Larry Schwandes

© Copyright 2023 by Larry Schwandes

Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash
Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

Jerusalem is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. It is connected to three major world religions. It has a very spiritual atmosphere. I had the good fortune to visit it twice. Over the years it has become the home to a fourth religion, the Baha’i Faith. The founder of the religion is buried in Acca and his forerunner is buried in Haifa. I went to Haifa as a Baha’i pilgrim.
I met Fritz in Haifa, Israel. We were both Baha’i pilgrims. Haifa is the international center for the Baha’i Faith. Fritz was a tall 42-year-old German. He heard of the Faith from a friend. At the time I was 63 and was raised in a Baha’i family. Both parents were Baha’is. We were both traveling by ourselves. At the pilgrim house people got to me the other Bahais. Through a conversation we realized that our personalities matched, and we became friends.

This was my second trip to Israel. I had been to Israel in 1975 on a previous Baha’i pilgrimage. I was on my way home after serving two years in Laos as a Baha’i pioneer. My job in Laos was teaching English at the Lao American Association which was funded by the U.S. government. The U.S. government (C.I.A.) was in Southeast Asia and it sponsored some language institutes.

During my first trip to Haifa, I met a young Canadian Baha’i. He was doing some side trips to places in Israel aside from the organized Baha’i pilgrimage. He mentioned that he had been to Jerusalem on his own and found it very interesting. He told me how one could get there using the local bus system. At the end of my first pilgrimage I took a trip to Jerusalem and was very impressed with its charm. It is home to three major religions and has a spiritual atmosphere.

Fritz and I did our Baha’i pilgrimage together. When there was free time, we checked out other sites of interest around Haifa. We saw the site for the future Baha’i temple on Mount Carmel, the Baha’i cemetery, and the cave of Elijah. We also ate meals at the local restaurants.

There were some extra days at the end of the pilgrimage. Fritz would be staying in Tel Aviv and he invited me to visit him. He was interested in visiting Jerusalem. I told him that I knew how to get there on the local buses and offered to take him.
We took the city bus in Tel Aviv to the bus station. It was three stories high with buses leaving at different times for many places in Israel. There were over 1,000 routes run by two bus companies. Thirty years ago, it was just a large plaza with a gathering of buses. We found the correct window to buy an express round trip ticket to Jerusalem. We were under a deadline because a Jewish holy day would start at 3pm and the bus service would stop. Our tickets were bought at 8am and Jerusalem was 45 minutes away.

There was a security checkpoint when we entered the bus station. We had to empty our pockets and be checked by an electronic wand. Now as we were about to get on the bus, they checked us again.

There were many young people on the bus in military clothes both men and women, since military service is compulsory in Israel. Dressed in brown clothes and a soft brown beret was their outfit. They had a rifle with them that they held with respect making sure it was always pointed away from people. People seemed friendly as we exchanged glances. One soldier sitting next to Fritz listened attentively as I told Fritz an interesting story from the past.

In about 40 minutes we neared the Old City. I eagerly looked out the window to see how much still looked familiar after so many years. The wall of the Old City stood before us. I had been through the wall before but couldn’t remember which gate that I had gone through. Nevertheless, I activated the buzzer to signal the driver to stop. There was the wall but where was the nearest gate? After a short time we found one. It was the Damascus Gate. It has a rectangular opening with a semi-circular arch above it.

There are eight gates into the Old City. They are the Jaffa, Zion, Dung, Golden, Lions, Herod, Damascus, and New Gate. The Golden Gate is interesting. It is the one that the messiah will walk through. It has been bricked in. It looks like they don’t want the messiah to return. I had seen the gate on my last visit. The Damascus Gate led to the road to Damascus. Crusaders referred to the gate as Stephen’s Gate due to its location close to the site where St. Stephen’s was martyred.

As we walked the old streets the sounds, sights, and smells were enchanting. I could tell by expression on Fritz’s face that he was impressed. Here is a place where Muslims, Jews, and Christians live together. The city is divided into different quarters—Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, and Christian. We had entered through the Muslim quarter. As we walked, we realized that we weren’t sure where we were going. We didn’t have a map. The Old City is square shaped with one kilometer on each side. As time passed, the streets we followed had fewer and fewer people on them. Suddenly a young boy about the age of 10 appeared. He asked, “Via Dolorosa?” This is the street that leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the things we wanted to see. We enthusiastically said “yes, yes” to the boy. We followed the boy through the winding streets having faith that we weren’t going to be mugged somewhere along the way. Finally, we came to the church. It was a happy sight. We gave the boy a tip.

The Via Dolorosa is the pathway through the city that Christ took on the way to the cross. Jerusalem was destroyed at least twice. It was rebuilt. The real Via Dolorosa is probably many feet beneath the present pathway.

The site for the Church was found in the fourth century by Helena the mother of Constantine.

