Jerusalem, it seems now, was always holy.

The Bible puts Abraham, paJ triarch of the Jews, there. David ruled in Jerusalem, and Solomon built the temple there upon Mount Moriah.

Jesus suffered and died in Jerusalem, and so rendered it as holy for his followers as it was to the Jews.

And just as Christian rulers eventually followed their Christ into Jerusalem, so Moslem caliphs and sultans took possession of the city and the site atop the Temple Mount where Mohammed was miraculously carried by night from Mecca and from where he ascended to be shown God's marvels in Heaven.

Little of this is apparent at first to visitors arriving from the West. The road to Jerusalem, a broad paved highway, leads through a secular, almost anonymous and (at least here) peaceful landscape: factories, then the towns, then the farms of the new Israel.

Slowly the terrain changes, growing more scarred and rugged. And in the dark and wooded valleys that wind eastward toward the Holy City, the carefully preserved remains of Israeli tanks and armored cars -- and below them the invisible bones that number the centuries-long toll of ambushed Christian pilgrims -- remind us that this Holy Land was once murderous ground, bloody to possess, bloody even to visit.

But not now, at any rate. From the forested valley, the road starts to ascend, and the traffic slows. You are "going up" to Jerusalem, a traditional phrase with literal meaning. The highway snakes up the side of the mountain, the trees giving way to increasingly sparse vegetation. On the climb, Jerusalem remains concealed until you round a bend and find yourself on the city outskirts.

To the eyes, initially, there is no holiness here. Filling stations yield to suburbs, and quickly you are entering a modern city, new at its edges, then older and denser as you go in. Figures appear on the streets, bearded and dark-coated men with broad hats, hurrying along streets lined with trees that look now Italian, and now something more distant and Eastern.

Then at last, where the streets are their tightest and most crowded, you stand before the limits of another place, the 16th-century Turkish walls of the Jerusalem that was, the antiquarian's Old City, the veritable Holy City.

Turkish? Crusader walls or even those of King Herod, the Temple builder of Jerusalem, they all stand in the same spot, constructed like everything else in the city, one upon the other. In Jerusalem, as nowhere else it seems, the past is present -- beneath and around everyone who walks its streets. No wonder that the Jewish visitor of today, like the Christian pilgrim of the 15th century, can stand before this city and see directly through the Turkish walls into the landscape of Jesus and David and Abraham.

Inside the Jaffa Gate at the western edge of the Old City is a square, where the visitor finds the sole survivor among Herod's three majestic towers, along with several cafe's. Until the 19th century, foreigners had to pay for the privilege of entering here. Dragomans, or guides, used to protect and lead and perhaps despoil the pilgrim, and Franciscans of the Custodia Sanctae Terrae, "Custodians of the Holy Lands," issued warnings of the dangers that lurked everywhere in Jerusalem. They also gave instruction on the innumerable blessings and indulgences that could be won in the Holy City.

Today the instruction is still Franciscan, though shared -- not entirely gracefully -- with other Eastern and Protestant shepherds of Christ's flock. And the advice is now more prosaic as well: mostly the places, starting times, languages and theological dispositions of the services conducted by the Christian communities of Jerusalem.

Across the square, King David Street invites the newcomer (in Hebrew, Arabic and English) to pass eastward through its dark and Levantine tunnel to the Temple and the Dome of the Rock. And there are other, different beckonings on the left and the right.

These are not open invitations. The citizens of Jerusalem have for a long time sorted themselves out, by their own inclination and for their own protection, into residential enclaves.

For many centuries, the largest of them has been the Christian "quarter," actually most of the hill that constitutes the western half of the Old City. Today it is divided into the Greeks' and Latins' domain on the left, as you stand at the Jaffa Gate, and on the right the tightly closed gardens, churches, schools and homes of the Armenian quarter.

In Jesus' day this western hill was where the aristocracy, the Hellenized Jewish upper classes and the city's Gentiles lived; at the western gate Herod had his enormous towered citadel and palace. And it was there, on a hillock called Golgotha just outside what was then the city wall, though well inside the present Turkish one, that Jesus was crucified and buried sometime about A.D. 30.

The visitor turns right and enters the Christian quarter. The remote past has once again dissolved into something vaguely Italian. Winding streets pass amidst the shuttered palazzos where the patriarchs, Orthodox and Catholic, Eastern and Western, reside and rule their flocks. The crosses on their fac,ade and the shops selling Christian souvenirs on the corner proclaim the faiths of the clerics within.

This northwest quadrant is relatively new ground in Jerusalem, where "old" and "new" are invincibly relative. About 40 years after Jesus' death, the Jews rose in revolt against Roman sovereignty in Palestine. Jerusalem perished utterly in the cruel aftermath, its Temple destroyed, its Jewish population dispersed. It was, the Christians said, just as Jesus had predicted.

The Romans eventually built Jerusalem anew, with the present northwest quadrant inside the city, then as a pagan showplace, with its chief temple right atop Golgotha. But the memories persisted, and when the emperor Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century and wished to glorify the Christian holy places in Jerusalem, the sites of Jesus' crucifixion and burial were readily pointed out, as they still are.

