I’m not alone to be mystified by Jerusalem. The ancient city on a rocky hill under a siege of a dusty desert hardly wows with classical beauty though. It is the contrast with the monotonous and poor Palestinian settlements together with a bemused vista of the infertile Dead Sea (which is a lake) and its religious history, that elevate the walled Holy City onto a celestial cloud of reverence. The once a pagan settlement in the hills between the fertile Mediterranean and the arid Arabian desert has passed a long journey through sacrifices, crosses, crescent moons and bomb attacks.
Unite or divide? A question worth of religious contemplation
The epicentre where religion was MADE TO LAST is perhaps a proof that human violence is impossible to fully contain. A slogan on a t-shirt of wood carving artisan in the Christian part of Old Jerusalem inspired this story. The sacred draws in power. Faith has a great value for not just the believer but also for the ruler. Hence, religious cohesiveness has been used for millennia to keep nations tame. [My poem about liberty]
Like a magnet, that precious mystery of faith has coerced and divided humanity. United, the church blooms as a community. Sectarian disagreement fuels malice, terrorism fuelling wars. The fanatical fundamentalists of our century are the Crusaders of the Middle Ages. Weren’t we better off united? If that were as easy. As many unique personalities there are, as broadly coloured the opinions and beliefs. Respecting others’ faith, while following the good, universal, not regressive but inclusive values that we worship, somehow escapes the awareness those blinded by emotional rage. Sadly, the current division of Jerusalem manifests, this is an ideal that can only be temporarily achieved in the perfect alignment of the stars under armed surveillance.
Feeling the Holy City
Jerusalem’s history wells in tears of cultural struggle, separation, survival and diplomacy, yet it is more. The by blood and miracles inspired history captured in the holy books of the West and the Middle East wows millions of crowds into its split core. I felt the sorrow when walking through its crumbling twisted alleys. Not peace, but discomfort run through my veins. Jerusalem’s religious importance kneels worshippers down onto its limestone carpet on which Jesus walked and Muhammad is believed to ascend to the heaven. The energy is unsettling, marked with suffering and strife. Still, you must go. Experience the city that lured the Babylonians, Romans, Persians, Ottomans, Crusaders and other armies into its spiritual coffers.
Jerusalem is such a historically important city, that it has been known under a quantum of names in different languages. According to the Jewish Midrash, “Jerusalem has 70 names” in Hebrew. In the Amarna letters called Urusalim (URU ú-ru-sa-lim) or Urušalim (URU ú-ru-ša-lim) (1330s BCE) but also Beth-Shalem, the house of Shalem. Today, Jerusalem is called Yerushalayim in Hebrew (יְרוּשָׁלַיִם a derivation associated with Greek ἱερός – hieros = holy) and Al-Quds in Arabic (اَلْـقُـدْس). The city is also known among Muslims as Bayt al-Maqdis (بَـيْـت الْـمَـقْـدِس), which means “House of Holiness“.
Attractive trophy: protected, revered, exploited history of Jerusalem
The oasis sits on a generous reservoir of underground water and is supported by a lake nearby. The naturally supplied desert town attracted its first settlers over five millennia ago. Scissored between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean, Jerusalem is a desert fort blessed by the proximity of fertile land and sea. Yet, the Old Town is dusty, almost stale, today.
Countless conquest redefined its purpose. King David made Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish Kingdom, his son Solomon built the first Jewish Temple on the hilltop then outside of the city. Spiritually charged wars were fought on the fertile Canaan’s grounds and its impressive stone walls were rebuilt. To our surprise the leading archeologist who guides us settled the number on a mere dozen total breakdowns of the city. One of the destroyers was the king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. There were wall-less periods, and not all the walls were destroyed by invaders but earthquakes that hit the Eastern Mediterranean region.
The most recent wall was built by the Ottoman ruler Sulleyman in the 16th century. Resourcefully, he built on the existing wall and recycled scattered stones from the area – some from smashed graves, others with chiselled inlets for wooden beams holding the roofs of homes. The remaining five layers of the city walls, each adds a tinted tale of time, wealth, and the importance of Jerusalem from the Jewish through the Arab to the Western culture. While the byzantine wall is haphazard, the Crusaders polished large symmetric quadrants into perfectly manicured glory, the architecture of the walls was very distinct to each period.