It is the site where Christ was crucified and buried. Helena had become a Christian and through her efforts many Christian sites in the Holy Land were identified and preserved.

The Church was not very impressive on the outside. It was being repaired with some scaffolding on one side. Inside are found the crucifixion and burial sites for Jesus. We entered and found a small church-like structure inside. One point of interest was a slab of marble way inside the small building. This is the Stone of Anointing where Christ’s body was prepared for burial. It was surrounded by candles. Next we saw a tiny room with candles around the walls. This inner shrine was very small with room for only about 5 people. When I was there in the past, I had not gone in. There were a lot of people waiting their turn. But this time there were only a few. Finally we had our turn along with another gentleman large in stature. All three of us had to stoop to get in the door. In reverence we knelt together in silence. After a few minutes we exited together without exchanging any words. Later we found out this had been the tome of Jesus.

Our next challenge was to find the Western Wall or Wailing Wall which is the wall of the former Jewish temple that King Herod had built. We asked people along the way where to go and they pointed in the general direction. We came to a passageway that led to an open plaza. Two men with rifles were at the end of the passageway. They motioned for us to go back from the way we had come. The plaza was a historic site, and it was being protected from possible terrorists. We needed to find another entry way. As we rounded a corner an interesting vista opened before us. It was a plaza with the Western Wall on one end. We were on an elevated area and from our position we were able to see three holy sites. In one direction the Western Wall was visible. Another direction the Church of the Holy Sepulcher could be seen. The third direction was the Dome of the Rock temple.

It was a busy day at the Western Wall. It was the eve of a Holy Day so many Jewish men were at the Wall with their hats on and their prayer shawls on. They rocked back and forth as they prayed. I wanted to go and touch the Wall but was unsure if it was appropriate. I had a prayer request written on a small piece of paper to be inserted in the Wall. A Jewish secretary at work had given it to me. Fortunately, there was an American rabbinical student near who greeted me as I approached. He said it was okay to touch the Wall and to put a prayer request into a crack. This I preceded to do. This was a first for me. My last visit I had not touched the Wall. Respectfully I backed away from it and proceeded on our adventure.

The Wall is about forty feet tall made of rectangular grey blocks. There are plant outcropping of a few bushy plants. At the bottom of the Wall is a stained section about six feet high where human activities had touched it.

Around us was an interesting sight. The men were praying at the Wall and others were mingling at tables setup behind walled barricades. Standing on a chair a person could see over the barricade. The men were readying their outfits and polishing their ornaments. In the meantime, women were standing on chairs looking over the barricades. The women did not pray or associate with the men. However, the women were throwing wrapped hard candy over to the men. This must be some Jewish custom. It was a curious sight.

To the right of the Western Wall we found a walkway that led to a guarded check point. We passed through the check point and entered another plaza.

    On the right was the Asqa Mosque and on our left was the Dome of the Rock Mosque. There had been a terrorist attack at the mosque a few years ago and that is why there was heightened security in the area. We hoped to go into the Dome of the Rock Mosque, but we were not able. Only Moslems were not allowed to enter. When I was there last time anyone could go in. There you could see beautiful Arabic calligraphy and ornamentation in gold. In the center was the famous rock. It was the rock where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son. At the last minute God told him to stop. According to the Koran Gabriel took Muhammad on a journey one night and this rock was one of the first stops. After this stop they went on to other spiritualworlds. But for our visit we just circumambulated the mosque and admired its golden dome and Arabic writings engraved on its sides in ceramic tile. As we rounded the building, we heard voices. They were speaking in English.

It was a group of five Australians. A friendly conversation resulted. They were enjoying their visit to the Old City. They had already been to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Each person in the group had a map. We mentioned that we had already seen the church and we were wanting to go back through the Old City in hopes of finding the Damascus Gate, the one we had come in through. We had to get to the appropriate bus stop. Fortunately, one of the Australians offered to give us one of their maps. It was greatly appreciated. The newfound friends said goodbye, and we were off. We used our newly acquired map and charted the way through the Old City. As we walked briskly along, we noted that no other tourists were around. Nevertheless, in a short time the welcome sight of the Damascus Gate came into view. We happily marched through it and went off to the bus stop. In a short time the bus came and we made it back to the inter-city bus station. We found the bus going to Tel Aviv and were back by 3pm. We had made the deadline. It was an unforgettable adventure.

Israel is a wonderful place to visit. It has a rich history and has interesting sites to see. Most important is that it has a spiritual atmosphere, and one feels as if we have returned home. 

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on November 21, 1943.
 Bachelor of Chemistry 1965 University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. Master of Science 1967 Delta State College, Cleveland Mississippi.
Scientific Publications
R. Subramanya and L. Schwandes, 1984, Invitro propagation of escarole from leaf explants. Hortscience
L. Schwandes and M. Collins, 1994 Distribution and significance of freshwater sponge spicules in selected Florida soils. Trans. Amer. Micro. Soc.

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