Jamie Smith in front of the Western Wall
Photo: Jamie Smith standing in front of the Western Wall

As I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, my mind was flooded with expectations. For my first trip abroad, I was traveling to Jerusalem with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to work at an archaeological dig site. Our professor, Dr. James Tabor, led our group through customs and outside to our bus. I stepped outside and took in the scenery that was surprisingly green, unlike the sea of sand I was expecting. By the time I returned two weeks later, I had been exposed to everything from archaeology to culture.

We clambered on the bus after shoving our suitcases underneath. Our ears popped as we gained altitude on our way to Jerusalem. I looked out the window to see crops and cattle among small trees and shrubs. I tried not to look outside because it seemed that all of the traffic laws that are so important in the States were meaningless here. The painted lines on the highway were just for show. Drivers weaved in and out of traffic constantly. And signaling before changing lanes? Only if you got lucky. We hurtled down the highway at 80 mph. Although our bus driver was experienced, I still heaved a sigh of relief when we reached the hotel alive.

The next morning was our first at the dig. We weeded and cleaned the site to make it look like a proper excavation, and hauled buckets of dirt for most of the day. Archaeology is not just finding pottery shards or mosaic pieces. I was surprised to find that dirt removal is probably at least fifty percent of the excavation work. From 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. for five days a week, we worked at the dig. Afterward, we were free to sightsee and experience Jerusalem.

I walked through the streets and was shocked to see trash everywhere. I watched people finish a soda and drop the can right on the sidewalk. There were boxes and couches lying by the pavement. Jerusalem was always to described to me as the “holy city.” Christians revere Jerusalem because of Jesus’ ministry there. Jews venerate the city because it is the site of their Temple and the center of their religion. Muslims honor it because it is where Muhammad ascended into heaven. It didn’t cross my mind that this central destination wouldn’t have a garbage collection system. The only places to put waste were a few dumpsters along the street. It was a drastic change from seeing a public trash can on every street corner in the U.S.

It was also strange to find the modern mixed in with the sacred. By law, all of the buildings in Jerusalem are required to have a façade made of Jerusalem stone, which is sand-colored and ancient-looking. Walking a few minutes from King David’s Tower put us in a small mall where the stores were new but their outsides looked like the rest of ancient Jerusalem.

The sacred sites within the Old City were mixed in with everyday places as well. One afternoon, I went to the Western Wall. Many people believe that this is the Western wall of the ancient Jewish Temple. We searched for the entrance and almost thought that we were lost among the shops. We walked to the end of the street and, all of a sudden, the entrance was right there in front of us. It was about ten feet from a shop selling candy. This site, the holiest for Jews, was camouflaged. The entrance could have been easily missed had we not been looking for it. The Western wall was just another part of the city.

Our group also went through Hezekiah’s tunnel, a passageway carved out by a natural spring in the city. The path let out next to a giant mikvah, or ritual bathing pool, that was used in the time of Jesus. There were tour groups walking all around and over it, thinking that it was just a set of steps. It was the site where Jesus traditionally healed the blind man, and they were not aware of where they were standing. So many sites have been researched by academics, such as this one, but there are too many would-be sacred sites in the city for them all to be labeled. They become almost commonplace. The ones that are noticed by everyone are the larger sites and monuments, such as the Western Wall.

As we spent time at the Wall, it was impossible not to notice the Israeli Defense Forces stationed there. In fact, they were all throughout the city. Eighteen-year-olds in groups of three walked around with automatic weapons, joking and laughing. Every Israeli teen, with a few exceptions, is required to serve in the military after they have barely reached adulthood. It appeared to me that many of the kids in Jerusalem had to grow up fast.

We went shopping, and there were 12-year-olds helping run their parents’ market, if they weren’t operating it themselves. Shopping there entailed bartering, and the shopkeepers and their children were definitely good at their life’s trade. They worked flattery into their bargaining as they said, “You are so beautiful! I’ll give you fifty percent off!” Of course, I could never really know if I was getting a good deal or not. And haggling required almost as much energy as digging did every morning.

As we were out and about, I saw Muslim girls in sparkling and bright hijabs. They usually even had shoes to match their head-scarves. There were people in the shops that were in traditional dress with just their hair covered or even their entire body except for their eyes among tourists with matching hats and numbered stickers. Coming home from the dig required us to push through the throngs of people as many sauntered along with a laid-back demeanor.

The people of Jerusalem have a casual manner, exuding that they have all of the time in the world. It helped me calm down from the hustle and bustle of cities back in the States. Unfortunately, when my two weeks were up, I had to leave that relaxed atmosphere. Mornings spent hauling dirt and afternoons spent exploring the city were over, and so was my first experience abroad. Charlotte’s muggy weather welcomed me home but even as I stepped off the plane, I began to long for the dry heat of Jerusalem. Hopefully I won’t have to miss it for too long.

Jamie Smith is a Levine Scholar as UNC Charlotte and is currently interning with the World Affairs Council of Charlotte.