"And ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem. And when you see this, your heart shall rejoice: And your bones shall flourish like young grass." -- Isaiah 66:14
JERUSALEM, like Paris, London and New York, is one of those cities that belongs to a larger world than the country where it happens to be located. But in Jerusalem's case, the proprietary feeling isn't merely symbolic. Jerusalem is a holy city for three of the world's great religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Politically, this triad of religious interests is a source of tension and historical conflict. Control of Jerusalem, after all, was one of the reasons the Crusaders came to the Holy Land in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.
But culturally, this diversity adds to the unique character of Jerusalem, the feeling one gets while there that no other place on earth is like it, or even comes close. No other city, in winter or summer, offers the contrasts of antiquity and modernity, the variety of cultures and religions living side by side in harmony -- on the surface at least. Robed monks, frocked Eastern Orthodox priests, Russian Orthodox nuns, turbanned mullahs and, of course, bearded Orthodox Jews rub shoulders without conflict or comment.
For Jews, Jerusalem is really the only city, mentioned throughout the Bible and remembered in Jewish prayers during almost 2,000 years of exile. For Christians, Jerusalem is the site of the crucifixion and of some of the central events of the New Testament. In Arabia, Jerusalem Al Quds, "the holy," ranks only behind Mecca and Medina, and is the place from where Mohammed is reputed to have ascended to heaven.
Jerusalem is about 3,800 feet above sea on the edge of the Judean desert, a setting that enhances its charm. In the summer, the absence of humidity and relative absence of pollution give the sky an electric-blue quality, contrasting with the deep green of the Jerusalem pine and the beige of the local limestone that is required by law to face all structures in the city. As the light changes throughout the day, the Jerusalem stone changes color, so the city never quite looks the same in morning, midday, afternoon or evening.
Jerusalem is built on a series of hills: One can look across from the top of one hill to another, and from the eastern edge of the city on Mount Scopus across the Judean desert -- rolling landscape dotted with goats grazing on sparse shrubs in summer and relatively lush greenery during the rainy, winter months. On a clear day, standing in the right place on Mount Scopus, travelers can see the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth. Jerusalem has something more than 400,000 inhabitants, including about 300,000 Jews, making it Israel's most-populous city, but not its most-populous Jewish city, which is Tel Aviv.
Although Jerusalem has been united under one government since 1967, it is a city with definite sections. First, the city is divided between the old and the new. The Old City really is old. King David founded Jerusalem on the site of an existing city more than 3,000 years ago, and excavations have uncovered portions of David's city outside the walls of the Old City. Those walls were constructed relatively (in Jerusalem terms) recently -- in the 16th century.
Within the walls of the Old City are most, but not all, of the sites of interest to Jews, Christians and Moslems in Jerusalem.
The modern parts of Jerusalem are divided into east and west. The western part, which was all of Jerusalem that Israel had between 1948 and 1967, is almost exclusively Jewish. Almost all of the buildings in western Jerusalem were built in this century. The earliest buildings have tiled roofs and rough, thick stone walls. The later buildings also have stone facades, but western Jerusalem is being infected with the same sterile, commercial architecture attacking cities all over the world. Modern skyscrapers now dot the landscape in the western part of the city.
Eastern Jerusalem includes the Old City as well as a more modern section outside its walls. The eastern part of the city is predominantly Arab, although the Israeli government has made a conscious effort since 1967 to concentrate high-density apartment buildings for Jewish Israelis to prevent the city from being divided again.
It is within the walls of the Old City that the cultures and religions meet. The Old City is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Arab, but the inhabitants move freely from among the four quarters. Walking through the narrow streets of the Old City, stopping to bargain with merchants for their goods -- a handwoven Bedouin rug or a lambskin vest perhaps -- moving deeper into its inner recesses, gives the opportunity for sights, sounds and smells that are a long way from home. There's no reason not to eat the falafel (ground chickpeas rolled into a ball and deep-fried in oil) or stop in at a sweet shop in the Arab quarter for a plate of kanafe (a flat, sweet cake made with cheese and a syrupy sauce that is delicious) and a cup of thick Turkish coffee.
"Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia: 'All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord, the God of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people -- the Lord his God be with him -- let him go up.' " -- Second Chronicles 36:23
All that remains of the Second Temple, the central structure of Judaism destroyed by the Romans 1,900 years ago, is the Western Wall, which has come to be known as the Wailing Wall. Although Jews do not have holy places, the Wall is a magnet for Jews from all over the world. It is in the Jewish Quarter, where considerable effort has been made to restore or rebuild structures destroyed by the Jordanians during and after the 1948 Israeli War of Independence when the Old City came under Jordan's control for 19 years.
