JERUSALEM — After five months of reading and talking about Jerusalem in class, the day had come when we could finally journey through it. After landing in the secular city of Tel Aviv on Sunday, exploring Israel’s coastal cities throughout the week, and skirting the boundaries of Jerusalem on Wednesday en route to Bethlehem, today we finally reached the spiritual and emotional culmination of the trip.
Jerusalem is a bustling city expanding down its surrounding hills and valleys at a rapid rate. Even the city’s boundaries are unclear. As we exited Bethlehem en route to Jerusalem, we drove past the settlements of Har Homa, which extend outward from East Jerusalem. Some claim that a quarter of a million settlers live in these homes. Others argue that the number is actually half a million. The number varies greatly depending on where the border of Jerusalem proper is drawn.
Ophir Yarden, our guide, explained some of the different motivations for settlers. Some of the very religious see the Holy Land as a gift from God that they shouldn’t reject, lest they offend Him. Nationalistic settlers may forge ahead to prevent the geographical unification of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which, if connected, would divide the state of Israel in two. Other Israelis have more practical motivations. Many Jews move outward from the congested city of Jerusalem, where space is at a premium, to settlements where the cost of living is substantially lower.
We drove by the settlements trying to leave behind politics and focus instead on religion. We found the Old City of Jerusalem to be a multicultural cornucopia of pilgrims, citizens, tourists, and now journalism students from Columbia University. Our bus driver, Sami, dropped us off in the Old City at the Jaffa Gate. Rather than opening to a somber city of the faithful, the Jaffa Gate is a portal to a bazaar filled with Jewish and Arab shopkeepers as well as tourists from around the world.
From there, we proceeded through the courtyard to Saint Helen’s Coptic Church, located at the ninth station of 14 on the Via Dolorosa or the “Way of Suffering.” These fourteen stations represent landmarks on the path Christ walked before his death. Pilgrims standing at the entrance to the Coptic Church, which also forms part of the upper level of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, stopped to pray in unison beside us.
Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the fourth century. The site is known as Golgotha (skulls) in Aramaic and Calvarium in Latin, and demarcates where criminals were crucified in ancient Roman times. It is most likely the place where Christ died and was buried. We gathered on the upper level of the church, where the sunlight reflected off the white stone on the ground. The scorching heat intensified the experience, possibly driving visitors into the church.
Of the 13 recognized denominations of Christianity in Jerusalem, six have space at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and have created their own chapels. “Late-comers” like the Protestants, who only arrived in Jerusalem in the 19th century, do not have a piece of the Holy Sepulcher but own church properties nearby. A bell-tower representing the Lutheran church rises above the skyline and overlooks the Ethiopian monastery adjacent to the Saint Helena’s Coptic Church.
Ophir described the delicate balance between religion and politics in the Holy City. He recounted how, in1978, the Ethiopians took over part of the roof space in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and locked them out. Unsure whether the fragile peace between Egypt and Israel would be disrupted, or whether the migration of 100,000 Jews in Ethiopia would be jeopardized by these developments, the Israeli government assigned a task force to investigate. The best way to avoid dealing with an issue, Ophir said, is to assign a task force. Even after all these years, the issue between the churches remains unresolved.
We navigated through a maze of narrow passageways and somber chapels from the roof of the Holy Sepulcher to the lower level courtyard of the church where we regrouped.
“If you maintain something,” Ophir explained, “that implies ownership.” Therefore, it is an honor for clergy to carry broomsticks or to be responsible for the upkeep of the church. Within the church, an Orthodox priest clad in black continuously swept the floor as pilgrims walked by performing the sign of the cross. In another area of the church, a nun fervently polished a stone slab with a toothbrush. Both seemed unperturbed by the hordes of tourists surrounding them.
The dimly lit church was engulfed with Christian pilgrims and tourists flashing their cameras, kneeling at sites and posing for pictures and lighting candles. A cacophony of different languages filled the air reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. We were struck by the juxtaposition of the spiritual and the secular.
Once we exited the church, Ophir explained that the second Muslim caliph, Omar, worried about the potential for religious conflict at the site of Christ’s death. When Omar visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Seventh Century, the local Bishop gave him a tour and asked if he wanted to pray. Out of respect for the church, he declined the offer and prayed outside. Omar explained that he feared that if had prayed in the church, his followers might want to convert it to a mosque. Instead his followers built a mosque adjacent to the church. It is known as the Mosque of Omar. From the way Ophir told the story, Omar seems to be the patron saint of interfaith understanding.
Our group moved away from the crowds, walking by a myriad of market stalls, until we found a spot on the roof at the intersection of the four (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian) quarters of Jerusalem. The stone ground had been polished by the thousands of visitors who had traversed it. We gathered on a stone ledge and watched eager youth groups pass by. A few slid on the slippery stone as they rushed through the holy city.
As we made our way to the Western Wall of the Second Temple, we walked past a remnant of the broad wall of Jerusalem, a 2,700 year-old partially underground structure that cut through the middle of an ancient stone house.
Although the remnants of the broad wall are scarce, red stones found throughout the city delineate the ancient wall. We followed these stones through the market into the Jewish Quarter where shopkeepers tried to entice us with their aromatic spices, colorful shawls, and intricate handicrafts, to a courtyard in front of Horva (Ruined) synagogue. Although the synagogue was brand new, the site derived its name from previous synagogues that were destroyed there.
When we reached the Jewish Quarter, we took a break from our touring and grabbed some shawarma, coffee, bagels, and soda. Some of us sat down and massaged our sore calves. Perhaps because of the shade from the apartments and offices, the temperature dropped precipitously when we entered the Jewish Quarter. The atmosphere also changed dramatically.
As we approached the Western Wall, we were struck by the silence, which was a direct contrast to the clamor of the Christian pilgrims who filled the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Women walked backwards intermittently turning their heads to look behind them. It seemed that no one wanted to turn her back to the holiest of sites, the Western Wall. When the Romans destroyed the temple two thousand years ago, the only remaining vestige was the Western Wall, which continues to function as an orthodox synagogue today.
As we exited through the Dung Gate, dusk settled over Jerusalem with the colors of sunset reflecting off the church towers, minarets, golden dome, and Israeli flags that form the skyline of Jerusalem.