Within the Walls of the Holy Land

Israel - Jerusalem - The Old City - 055 (4261584604)
By Kyle Taylor from London, 84 Countries (Israel - Jerusalem - The Old City - 055) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“Both terrestrial and celestial”, wrote Simon Sebag Montefiore of Jerusalem in his eponymously titled biography of the city. “The only city to exist twice – in heaven and on earth.” Such grand affirmations are not surprising of Jerusalem. For millennia, it has elicited extremes: desire and rage, controversy and strife, destruction and revival, seen always as the ultimate prize to be claimed. It was, after all, once considered the “centre of the world.” And although it is a modern city today, with hotels, offices and schools, the Old City in East Jerusalem continues to sway even the most stoic of non-believers in curious ways. Enshrined within high walls of smooth white dolomite lie the treasures that legions and civilizations have fought over for centuries. Three religions, four quarters, over 3000 years of history – all tightly compressed into a teeny one square kilometre pocket.

I first see it from atop Mount Scopus, a monochromatic tumult of higgledy-piggledy buildings neatly ringed by the 16th-century Ottoman Wall. Most fittingly, four structures tower above the low-lying rooftops: the dull grey dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in line with the gold-encrusted cupola of the Dome of the Rock; the blurry white bulb of the Hurva Synangogue; and beyond, the slender tower of the Holy Sepulchre. A symbolic representation of the three monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Islam, Christianity – that lie at the core of the city.

Religion is the mainstay of Jerusalem and the Old City draws millions to these holiest of sites, swathed in equal measures of legend and dispute. To Muslims, the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), where the Dome of the Rock stands, marks the spot where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. To Jews, this is Temple Mount, where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son Isaac. Also the site of Solomon’s Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians and then rebuilt by Herod as the Second Temple, only to be razed another 400 years later by the Romans. The only remaining vestige of this Jewish legacy to survive the great destruction is the wall that supported the western edge of Temple Mount – the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall – that most sacred of structures for the Jewish people.

Here, the devout press their heads against the stone and pray, often weeping into the edifice with heaving sobs. Thousands of folded notes containing written prayers are stuffed into the crevices where the stone has parted, to create trails like tearstains down the sepia frontage.

Nearby, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, faith is a visceral blanket that wraps itself around the darkened innards of the sacred chambers. This is the believed site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection; an overwhelming place, with the ceremonies of Christianity’s multiple churches and swarms of pilgrims. They weep and keel over the Stone of Unction, a slab of wood where Jesus’ body was anointed before burial; black-robed, candle-bearing Greek Orthodox priests circumambulate the large central enclosure supposedly containing the tomb of Jesus; up in the Golgotha, pilgrims crouch and file into a low chapel to touch the stone upon which the cross was raised. There is no way to verify any of these claims, which date back millennia, yet here, belief overpowers all. The atmosphere is charged with the sound of organ music, the glazed looks in most eyes, the hum of mumbled prayers, and the hysterics – or Jerusalem Syndrome – known to affect many in these parts.

My septuagenarian guide Eli Gertler shared a common joke about how much it costs to talk to God from all over the world. “Millions and millions of dollars,” he said. “But in Jerusalem, only five shekels for three hours.” Why? “Because, my friend, it is a local call.”

For all the fervour and fanaticism on display, the slim streets of the Old City provide ready diversions in its four quarters – Jewish, Armenian, Muslim, and Christian. The Armenian Tavern, for instance, a cosy, low-roofed restaurant, where antiques cover every inch and the roof is strung with colourful glass lamps. Costa’s Greek Restaurant in the Muslim Quarter, a teeny space pressed into a wall by a narrow stairwell, where a suave gentleman with a clipped moustache and a regal demeanour sat at the entrance, spiffily dressed in a grey striped shirt and matching tie. We spoke no common language, but to serve us kahwa, he delicately unpacked his fine Turkish coffee set carefully wrapped in a box, and poured us the viscous, sweetened concoction.

Pale Jerusalem Stone – the limestone or dolomite that must be used for all construction in the city – adorns every facade, and swathes of bougainvillea provide sudden magenta interruptions in the colour palette. From pushcarts, I purchased the freshest orange juice and snacked on deep fried falafel stuffed into pita pockets, overflowing with tendrils of cucumber and topped with creamy sweet hummus. Blue and white Armenian ceramics adorn shop windows, and the souks of the Muslim quarter are all awash with the scent of spices. Under the arches, shops do brisk business selling heaps of zaatar and tabak, colourful lamps and pottery, clothing and religious souvenirs.

And then, at the very heart of this holy land, the ground trembled as a surge of frenzied Jewish youth washed over its cobbled streets. “Yerushalayim Yerushalayim”, they chanted brazenly, dressed in white and indigo – the colours of the Israeli flag – with yarmulkes on their heads. Outside the walls, the streets were eerily deserted, only because thousands from across the land had pressed themselves into the Old City for Jerusalem Day – the anniversary of the unification of East Jerusalem with Israel at the end of the Six Day War with Jordan in June 1967. The blue Star of David waved on white flags brandished high above the heads of the hundreds as they paraded through the warren of alleyways with jingoistic fervour.

The Hurva Square in the Jewish Quarter was overrun with families and tourists. The open-air plaza is flanked by the Hurva Synagogue on one edge and surrounded by fast food joints, shops selling Dead Sea products, and jewellery. A three-piece band set up stage. Aged gentlemen with flowing white beards and protruding midsections, dressed traditionally in black and white and with kippehs, churned out rock and roll tunes on the drums and keys, as children danced in the square. Next to me, a young orthodox Jew – curls, top hat and all – filmed himself perform a rap song into a voice recorder.

Such contrasts only deepen outside the Old City walls. Exiting through the Jaffa Gate – one of the eight that lead into the city – I came upon the swish Mamilla Mall. The open-to-the-sky shopping street features designer labels and trendy cafes housed within the arches and dolomite-clad structures of 19th century buildings. Save for the distinct architecture, this could be a high street in any European metro, with buskers and sculptures, busy coffee shops and Italian restaurants. Except, it’s couture stores and cutting-edge dining within centuries-old citadels of stone.

This curious juxtaposition of the modern against the ancient struck me once again as I bumped along the streets on a Segway, taking in the sights of Jerusalem, this time from outside the Old City walls. I glided past the celebrity-magnet King David Hotel and iconic YMCA building, to the Jewish neighborhood of Mishkenot Sha’ananim overlooking Mount Zion – the first Jewish settlement outside the Old City – and then to Yemin Moshe, with its gorgeous foliage-wrapped stone houses, and ultimately to the fountain at Teddy Park. Definitely a peculiar way to navigate one of the oldest cities in the world, swooping through leafy boulevards and stopping at balconies for views of the city’s ramparts. But then again, Jerusalem has never been conventional.

For the evening’s events, I wound my way through the arches and stairwells of the multi-leveled Old City. Built upon the ruins of earlier dynasties, the city grew vertically over the centuries, and the layers of history peel back to reveal the civilizations that have passed through these spaces – the Babylonians, Byzantines, Romans, and Crusaders, to name a few.

From a vantage point on a rooftop, I have a sweeping view of the Western Wall plaza: to the left, the Dome of the Rock glints golden in the lowering sun; to the right, the muted grey dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque; between them, in the foreground, is the Wailing Wall. Scores of onlookers poured in – soon, there would be a 100,000 gathered in the plaza – as a seven-member band set up on stage. Dressed in traditional garb, they wielded electric guitars and a neon orange trombone, singing songs of Yerushalayim.

An edited version of this article first appeared in Travel+Leisure India & South Asia - July 2016.
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