They measure time differently here in the oldest section of one of the world’s oldest cities, the ancient, dispute-riddled and spiritually dense center of three major religions. Yet it takes an eternity to recall the last time Christians, Jews and Muslims, each claiming various overlapping quarters of the Old City, were kept from their eternal rounds.
Steve Hednrix/The Washington Post
But the coronavirus, like the medieval pandemic before it, has all but silenced this bustling Holy Land hot spot. The walls built by King Herod, the Crusaders and others (aided by the flashing lights of police cars at the gates) keep out the throngs of tourists and pilgrims who would normally teem through this UNESCO World Heritage site, especially in the weeks before Passover, Easter and Ramadan.
The steep, narrow lanes are empty but for police patrols and the relatively few residents who live in the Old City full time. Worship sites of all kinds are closed, most notably the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where Jesus is said to have been buried and resurrected; the Western Wall, the most sacred place of prayer for Jews; and al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
Here, for the guardians of all that is sacred, the stillness feels like a necessary evil.
“To see the holy church closed is very, very, very sad for me,” said Joudeh, one day after getting orders from Israeli health officials to swing the big doors shut indefinitely. “All the churches, the mosques, the synagogues in Jerusalem are closed, but we understand the situation. We are all of us praying.”
Joudeh, who is Muslim, is part of an unbroken family line entrusted with the keys to the church for more than eight centuries. According to tradition, infighting among several Christian denominations necessitated that custody of the iron key be handed to two non-Christian families, one to hold the key, one to come each morning to unlock the doors and each evening to seal them.
They have broken the schedule only a few times in history: Among them, on the worst days of fighting in the 1948 and 1967 wars, and for 48 hours in 2018 to protest a proposed property tax hike on churches. But according to Joudeh family history, not since the bubonic plague outbreak has the church closed indefinitely, as it did this week.
“It will reopen, this we know,” he said, standing in the usually crowded plaza, now quiet except for the sound of pigeons and, from somewhere in Jerusalem’s unstoppable spiritual heart, the chanting of monks. “I inherited the key from my father, and I will give it to one of my sons. Thanks to God I have three.”
Joudeh himself is blocked from worshiping at the golden Dome of the Rock, a shrine that shares space with al-Aqsa Mosque, which in turn, in Jerusalem’s never-ending layers of possession and identity, is built on the site of the two ancient Jewish temples.
The plaza surrounding the mosques draws tens of thousands of Muslim Palestinians every Friday and is frequently a flash point of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When it was ordered closed by the Jordanian religious council that manages the sites, it was an immense relief to Israeli officials, who watched with alarm as crowds assembled even as the virus spread.
Steve Hendrix/The Washington Post
But the shutdown of the Old City is less welcome to the merchants who make their living from the socially un-distanced crowds who typically pile in, shoulder-to-shoulder, every day.
Business is at a standstill, said Sabri Zgeir, whose fruit and vegetable shop near the Dung Gate had seen only three customers, all locals, on a day that normally funnels thousands past the front door. His grandfather opened the store in 1948, and none of his family has seen the likes of this.
“Not even the wars were like this,” said Zgeir, standing before unsold boxes of Medjool dates. “This is a tourist place; we could be ruined.”
A few blocks away, looking past shuttered souvenir and religious icon shops, Shimon Klein was taking a long and godly view of the pandemic.
The New York-born Klein, 77, was walking with his youngest son, 7, near the Old City apartment close to the Western Wall where he has lived for 21 years. He compared the overwhelming emptiness to Berlin in 1945. Nothing will ever be the same, he said.
“This is the beginning of a new era of existence,” he said. “This is beyond the comprehension of any of us. We are going into the future now.”