A circular bed of tulips gleams red and gold through the shining glass pane of the window, and the young man at the check-in counter has a smile just about as bright. "Shalom," he grins at us. "I hope you enjoyed your trip to Israel!" We’re standing at the El Al counter at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, ready to go back home to India after a short but extremely eventful fortnight in Israel. Everything about Ben Gurion International is oh-so-correct. Brisk, efficient, not a hair out of place- a far cry from most of the places we’ve been visiting in the past two weeks. But then, we’ve been all over the West Bank, in Palestinian-controlled areas, where the spit-and-polish of the West is replaced by the `anything-goes’ exuberance of the East.
Anything goes, but warmth and a certain joie de vivre are what rule this area. "The West? What does the West know about hospitality?!", says a Palestinian Christian at the East Jerusalem YMCA, where we spend a week. He extends a cup of absolutely exquisite Turkish coffee to my father, and the twinkle in his eye is downright mischievous as he continues, "It’s the East which knows what hospitality really is!" And in this case, the West is not just Europe or America- it’s also smart, clean, very Jewish West Jerusalem. A different city almost, with its chic boutiques, its clean pavements and its gleaming cars.
Maybe he’s right; or maybe it’s just the fact that we do end up feeling much more comfortable when we’re in East Jerusalem. Though we’re foreigners in an alien land, we don’t actually feel out of place or away from home. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the heady aroma of kebabs and shawerma, falafel and fresh oranges which hits us as soon as we get out on the street; perhaps it’s the jostling crowds, the wandering goats, the roadside eateries and the overflowing trashcans on the street. This is too much like India for it to feel like a foreign country…but perhaps it’s actually the bright grins which appear on faces when we say we’re Indian. "You’re welcome here," says the Arab bus driver on the coach we take to Bethany, "Indians are our friends."
We- my parents and I- have come to the Holy Land as pilgrims. And though we’re on our own, we’re not really on our own- because all around us are thousands of other pilgrims. Muslim, Jewish, Christian- for this city, lying amidst the hills of Judea, is sacred to all three religions. Muslims call it Al Quds- `The Holy’- and believe it to be the place where the Prophet began (and ended) his night journey to heaven. To the Jews, Yerushalayam is Zion, part of the Promised Land; and to us Christians, it’s the place where Jesus preached, died, and rose again. Walking down Nablus Street, we see ample evidence of Jerusalem’s three religions- sombre rabbis in long black coats, monks in brown habits, Palestinian women in white scarves which frame their faces…the Jewish girls, in hip-hugging jeans, their hair streaked red and gold, look very different- and yet fit in so perfectly with this city which very dexterously juggles BC and AD, east and west.
It’s a breathtakingly beautiful city: there’s no denying that. Every building, whether it’s a hotel or an office, is made of the same beige-brown stone, and all around rise the hills- shrouded with cypresses and groves of grey-green olives, and dotted with churches. These stones, these trees, the very mountains around- breathe history. A history of war and peace, of Roman and Crusader, of Palestinian and Jew…
The most-photographed of Jerusalem’s many sights, the golden Dome of the Rock glitters in the sun, the most revered (after Mecca and Medina, that is) of Islam’s shrines. And near it is the Western Wall- the Wailing Wall, sacred to Jews as the last remnant of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, built way back in 20 BC by King Herod. And within the Walled City itself, not too far from the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock, is the Via Dolorosa- the Path of Sorrow, down which Christ carried his Cross.
The Via Dolorosa-the Wailing Wall-the Dome of The Rock- all within walking distance of each other. Jewish, Islamic, Christian? Or just morsels of history which lie next to each other?
One cool, balmy morning we walk up the Mount of Olives, to visit the Church of All Nations, with its beautifully crafted mosaic façade. A short break at the Garden of Gethsemane next door, and then it’s further uphill, to the golden onion domes of the Church of Mary Magdalene, and the stark white-and-black domed Sanctuary of Dominus Flevit.
We walk on up the hill until we reach a level terrace, warm and lovely in the sunshine. There, amidst beds of purple irises, we stop for a breather, and to look out over the city, its ancient walls awash with the pale sunshine of an early spring day. A quiet city, serene and seemingly peaceful. At this distance, we can see no cars, no touristy souvenir-shops, and few modern buildings.
Just Jerusalem, the eternal city.