Friday, June 4, 2010

Terre Sancta

Jerusalem... The Holy Land

Jerusalem... I've seen lots of places over the past two years, but none of them approach Jerusalem. It's hectic, yet downright transcendent; it's ancient, yet at the forefront of modern-day's politics; the people here look like they still live in the 17th century, yet each has a satellite dish on the roof. It's a city of contrasts, yet harmony, which manages to highlight both the multitude of differences and the even more numerous similarities among the people living here.

So, some of the more amazing places about Terre Sancta:

The History
Sure, lots of places have all kinds of historical significance - be it Rome, China, Egypt, or India, but none of them can compete with degree of difficulty, and significance that this piece of land, lying at the meeting point of Africa, Asia, and Europe holds. Three of the world's major religions consider it holy, and hardly an empire has existed over the past three millenia that didn't impact Jerusalem - even the far flung Chinese were connected via a terminus on the Great Silk Road. So, a few of the historical highlights:

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is only the holiest Christian site in the world. This is the spot, where, it is said, Jesus was nailed to the cross, died and rose from the dead. I'm by no means religious, nor am I really all that versed in the Bible, but certain basic bits of Christianity are inescapable in our world today, and standing on roughly the spot where Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross is pretty awesome, no matter what your thoughts on religion are. And if your thoughts are a little more devoted than mine, then you are one of the many who've been making the pilgrimage to this very spot over the past two thousand years, sullenly entering the church, and prostrating yourself on to kiss the holy ground. We witnessed the spectacle continue to this day, and I came away, well, subdued.

The Golden Cupola is the 'Dome of the Rock,' underneath it lies the rock, considered sacred by both the Jewish and Muslim faiths

The two holiest cities in Islam are Mecca and Medina, where the Prophet Mohammed lived and preached. Jerusalem, however, is next line, as it was here that Mohammed had traveled to launch himself heavenward to take his place alongside Allah. He, in fact, launched himself off of the rock, now covered by the gleaming Golden Dome above, which, as it turns out, is actually even more holy in the eyes of Judaism. According to the Jewish faith, the rock was the foundation stone of the world - it was here that God had created the Earth used to form Adam, and it was here that Abraham nearly sacrificed his own son Isaac, as a test of faith. It was also the site where King Solomon had erected the first temple (and after that has been destroyed by the Babylonians, the Second Temple followed... only to be destroyed by the Romans)

The Western, or Wailing Wall on Shabbat evening

And yet, in modern times, the Temple Mount, which houses the Dome of the Rock, is not visited by religious Jews. Instead, the holiest Jewish site is the Western, or Wailing Wall, which is, of course, here in Jerusalem too. It is, in fact, merely a retaining wall for the Temple Mount, above. But following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in AD 70, the precise location of the temple was lost, and upon returning to Jerusalem, the Jews studiously avoided the Temple Mount, lest they unknowingly step on site of the Holy of Holies, the ancient inner sanctum of the temple, barred to all except high priests. Instead, they began praying at the exposed outer wall, which the divine presence had never left, according to rabbinical texts.

Immediately after the 6 day war of 1967, when Israel had recaptured Jerusalem, Moshe Dayan, the Israeli commander, handed over the Temple Mount to the city's Muslim leaders. I assume because it is a holy Muslim site, and a site that pious Jews wish to avoid anyway. These days, the access to the Wailing Wall is open to anyone 24 hours a day - it acts as an open-air synagogue. Access to the Temple Mount, on the other hand, is very restricted - men and women of any faiths can go, but only at very restricted hours and days of the week. Unfortunately, not knowing the specific restrictions, Irina and I missed out on the chance to go up to the Mount... I guess, we'll need to come back to Jerusalem again - next year in Jerusalem? (probably too soon...)

At the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem

Back to Christianity and Jesus Christ. A massive wall separates Jerusalem from the Palestinian West Bank. Just on the other side of this wall lies the town of Bethlehem. Here sits the Church of Nativity - the world's oldest continuously operating church (commissioned in AD 326) is the birthplace of Jesus. The Grotto of the Nativity here has a continuous line of men and women ready to offer their prayers to the very spot were baby Jesus was said to have been born. We snuck in from the exit to catch a glimpse of the place, but I was wary of taking pictures...

The Russian Chapel of the Ascension

Mostly, I included this photo simply because it's a beautiful golden-dome Russian Church. The Russian Orthodox Church does, however, claim, that this is the precise spot where Jesus made his ascent to heaven... Jerusalem is sort of like a capital of Christianity, so various sects, or states have their own churches and hospices in the city. Funny how the Buddhist nations all do the exact same thing in Gaya, India, the spot where Buddha had initially achieved enlightenment.

The People
Once you get past the history and arrive in the present day, the most fascinating thing about today's Jerusalem is the widely diverse people that inhabit the place. The Old City is split up into four quarters - Jewish, Arabic, Christian, and Armenian. Yes, I know, the Armenians don't seem to belong, but Armenia was apparently the first nation to adopt Christianity, and they had made a significant alliance with the Crusaders when they had come to reclaim the city in the Middle Ages... In summary, they've got a quarter, but it's small and very quiet, so, unfortunately, I don't even have any good pictures from there... But on to the fascinating, varied, emotional, and opinionated people of Jerusalem:

Jewish man praying at the Western Wall

Muslim trader in the bustling bazaar, which is the Arabic quarter of the Old City

Christian procession carrying the cross, following in Jesus' footsteps along the original fourteen stations of the Cross

Kids playing football, soccer if you like, in the neighborhoods of the Arabic quarter

Jewish boy dressed for the occasion at the Western Wall

Explaining an important point on the street

A Christian nun on the streets of Bethlehem

Muslim women in the Arab quarter

More prayers at the Western Wall

But the most amazing thing of all is that, right now, we all more or less get along. It's hard to say how long this'll last - the Arabs generally feel like they're living in a conquered state, the more liberal Jews just want to find some sort of an amicable long term resolution to the whole thing, and the orthodox Jews just want to pray and study, and they'd like to everyone else to do the same. So, it's a tenuous situation, but for now, we all seem to get along just enough for visitors to come and enjoy the place, and, in turn, be overwhelmed by it:

Like I said - tourists. A break while taking a spectacular walk along Jerusalem's ancient wall

Life goes on in the city - an orthodox wedding not far from the Western Wall. We concluded that the bride was likely Russian (after all 1 in 7 current Israelis are), so not sure how fervent she might be about the orthodox lifestyle?

And keeping the peace, the army... Not at all opposed to having tourists take pictures though...

So, that's a brief take on Jerusalem. It took me a while to get to it, but it was hard to come up with any sort of coherent way to present everything there is to be said about Jerusalem, and, in spite of everything above, there's plenty more to be said. (All historical/Biblican information courtesy of my Lonely Planet - I won't claim to be up to date on any of this stuff, but it sounds about right to me).

1 comment:

b mathew said...

Great post! Funny, I thought you were back in Seattle because I saw someone jogging by that looked just like you.