ordered us to “Stop the clowning around and get climbing.” Darkness really puts people on edge.
Another couple of minutes of climbing, and we emerged onto the rooftop. There wasn’t much real estate on top of the tower, but the views it allowed were wonderful. Practically every building in the Old City was visible from this vantage. Like a bird spying on the unsuspecting, we could take in more of the daily life of the city dwellers. Women hung their laundry from lines on rooftops. We could see the ancient pools that were normally hidden. Men emerged through doorways to busy streets to climb stairs that led to a network of rooftop pathways—an elevated sidewalk system. The Dome was close by, and off on the distant hill was the hospital that contained our flat.
It was beginning to get dark, so Mark decided to take us to a restaurant he had discovered just outside New Gate, to the northwest. We walked through the gate and were greeted again with the sights of a modern city at dusk. Lights glowed, signs illuminated, and pace seemed to slow. We walked up the hill, past the hospital, and up Yafa. A doorway was closed off with strings of beads. Mark parted the false door, and we entered the tiny Ethiopian restaurant. We were transported into Addis Ababa. The room had a green hue. Two Ethiopian ex-pats sat at one of the four small tables lining the right wall; the proprietor stood behind a tiny bar, watching a football match. The miniscule kitchen, manned by the owner’s brother, was straight ahead through a narrow doorway. El Jefe and I decided to let Mark order for us, since his family had spent several years in Ethiopia. He walked up to the bar and attempted to order, but the owner was too engrossed in the game to be troubled by a patron. After another try, Mark secured our order, and the man shouted it back to his brother in a voice best described as a piercing boom.
The food arrived after a bit, and we gorged ourselves on the red Doro Wat stew. Chicken pieces–their bones cracked to release the marrow– were stewed in a pot along with a hard-boiled egg. A basket of spongy, sour Injera was provided to allow us to soak up the hot goodness. When we reached the bottom of the bowl, Mark held up the egg and asked us, “Okay boys, who wants it?!” Jefe and I shrugged, and we agreed that he was most deserving of the white globe. Apparently, it is customary to fight over the prized egg, but we were both too tired to bother. This displeased Mark, but he ate it anyway, trying to tell us what a treasure it truly was. We weren’t convinced, and neither was he.
We walked back to our flat that evening,and by the time Jefe and I reached the hospital grounds, we were absolutely exhausted. We stumbled to our rooms and were looking forward to a restful night. Then, from just down the hill, came the evening Call to Prayer over a powerful PA system. “Oh, that’s right! You guys are in for a treat! Ramadan begins tonight. Lots of music and festivities from the neighbors will keep going deep into the night.”