The city today towers a sticky territory contested between religiously and politically misaligned Israelis and Palestinians. The air feels unsettlingly thick. Heavily armed Israeli guards check for potential violence. Beyond its eastern walls is the West Bank, all desert, rocks and salty density of the Dead Sea split with Jordan and Israel. You can glimpse its shores from the rocky hilltop that houses the old city.
Puzzling out the Old Jerusalem
In the heavily walled Jerusalem all the major Western religions intersect. Our guide was a Jewish archeologist, who founded a tour guide company aside from his digging activities in and out of Israel. Gratefully, he took us around the queueing Christians in the Church of Holy Sepulchre. I am religiously neutral, accepting the wisdom of all that manifests in my own life. My husband is a spiritual protestant, but his analytical brain guides his life. We were interested in understanding what draws people to faith so deeply that some devote most of their lives to religious service. The Bible’s Old and New Testament as well as Quran are fascinating resources not only spiritually, but also the stories in them illuminate the importance of Jerusalem that cannot be deleted from human history.
Walking through its crooked, tight limestone streets whispers about the cultural manners of its forcefully peaceful inhabitants. As we walked though the debris of stale food, human and cat excrements, we did not feel like buying any refreshments in the Christian quarter. A covered market of each community stretched around a dedicated street. We were advised to buy food only in the Jewish area, so we lunched casually and safely in the Jewish section overlooking the Mount of Olives, where Jesus taught his disciples. Munching on falafel, hummus, Israeli salad, minced lamb and tahini we peered over to its grey segmented graveyards. Next to this dusty grey hill are the Gethsemane gardens. Meaning oil press in Aramaic, this tiny garden is still resplendent with ancient olive trees, but disappointing for those expecting sizeable natural space.
Human needs are nourished by faith
Connecting with suffering in Christianity, the gold-shimmering mosaic of dead Jesus and the sad disciples surrounding his crucified body in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre symbolises hope in death.
The most important sites to Christians is the Golgotha where Christ was crossed (forget the rocky hill, now it is all covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), the grave from which he was resurrected and the stone on which his body was wrapped by a wealthy Bethlehem disciple of Jesus. This dark building complex is connected with the Armenian and a tiny Ethiopian Kidane Mehret Church. We learned that the oldest Christian state was in Africa. The Ethiopian Queen Sheba had a child with the king Salomon, yet their descendants took the Christian religion as their own. Adjoining the church is the Debre Genet monastery (Monastery of Paradise) belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The Armenian and Ethiopian quarters form the smallest neighbourhoods of the Old City.
The largest slice of the walled town belongs to the Muslim quarter, where the cleanliness did not get much better yet. The buildings were scantly maintained and the market goods veered into gold, colourful veils and scarves. We did not enter the third holiest muslim site, the Temple Mount and the recently gold-leafed Dome of the Rock, since the waiting time seemed for more than a few hours. Known to Muslims as Haram esh-Sharif and venerated as a holy site in all three big monotheistic religions. Prophet Muhammad preached to his followers to pray facing the direction of this hill in Jerusalem and is said to ascend to the heaven from here. Intriguingly, only later this was changed for Mecca, already a holy site.
Not far from the massive dome (originally in real gold) of Temple Rock (once the Second temple of the Jews destroyed by the Romans) is the Western Wall, the only remaining part of the First Temple of Judaism. Change seems to be only sure thing even in religion. This rock is where it is believed that Abraham intended to kill his son, but God stopped him. The most polished and sanitary was the Jewish quarter. Nearing the Tower of David, we entered the site where the revered Biblical king was buried. Women entering separately as they must do at the Wailing West Wall, the synagogues as well as in the mosques.
The goodness symbolism in Jerusalem: angels and light
According to Rabbi Leo Trepp, in late Judaism, the belief developed that people have a heavenly representative, a guardian angel. Previously, the term `Malakh’, angel, simply meant messenger of God. This Jewish symbol for the good spirit gave birth to Christian and Muslim angels.
Our morals and values seem not enough for our mind to lean on the good decisions, but we need protective force guiding us to goodness. Further, darkness symbolises ignorance in most philosophical and theological schools. Gold sparks light, and for that it was used in religious buildings.
In Islam, angels (Arabic: ملاًئِكة malā’ikah) are believed to be celestial beings, created from a luminous origin by God. Rilke , a non-muslim but highly spiritual and as many artists inspired by religious symbolism included “their depiction in Islam to represent the embodiment of transcendental beauty” in his famous Duino Elegies.
