It was the only time I got lost in Jerusalem. I had tried to find the entrance to the Temple Mount and after hours of circumnavigating the Old City, dodging souk merchants and tour groups, I was told that it wasn’t open yet. Actually, turns out I had found the entrance right away, but just didn’t realize it. After baking in the noontime sun for longer than I would like to admit, I eventually found myself in the Jewish quarter. This is my favorite area of the Old City where the streets are wide and infinitely more organized than the adjacent Armenian or Muslim quarters.
It was once again a zillion degrees and I was not a pretty sight. Sweaty, lost and hungry, I ambled my way through the alley ways like a man possessed. I decided that I needed a break. Just as I had that thought, I passed by a hole-in-the-wall pizza place where I grabbed a slice and a Diet Coke.
Sitting there in the shade, watching the Old City unfold was a welcome respite. Smells from a nearby bakery were wafting over the city and I truly felt like I was in Jerusalem. Halfway through my lunch, a group of Israeli soldiers came running past. None of them looked older than 18 and it was odd seeing them running around, laughing while machine guns were strapped to their backs.
Given the laughter and kidding around from the troops, I knew that nothing was wrong, but at first I couldn’t understand what they were doing. Strangely enough, they looked lost. Then I noticed a sheet of paper they each had in their hands and it all fell into place. They were on a scavenger hunt.
My shady spot was a perfect location to watch a rare and strange occurrence in Jerusalem, in-the-field training of new soldiers. They all looked 18 because they probably were. Service in the Israeli military is compulsory and begins at 18 years old. These soldiers were obviously new to the city and the scavenger hunt was a way for them to learn the twisty alleyways of the Old City.
It was nice seeing them all laughing, joking around with the shopkeepers and just enjoying what was a gorgeous day in the old capital city.
Israeli soldiers are a common sight throughout the country and after getting past the initial shock of seeing teens with machine guns, their presence is actually reassuring. Israel has never had an easy time of it and while I wish there weren’t a need for the soldiers, there is and I now better understand what people in Jerusalem live through every day.
Given the drama and underlying tension in this ancient city, it was nice to see some of the most serious people in the city enjoying themselves and just having a good time.