Constantine built an enormous church in that place, as well as over the site of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, and his imperial successors continued to invest their wealth in the Christian Holy City and Holy Land. Splendid new churches went up over the Jerusalem sites, some of them historical and some doubtless legendary, associated with Jesus, his mother and his disciples. The population of Jerusalem, like that of the Roman Empire, became Christian; monks took up residence there; hostels were opened; the stream of visitors and pilgrims from abroad swelled into an annual flood that coursed into what was now an unmistakably Christian Holy City.

Constantine's church opened eastward, flush upon the main north-south thoroughfare of Jerusalem. But present-day visitors now stand where all the medieval pilgrims stood, in the small square before the entry at its southern side. Before you is the narrow but elegant fac,ade that owes every brick and stone of its construction not to Constantine, but to the Christian Crusaders who took the city from the Moslems in 1099. (The Moslems had acquired sovereignty in A.D. 638.)

Before the Crusaders entered the Holy City, the Moslems, who viewed European history remotely or not at all, had been somewhat casual about Jerusalem and its non-Moslem visitors and inhabitants. Earlier there had been incidents -- a crazed ruler had burned down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009 -- but with the coming of the Crusaders, whose ferocity seems to have taken the defenders of Jerusalem unawares, the Moslems lost their innocence.

Popular preachers fanned the flames of a counter-Crusade and fanaticism mounted on both sides. The Moslems retook their holy city in the 12th and 13th centuries, but the residue of hostility lingered, visited chiefly on the pilgrims to Jerusalem.

Today all is calm under watchful Israeli eyes. The church is dark within, almost intimate, and in its Crusader and later reincarnations it is less than half the size of Constantine's monumental complex. And far less beautiful. The outer Crusader shell has been grievously wounded by thoughtless reconstructions and "improvements."

Inside the church doorway, and 15 feet to the right, is Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion. About 30 feet to the left is the tomb of Jesus, a simple marble shelf-like affair inside a strange baroque house that must startle people in its grotesqueness. A few people at a time step inside, where a Greek priest watches. The space is too small to kneel in, so they stand and, perhaps, reflect, trying to bring a historical perspective to what they are seeing.

Can the crucifixion and burial sites have been so close together? The Gospels indicate such; the unanimous Christian tradition, certainly. There are other chapels there, each marking a holy site, a jumble of dark choirs, narrow passageways, altars decked with silver and golden things that gleam darkly and mockingly of kitsch. It is stunning, incomprehensible.

The modern visitor, with earnest and struggling skepticism, can only wish to have seen it as it once was.

Islam has no quarrel with the Gospels, only with the Christians' understanding of them, and the medieval Moslems were generally content to allow the Christians to pursue their cult of the deified Jesus, providing that no public display was made or offense given. Public processions were forbidden, for instance, as was the construction of new churches. The theory was clear, though the practice did not always follow it. The Christians did build new churches or rebuild old ones and, when the political climate seemed right, conducted modestly public religious rites.

Chief among these rituals was the Way of the Cross, the processional retracing of Jesus' steps from his trial at Pilate's House, traditionally shown on the eastern side of the city, not far inside St. Stephen's Gate, to the great Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There were 14 "stations" in all, each commemorating an event noted in the Gospels or in legend for those last hours of Jesus' life.

It was and is a pilgrimage in miniature, the procession that still winds every Friday afternoon along the Via Dolorosa. Today it passes quietly, mostly ignored by the busy city around it, but once it was a more perilous trip with blessings alternating with taunts, hymns mingled with the threats of a crowd that sometimes took ill to such public display of Christian sentiment.

At the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, just inside the present St. Stephen's Gate and behind a cloister wall, is the Church of St. Anne, built to honor the mother of Mary. Alongside are the excavated remains of an ancient pool or spa, with the ruins of a Byzantine church perched atop them. This, too, has been a contested place in Jerusalem -- Saladin, the Moslem reconquerer of Jerusalem, expropriated the church for an Islamic law school -- but today all controversy is gone, and the church itself sits like a subdued and sheltered Christian jewel.

It is unabashedly a Westerner's church, bare within, its Crusader elegance unmarred, and speaking with European rather than Near Eastern accents. But it is, for all that, authentically Jerusalem, a reminder of one slice of that city's varied history, and Christian to its foundations. Jesus sat at that pool and cured the halt and the lame, and perhaps looked southward, no more than a block distant, to where the Temple stood in its glory.

The Temple has disappeared, as Jesus predicted in the Gospels it would, and the Christians celebrate instead where His body rose from the dead. It is the Moslems who today watchfully worship in a magnificent shrine and mosque atop the Temple Mount itself, while the Jews gather below at the foot of the Western Wall of its platform.

And now the sovereignty over Jerusalem is once again Jewish, but all three groups who claim to be the rightful heirs of Abraham stand fixed on their holy places, jealous of their blessings and rights and real estate.

Virtually every foot of that terrain has been contested for centuries with writs of possession and deeds of purchase, with diplomatic hugger-muggery in distant Venice and Rome and Istanbul, and, as late as 1967, with bloody arms on the streets of Jerusalem itself. But the visitor may still experience spiritual graces on the holy ground of Jerusalem.