Bring Me My Chariot of Fire
Over the last few days I had the opportunity to visit Israel to attend a conference. The flight from the Far East to this little country on the Med coast solved the mystery that quoted airline fares direct from the Far East to Israel were higher than going the far longer route through Europe. That is, fares connecting through London or Amsterdam were cheaper than a direct flight. I wondered why. The El Al flight from Hong Kong provided the answer. It flew three legs of a rectangle, dead north through China, across the Gobi, over the Aral, Caspian and finally the Black Sea and then down through Turkey and over the tail of Cyprus. Then it was over the coast of the Levant until we turned due east into Ben Gurion airport. It was one hell of a detour. The reason direct flights to Israel from Asia were so expensive was simply because Israel-bound airliners could not transit Pakistan nor the Arabian Peninsula and essentially had to fly around them. That explained why it was cheaper to fly through Europe than to take the Silk Road express. Lesson number one. Israel is not a normal country and what international friends it has are very important. If the route through China, Russia and Turkey were closed the trip would be even more of a hassle.
The Silk Road express left me at Ben Gurion at 3 am, and naturally, rather than taking a taxi, I rooted around for more plebian transport to Jerusalem, where accomodation had been arranged. That turned out to be an shuttle bus which was packed floor to ceiling with Argentinian rabbinical students, one Roman Catholic nun, a somewhat testy local lady and yours truly. We headed east into the Judaean Hills and came to the city holy to the three monotheisms. Going into the Old City would have to wait for daylight. But in the meantime the evil effect of time zones meant that although it was zero dark hundred locally, the body clock put it closer to noon. So, having recovered somewhat from the flight, I ventured out into the predawn city. In the dark and from the Old City came what sounded like the Islamic call to prayer, possibly (or so I surmised) from the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque area. And there was Lesson number two. All the waves of conquest and proselytization that had washed over this place had left its indelible mark. None of this was news to anyone in the region, but it came home forcefully to me.
Though I don't know enough to say so with conviction, I am fairly persuaded that the Old City has been stripped of all meaningful signage in order to pander the vast army of hucksters who present themselves as tourist guides. The absence of directions leaves the hapless pilgrim with little choice but to trust to their services. Little choice but not no choice. Meandering later through the Old City I came upon many a picaresque character, all of whom I think could have become Jewish, Muslim or Christian to suit in the blink of an eye, with the proper headgear in their pockets, promising to show any number of miraculous locations, which thanks very much, I declined. After doing a circuit of the walls I came on the Jaffa gate, and by following a man in a business suit with a tall, blond and Anglo-sounding lady tourist guide came through a souk to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It usually helps to follow the money.