Travels in the Holy City

Travels in the Holy City

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What can be said about Jerusalem that has not yet been said at much greater length? The holy city has been fought over by world religions and world powers for millennia; Jews, Christians and Muslims, Romans, Turks and Britons have all left their mark on these few square miles of unassuming hillside in the Levant. Bulletholes from its most recent conquest, by Israel from Jordan in 1967’s Six Day War, can still be clearly seen on the Ottoman wall that encircles the old city. Jerusalem is really three cities. West Jerusalem has been part of Israel since its inception in 1948 and is majority Jewish, all broad, elegant boulevards that By Oliver Lloyd wouldn’t be out of place in Vienna or Paris. East Jerusalem or Arab Jerusalem, was occupied by Israel in 1967 and is now sealed off from the Palestinian West Bank by the vast wall Israel has constructed along the border. The Old City in the middle is defined by its own wall, this time built by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century and home to the most holy and contested terrain on earth.

The Old City is a rabbit warren, streets built on top of streets, congested markets full of shopkeepers shouting in Arabic and Hebrew selling everything from religious paraphernalia to tourist tat of the most unappealing kind. The narrow lanes filled with smells of incense and baking and often covered with nets to catch the rubbish residents simply chuck out of their windows are quite unlike anything in Europe. Three sites define the old city spiritually (although not physically, in the disorientating maze of Old City streets it is easier to happen across them than to find them). The oldest is the Western Wall, last remnant of the 2nd Temple of Herod destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and the most sacred site in Judaism. The scenes at the wall as the sun sets on Friday for the Shabbat are not to be missed even for gentiles. Ultra-orthodox jews in their unlikely outfits reverently pray alongside office workers and school children dancing and singing hymns in a way that often more closely resembles away fans in a football stadium than a religious ceremony.

The Temple Mount or al-Haram alSharif to Muslims, which the Western Wall adjoins is the most combustible of these sites. Once home to the Jewish temples of Solomon and Herod it now is the 3rd most sacred place in Islam as the mosque of al-Aqsa. Closed to non-Muslims, and by tradition the second mosque ever built and location of Muhammed’s ascension to Heaven, the presence of the al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount has caused vast conflict between Muslims and Jews. There have been repeated arson attempts by those who want to build a Third Temple and armed attacks on security personnel; while right wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon’s visit in 2000 caused the 2nd Palestinian Intifada or uprising. Away from this flashpoint is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, site of Christ’s crucifixion and tomb. Most recently constructed of these three it was built by the crusaders on the site of an earlier Byzantine basilica, this extraordinary building is shared by six denominations and is awash with incense, precious metals and processions. Queues up to an hour long form of pilgrims bringing crucifixes and icons (often bigger than those carrying them) to bless at the holy sites. The complicated arrangements that govern the Church are symbolised outside by a ladder left overnight by workmen in the 1720s and unmoved since as no one can move it without consent from all six orders. The church is best approached along the Via Dolorosa, route of Christ’s passion along which pilgrims prostrate themselves at each of the Stations of the Cross. Outside the Old City, Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust and the Israel Museum, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls are unmissable and in the former case harrowing experiences. It is advisable to book with a travel company particularly if one wants to cross into the West Bank to see Bethlehem or Jericho as navigating the complicated procedures of this most sensitive of borders is a task best left to the professionals.

Note that for political reasons many names and facts are disputed over this city, but care has been taken to apply as dispassionate an approach an as possible.

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