Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Olive Mountain

Olive face

IF EVER there were a site to appeal to Louis, it's the Mount of Olives. The bitter, salty Middle Eastern staple after which the hill is named is, inexplicably, his favourite snack, so his eyes lit up when I suggested a visit. To lessen a three-year-old's disappointment at finding little more than a giant cemetery - Jews have been buried on the slope since Biblical times and it is home to more than 150,000 graves - I packed plenty of olives for our picnic.

The coach loads of Christians (who comprise two-thirds of all tourists to Israel) have to walk up the steep hill because the hair pin bends up are too sharp for a tour bus, but with DJ finally back in town we had some (borrowed) wheels, so were saved the hike. We might not have earned our lunch but out came the olives anyway. And quickly disappeared into Louis's stomach. With any luck, the stones will help to make up for the lack of olive trees there today.

From the top you can see not only the Dome of the Rock in all its golden glory, but also some of East Jerusalem's most contentious neighbourhoods, including Silwan, which is today home to Palestinians but the Jews value because it flanks their precious Mount of Olives. Hence the efforts by Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians from their homes, citing in some cases claims that Jews owned the houses before the anti-Jewish pogroms of the 1930s. Laws favouring Jews help, but the legalities are always murky and judicial battles can last decades. Settler victory comes with flags attached, reams and reams of blue-and-white Israeli flags, draped from every corner of their new home, like the one atop the ridge.

Hearing the afternoon muezzin call made me think that even settlers can't have it all: the thickest double glazing in the world couldn't block out the cacophony of prayer calls that bounce off each side of Jerusalem's many valleys five times each day. And there's no hiding from the glare of that golden dome.

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