Holy City Jerusalem

August 13, 2013 by  
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Sandip Hor, an Indian-born journalist who has lived in Australia for 30 years, visited Jerusalem to sample the cornerstones of three religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is a Hindu.

Sandip Hor

Sandip Hor

Being historically minded, I have been always keen to explore the foundations for three great monotheist religions-Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And to get that experience, there is no better place on earth than myth filled Jerusalem, the capital of fabled country Israel. It’s the city where King Solomon built a colossal temple for the Jews, Jesus Christ carried the cross to his coffin and Prophet Muhammad said to have journeyed to heaven to take his place with Allah.

So when the opportunity came, I overlooked the tensions and high security measures in the region and reached there soon.

Less than an hours drive from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, which is the main international gateway to Israel, Jerusalem unfolded like a picture to me .Awe inspiring would be more accurate to describe my first impression. Sprayed on the hills and sprawled with limestone buildings, the silhouette transpired a divine feeling, as if entering an imaginary abode of the gods.

It’s a small city, just 48 square miles in size. However the wrestle for its soul began three millennia ago. Since then armies of ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome marched through this land, fought battles, set sea of flames, and stained almost every stone with blood to claim sovereignty.

Like many, I kept wondering about what did actually lure the mighty empires to fight for this tiny piece of land – was it the geographical location or the religious credence.

Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall

Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall

According to Judith, an ancient history specialist whom I met in Jerusalem, there is no definitive answer. “However history says both the rationale being true”- she clarified.

The city lives on traditions, so the snatch for the land still continues, though in the past century after formation of Israel in 1948, the feud is now between two groups of people – the Jews and the Arabs.

Home to almost a million, the metropolis is broadly divided into two quarters, old and new. The newer part is modern and well groomed, but it’s the old part that draws the visitors with its mystic charm. Dotted with mosques, churches and synagogues, the entire domain is sacred to billions of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The Temple Mount is the most significant and perhaps the stormiest site in that quarter. The Western wall, the holiest shrine of Judaism and Dome of the Rock, the city’s iconic landmark and Islam’s holiest pilgrimage after Mecca and Medina stand physically almost next to each other, but perhaps separated by an invisible wall of distrust. The Church of Holy Sepulcher, a sacred summit for the Christians is not far from that end.

Three languages, three faiths

Three languages, three faiths

Standing there as a secular pilgrim, I watched constant flow of devoted Jews, attired in long black coats, black hats with sports beard and long uncut side curls, white bearded Greek Orthodox priests wearing black cassock and Muslim clerics in long robes. There wasn’t any exchange of greetings between them; neither was any sign of bitterness in their expressions. I accepted that as the usual way exhibiting tolerance for all religions in a conflict clouded city, particularly when in sight were young army officers standing with their AK47 to keep peace among the hordes of the faithful.

While absorbing the sublime solemnity of the neighborhood, I heard the Aajan, the routine call for prayers from the mosque followed by ringing of church bells. The hums mellowed in my senses as union of two faiths. My heart was filled with divine joy. I felt that the spirit of true religion still stands above everything.

The Western Wall is the only remnant from the Jewish second temple that was built by King Herod exactly where King Solomon built the first in 950 BC, perhaps the grandest mankind has ever seen. The Ark of the Covenant, a sacred chest holding the tablets inscribed with the famous Ten Commandments was said to be housed inside the temple.

“Why is this site so pious to the ancient Jewish kings?” – I asked Ben my Israeli guide while going through heavy security check before entering the wall area. “Because we believe that this is the only place on earth where God exits, it is where patriarch Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his faith to God”- he replied with zeal. Unfortunately both the temples were destroyed, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BC and the second by the Romans in 70 AD, the destructions severely hurting the religious faith of the Jews who congregate in front of the wall and lament its destruction, so it’s also known as the Wailing Wall.

“Despite the temple’s destruction, a divine presence remains here for us” – said Ben as we marched towards the praying arena where an Israeli flag was flying high, perhaps reinforcing their control on the land. In fact, this part of the city was held by Jordan till 1967.

Functioning like an open synagogue, the precinct is filled with a large gathering of worshippers. They were either praying by touching the wall, chanting in groups from the Torah, their religious book that comes in scrolls, or listening to religious talks. Without doubt, I noticed a strong sense of devotion in them.

As a tradition, they were squeezing small pieces of paper with messages in the cracks of the wall believing god will respond to them. Anyone could do this – you, I or a devoted Jew .Only requirement is that you have to wear a skull cap to touch the wall. Ben told me of a modern innovation to this old tradition – these days one can fax their message to the Western Wall office and it will be wedged in.

The Temple Mount is equally sacred to the Muslims because of their belief that Prophet Mohammed touched that site on his miraculous night journey from Mecca to heaven. Motivated by that credence, the 7th century Arab rulers built an architecturally marvelous dome and the adjacent Al Asqa Mosque at the ruined site of the temples.

Glittering in the bright sunlight, the dome casted with golden leaves dominates the city’s skyline and proffers a tempting appeal to go near it and cherish its beauty. Unfortunately I couldn’t make it as they have very strict visiting rules for non-Muslims.

The labyrinthine old quarter is spanned with narrow and twisted cobble stone alleys, flanked on both sides with old houses or shops mostly owned by Arabs, selling everything from fruits, vegetable, spices, sweets, and clothing to digital cameras and Duracell batteries. Hunt for souvenirs there, bearing in mind bargaining is a part of the fun. I brought the price down of a silk scarf from 40 to 15 Shekels. The surrounding sights, sounds and smell, made me wander at times if I was in Israel or any other Arab country, though you will encounter a different scene when in newer part of Jerusalem.

Via Dolorosa in Latin meaning Way of Sorrow is one such narrow alley that appeared nothing exceptional but the path is so sacred for the Christians that at times its chock a block with pilgrims. It was along this stretch Jesus made his last fateful walk carrying the cross from the point of trial to his execution. The journey ends at the Church of Holy Sepulcher which was built in the 4th century at the location where Jesus was crucified, then died, buried and resurrected.

Inside the church, the custody of which is divided among the several Christian creeds – Armenians, Greek, Coptic, Roman Catholics, Ethiopians and Syrians, the queue to visit Christ’s tomb is always very long, but the wait is worthy. In a dimly lit surrounding, standing on one of Christianity’s most blessed ground sparks a divine sense within you. You feel like receiving a spiritual accomplishment.

There is no shortage of attractions in both parts of Jerusalem to keep you in sightseeing mode for a few days. Visit the Mount of Olives that offers magnificent views of the old city, the Citadel an imposing bastion, Mount Zion, a hill synonymous with biblical Jerusalem and the Israel Museum for a dig into Israel’s art and archaeology including the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.

However you will be disappointed if you are expecting architectural splendors like the grandeur of Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower. Other than the Dome of the Rock, there is nothing alike the city can boast of. The magical attraction of the place today is not in what you see; it rises from the past and rests on admiration of its enduring connections with the present. As quoted by writer Amos Elon, it’s a city where the dead dominate the living. And indeed, Jerusalem’s several necropolises surround the city of living on all sides.

Sandip Hor

Writing is the passion for this culturally enthused, historically minded, globe- trotting freelance author. He is a member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Australia and the South Pacific


2 Responses to “Holy City Jerusalem”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    Presented well; so much for those who say forget the past and move on……

  2. Randy says:

    Uzis not AK47s?

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