Friday, June 25, 2004

2000-Year-Old Traffic Jam

If I told you there was a completely hidden world buried under old Jerusalem – would you be interested? Well, I sure was when I first learned about it. And last week, I got a ticket to explore.

The world I’m talking about consists of the tunnels under and alongside the Western Wall, opened several years ago. From the moment I learned of their existence my mind went wild with imagination.

I envisioned buried treasure – not gold and bouillon, but exquisitely-preserved artifacts from Solomon’s Temple, finally uncovered for the world to see. Perhaps a secret passageway would lead to that most marvelous find of all – the Israelites’ Holy Ark, lost even in King Solomon’s time.

Would the ark, I wondered, wield the mysterious and ultimately monstrous powers that Harrison Ford witnessed in the first Indiana Jones movie? Or would it be just a crumbling crag of ancient rock, more interesting to Bible historians than my pals in the sci-fi and fantasy set?

The opportunity to play amateur archaeologist arose when twelve-year-old Amir’s seventh grade class went on a school field trip to the tunnels. One of the kids got sick at the last minute and I got to take his place.

The tunnel begins auspiciously enough with a semi-secret entrance to the men’s bathroom across from the Western Wall’s main plaza. After descending into a large cistern and then passing a long-buried bridge, we began our walk.

Now, what you normally think of as "The Wall," the part where everyone comes to pray that is featured so prominently in every tourist brochure of Jerusalem, is actually only a small 80 meter piece; another 320 meters are accessible only by walking the tunnels.

The tunnels weren’t always underground, of course. Originally built by King Herod, this was once an outdoor marketplace, the main shuk for Jerusalem.

“And what were they selling?” our guide asked his student charges. Probably the same overpriced tourist trinkets being sold today (Jerusalem has always been a major pilgrimmage site).

Plus a few things you can’t get anymore, such as offerings to give in the nearby Temple, like sheep and grain.

The old shuk has long since been covered, as dwellings in ever overcrowded Jerusalem were built around and on top of it. But the stones we walked – hidden for centuries – were the very same ones placed there by Herod some 2000 years ago. The still smooth wall to our side was built from stone slabs so enormous it was hard to imagine how they were moved into place.

The experience was marvelous. Except for the sense of claustrophobia, a feeling that increased as we burrowed deeper into the tunnels. Perhaps the street was wider back in Herod’s time. But today, it’s just thick enough for a single person to squeeze by.

And we were not alone.

The tunnels, it seems, have become a major tourist attraction. Even though tourism is still way down from its pre-2000 high, groups had still been scheduled for entrance every five minutes. At several stops along the journey we bunched up and had to wait for the next tour to move on.

It was just like Indiana Jones...the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, that is.

After an hour or so of our tour, we arrived at a cavernous chamber used once as the main well for the city. It was there that our guide informed us that we had to turn back. The exit from the far end was closed to school groups. Apparently, it opened out into the Moslem Quarter of the Old City and the Israeli authorities had deemed that too dangerous.

As we turned to double back in the direction we had just come from, another school group passed us...and continued on towards the forbidden exit.

“Hey, why do they get to go out that way?” I asked our guide.

He just shrugged his shoulders. A by-the-books kind of guy, he had his rules.

And so we found ourselves shoving our way past the other tour groups, moving in the wrong direction through the narrow walkway which now seemed impossibly constricted.

Tight spaces do strange things to a twelve-year-old's manners (such as they are). Amir’s classmates began to push each other relentlessly. Backpacks became weapons in an underground struggle to see who’d be the first to reach the exit. One kid started singing “Who let the dogs out” and several of his classmates, realizing they had a world class echo at their disposal, joined in.

When we were finally released back into the fresh air of the Western Wall plaza, it was none too soon.

Oh, the tunnels were still fascinating, enough so that I can heartily recommend a visit in all good faith. But as the volume and frustration level rose, the super secret world hidden deep below the Old City that I had fantasized about for so long, had taken a turn for the something strangely familiar: a typically Israeli traffic jam.

Well, a two-thousand-year-old traffic jam that is.

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