In its 4,000-year history, Jerusalem has been repeatedly besieged, burned, buffeted, and rebuilt. Yet as the cradle of three major religions, it endures as a place of irresistible spiritual seduction.
Jerusalem is enthroned upon a hill at the edge of a cruel blue sky. Its stones and the stones of its walls are the color of bones left too long in the sun. The Judaean desert plots against its air-conditioned suburbs. Sand whispers along its ancient streets. One of the oldest Jewish prayers is for rain.
At first sight the city is instantly familiar: the walls, the crosses, the great golden dome. It sits astride the path of pilgrims from every point of the spiritual compass. For "the people of the Book"—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—it is a sacred place. Druze, Baha’is, Hare Krishnas, and mysterious sects join their rites to the common quest for enlightenment. It is touching to see so many people pursuing paths of holiness.
And pursue them they do, as if the hounds of darkness were at their heels. Do not stand in the way of a holy man on a mission. He walks quickly, purposefully, eyes fixed on the unseen goal, heedless of impediments. He may be dressed in a black suit with a black hat and a curl on either side of his face, hurrying to temple, his wife and children in their best clothes flapping colorfully in his wake. He may be a brown-robed monk made acidulous by irreverent crowds and their barking guides thronging into incense-laden sanctuaries. He may be garbed in white, prayer rug under his arm, heeding the muezzin’s call.
It is only tourists who take their time, sun dazed, stumbling over centuries, clutching water bottles—and me in their midst, the most dazed and bedazzled of all.
I had always wanted to go to Jerusalem. When my husband, Jim, and I finally found ourselves within the city’s boundaries, we were so overcome that we had no idea of what to do first, which narrow street to venture down, what sacred site to shower with gratitude. Before we set out on our pilgrimage, people asked us, "What are your goals?" We said we didn’t have any, that we were going blank and would wait to be written upon. While we stood there in tremulous confusion, just inside the Jaffa Gate, a mad prophet, white bearded and wearing a red T-shirt, began thundering against the evils of the present age. He said he was Elijah. Tenderly, a young couple led him away.
At another juncture we met a red-bearded American in a toga and gold cardboard crown playing a small lyre. He claimed to be King David, and he happened to have a spare crown so anyone could have a picture taken with him, for a small offering. We learned later that the mad prophet and the American "David" were part of what is called "The Jerusalem Syndrome." In the face of Jerusalem’s antiquity and freewheeling holiness, some people lose a grip on their senses, get into costume, and cross over into fantasy.
In the Old City, three religions rub elbows: Islam’s golden Dome of the Rock, Christianity’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Judaism’s Western Wall lie clustered in a single square mile, tightly bound together by walls of ancient stone.
We had read that the best view of the city was from the rooftop of the Petra Hotel. We paid a U.S. dollar and climbed the rickety stairs to the top, and there, spread out before us, glowing in the late light, was the golden Dome of the Rock; the bell towers of dozens of churches; Muslim minarets; the checkered tablecloths of a rooftop restaurant; a courtyard with a lone monk, lost in thought; and a maze of streets and buildings half as old as time.
It was the Muslim hour of prayer, and from all over the city, first from one minaret and then another, came the hypnotic wail of the muezzins. We were mesmerized. Several minutes passed before we took note of our surroundings. The Petra’s rooftop was crowded with youth. They had sleeping bags spread out on ratty foam rubber slabs. Some were reading, others talking quietly in a variety of languages. A young man wearing a caftan, fez, and outrageous gold earrings emerged, set out a CD player, and blasted rap music. When he spoke, it was obvious he was American. Two young girls got up to dance. We could have danced and stayed the night, for our dollar entitled us to a foam slab too. At one time, we might have.
Later we came upon an Arab man in full Bedouin regalia, his camel saddled as if for a caravan to Khartoum. He’d pose for photos or let you sit atop his beast for a short ride, in exchange for an offering somewhat larger than the fee to wear David’s crown. He was a thoughtful man who swept the ground free of pebbles before coaxing his camel to kneel, and when he spoke to the animal, it was in a tone of stern affection. These pilgrims with detoured agendas relieved the solemnity. It was good to hear music and laughter echoing down stone streets scarred by battles and crucifixions.
As the final days of the millennium approach, pilgrims of many faiths flock to the Holy Land. In preparation for the yearlong 2000 celebration, Israel has invested $600 million in new roads, new hotels, and even a pilgrim terminal at the Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Our first morning was Sunday, and with a full day of touring ahead of us, we set out early for the church closest to our hotel. We got lost. A man appeared from the shadows. "You looking for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?"
"No," we said and pointed to our map. He gave us meticulous directions. We got lost again. Another man, with a paintbrush mustache, materialized. "You looking for the Holy Sepulchre?"
Resigned, we nodded yes.
"Come," he said, and took us to the gates. Inside the cavernous church, organ music was swelling and a Mass was just beginning. Below clouds of incense and song, we received bread consecrated on the empty tomb of Jesus. Later we knelt before the pink marble slab where, tradition has it, his body had been laid out for washing and wrapping for burial. Upstairs in the church, in an opulence of silver and gold, we found the spot historians have determined to be where the cross was raised on Golgotha.
