A city divine, diverse and divided

VIEW FROM ABOVE: A view of the old Jerusalem city from the top of the Mount of Olives, where Christians believe Jesus ascended to heaven and where, according to traditional Jewish beliefs, the resurrection of the dead will begin. The gold top of the Dome of the Rock, one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture, can be seen in the distance.
A city divine, diverse and divided

CHOW DOWN: Food of the Avengers - shawarma or grilled meat shavings off a vertical spit, accompanied with vegetables and hummus.
A city divine, diverse and divided

HOLY SITE: Men praying at the male section of the Western or Wailing Wall in the Jewish quarter of Old Jerusalem. Built by Herod the Great around 19 BC, the wall is considered holy as it is closest to Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism.
A city divine, diverse and divided

STREET ART: Street performers at a section paying tribute to Chinese culture in Ben Yehuda Street, a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem.


    Aug 31, 2016

    A city divine, diverse and divided

    ISRAEL is a lot like Singapore. That was the first thought I had when I spotted the clean sweep of Ben Gurion International Airport's silver control tower against a broad blue sky while landing there earlier this month.

    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in April on his visit to the Middle East that both Israel and Singapore are young nations that have to integrate diverse groups.

    This diversity was never starker to me than in the old city of Jerusalem which is split into four sections - the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters.

    Each has its distinct charm - there are several gates along the dressed stone walls that skirt the 0.9 sq km ancient city.

    The Damascus Gate, for example, opens into the Muslim quarter. But right across the road outside the looming arch stands the path to the Garden Tomb, where Christians believe Jesus Christ was laid to rest after crucifixion.

    At the gate bordering the Christian quarter, you can see Palestinian women sitting by the path hawking fresh figs and grapes in punnets.

    Cultures and faiths collide in a heady mix in this land, considered by different religions to be holy soil.

    A short walk away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - built on land Catholics believe to be the sites of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection - one can find the visual spectacle that is the Western Wall.

    Security is tight almost everywhere in Israel, with a strong police presence, and this is no different at the wall, which is the holiest place where Jews are allowed to pray at.

    At the entrance, your bags are checked, before men and women separate into gender-specific sections.

    Despite taking along a shawl to cover my head in respect for religious requirements, I noticed as I picked my way along the sitting and standing crowd that many had their hair loose.

    The women's segment is significantly smaller than the men's. Women of all cultures and colours were gathered there, with many Jewish women chanting out loudly from prayer books that were available on stands there.

    Some brought their own chairs, and the tourists were obvious from their selfie-taking ways.

    A woman inched forward with her young daughter in her arms, so they could offer a prayer with their palms on the wall.

    Others pressed their lips repeatedly to the limestone as they cried. It occurred to me then that grief is universal.

    I looked over the divider and saw the mass of men heaving almost as one in the men's quarter. There were people from all sects - Orthodox Jews, with their striking black hats, beards and suits, were the most outstanding.

    The concerted chanting of the men was a constant song as they pressed together towards the wall.

    It was the steeping of culture that stayed with me as I wandered around Jerusalem with my father.

    The city has bazaars built into nearly every winding street, and aptly so as the word has a Middle-Eastern origin.

    They go on for lengths and each hawks vastly different, largely authentic items.

    Stop into a motley store and you can find jewellery made from Israeli stones, cashmere shawls, charming trinkets and souvenirs emblazoned with the star of David.

    In the more hospitable shops, the shopkeeper will ply you with coffee and treat you as if you had stepped into his home itself.

    And an Israeli home is precisely where we stayed - for everything in Israel is expensive by Singaporean standards.

    Our 30-minute taxi ride to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv cost 330 shekels (S$118).

    The Airbnb apartment cost only S$79 per night, and the friendly owner Yael advised me to download the transport app Moovit, which I used for the rest of the trip to plan bus rides, which were cheaper at about six shekels per 20-minute ride.

    But because I could not read Hebrew, I would screenshot the name of my destination and flash it at the driver upon embarking.

    But be careful: The 10 cent coin looks ridiculously like the 10 dollar coin to the untrained eye. Do not make that mistake.

    Jerusalem is a city built on a hill, so expect inclines if you intend to walk. Outside the old city, the locale is very modern.

    Ben Yehuda Street, lined with boutiques and cafes and through which a tram plies, is a must-visit.

    There are pizzerias, bagel shops and salad stops. The Israelis are very serious about their salads. We ordered a salad for a side - a rookie mistake - and ended up having it for leftovers for three days, that's how large a serving it was.

    Ben Yehuda Street was decorated with features from different cultures when we visited - there was even a segment resembling a mini-Chinatown. The distinctive red lanterns were a surprising sight in a foreign land.

    Street performers start applying face paint and donning their costumes in the early evening. They then take up frozen positions and move only when passers-by toss coins or bills into their open hats or guitar cases.

    But you will not see this on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest that begins from sundown on Friday and ends a day later. Most shops close at about 4pm, and swiftly, everyone returns home.

    It was a surreal experience to be wandering deserted streets that seemed almost post-apocalyptic - in hotels, they have a Sabbath elevator that stops at every floor so guests do not have to "work" by pressing the floor buttons.

    It was with a restful, contemplative spirit that we visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, located on the top of Mount Herzl, a hill in Western Jerusalem with scenic views.

    No pictures are allowed in the museum, which is built of bare concrete and shaped like a triangle, with a glass ceiling.

    The stories shared on the audio tour were both harrowing and sobering - I found a tale of how a mother killed her own child to spare him the horrors of Auschwitz particularly wrenching.

    I considered how easy it is to take for granted the safety we have in Singapore.

    Nowhere in Israel did I feel unsafe, perhaps thanks to the police patrolling with their daggers and rifles at every other corner, but it is an oasis in a troubled region.

    As we left the small country considered by so many to be holy land, I thought about how we too are surrounded by imminent threats and how unrest waits just beneath the surface at all times.

    While landing in Singapore after a 15-hour journey, I watched a familiar landscape unfold beneath us and I decided then that Changi Airport is still my favourite.

    After all, cliches are truths even if tired - there truly is no place like home.