It’s said that Jerusalem is sacred to half of all people on earth. To Christians this is where 2,000 years ago Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the city’s Christian epicentre. To Muslims, the Dome of the Rock marks the “farthermost place”, the third most holy site in Islam. Here it’s said that Muhammad ascended to Heaven. For Jews, the Western Wall of the Second Temple marks the most sacred site in Judaism. Near here, Abraham almost sacrificed his son, Isaac, 4,000 years ago.
The city has seen millenia of conflicts. Wars of conquest and wars of religion have shaped the history of Jerusalem more than almost any other city. Three thousand or so years ago dominance over this whole region was fiercely contested by Ammonites, Moabites, Philistines, Amalekites and Israelites. Around 1,000 BC, Israelite King David – he of Goliath and slingshot fame – captured Jerusalem and made it the capital of his expanding kingdom.
Such were the factious politics of the time (has anything changed?), David’s kingdom quickly split into two upon the death of his son, Solomon, he of legendary wisdom. The next several centuries saw waves of conquest sweep over Jerusalem as control passed to Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Egyptians amongst others. Eventually, in 1517 the Ottoman’s arrived and stayed for the next 401 years. That’s when the real trouble started.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 saw control of the Middle East pass to the British and French. Their colonial policies, a growing Zionist movement, the horrors of the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel shaped the next century of conflict and monumental failures of politics and diplomacy that have forged modern-day Jerusalem, a city still contested and divided.
This is a city where fact, fiction and faith collide in a powerful and heady mix. It’s no surprise that Jerusalem has its own syndrome, a psychiatric illness of extreme religious delusions. Even with the hubbub of modern (and not so modern) life in the narrow streets of the Old Town, the weight of history is palpable. Everywhere there are reminders of the role the world’s three oldest monotheistic religions have played in shaping the physical and psychological landscape of the city.
I was working in Jerusalem for several days and only had one day to really explore the city. The overbearing religiosity and the narrow busy streets left me feeling unusually claustrophobic. Yet seen from the Mount of Olives, the city’s famed limestone glowing golden in the early morning sunlight, light glinting of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem is a shimmering mirage of light. It is quite a sight, and worth getting up early to see.
I’d arrived on the Mount of Olives – from where in Jewish tradition the Messiah will descend and enter the city through the Golden Gate – before sunrise. It was still chilly as I waited for the sun to illuminate the city. The views from here are magnificent, and worth a return journey at night when the city is lit up. I made my descent down the Mount of Olives along a trail that passes along the Jewish cemetery and past a number of churches.
I stopped in the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene with its golden ‘onion’ domes, and the cave Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary, where it’s said the Virgin Mary was buried. I couldn’t enter through the Golden Gate as it’s sealed up, but passed instead through the 16th century Lion’s Gate. Once inside the walls, a maze of alleys, markets, mosques, synagogues and churches await exploration.
Here Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Israeli Christians, Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Christians exist cheek by jowl. It’s often a combustible mix with sporadic outbursts of violence, but things were calm as I visited the Temple Mount, home to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. I passed the Western Wall, which had left a profound imprint on my memory from a visit as a child, and wandered the streets in the mainly Jewish area around the Four Sephardi Synagogues.
Eventually I arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with its tour groups of Russian pilgrims and petty rivalries between the various Christian sects. It was a fascinating and stupefying visit that ended after I was scolded by a zealous looking Eastern Orthodox monk. I still don’t know what I did to upset him, but he looked like the sort of person who enjoyed being upset. Jerusalem is an intense place, and while I now wish I would have had more time to explore, at the time I remember feeling relief leaving the old town.