The following morning, seeking the Holy Sepulchre again, we got lost, and again an angel, this time an Ethiopian in a white tunic embroidered with blue crosses, showed us the way. In the dim sanctuary before the tomb, I stumbled over a prostrate nun. Because she was in dark clothing, I hadn’t seen her. As I bent to apologize, from the folds of her garment wafted a sweet fragrance that was akin to roses. After Mass, the church bells thundered until the very stones resonated and sang. Jerusalem was so overwhelming, so crowded with places vying for our hearts, we felt that every pilgrim should discover one place to return to daily, whether it be a stone in the shadows of the Western Wall; the Al-Kas, the fountain in front of Al-Aqsa Mosque; or some small chapel with a large story.
The earliest known written reference to Jerusalem is an execration found on bits of 4,000-year-old Egyptian pottery. Three thousand years ago, King David set up an altar on a rock atop Mount Moriah, making Jerusalem the spiritual home of the Jews several centuries before Rome was founded. His son, King Solomon, built the first temple around the rock. The temple and the city were later destroyed by the Babylonians, who carried its people into captivity. Fifty years later, in 538 B.C., the Jews returned and rebuilt their temple. With the fortunes of war, Jerusalem’s overlords subsequently included Alexander the Great, Ptolemy of Egypt, Antiochus III and IV, and the Romans under Pompey. Herod the Great, ruling in the name of Rome, rebuilt Jerusalem and expanded its temple into the largest building in the world. As a center for religion and commerce, the temple attracted scribes, priests, vendors, and, according to the New Testament, a young prophet named Jesus, who "overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves." After Jesus died in Jerusalem, the city became a spiritual magnet for his followers.
The city is exuberant with potential, bursting at its walls with growth as more and more people find their way here. It is a place truly brimming with milk and honey. Benny Ohry, spokesman for the Israel 2000 committee, recognizes that this is still true today. "Jesus is our national treasure," he says. Israel is investing $600 million for a yearlong celebration, and billing itself as "The Land Where Time Began." Tourism is expected to surge to such proportions in March, during the much anticipated visit of the pope, that Israel’s neighbors are lending their airports and coordinating their plans.
We headed to the Museum of History in the Tower of David, which is actually a 16th-century Muslim rampart, to try to sort out the city’s tumultuous 4,000-year history.
In A.D. 70 the Romans, quelling a Jewish revolt, tore Jerusalem apart. One of the few things left standing was a portion of the retaining wall of Herod’s Temple Mount. Today it is the spiritual nexus of Judaism. The stones of the Western Wall are bigger than a bus and weigh as much as 600 tons each. It would have taken 200 elephants to move one. In 1921 Abraham Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine, said of the wall, "There are men with hearts of stone and stones with hearts of flesh." It is to these stones with tough little caper bushes blooming in the cracks that Jews from all over the world come, bowing, swaying, praying—not just in spirit, but engaging the whole body.
Excavations have revealed that there is more wall below ground than above. In the damp passages, we saw cisterns plinking with water, a water tunnel from 200 B.C., and a wall that enclosed the holy of holies, the sacred inner sanctum of the temple. In ancient times, no one except the high priest entered the sanctum for fear of the Lord. Now the way is barred by diplomacy.
Since the 7th century when Muslims, under the banner of their religion, captured Jerusalem, Mount Moriah has been the third most sacred site in Islam, behind Mecca and Medina. According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad, accompanied by the archangel Gabriel, ascended to heaven on his winged horse from the rock atop Mount Moriah. To enshrine the spot, Muslims erected the Dome of the Rock with its Persian blue tiles and great dome, which was regilded in 1994 with nearly 180 pounds of 24-karat gold. Across an esplanade is Al-Aqsa, which means "the edge of the world." Completed in A.D. 720, it is among the oldest and most beautiful mosques in the world. The building spews light recklessly through its stained glass windows, igniting crystal chandeliers, falling on solitary figures lost in prayer.
Al-Aqsa provides a tranquil, calming experience, quite different from that of the Holocaust memorial. It is necessary to steel yourself for a trip to Yad Vashem. (The name is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, written around A.D. 100, and now on exhibit in the Israel Museum.)
Entering Yad Vashem is like descending into a black basalt crypt. A flame burns in memory of the murdered millions. A Historical Museum welcomed us with pictures and films of European Jewish family life before the rise of the Nazis, then led us painfully through the annihilation. At the end, I couldn’t find the exit, almost panicked, and emerged into the sunlight gasping. We left through an avenue of trees, each one planted in memory of a person such as Oskar Schindler, who helped the Jews during their darkest hour.
The best tribute to courage and tenacity, however, is Jerusalem itself. It’s still here. Like a beacon. The ancient city is exuberant with potential, bursting at its walls with growth as more and more people find their way here. It is a place truly brimming with milk and honey.
As for what Jerusalem wrote on our hearts, Jim says he can’t quite decipher his message yet, but knows it was written in fire. Faith has always enabled me, in the midst ofcontradictions, to live in peace. In this most atheistic of epochs, Jerusalem affirms that faith is not ephemeral, and reminds me that each of us can sail forth and make the desert around us bloom.
Photos by Erica Lansner, Rita Ariyoshi and Superstock
This article was first published in November 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Contact the Israel Government Tourist Office at 6380 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1718, Los Angeles, California 90048,
Ask your AAA travel agent about packages to the Holy Land. Air France, United, and Continental airlines all have connecting flights from the West Coast to Tel Aviv; El Al has direct flights.