We set out in the afternoon to get a first glimpse of the Old City, the historical and religious heart of Jerusalem. We entered through the Damascus Gate, one of the eight gates (of which seven are still in use) of the old city wall built in the first half of the 16th century under the Ottoman Suleyman the Magnificent, it’s 12 m high and 4 km long (one can walk on top of it) encircling the Old City which we found surprisingly tiny, only 1 km across from side to side (about 30 000 people live there!) The Damascus Gate is the most impressive of all the gates, it leads into the Muslim Quarter, one of the four quarters the Old City is divided into, the others are the Christian, the Jewish and the Armenian ones.
It was stifling hot and suffocating in the narrow alleyways which were an oriental bazaar, we had hardly stepped in when we felt we had to get out as quickly as possible. I heard a muezzin and suggested we go into the mosque to be able to breathe freely again for a while, what happened, though, was that we suddenly found ourselves in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built over the spot where Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified and buried.
We stepped in and found ourselves in an unbearable sauna, this was not a place to get some breath! But not only because of the heat, this is the most puzzling church I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen many in my life as a traveller!
Following his conversion to Christianity, the Roman Emperor Constantine ordered in about 325/326 that the site of the crucifixion and the burial place be uncovered and a church be built there (his mother Helena is credited with the rediscovery of the Cross), the church was destroyed and rebuilt several times through the millenia, it got several annexes and has now a structure difficult to understand and explore for the unguided visitor.
Today the primary custodians are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. Times and places of worship for each community are strictly regulated in common areas. But alas, although they’re all Christians serving the Lord who preached love and peace they’ve repeatedly got into fights (the last fist-fight occurred in 2004), since 1192 a Muslim family has the guardianship and the key to the church, a wise decision!
One has to climb up some steep stairs to get to the part where the cross is said to have stood, it’s a Greek Orthodox chapel now, the most lavishly decorated part of the whole church, gold and silver everywhere. We are not pious but we were shocked nevertheless by what we found, all the different Christian creeds claiming to be the right ones, fighting over trivialities, outdoing each other with luxurious ornaments, shame on them all! What would Jesus think about this place?
We moved on or rather drifted through the maze of twisty alleyways, there are no visible boundaries between the four quarters, until we came to an airport-like checkpoint, we had reached the entrance to the Western Wall, aka Wailing Wall. What we see nowadays is the section of the Western supporting wall of the Temple Mount which has remained intact since the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple by the Romans (70 BC). The place in front of the wall serves as a synagogue, it has been accessible for Jews only after Israel captured the Old City in 1967, at times tens of thousands of people gather there for prayer, men and women prey separately, a fence divides them.
We sat there for a long time taking in the atmosphere, watching orthodox Jews with curls in long black robes and black hats rushing to and fro. They never seem to walk slowly and obviously love talking into their mobile phones. We were fascinated by men wearing hats the size of scooter wheels the ‘tyres‘ made of fox fur.
Our first encounter with Jerusalem was an assault on the mind and the senses. Would it have been wiser to start at the Jaffa Gate with the Citadel Museum offering a well-made overview of the history of Jerusalem? We went there at the end of our stay when we had already seen and learnt a lot, the exhibition served as a kind of summary then. No, I think this unplanned plunge into the Old City was just the right thing to do because Jerusalem *is* an assault on the mind and the senses!
Three religions living together, all eager to be as near as possible to their holy sites and unfortunately always ready to fight for them. Yerushalayim, as Jerusalem is called in Hebrew, means ‘place of peace’. If only! In the course of history it has endured thirty-six wars and has been destroyed more than a dozen times.
For the Muslims the Dome of the Rock is the third holy site after Mecca and Medina, it’s situated above the Western Wall, the following day we got to it through another check-point. Passing the al-Aqsa Mosque we came to an elevated plateau with the wonderful Dome covered with coloured tiles and crowned by the golden dome. We read that when it still belonged to Jordan, King Hussein sold a palace to have the dome restored and covered with new gilded copper plates.
I love Islamic art and looked forward to visiting the Dome of the Rock where Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son and from where Mohammed ascended to heaven on his horse according to the holy texts, alas, it was closed. My husband tried to bribe the guard but in vain, no entry for tourists.
Two people told us later that they had been inside only some days before and advised us to go there in the morning, but we were there in the morning. Someone else explained that the Muslims were afraid of terrorist attacks by militant orthodox Jews and had closed the Dome for visitors, or rather had no regular visiting hours any more, now there are only irregular opening times to puzzle potential terrorists.
It was obviously the period of days-out for school-children, we could see them every day, each group accompanied by a grown-up at the front and at the end carrying a rifle or a machine-gun. I thought they were the teachers and imagined myself walking with my pupils armed like this but a waitress told us that they were guards, everyone who had done military service could be such a guard. Military service is obligatory for young men, they have to serve for three years, it’s voluntary for young women, if they do it, it’s two years for them.
Jerusalem is rather a safe city generally; Seattle, USA, has roughly the same number of inhabitants (~720 000) as Jerusalem but a murder rate seven times higher.
Most attractions are concentrated in the Old City, but immediately outside rises a hill with the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus walked with his disciples, its western slope is covered by a large Jewish cemetery, orthodox Jews are convinced that the Messiah will come there when he comes and they’re willing to pay 30 000 $ and more for a tomb to be near him on the great day.
Two excellent museums help to understand the history of Israel and the Jews, the wonderful Israel Museum with a superb archaeological wing and the Shrine of the Scrolls where the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls are exhibited, the oldest manuscripts of the Bible that have been found and Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum. I can’t imagine a better way of presenting what happened during the Third Reich, it’s spine-chilling, but the question that interested me most, the WHY?, why was it possible for a civilised people to fall into barbarianism remains unanswered here, too.
So much heavy stuff, I yearned for a counterweight, where was modern Jerusalem, the centre where people meet and go shopping? We were sent to Ben Yehuda St which has been turned into a pedestrian precinct. I was underwhelmed, so much so that I went into a book shop and asked if that was indeed the main shopping centre of Jerusalem. It was. I felt as if I were in the centre of a European provincial town some decades ago.
Jerusalem is not beautiful like Rome, has no famous monuments like Paris, isn’t trendy like London or cosy like Copenhagen, what it has to offer is palpable history and religion, if you have a feeling for this, you’ll find it one of the most fascinating destinations.
Psalm 122,6: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.