Ever since we returned from Israel, I’ve been wanting to write about Jerusalem but have been struggling to find the right words to accurately describe the experience.
This may not be perfect, but it’s the best I can do.
Jerusalem was the part of our trip the kids and I were looking forward to the most. My memories of it from 18 years ago were positive, but Joshua and I had seen Jerusalem on a tour (because the 2nd Intifada was going on and he was unfamiliar with Jerusalem, his family urged us not to wander around on our own) and so the experience, while great, had been quite controlled. This time we would be with friends who live in Jerusalem and would get more of a “natives” eye view of the place.
We entered the old city at the Damascus Gate. The walls we see today are actually quite new, dating back only 600 years or so to the reign of the Turks. Jerusalem is a city of layers, with each conqueror having built upon the ruins of the vanquished, so that what you see on the surface is only the most recent incarnation.
The gate leads into the Muslim quarter of the old city, dominated by the market. It is crowded, loud and full of color (both literally and figuratively).
Crossing part of the Muslim quarter is the Via Dolorosa, which is of course the alleged route that Jesus took while carrying his own cross to his crucifixion. (A film we saw on the history of Jerusalem told of Constantine’s wife – Constantine being the Roman Emperor who converted to Christianity – coming to Jerusalem looking for holy sites; places where Jesus might have been. She rewarded anyone who could give her the information she wanted. So let’s just say that there could be some reason to doubt the authenticity of the exact sites.)
Walking up the Via Dolorosa, our friend Avichai steered us into a small church called St. Anns, which we would not have noticed on our own. It is built next to some excavated Roman ruins – one of the deeper layers of Jerusalem – but the best thing about it is that its sanctuary is built so that at one particular point, you get perfect acoustics from all 4 sides, and when you stand on that spot and sing, the notes reverberate on for several seconds after you’ve stopped singing.
Of course we had to try it.
From there we made our way to the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall. The crowd was large and loud and of course men and women are not allowed to approach the Wall together. This is supposedly the wall of the last temple and is therefore sacred to the Jews. Supplicants write prayers which they shove into the cracks of the wall. Legend has it that God will answer some of those prayers (though Joshua’s niece told us the papers are routinely removed and thrown away to make room for more, so hopefully God takes notes before that happens). Just a stone’s throw beyond the wall is the Dome of the Rock. The golden dome protects the site where Mohammed is said to have risen into the heavens and is one of the holiest sites in Islam.
We left the old city through the Dung Gate, so named because it was the place they used to throw all the trash.
After our foray into the old city, we went to the top of the Mount of Olives, from which you can see the Judean Desert to the south, the old city as well as the Garden of Gethsemane. Looking at the city wall, you can see the Mercy Gate, which is closed (I believe it was walled in during some siege or other) and which legend has it will re-open only when the Messiah appears, riding a white donkey. Hmm, something about that story sounds familiar…
Here’s the thing about Jerusalem. It is home to more sacred sites than probably any other spot on earth. Believers from three major world religions come here on pilgrimage. As such, and coming from someone who does not adhere to any particular religion but who has great respect for the power of faith, belief and the spiritual nature of man, I would expect Jerusalem to contain an almost palpable spiritual energy.
It does not.
Instead it is full of people who believe that God likes them better than their counterparts praying down the street. (It’s like a huge game of “my Dad can beat up your Dad”.) People who are rude, pushy and unfriendly. In the crowded marketplace we often had to elbow our way through, and several times Maya and Ben were literally shoved aside by a religious person of one sort or another. Even the smallest courtesies are abandoned. The one place that held even an ounce of spiritual energy was the sanctuary at St. Anns, and that only because it was empty.
I have never been in a city where there were so many supposedly devout people behaving like barbarians. More than once I wanted to stop them and say “Really? You think this will win you points with God?” It was actually quite sad.
In fact, I thought of the movie “Kingdom of Heaven” (which if you haven’t seen, you must) several times while we were there. At one point in the film when it becomes apparent that the Christian knights will not be able to hold off Salahadin and his Muslim army, the Bishop of Jerusalem cries out, “Convert to Islam! Repent later!” The lead character, a young French knight played by Orlando Bloom, turns to the Bishop and says, “You’ve taught me a lot about religion.”
So as much as I want to love the old city of Jerusalem, I can’t. The beauty and wonder of its’ history and historic sites is dimmed by the crass behavior of its’ most religious inhabitants who crowd the streets and give no one a moment’s peace.
Let me emphasize, though, that our friends who live in Jerusalem, but outside the old city (and who are Jewish but not Orthodox) are wonderful. The time we spent with them in their home was some of the best of our trip. They are loving, amazing people and I look forward to visiting them again.
Far from the ‘wonders’ of the old city.