Jerusalem, Part 1

Some cities just illicit strong emotion and a sense of reverence, Jerusalem is one of them. One of the oldest known human settlements dating back to 4500 B.C. It is a place of pilgrimage and worship for Islam, Judaism and Christians alike. We enter through the West Bank from Jordan and our first stop is for some refreshments at a fruit monger stand. We buy some Moz (bananas) for twins. When Khaled tries to pay him he refuses, he wants to give a gift for Palestinians making the pilgrimage home. The ancient city walls beckon us to enter and escape into a world where ancient traditions are honored and to walk the streets of a city that shaped history the world over. As we step through the gates into the old city we are suddenly in the midst of the bazaar where zataar towers teeter next to the plastics from China and shiny 24 karat gold from India competes with the antique incense burners whose nostalgic draw wins the hearts of tourists. Jerusalem is an ant hill, with confusing streets and alleys crisscrossing, people hustling and bumping into each other. There is commotion and shouting and amazing smells and the most vibrant produce I’ve ever seen. Hasidic Jews walk shoulder to shoulder in groups, their long black curls and crisp white collars stand out among the loud and colorful background. Israeli soldiers parade around in packs. Tourists in khaki pants and baseball hats follow tour guides, the Arabs don traditional garb, the Jewish women dress modestly in long skirts, pantyhose and headscarves. The streets are impossibly narrow and the shop awnings meet in the middle blocking out the sun and give the sense that we are all scurrying about underground. We duck into a shop to buy some Muslim prayer gowns and slip them on in an alley so we can visit the Dome of the Rock complex. It is off limits to any non Muslims but my mother in law wants to smuggle us in for she wants to share her excitement of this pilgrimage with someone. This is the 3rd holiest city of Islam after Mecca and Medina. Her prayers are worth more here, so she is anxious to get inside. At the entrance the guard tests me “Salam alayakoum”, I respond correctly “alayakoum a Salam, kief halak?” Hemdoallah, we are in, a huge honor for any westerner. The Islamic/Byzantine structure is impressive and the shimmering gold dome is one of the most recognized landmarks in Jerusalem. It is one of the oldest examples of Islamic architecture dating back to 690 AD. The Temple Mount complex is park like and completely tiled in marble slabs that have been worn smooth and slippery over the past 1300 years. It is dotted with miniature domes setting atop Romanesque columns providing airy sanctuary from the sun. There are also ancient washing stations, for anyone entering a mosque must first wash their their feet. Inside the dome it is open and uncomplicated. Families mingle in the periphery, people face Mecca in prayer, others read the Quran in solitude. The mosaic tiled ceiling is a tedious mastery of precise patterns. While it lacks the powerful imagery of the frescoes in the Sistine chapel, it is no less impressive. We sit outside and enjoy the breeze on the hilltop while the twins crawl around and work off some repressed energy from the journey here. My fourteen year old is self conscious in her Islamic gown and is trying desperately to shy away from anyone. We tease her and try to impress upon her the magnitude of this place but teenagers are teenagers in spite of themselves . We make our way toward the Jewish Quarter and come upon the security gate with bullet proof glass, metal detectors and armed guards. The tourists ahead of us enter with no issues, all smiles and flashing cameras. We get stopped. They won’t let my mother in law in because she is Muslim. As we are trying to convince the guard that she is just touring with us, a white American in his mid to late 60’s storms past and through the gate. He is yelled at to go through the proper way, he responds in a string of curses yelling they have no right to treat people this way. The man we were talking to bounds after him and there is a physical altercation , the old man is grabbed in a fierce choke hold that spews frothy, white spittle from his mouth. Out of nowhere at least 10 armed guards are on the scene encircling the mayhem and cutting the old man off from sight. We have retreated from the scene back into to the Arab quarter to find dinner. Let me just say this, the food in the West Bank is 5 stars, the best I’ve had on this trip or anywhere on the Med for that matter. Over dinner my husband speculates about the scene at the Jewish gate. His guess is that he was some sort of Palestinian sympathizer or activist, fed up with the situation and nothing to lose. These people are everywhere in the Arab quarter and West Bank, western members of humanitarian groups and anti violence protesters fighting for the Palestinian cause. In 2013 20 year Rachel Corrie, a Washington state native was gunned down by Israeli defense forces while trying to block the bulldozing of Palestinian homes. These confrontations happen often here they just don’t make front page news. We are safe, we can enjoy all this beautiful and eclectic city has to offer, but we play by the rules and keep a low profile. But the mood here is like tight rope, taught and tense and one misstep can be fatal. T-shirt shops of the rival camps are a source of verbal heckling. In the Jewish run stores they read things like “better off in Israel and hated by the world than dead in Auschwits” while the Palestinian shirts taunt back “Don’t worry America, Israel is behind you” & “Free Palestine!”. We head into the Christian quarter where the energy is little more relaxed, the intensity is reserved for the Catholics praying at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s burial and resurrection. But even this one church is divided into complicated arrangements of rights and ownership between 5 different secular entities including Greek and Armenian orthodox, Roman catholic, Copts and Syriacs.
It’s dark now and the green lights of the mosques dot the skyline and call the devoted in for evening prayer, church bells toll across the city in various chords, and the chanting of those retracing Jesus’s final walk through this Holy city create a haunting and disconnected chorus. While the city brings all these faiths close in proximity, I can’t help but wonder if spiritually, religion divides us and keeps us from knowing true peace.


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