Eclectic and controversial Jerusalem
03.06.2012 - 07.08.2012
The Holy City of Jerusalem conjures up different images for different people. To Christians it is the site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. To the Jews, the city holds the remains of the Second Temple of Solomon, the great temple of their religion. To the Muslim world, Jerusalem is home to the temple mount; the point where Mohammed ascended to heaven, the third most important sight in Islam. If you don't fall into any of these categories, Jerusalem simply represents an intriguing old city which has unequivocally shaped the course of history. No matter where your beliefs lie, it's hard not to be fascinated by Jerusalem.
To get to Jerusalem from Jordan is no simple matter however. Although the border has been opened since the 90's, the excursion across the border isn't one taken lightly. Leaving from Amman, you must travel to the King Hussein Bridge border crossing where you pay your Jordanian exit tax and fill out your departure card. When everything is in order, you are herded on to a bus to transport you through no-man's land, an area of rather Spartan wilderness, with the barren landscape interrupted only momentarily by the Jordan river. Upon reaching the other side, you realise the fun has only just begun. Heavily armed Israeli soldiers hustle you inside, where you are subjected to luggage X-rays, baggage checks and inane questioning. After an hour or so of this ordeal you reach the final hurdle, the immigration desk where you are given your Israeli stamp. Undoubtedly you will be asked one question at this point: “Are you planning to travel in the Palestinian territories?”. Of course the answer must always be no, otherwise they may turn you around and send you back to Jordan (a real possibility!). The bizarre thing is once you are finally waved through and exit the border station you are standing in the West Bank. You get in a shared taxi with a Palestinians number plate, full of Palestinians and with a Palestinian driver, and proceed to drive through the Palestinian territories towards Jerusalem. It feels almost as if the Israeli government is simply pretending the West Bank isn't there! As we approached Jerusalem, we could see the Israeli settlements encircling the city, built on Palestinian land. No matter how hard some people might try to ignore it, this area of the world is never far from controversy.
Jerusalem itself is a city of division. The new city of Jerusalem is divided into the Jewish west and the Arab east, remnants of the cities historic division during the early years of the State of Israel. The Old City is divided again, this time into Quarters. We started our visit as most people do, entering through the western Jaffa Gate into the Christian Quarter, a fairly orderly area full of tourist stalls selling religious knick-knacks. With no desire to buy a flashing Jesus, we continued west as the streets slope down deeper and deeper into the city. Eventually we entered the Arab Quarter, a cornucopia of noise and chaos, with stands selling everything from sweets to political T-shirts. Strangely, after spending the past few months in Arab countries, the shout of stall vendors and the scream of children was more familiar to us than the neat and orderly streets of the Christian area. We wandered through the lanes and alleyways until, in the distance, we caught our first glimpse of the Dome of the Rock, the fantastically decorated golden mosque perched atop the temple mount. As we got closer though we realised that, like everything else in this city, the temple mount is itself divided. Sitting beneath the mount, almost as though it were supporting the beautiful mosque above it, sits the Western Wall of the Temple of Solomon. Opened 24 hours a day, the Wall never has a shortage of visitors coming to pray. Observing the proximity of the two holy sights, you can almost see the years of occupation, destruction and construction which have formed this city over thousands of years. All this in a few hundred meters of earth. The security zone around the Western Wall presents a bit of an impediment to any further exploration, and we were forced southwards away from the hustle and bustle of the Arab area. Suddenly, almost without warning, we encounter a sharp and distinct division in the city. Entering the Jewish Quarter we felt like we'd entered a quiet suburb rather than an ancient city. Unlike the Arab and Christian Quarters, the Jewish area is mostly residential, with little doorways leading into neat and orderly apartment foyers. Unfortunately, much of the old Jewish Quarter was destroyed during the Israeli 'War of Independence' or 'Arab War' (N.B. Everything to do with Israel has a different name depending on who you're talking to), giving the current Jewish Quarter a much newer feel. The final Quarter of the city, the Armenian Quarter, which we meandered through to return to the Jaffa Gate, gives you an idea of how the Jewish Quarter may have once looked. Small and quaint, the Armenian Quarter has few stunning buildings or ancient monuments, just a feeling of calm and quiet. Not two words which you might associate with Jerusalem.
Understanding the significance of Jerusalem can be difficult from the perspective of an irreligious person. How one stone or wall can hold so much significance to so many people is amazing. Yet, to truly experience Jerusalem you need to immerse yourself in its religious importance. Our journey of religious piety began in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church built around Golgotha, the believed sight of Jesus' crucifixion. As you enter, you see before you the 'The Stone of Anointing', where Jesus' body was washed after he was removed from the cross. Here people kneel and kiss the stone, often lying prostrate across its age worn surface. From here however, things get a bit more complex. The 'church' is really more a collection of many different chapels, all falling under a different Christian denomination, from Armenian to Evangelical. In many cases, these different groups have a different interpretation of where the most holy sites in the church lie. As you explore through the thick incense and tiny chapels, you encounter various religious tour groups singing hymns, kissing stone walls and saying prayers. It feels completely different to any other church. Leaving behind the church, we next visited the Western Wall. Unlike many of the Christian pilgrims, the Jews embrace their faith with much more flair and less solemnity (at least those we encountered). As we walked beside the wall we encountered a number of Bar Mitzvah, with dancing, singing and shouting, in stark contrast to the almost sorrowful experience of the Christian churches. Finally, as we passed the Western Wall, we began our climb up to the temple mount. As you enter the gardens of the temple mount, you are struck by the calm almost relaxed atmosphere of the site. Groups of men and women sit in large circles chatting and snacking. Religious pilgrims take cheery holiday snaps on the stairs up towards the mosque. The mosque itself is easily the most beautiful building in the city, standing proudly a top the hill with its shining gold dome and intricately tiled walls. Sitting alone in a massive paved courtyard the mosque seems to reach up and touch the sky.
Although it would be easy to spend a whole trip to Jerusalem solely in the Old City, New Jerusalem offers a glimpse into the modern history of the city which sits at the heart of the world's most controversial country. One of the most interesting and moving sights to visit is the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. A visit there may not be 'fun', but it's one that you won't soon forget. Built tastefully, so as to best remember and respect those who died, Yad Vashem seamlessly combines the dual purposes of being a museum and a memorial. But, despite the beautiful lay-out, as you explore the museum you can't help but feel the underlying message in many of the displays; that the Jewish people are isolated in a sea of hatred. Only in unity can they hope to combat all those around them. Many groups of army cadets are toured through the museum, shown displays on the horrors of the Holocaust. In a way, Yad Vashem serves a third purpose, as a propaganda tool. It feels unsavoury to associate the two, and yet the State of Israel is intrinsically tied to the horrors of the Second World War. An association which is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.
Although people may exhibit their faith differently, there is no denying the importance that religion plays in daily life in Jerusalem. Apart from the 800,000 residents, Jerusalem receives millions of religious pilgrims every year. Despite the tension that exist between and within the major monotheistic religions, in Jerusalem these tensions feel almost secondary to people's profession of faith. Yet the strains of history cannot always be so easily forgotten. Jerusalem is the epicentre for a clash of religious fervour and political stubbornness which looks no closer to being solved today than it did 50 years ago. But would you expect anything less from the capital of Israel?
Some observations from Jerusalem:
1. As much as they profess their differences, all holy sights require conservative dress. No matter the religion.
2. Look out for the 'next prophets' with Jerusalem syndrome.
3. Try and spot the CCTV cameras in the Old City, they're everywhere!
Next stop...Golan Heights