#WKNDTravel: Love and longing in Jerusalem
If history deserves a dressing down, then be it for the sake of Jerusalem. A city loved and let down many times over. Conquered and crushed. Ruined and rebuilt. It has endured the vagaries of more than three thousand years of history and its unbridled exploits.
Faith dictated its fate. Still does.
From King David to everyone who came after — the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Byzantines, Romans, Ottomans, the Crusaders — empires and dynasties have reigned over it in the name of faith.
Centuries later, Jerusalem is still at the crossroads of a bitter Israel-Palestinian conflict, with dispute over ownership of her religious sites. The city’s fate hangs by a thin thread pulled by many, often in opposite directions.
It is impossible to approach Jerusalem without a sense of awe and anger. Awe at its intricate, interlacing layers of history and the complex synthesis of cultures it nurtures. Anger at the fragility of its existence, and the head-spinning mix of rights and wrongs it pulls out from history’s backyard.
When you are standing atop Mount of Olives, the sweeping views of the Old City is a good starting point to comprehend the magnificence of Jerusalem. Perhaps there is no other place on earth where the epic history of humankind and their faiths is crunched into a one square km plot of land.
The ancient wall — part crumbling and part standing — separates the city from its more contemporary neighbourhoods outside. The golden dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque sparkles amidst the medieval architectural maze of churches and houses. The Dome of the Rock, from where Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) is believed to have ascended to heaven — and hence one of the holiest sites for Muslims — is visible from the vantage point. The Western Wall, aka Wailing Wall, has remnants of the ancient Jewish temple. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried, stands close by.
Central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Jerusalem is the beating heart of one third of humanity, the epicentre of the world’s three oldest religions.
But its biggest contradiction is that this oasis of peace and spiritual fervour is also the hotbed of conflict and hostilities that have marred the prospect of lasting peace in the Middle East. This painful paradox is felt the most when your walking tour ends at the end of ‘Suk el Katanin’ — the bustling market leading up to the entrance of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, guarded by Israeli security forces. Tension often escalates at the site that is controlled by The Waqf, a Jordanian-appointed council, while the territory is still under Israel after it annexed East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.
A walk down the cobblestoned pavements of the Old City is a deep dive into complexities: the sights and sounds inside the Old City are so varied and unique at the same time that it feels like you are flipping through slides of a documentary.
Divided into four quarters — Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim — the walled city is teeming with history at every turn. Each quarter tells a different story.
In the narrow alleys of the Jewish quarter, children play in careless abandon while families go about their daily chores. On a Sabbath day, Orthodox Jews in traditional garb and headgear walk the alleyways, heads bent in ardent prayer. The religious and spiritual magnetism of Jerusalem will leave a lasting impression while visiting the Wailing Wall, where remnants of Temple Mount stand. Above it is the Dome of the Rock.
The Muslim quarter next to it has crowded streets and street vendors calling out to the tourists. You cannot help but notice the delicate balance between two religions coexisting in a common space equally holy to both. Despite the conflict and uncertainties, the place will give you hope that faith can unite and bridge.
Even for an agnostic, a visit to the Christian quarter will activate your spiritual chip. It is home to 40 holy sites, so Christian pilgrims from all over the world come to walk the Via Dolorosa or the Way of Suffering — believed to be the path that Christ walked for his crucifixion. On a busy day, the path is smattered with 14 stations of the cross filled with a sea of people breaking down in tears. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, housing the shrine where Christ is believed to have been buried and resurrected, is also a magnet for Christians.
The juxtaposition of faith and conflict is omnipresent in Jerusalem. The city that survived crusades and holy wars, outlived torture and humiliation, still holds the key to peace.
If not drawn by the city’s spiritual zeal, one will definitely fall in love with its resilience. It craves for the past but prays for a better future. Like a tear welled up in the eye, a prayer stuck in the throat, Jerusalem waits for redemption. And one thing it counts on is the power of prayer.