Enduring Faith / Jerusalem

A river of people flooded the narrow street in front of my hotel. Filipinos carrying wooden crosses marched through singing a hmn in Tagalog, some in tears. A troupe of Germans in red baseball caps walked by carrying palm fronds. Muslim shopkeepers shouted the praises of their goods, kids screamed, men shoving hand-carts yelled in Arabic: “Make way! Make way!” Shoulder to shoulder, they streamed through Jerusalem’s Old City doing business, running errands, looking for redemption.

“Every time I stepped into the daily fray, I had a moment like this. Going from the quietness of the Hashimi Hotel – with its rooftop terrace and polite Muslim clerks – into the hectic flow of the ancient city was like going from one element to another. It was the feeling of standing on the shore, solid and known, and then jumping into the water, something unknowable and liquid.

In Jerusalem, every square inch of the stony ground is covered in blood and history, hopes and prayers, perdition and redemption. For each traveler and every resident, the history is different, the map is different, the truth is different. Those truths often collide, putting Jerusalem at the center of dozens of wars during the past 3,000 years.
I thought about it.

In the face of every heart-rending dispute, the idea of this city’s holiness endures. It doesn’t matter how arduous the journey, how daunting the violence, or how hot the anger – the pilgrims come. For as long as there has been a Jerusalem, there have been people intent on getting there.

The Old City is a maze: Three- and four-story buildings line the narrow streets, which seldom run straight for more than a few hundred yards. There are no cars; there is no room for them. About 35,000 people live inside the stone walls, completelyintact and about a half-mile long on a side. Seventy percent of the people inside the Old City are Muslim, 20 percent are Christian and 10 percent are Jewish. All of them rely on pilgrims, tourists and travelers to keep the neighborhood’s economy buzzing.

I walked about 10 minutes from my hotel to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was Palm Sunday, and the small courtyard in front of the church was packed.

I could hardly tell I’d arrived at one of the most important shrines in Christianity. There is no grand vista, not even a clearly defined structure. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an amalgamation of buildings and additions from different eras and sects that merges with the stone walls of the buildings around it.

I followed the crowd into the rotunda of the church. A column of light from the opening in the dome pierced the haze of incense floating above Christ’s tomb, a stone structure as big as a small house that sits where the original grotto is thought to have been. A pounding noise rang out, metal on stone – crack, crack, crack – and the Muslim keepers of the church keys strode into the rotunda, dividing the crowd as they hammered their metal-tipped canes on the hallowed rock.

Behind them came Franciscan monks in brown robes, and behind them, Catholic pilgrims. A group of Greek Orthodox worshippers gathered at the tomb, blocking its entrance.

The lead Muslim key keeper in a red fez banged his cane again, and the Greek priest emerged. The keeper raised his eyebrow and opened his hand; the gesture said: “Your time is up.”

“Give me two minutes!” the Greek priest said in English, and ducked back into the tomb to hurry along his supplicants.

It was reassuring to know that in some respects, Jerusalem’s spiritual factions can get along; several generations of the same Muslim family have been keeping order at the Church – and peace between Christian sects – since an 1852 agreement known as the Status Quo. The Greeks made way for the Roman Catholics, and soon voices rose in song.
Near the entry, a flight of steps leads to the top of what many Christians believe is the exact spot of Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where Christ was crucified. Pilgrims knelt to touch a tiny patch of exposed stone under an ornate altar. One after another, they walked away with tears in their eyes.

In my imagination, Jerusalem was a vast city; the reality was quite the opposite. It only took 15 minutes to walk from the most important church in Christianity to the most revered site in Judaism, the Western Wall.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and I was in the company of guide Gil Daleski, a native of Jerusalem. Before we could see the Wall, we had to pass through a metal detector and a pat down. Two guards made a careful inventory of my camera bag.

“The security is heavy here,” Daleski said. “… That’s because if anything happens here, it can make the whole world burn.”

We passed onto a blindingly white stone plaza, facing the towering wall, where Jews have worshipped on and off for more than 1,000 years. At least 20 Israeli soldiers armed with machine guns paced slowly through the knots of people gathered on the plaza, watching everything from behind dark sunglasses.
Daleski, a tall, soft spoken man with curly gray hair, did his best to squeeze 3,000 years of Jewish history into a few hours. The cycle he described was one of exile and return, repeated many times over the centuries.

The mount is not a mountain: it’s a structure of massive stones built around a small hill. In the Jewish tradition, that hill is Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, Daleski said. On top of that box of stones was the site of the original Temple, the most revered landmark of the Jewish faith. For some Jews, the Temple marked the very place where the world began and the very place where it will end.

The Temple was demolished by invaders more than once; The Second Temple, built by King Herod, was destroyed by the Roman Emperor Titus, who replaced it with a temple to Jupiter. Eventually, that temple was torn down, too. Now the top of the Temple Mount is occupied by the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, significant Islamic holy sites.

