Jerusalem — city of fervour

by Elizabeth Willoughby

One of the planet's oldest cities, violence has plagued much of its existence. Even today, Palestinians and Israelis are still struggling over jurisdiction of historic and religious rights.

025 Dome of the Rock

Jerusalem and the names of its landmarks were familiar to my ears through years of news reports on war, terror bombings and clashes between Jews and Arabs. Even so, I really knew nothing about it, so in preparation for my visit I poured through historical literature. It was worse than I'd imagined: a battle-scarred place of religious extremism, thousands of years of violent conflict, an eternal turmoil over possession up to present day. Aldous Huxley called it, "the great slaughterhouse of the religions." After reading the Testaments, my husband had me write my own before I left.

Christian passion

And then there I was, standing atop the Mount of Olives, looking out over the Old City. The golden sphere of the Dome of the Rock was conspicuous amongst the densely surrounding pale stone buildings and facing hillsides packed with stony graves. "The bodies are buried with their feet towards the walls of the Old City," said our guide, "so when the Messiah comes, they'll rise facing it."

In the midst of an early autumn heat wave, the scene was vast and peaceful. No gun shots, no explosions and no hateful conflicts besides the yelling and honking of motor vehicle drivers. There was a sense of something, though — an acute, pervading energy. From the look-out point we wandered past the graves and down a steep, narrow street also bordered by walls. Agitated locals examined the new dents and scrapes along the side of a sedan, their vehicles creating a further obstacle in the cramped roadway. We weaved through traffic, returning at every chance to the shaded side of the road for relief from the sun's oppressive heat, and headed to all the "probably" and "said to be" sites of Jesus' last days.

The first stop was Gethsemane, a garden of huge olive trees, gnarled and twisted over time, some over two thousand years old. Here Christ spent his last night in prayer before his arrest, perhaps under one of these dilapidated ancients. Tourists packed the pathway along the fence around the garden, jostling their way towards the Church of All Nations. Pilgrims huddled in corners, deep in prayer.

130 Gethsemane

We walked through the room of the Last Supper where Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover Thursday and we stood beneath the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu where Jesus spent his last night imprisoned before climbing the adjacent steps towards his own crucifixion. A South African group, on pilgrimage in matching T-shirts, broke into song and scripture.

The dark and shadowy Church of the Holy Sepulchre was teeming with visitors. Inside are five of the Stations of the Cross where Christ was stripped, nailed to the cross, crucified, handed over to Mary and buried. The Stone of Unction observes where Christ's body was anointed before burial. Ardent worshipers prostrated themselves before the slab, kissing it, resting their heads on it, petitioning and communing with God, oblivious to the noisy mob around them. A long line snaked to the tomb monument where people eagerly waited to enter the place where Jesus was resurrected, and then lit candles and made donations.

Jewish and Islamic zeal

Less than a kilometre away, hundreds of Jews stood before the Wailing Wall in equal fervour, in all manor of costume. Russian Orthodox in fur hats, despite the 30 degrees Celsius temperatures, washed their hands three times in the plaza's fountain and headed to the wall. Old men in black hats, long black coats and black trousers tucked into black socks (it's easier for their wives to clean their black socks than their black pants) joined them.

305 wailing wall

Some donned tefillin – the two black leather boxes containing scrolls of biblical verses — strapped to arm and forehead as part of the weekday morning prayer ritual, and most wore the long spirals of hair growing from near the temple where men's beards begin as determined by learned rabbis. Then, before the most holy of Jewish sites, men to the left, women to the right, they slipped paper messages to G-d, whose name one must not use, into cracks in the wall, the above-ground portion of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, and they prayed, bobbing their heads in hypnotic rhythm.

Young soldiers, male and female, casually patrolled the plaza with rifles slung over shoulders. Meanwhile only metres away, above this retaining wall where many other "said to be's" have occurred, five thousand Arabs gathered at the al-Aqsa Mosque for prayer on this Friday in the third week of Ramadan. Israeli troops at street level entrances, less casual, kept a tense and watchful eye for any signs of trouble.

A key Islamic holy site, al-Aqsa Mosque is to where the Prophet Mohammed was transported from Mecca on a winged steed brought to him by archangel Gabriel. At the mosque he led prayers, then went to heaven to confer with Allah and Moses and then back to Mecca. Al-Aqsa, however, was built above the ruins of Herod's temple, which was a focal point of Jewish religious life until its destruction shortly before 70 CE.

035  Dome of the Rock

Also on the Temple Mount is the Islamic shrine, Dome of the Rock, the rock being from where the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. It's also where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac, where God promised this land to Abraham and his seed forever, and where the Ark of the Covenant that holds the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments rests within, also very important to Jewish and Christian faiths.

It was remarkable to witness such intense worship by Christians, Jews and Islamists in such close proximity — three enormous forces, conflicting yet profoundly connected through the characters of ancient stories that here, where the deeds took place, are most real.

Jerusalem's Old City is a place of pilgrimage and fanaticism bound in an energy that defies description, where history, politics and religion are inseparable and a viable solution to ownership is seemingly impossible. And yet this energy, inexplicable, draws you in and sends you off spinning. It's a fascinating place.

I recommend knowledgeable, experienced, flexible and humorous Roni Winter ( a trilingual (English, German, Hebrew), government-licensed tour guide and archaeologist.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2008

This article was published at © 2008

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