The Wall is accessible any hour of the day or night, and Jews can be found there at all hours praying. As a result of extensive and painstaking excavations, signs of the Second Temple's destruction are now visible, including stones lying where they fell when the Romans set fire to the Temple and managed to topple some of its structures.
The Wall is really a retaining wall, built to provide a flat surface where the Second Temple could be constructed above it. The Temple Mount now is the site of two major mosques, the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa. The Dome of the Rock, a magnificent tiled and golden-domed structure built in the late Seventh century, stands on the site where Moslems and Jews believe Abraham, following God's command, made preparations to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The simpler, but also magnificent, silver-domed Al Aqsa nearby was built at the beginning of the Eighth century. Both mosques are open to the public except during morning and afternoon prayers.
"So they took Jesus and he went out carrying the cross himself, to a place called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and two others, one on each side of him with Jesus in the middle." -- John 19:17
Aside from Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem, the holiest sites of Christianity are in the Christian quarter of the Old City. The Via Dolorosa (literally, the Way of Sorrows) with the Stations of the Cross culminating at the Church of Holy Sepulcher -- on the site where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried--are within the Christian Quarter, along with myriad churches, convents and monasteries.
Considering the relentless commercialism of Bethlehem, with its profusion of trinket shops and vendors, just a 20-minute drive down the road from Jerusalem, the atmosphere in and around the holy sites of the Christian Quarter is remarkably tranquil.
To the casual observer, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is also quiet, but that appearance masks underlying tension between the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian churches, each of which controls some portion of the church and jealously guards its jurisdiction. The Church and other holy sites, many of which are centuries old, remain in good condition, under the supervision and control of the various denominations represented in the quarter.
The ecumenical character of Jerusalem is underscored by the separate observances of the Sabbath -- Moslems on Friday, beginning in the predawn hours when the muezzin calls the faithful to the first of the day's five prayers; Jews on Saturday, and Christians on Sunday. Friday is the only day when Moslems are expected to pray in a mosque, and it is not unusual for the muezzin to be calling worshippers for evening prayers at the same time swarms of Jews are coming through the Jewish Quarter to celebrate the beginning of their Sabbath at sundown.
On Saturdays shops are closed in the Jewish part of Jerusalem and automobile traffic is comparatively light. Public transportation does not operate in the Jewish sections of the city on the Sabbath. While the Jewish section is quiet on Saturdays, the Old City is very much open, crowded with Israelis and tourists moving through the narrow streets and filling the restaurants of east Jerusalem.
Although Christian Arabs observe Christmas, the main celebration of Jesus' birth is in Bethlehem. The big holidays for Jerusalem are Passover and Easter. Since both holidays often occur at the same time, hotels in both western and eastern Jerusalem are usually booked solid during the Passover-Easter season. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is particularly crowded at Easter, when pilgrims -- especially from Cyprus and Greece--fill it to capacity on all three days of the Easter observance.
Beyond the religious monuments, Jerusalem is a lively Middle Eastern city, whose exotic streets are well worth exploring.
Bustling open markets can be found in both the Old City and the western section. In Jewish Jerusalem, the Mahane Yehuda market off Jaffa Road, attracting Jewish and Arab shoppers, is easily one of the most colorful parts of the city. Its stalls offer fresh fruits, vegetables, poultry, fish, beef, fresh dates, figs, nuts and assorted spices at prices lower than the supermarkets (and the produce is fresher and better, too). Mahane Yehuda is crowded in late afternoon, and especially on Thursday and Friday before the Sabbath.
When we think about Jerusalem, we usually associate it with heat -- blistering sun, hot winds blowing off a merciless desert, thirsty travelers. Jerusalem does get hot in the summer, but not usually that hot, and most of the better hotels in the western part of the city have swimming pools.
Jerusalem winters can have their severe moments, however, although the temperature seldom is below freezing and never for very long. The rainy season begins in October or November, with rain becoming frequent in late December, January or February and ending by late March or early April.
After a morning rain, when the sun comes out and the sky is dazzling blue, the air has a clean, pungent smell and the brown soil and the yellow limestone rock that is everywhere give a feeling of lustrous warmth, and the flowers -- yes, flowers -- are beautiful. One instantly understands Isaiah's rejoicing in the city.