John 1:4, “In Him was life; and the life was the light of men”. Inside the dark Church of Holy Sepulchre, the natural light stroke us so powerfully through the frescoed dome assuring us of the Biblical teachings.
Life in Jerusalem in the 21st century
Many live in the Old City just to serve tourism, selling trinkets, polishing wooden crosses, refreshments like freshly pressed pomegranate juice in the fall, tangerines and oranges in winter or melons in the heat of summer. Yet, most craftsmen and businesses are located outside the walled city on one of the endless hills surrounding Jerusalem. People outside the more youthful restaurant business are rough. All drivers we took squeezed as much as they could from us, annoying taking extra time to drive through most congested roads and the street vendors joined in the hassle of bothering us. I didn’t enjoy the Arabic male camaraderie and self-assertion here. Regularly, I was cut in a queue as women battled their way whenever needed. A thank you came only after splurging out generous American tips. To their credit, the Israelis must be tough. Their situation can hardly be envied by any other nation state. Surrounded by its old foes – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the self-proclaimed Palestine – only the sea does not teeth into the Zion state. Well, not until climate change bites away its coast ardently. Clean energy, recycling, waste management do not seem to bother the local government. The light sparks from the vibrant technology sector in Tel Aviv ready to inject its climate-solutions into the world.
Since the formation of Israel post World War II and the Six-Day War in 1967, Jerusalem fully belongs to Israel, borders Palestine and its former custodian Jordan takes care of the muslim part of town. Threat is imminent. The locals live under the armed watchdog of the Israeli army peacefully, respecting each other’s religious peculiarities. The female and male soldiers police the contentious Jerusalem, but the sniper towers (women are reportedly faster to snap the trigger) made me feel uncomfortable. Terrorism looms over the contested land from all directions. Hizbollah keeps its cells active. Prep yourself for road checks and wired zones. The most important modern buildings inland were dug in the underground. From the sprawling campuses of the must visit Hebrew University on Mount Scopus (beautiful gardens), the Israeli Museum, the National Archives to other culturally important and government buildings.
Geopolitically, the Israelis do not belong to Asia, neither to Europe or Middle East, “we are America“ our guide said. The birth cord was never cut after the founding of the country post World War II. The US supplies its military knowhow, weapons, antimissile technology and more ‘life-supporting’ vitalities such as junk food. The American motherly nourishment is sealed on the photos inside the King David Hotel, where numerous American presidents shook hands with the local political leaders.
My favourite parts of Jerusalem are the Israeli Museum and the Machane Yehuda food market also known as the “Shuk” where people seemed the most happy. Whether it is the amazing food or sharing the feast with family or friends, but something sparks up the joyful spirit in this covered, multicultural assembly of hedonism. On weekends (Thursday night, Friday and Saturday) particularly, the locals feast, sing, dance and revel in the abundantly delicious life. The King of Halva has been sweetening the tongues for decades, but even more saliva-oozing are the chocolate rugelach butter pastries from the Marzipan Bakery. Most food here is kosher, and there is so much to try!
Lively eateries and restaurants surround the Machane Yehuda market. Some are as casual as a beach shack (Azura), others hives of celebration from lunch till late at night (Machneyehuda, incredible! Must be booked well ahead).
I also relished a small park in the wealthy Yemin Moshe neighbourhood between the King David Hotel and the old town. The tourist-free view from the park is better than anywhere else. Inside dwells a small archaeological treasure – an open grave clearly showing how massive the wheel-shaped rock used to close graves was. Many hands were needed to assist with opening it, therefore Jesus’s escape from the grave was perceived as a miracle.
Saint Augustine wrote in Confessions of a Sinner: “… we were impelled to do good after our hearts received the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Before then our impulse was to do wrong.” Perhaps some of us were born with more of that guiding Holy Spirit in our mind, so we are more ‘naturally’ inclined to do good. Until wars, violence, hatred, racism and other ills of humanity worsen the common good, we shall listen to the whispers of the good spirit attentively.
IMPORTANT NOTE OF THE AUTHOR: I do not mean to offend anyone’s beliefs. I’m aware of its potential contentiousness, yet visiting Jerusalem opened my soul’s doors to some internal questioning. This article is as much a travel guide as an open-minded musing on what unites and divides humans. Peace is better than war. We need the rule of law. Some of it was found in the religious scriptures, yet sadly can be misinterpreted. The bottom line is that we do not want the evil and chaos (if one does not call them the same thing) to rule over humanity, do we?