JERUSALEM — The historic visit of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, to the Middle East took a spiritual turn Thursday as the royal visitor toured the holy sites of the world’s three main monotheistic religions, after laying flowers on the grave of his great-grandmother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who is buried in Jerusalem.
It was a sharp contrast to the previous days when he cavorted on the sandy Tel Aviv beach with young volleyball players and strolled the city’s tree-lined boulevards drinking fizzy soda with Israel’s purple-haired Eurovision Song Contest winner, Netta Barzilai.
As part of a five-day trip to the region that also included a two-day stop in Jordan, the prince, who is second in line to the British throne, also met with political leaders — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — at a time when peace seems more elusive than ever for Israelis and Palestinians.
In one of his rare addresses on the trip, William called for both sides to find a place for peace.
“This region has a complicated and tragic history — in the past century, the people of the Middle East have suffered great sadness and loss. Never has hope and reconciliation been more needed. I know I share a desire with all of you, and with your neighbors, for a just and lasting peace,” the prince said at a reception at the British Consulate in Jerusalem on Wednesday night.
Earlier in the day, he visited Abbas in Ramallah and was treated to a show of Palestinian food and culture.
Though it was touted as a purely ceremonial trip and a chance for the young prince to meet ordinary people in the region, the political situation here is hard to avoid. Some Israelis were upset that the Jerusalem portion of his itinerary was billed as part of a visit to the “occupied Palestinian territories.” Much of the world does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the eastern parts of the city, which Palestinians hope will become the capital of a future state.
Israelis and Palestinians alike nevertheless welcomed William warmly, highlighting the historical nature of the trip, the first official visit by a member of the British royal family in 70 years.
Members of the royal family often make official state visits at the request of the British government but, until now, have avoided Israel and the Palestinian territories. The snub has largely been attributed to the failure of Israelis and Palestinians to reach a comprehensive peace agreement and the perception that the region is a diplomatic minefield.
Although he did not speak during his morning tour of Jerusalem’s Old City, William was clearly moved at each of the holy sites. After visiting the gravesite of Princess Alice, his paternal grandfather’s mother, who is buried in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene above the Garden of Gethsemane, the prince made his way to the Noble Sanctuary, or Haram al-Sharif, the raised esplanade that houses Islam’s third-holiest site, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock. The compound is known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount.
He then made a stop at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, where he stood for a few minutes in contemplation, his hand touching the wall. He later signed the guestbook: “May the God of peace bless this region and all the world with peace.”
At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, clergy from the main Christian denominations greeted him with a traditional ceremony. The clerics urged him to pray at the Stone of Anointing, the spot where tradition says Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, before touring the ancient church.
Between each of the stops, Prince William strolled — surrounded by tight security — through the Old City’s colorful bazaar, delighting tourists, who managed to snap quick photos of the affable prince with their smartphones.