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Thoughts on a Study Abroad in the Holy Land

September 8th, 2013

Thoughts on a Study Abroad in the Holy Land

Samantha Sheffield

            Jerusalem is an experience unlike any other.  It is half major tourist attraction and half actual religious experience.  The faithful are everywhere.  But so are the tourists.  Religious symbols are sold on everything from key chains to carpets.  Want a Hand of Fatima keychain? Or how about a star of David embroidered on a Yamakah? Not Jewish who cares – you can take it as nifty souvenir.  The streets are narrow and lined with shop stalls and the noise decibel is set to a steady roar.  There are stairs everywhere and the stones are so polished from centuries of walking that are very slippery if you are wearing flat-soled shoes.  The beauty of the old city is dampened by the crush of people and that odor that clings to all cities – the combination of exhaust, sweat, trash and urine.

While we stayed in the Christian Quarter, the idea of the city being divided into quadrants: Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian is not as clear-cut as the name nor maps suggest.  They blend into one another a great deal and seeing Jewish people walking in the Muslim quarter or vice-versa is a very common sight.  The Muslim quarter however is much older and less well kept but that is because of the political situation and not a reflection of the population at all.  We never had a poor experience or a rude encounter.  Which is even more incredible when you take into account that we were there during Ramadan so they were forbidden from eating during the day.  I don’t know about other people but I tend to get grumpy when I haven’t eaten!

On our approach into Jerusalem I was the navigator – which was okay – if they actually used street names that were printed on the map.  Everything is abbreviated at best, and at worst it is the slang.  Our hostel had a terrace and gorgeous views of Jaffa Gate, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  We capped off our first night in Jerusalem by going to eat an Armenian restaurant – one of the highlights of the trip was eating all the new food.

Our first full day was spent at the Israeli Antiquities Authority.  They receive all the artifacts from all the digs around the country.  They are the national repository so they conserve, preserve, document and store: metals, pottery, organics, and anything else they come across.  Emily and I were assigned the negatives from the period of the British Mandate (pre-1948).  We had to remove them from their packaging and re-label and re-package.  It was pretty mundane but very important and we got to look at some amazing dig sites and artifacts.  One of the most amazing things I’ve ever been able to do in my life so far was to see and handle the original glass plate negatives of the Dead Sea Scrolls.        There are many things about Israel that are similar to the United States: the prevalence of English, beautiful beaches, big cities, lots of places to spend lots of money, but in Israel there is always a thread of unease.  The political situation is very different than what we as Americans are exposed to at home.  There is not outright danger of bodily harm, usually; it is more insidious it is psychological conditioning of an us versus them mentality.  Everything from art museums to where and how people live is to distinguish those who belong from those that do not.  Even in the museums when they are referencing pre-1948 when present-day Israel was called Palestine they do not call it Palestine they call it Eretz Israel.

I greatly enjoyed my trip to Israel it is a beautiful country with many wonderful people.  I encourage people to go there and see for youself.

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