“It’s important to understand that we don’t even have any ruins of the Temple. Nothing remained,” Daleski said. “The Temple itself is the most important and holy place. But that’s where the Dome of the Rock is now, so what can we do? The wall is the most holy place available.”

The wall is just that: a span of light-colored stone blocks that rises nearly as high as a 10-story building. The worship area is cordoned off and divided into men’s and women’s sides. People of all faiths can approach the wall, but visitors are asked to cover their heads with a hat, yarmulke or scarf. On both sides of the gender divide, people stood with their faces pressed to the massive blocks of stone, quietly saying their prayers. Others carefully folded written prayers and wedged them into the cracks between the massive blocks of stone.

There were American Jews wearing shorts, running shoes and polo shirts, and ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews, with black suits, great beards and payot, curly sideburns that dangle to the collar. When worshippers at the wall moved away from it, they walked backward in reverence.

Daleski said, “Would you like to offer a prayer at the wall?”

I ripped a piece of paper out of my notebook, wrote, “Please bring peace to all these people,” and wedged it into a crack, already stuffed with thousands of other wishes.

The next morning, I retraced my steps. To get to the most holy Islamic landmarks in Jerusalem, a non-Muslim must return to the Western Wall, and pass through an even more rigorous security check to get onto the plaza that is on top of it, and Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa, Arabic for “The Far Mosque.”

In the Islamic world, al-Aqsa is a very holy place, third in importance behind Mecca and Medina. Why? Because a pivotal event in the life of the prophet Mohammed happened here.

I’d grown used to the closeness and crowds of the Old City; being in a wide-open, elevated space, unconstricted by walls, was a novel sensation. I walked to the center of the plaza, where my eyes were drawn to the beauty of the building that dominates the space, the Dome of the Rock. It is a singular achievement of world architecture – a rhythmic balance of angle and curve that was centuries ahead of its time 1,300 years ago. Its gold dome, rising above the octagonal base, looked particularly lustrous against the pure blue of the spring sky. By comparison, the Aqsa Mosque at the other end of the plaza, with its gray dome and long arcaded front, was a quiet presence.

Under the shade of a smaller dome next to the Dome of the Rock, a group of school children listened to a lecture. Families rested beneath cedar and olive trees, and tourists wandered with their cameras.

The interiors of both monuments are closed to non-Muslims. Because of ongoing conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, hard feelings are close to the surface.

A slender, elderly man in a dark green suit jacket introduced himself as a guide, and gave his name only as Abu Khader, which means father of Khader.

We sat on a bench under a cedar tree, facing the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa were built in the late 600s, he said, after Jerusalem was conquered by Muslim forces and only a few years after the prophet Mohammed’s death. For more than 1,300 years (aside from a century when the Crusaders claimed the city for Europe), al-Aqsa has been a center of the Islamic intellectual and spiritual world, he said. It still is.

“On holy days, the whole place is full, there is no room to pray. People have to pray outside the walls; all of east Jerusalem becomes a mosque,” he said.

Al-Aqsa is held in special reverence because of the prophet’s “Night Journey.” Abu Khader said that one night in Mecca, as the prophet slept, he was awakened by the angel Gabriel, who took him to a winged-creature called Al-Buraq, who carried him to Jerusalem. The prophet met with other prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and then ascended to heaven. It was on this journey that Mohammed received instructions about making five prayers a day, Abu Khader said.

Abu Khader dismissed some aspects of the Jewish and Christian versions of local history. (Some of the Jews and Christians I spoke with felt the same way about the Islamic version.)

“There was nothing here when the Muslims came,” he said. “Just garbage and ruins. The Israelis say the Dome of the Rock is built on the site of the old Temple, but no one knows where that was. Jerusalem has been destroyed seven times. No one knows.”

I ended each day on the fourth-floor roof terrace of the Hashimi Hotel. It was a full-moon week, and each night as the sun set, the moon rose from behind the Mount of Olives. From the terrace, I listened to the call to prayer – Allah being praised in a dozen voices from a dozen different minarets – and watched the lights come on in a thousand windows.

From that vantage point, it was easier to see Jerusalem as one sacred city, and not a place of competing realities and simmering resentment. From the rooftop, the people in the windows were just people making dinner – not Jews, Muslims or Christians.

The stones of Jerusalem have been sanctified in prayer in nearly every language on Earth, and it’s easy to forget that these three faiths all pray to the same monotheistic God.
The hope for the future lies in recognizing that those prayers have much in common, no matter who is giving them voice.

— Minneapolis Star Tribune. November 14, 2007. This article won a gold medal in the Society of American Travel Writers Lowell Thomas Awards, for best foreign newspaper travel article in 2007.