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  • Writer's pictureKristin Pineda

Jerusalem - where history was born

You don’t need to be a believer to be overwhelmed by Jerusalem. The place that unites three world religions has been marked by millennia of conflict – and still its historical weight will melt the hearts even of the most thick-skinned travellers.

The night is dark and cold. The winding alleys inside of Jerusalem’s 500-year-old, roughly cut city walls are intensely quiet. Only a couple of stray cats, sneaking around in yesterday’s garbage, stop and hiss when the lady with the head-scarf hurries by.

Allaaaahu Akhbar! Allaaaahu Akhbar!

The imam’s voice magically meanders through the souk which, within a few hours will be teeming with people, bubbling with sounds and smell of thousands of spices and incense. The minaret with its green neon lights shines like a lighthouse over the Old City’s labyrinth of streets. But the lady with the head-scarf is not up this early to follow the imam’s appeal to prayer. She is driven by a completely different calling.

The clock is twenty minutes past four in the morning when she stops by the wall with a door without a handle, waiting to hear the key scratching in the lock. For there, on the other side of the wall, hidden for anyone who doesn’t know exactly how to get there, lies a very special shrine, built on the spot where a young man with highly unusual future prospects is said to have been nailed to a cross because of his statements, almost exactly 2000 years ago. Because this is the Holy Easter Week, and the Good Friday processions are about to spill out into the streets.

A rat squeaks in the bushes. The lady sits down on one of the flat stones on the ground, polished to a shine during thousands of years of sandal-clad feet, and waits.

You - sit down beside her! We still have ten minutes to spare before the door will open.

Waiting for worship

The Jerusalem Syndrome appears in different varieties. According to the expert Bar-El et al. in the British Journal of Psychiatry, a couple of hundred people are affected each year. Americans and Scandinavians seem to be at highest risk. The most frequent type of the syndrome affect tourists without any previous psychological problems and without any major religious devotion. You might suddenly get a religious revelation – you are Jesus, John the Baptist or the Virgin Mary! But it can also start with a feeling of general nervousness in your body, which turns into a strong need of visiting all the holy sites of the city. You will feel forced to go through a long row of cleansing rituals (such as shave all your hair off, cut your nails, wash yourself over and over again, throw away your clothes and wrap a white sheet around your body). You will start singing or rather, screaming Biblical hymns. Eventually, there is a rather high risk that you will start preaching in a loud voice about how we must start living by a more spiritual, less materialistic lifestyle. When you’ve come this far, the Jewish police has probably already come to take you to the specially adapted psychological ward at the Kfar Shaul Hospital. With the right treatment you will be back in good health in a week or two.

To visit the 4000-year-old city of Jerusalem – Yerushaláyim – is an intense experience. Just the historical aspect of The Holy Land is enough to make your head spin. This is the place where our three big monotheistic religions were cradled to life. A place that shelters four of the most revered destinations of pilgrimage in an area smaller than one square kilometre: The Temple Mount. The Western Wall. Via Dolorosa. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Did you feel something in the air? It might have been the flaps of the heavy wings of history that thundered past you.

The clock strikes 04.30 when there is a sudden rustle in the lock and the door glides open. The lady with the head-scarf hurries across the inner patio. Follow her discretely. By the door, she kisses one of the portal columns and once on the other side of the threshold, she throws herself down unto a flat, oily stone on the ground, pushes her forehead against it and rubs her scarf in the oil. For this is not just any stone. It is the Stone of Anointing, where the dead body of Jesus was prepared for burial after he was taken down from the cross.

The Stone of Anointing

Leave her there. We have a lot to see. Follow that old man with the thick, white beard instead, up those steep steps to the right. A quick word of warning – be prepared for a sudden rush of emotion running through your body. Emotions that have not left this room during the thousand years since the last reconstruction of the 1700-year-old church. For this is said to be the actual place of the crucifixion of Jesus. Golgotha. Here, a heartbreaking mosaic portrays Jesus lying on the ground, still nailed to the cross, with his disciples crying around him. Here, the hard marble floor besides the altar is furrowed by humble kneecaps. Here, thousands of years of pain, grief, prayers, promises and joy glimmer around the vessels of myrrh hanging in the ceiling. Here, an atmosphere that makes you breathless prevails.

The old man has crawled up to the altar, kissed the image of Jesus and is on his way back down, and you follow him, down the stairs, past the Stone of Anointing where the lady with the scarf is still kneeling, around a wall – and suddenly you are standing in front of the Holy Sepulchre. An empty grave, whose precise lack of a body forms the basis of all Christianity. A group of Aramaic priests are celebrating mass. The smoke from the incense vessels is curling its way up towards the inner dome entwined with the sacral chanting of the men. And suddenly the Aramaic time is up and the priests leave hurriedly.

For the church is a miniature Jerusalem, a symbol of the unavoidable fragmentation that constantly reappears in the city. Four different Christian groups share the foremost responsibility over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: the East-Orthodox, the Aramaic-Apostolic, the Roman-Catholic and the Greek-Orthodox. But even though they do share their belief in Jesus, the shared management of the church has not solely been carried out in the name of love. Instead, the situation is so infected that a treaty of a Status Quo was signed in 1853, a treaty that often causes problems, such as - who gets to keep the church keys? For a thousand years, the solution has been to leave the keys with a Muslim family. It is they who open and lock the church every day. The Christians simply couldn’t agree on who had the right.

