There are few cities that loom as large in the collective psyche as Jerusalem. Three of the worlds major faith traditions hold it to be one of their holiest cities, with claims dating back thousands of years. And for a city with as long and tumultuous as Jerusalem, it is somewhat surprising how vibrant and dynamic it is today.
Modern Jerusalem could be roughly split in half, with East Jerusalem being primarily Muslim and West Jerusalem being primarily Jewish. At it’s philosophical center, if not its geographic center, is the Old City, which is the Jerusalem imagine from ancient times. While it is certainly old and presents a Hollywood-like version of an ancient middle eastern city, the Old City has been leveled and rebuilt many times over the millennia. Part of the appeal of wandering around the old city is the stratification of history on display in the labyrinth of walls, streets, overpasses, alleys and homes that have evolved in this constantly shifting space. Walking on one street may take you down to the lowest part of a hill only to have you pop up a few minutes later above the roofs of some houses.
There are more religious sites in Jerusalem than its possible to discuss, so we’ll stick to the most important each from the Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths. Located practically shouting distance from each other, it shows the challenges of respecting other traditions in a very limited space.
Possibly the most visually recognizable and iconic religious monument in Jerusalem, the golden Dome of the Rock is located on the Temple Mount, a complex of mosques, gardens and walking paths on the eastern side of the city. The Al Aqsa mosque is one of the most important mosques in the Muslim world and sits opposite the Dome of the Rock. Due to both safety concerns and religious respect, the Waqf (Muslim governing authority of the Temple Mount) and Israeli Government have made an arrangement that allows the mosque and dome to stay open but only accessible to Muslims. Non-Muslims may stroll the grounds around the site during specific hours (which are often subject to change or cancellation without notice by the Israeli Defense Force), though they must be respectfully attired in long pants and modest shirts.
The Dome of the Rock is one of the most photogenic sites in Jerusalem. It is one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture but parts have been rebuilt over the year. It was built in 691 on the site of the Roman temple of Jupiter, which itself was built on Herod’s Temple after the Roman siege of Jerusalem. The original dome collapsed in 1016 and was reconstructed 1021. The dome was gold plated several times during the 20th century. The turquoise, green and white tile, added during the Ottoman Empire, are stunning in the stark desert light. Gardens of olive trees create shaded spots to sit and reflect. It is believed that the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven from here, using the rock inside the Dome as his stepping stone, as detailed in the the Koran.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest Christian sites, is less than 700m away from the Temple Mount. While it is a church, it could also correctly be called a church complex because it encompasses several holy sites under one roof. The two most important are the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the tomb in which he was buried. Called Calvary or Golgatha, the site of crucifixion is on a small upper level, accessible by a steep staircase to the right of the main entrance. Sand-filled basins for prayer candles surround the stone where believers kneel to pray and place their hands. The exterior is now decorated with pounded tin reliefs and mosaics depicting the anointing of the body of Jesus.
To the left of the main entrance, in the cavernous rotunda, is the burial cave. Only a few people can fit in at one time so pilgrims queue up for their moment. An oculus in the elaborately decorated ceiling allows for dramatic lighting. The interior of the tomb is low and crowded with candles and religious icons. Thought it can be a bit of a hectic scene with eager pilgrims elbowing their way inside, it is still a powerful place for anyone raised in the Christian tradition.
The first iteration of the church was built by the Roman emperor Constantine in approximately 325, replacing a Roman temple to Aphrodite that had been built to cover the burial cave. The tomb was excavated and covered in a thick sheath of marble, but the Rotunda wasn’t built until around 380. It suffered though earthquakes and fires before being almost entirely leveled in 1009 by at Fatimid caliph. Through an arrangement with the Byzantine Empire, the church was rebuilt in 1048 and played an important role for the crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries. The current incarnation of the church dates at earliest to around 1555, when Franciscans renovated the interior, with the current Rotunda dating to 1870.
In between the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the Western Wall. The closest remaining wall of the second temple to the holy of holies, built by Herod and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, it is one of the holiest site in the Jewish religion. Currently, the wall is accessible to Jews and non-Jews alike, though it is partitioned by gender. While it is an active site of worship for devote Jews, it is fine to be a tourist there, as long as you act and dress respectfully, in modest clothes, full pants or skirts and a kippah for men (which are provided as you enter the site). The tradition is to write a prayer on a small scrap of paper and leave it in a crevice in the wall. You’re welcome, and sometimes encouraged, to do this even if you aren’t Jewish, though you may be “invited” to give a donation to a charity by an eager onlooker. To the right of the exposed portion of the wall is a religious library. Only men are allowed in this area (women have a separate area that looks into this section) and many bring sick family members in hopes they will be healed.
Jerusalem is a rare and unique place for many reasons. It seems to be a nexus for some many things, the multitude of faithful worshippers intersecting with everyday people trying to make a living. Tourists, pilgrims, zealots, Christians, Jews, Muslims, nonbelievers, babies and grandparents all wander the old streets of a city that has seen empires rise and fall. I’ve been several times and still don’t fully have a handle on how I feel about it but it is a compelling place that keeps calling me back. I can’t say that I ever had a profound religious experience there, but it is astonishing to walk streets with such a clear connection to history that is still revenant and vibrant in today’s world.