The Holy Sepulchre

Now, leave the church. Make your way through that old archway which the merchants soon will cover with their glittering shawls and swaying prayer beads. Lose yourself among the streets that always seem to be going up or down. Let yourself be carried away by the street sign stating ”VIA DOLOROSA” and the plaques marking the 14 stations of the cross along the Way of Suffering, where groups of believers from every nook of the World now being to walk past. Nuns from Calcutta with blue and white veils, Ethiopians with olive branches tied around their heads, Koreans with yellow caps, Germans, Americans and Norwegians. They touch the walls and ground where Jesus fell for the first time, where He leaned against a house, where a woman called Veronica wiped blood and sweat from His brow.

Some pilgrims travel alone, like Carl from the USA, also known as ”The Jesus Guy”, who barefoot and dressed in a white tunic during 16 years has travelled from one country to another to preach the Gospel:

– This is no costume. Jesus told us to go out and preach with nothing but a tunic. Jesus is all about love, that is the message I want to spread. If you are moved by what you see here, or what you see in other people, all of that is God’s doing.

Or Franz from Germany:

– I pray for peace in these divided times, in this divided country. Shalom, shalom, shalom, shalom!

Franz from Germany

But for now, Jerusalem remains the most complicated city on Earth. At least according to Rimon, a Christian Arab and the owner of one of few bars where you can have a beer.

– It can be hard, he explains. Nasty looks, bad words. Sometimes the police comes and knock my tables over and tell me to shut my bar. During Ramadan I don’t serve any glasses of bottles, I serve everything in plastic cups. You know… Muslims pass by here, I don’t want to make trouble with anyone. In Jerusalem, you never, ever know what will happen tomorrow. And it’s been like that for 47 years.

– Who built the wall? Who built it? You think the Jews built it. But it was the Palestinians! They bombed the Israelis and forced them to raise the wall. Without that, no protection had been needed. It would all be open. Believe me.

– What, peace? Never ever. Never ever.

A few Ultra-orthodox Jews run past without one single glance at the Christian pilgrims. They are wearing rain-covers on top of their shtreimels – big, round fur hats – and are clutching their Torah tight. In that instant, a siren sounds. A signal that makes a big part of the population drop what they’re doing and head towards the one and same place. It is Shabbat.

Don’t even try to navigate by the map you got at the hotel. Both Hebrew and Arabic street names look so different once transcribed to the Roman Alphabet that you still won’t have any idea where you are. No, follow one of the Haredi-Jews who are running through the Old City, often holding hands with long chains of identically dressed children. They will not talk to you, since they are strictly advised not to make contact with non-believers, but if you keep up, after one dark archway and a metal detector, they will take you there - to the holiest place of Judaism: The Western Wall.

The Western Wall

The area closest to the wall is divided in two parts, one for men, one for women. The women stand silent with the Torah in their hands, reciting the holy text, constantly bowing towards the wall. The male side is more of a party. A group of military is performing a merry ring dance with singing and hand-clapping. A serious group of men and young boys are following the prayer of the rabbi and bow, bow, bow, all at the same pace.

Other men are on their own, their white prayer shawls draped over their heads, successively working their way towards the wall until they can press their foreheads against the holiest of the holy.

Two Jewish temples were built here, both of them ruined by hateful opponents. King Salomon is said to have built the first, around 900 BC - almost 3000 years ago. Here, the Ark of the Covenant was kept, the wooden chest that contained the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 585 BC. The second one was raised only a few years after, only to be ruined when the Romans attacked Jerusalem in 70 AD. Of the second temple, one wall remains. The Western one. The Wailing Wall.

Instead of a Jewish temple, the Temple Mount of today is crowned by two mosques – something that has caused both politic and religious struggles during the last thousand years. The beautiful Dome of the Rock was built by the Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691 AD. Its neighbour is a later reconstruction of the al-Aqsa mosque. According to the Koran, the prophet Muhammad during a nightly journey travelled from Mecca to Masjid al-Aqsa – “the most distant mosque” – which in that time was considered the mosque in Jerusalem, and up into the heavens, where he met both the previous prophets of Islam and Allah Himself, before returning to Earth and Mecca.

Dome of the Rock, Qubbat al-Sakhrah

If you are not a Muslim, it is difficult to enter. The only tourist access is through the Dung Gate, by the Western Wall. Visiting times are very restricted and change constantly, often several times a day and often while you are standing in the long entry lines. And once you get in – expect to be randomly and rather brusquely thrown out again.

If so, don’t despair. There are always more places to go, more sights to see in Jerusalem, such as: The Olive Mount. It is a steep climb, filled with interesting churches, but unless you are very athletic you might want to take the bus up, and walk down. The views of the Judaean desert from the top are fascinating, as are the hundreds of thousands of Jewish graves climbing uphill, awaiting the Last Judgement. In the Pater Noster church, on the top, you can read the Lord’s Prayer translated to 120 languages on ceramic tiles. You can admire the golden, onion-shaped domes of the church of Mary Magdalene about half way down. But it is at the bottom of the mount that the final treasure awaits.

A slow breeze is flowing between the olive trees, fat and thick-skinned like elephants. Olive trees proved to have over 2000 growth rings under their bark. This is Gethsemane. Whatever might have happened here around the year 33 AD, these trees were here to witness it.

Again, your head starts to spin, realizing that these mythical, historic names, places – why, people! – suddenly have become some kind of… reality?

There is an open door welcoming you in and down a wide staircase, past sooty, myrrh-impregnated walls, below hundreds of incense vessels that glimmer in gold and blue glass and into an embracing darkness, leading you onwards to the last of shrines that you have come to visit. The final resting place for the World’s most renowned Mother.

You enter the grave of the Virgin Mary.

You shiver.

The Tomb of Mary

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