A walk in the past

Print edition : December 17, 2010

Jerusalem, with its sacred sites of three religions, is a magnet for the devout and for students of history.

JERUSALEM is a mosaic of three major religions, myriad religious denominations and a multiplicity of races, and a melange of cultures. The city is a magnet for students of history as it is for the devout who throng to its holy shrines and sacred sites. This venerable town is indeed the jewel of the Holy Land (also known as Bilad Ash'Sham in Arabic), a geographical region of the Levant which today includes, apart from Jerusalem, the Palestinian territories on the West Bank and parts of Jordan and Lebanon. Most of the revered sites of four religions Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Bahai Faith are clustered in and around Jerusalem.

We are here in this hallowed city to explore its many facets, visit its holy sites and shrines, unravel some of its myths and mysteries and retrace history, remote as well as recent. For, where else can one touch one's head to the wall which King Solomon built three millennia ago, retrace the footsteps of Jesus Christ as he walked down Via Dolorosa bearing the cross on which he would be nailed hours later, and pray in the mosque at the site where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven all within a space of a few miles and indeed within walking distance of each other? You can also wander around the warren of alleyways that witnessed fierce battles and bloodshed from which was born the first Jewish state less than 70 years ago.

THE WAILING WALL against the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock, considered a sacred site in Sunni Islam. The dome sits on a perfectly symmetrical blue ceramic octagonal base.-

As you drive into the city, you are greeted by the imposing citadel walls that separate the old city from the characterless modern part. Thankfully, most of the old city is traffic-free, what with its web of lanes and cobbled streets best negotiated on foot. In ancient times, these must have rung out with the sound of horses' hooves; now you spot an occasional donkey. You enter the walled city through Jaffa Gate and it already feels as though you are on a time machine that wings you on a journey into the past. The covered streets of the Arab Quarter with its merchandise hawked by men in traditional attire could well remind you of a scene out of the Bible. Your impression gets reinforced as your host points to the cobbled stones on which you are walking and says you are stepping on the same stones on which Jesus had trodden once. No doubt, some of the flagstones are well-worn and bear inscriptions in Aramaic testifying to their antiquity, but the sceptic in you wonders about their authenticity.

The Arab Quarter is just like any other kasbah with a profusion of merchandise and chatty Arab salesmen who have honed their haggling skills to a fine art. But then the delights of shopping are many, haggling not being the least of them! The bazaar may be Arab, but commerce knows no boundaries, and the merchandise is polytheistic. There are exquisite brass menorahs (a seven-branched candelabrum used in the ancient tabernacle and a symbol of the modern Jewish state), Jewish skull caps, assorted maps, compasses and books alongside ornate silver jugs, Turkish kilims, Persian and Moorish tiles with geometric patterns, silk scrolls with Arabic calligraphy, embroidered and crocheted fez caps, giant crosses, gilded candelabra, intricate incense-holders, painted cribs portraying the Nativity of Jesus Christ and other mostly religious memorabilia.

IN THE CHURCH of Nativity in Bethlehem. The hole on the octagonal floor gives a view of the cave in which Jesus was born.-

Via Dolorosa

You have to run the gauntlet of the Arab bazaar on your way to Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Grief, the path through which Jesus walked before he was nailed to the cross. Millions of Christian pilgrims from all over the world retrace Christ's footsteps through this route on a journey that they consider to be the ultimate pilgrimage. Jesus was a Jew born in Bethlehem, which also is in Jerusalem but on the eastern side of the fortifications and barbed wire that divide the Palestinian territories from Israel. The New Testament states that Jesus was brought to Jerusalem as a child to be presented at the Temple and to attend festivals. Jesus also preached and healed in Jerusalem. It is in this same city that Jesus was condemned to death and crucified.

ANNOUNCING MARY'S SPRING in Ein Karem, the birthplace of St. John the Baptist. Tradition has it that Mary stopped to drink from here.-

Via Dolorosa begins in the dense Arab Quarter and ends in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Christ is said to have been buried. There are 14 stations along Via Dolorosa, nine along the narrow street and five inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, each station signifying a landmark along the route.

The first station, Al Omariya School deep in the Arab Quarter in the walled city, was once the headquarters of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, the place where Christ was tried and condemned by Pontius Pilate. The second station is the Franciscan Chapel of Flagellation. This is where Jesus was given the cross to bear. The Polish Chapel, which has a sculpture of Jesus falling down under the weight of the cross, is the third station.

PAVING STONES IN the Arab Quarter dating back to the 3rd century B.C.-

The fourth station is an Armenian church; this is where Jesus fell down and where Mother Mary is said to have met her son. The fifth station is a Franciscan chapel. The Church of St. Veronica, named after a woman who wiped the blood off Christ's face, is the sixth station.

The Gate of Judgment, through which Christ had to pass, forms the seventh station. The Greek Monastery, the eighth station, is at the spot where Christ consoled weeping women of Jerusalem. The ninth station is the Coptic church; this is where Christ fell down for the third time during his journey to Golgotha. Signboards along the way indicate the name and significance of each of these stations.

The tomb of Moses.-

We emerge from the Arab Quarter at a neat little clearing and come upon the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in which the remaining five stations are situated. This church stands on the same spot where once stood an earlier church built by Emperor Constantine I in A.D. 336. The cobbled square rings out with the voices of visitors speaking many languages. We can even discern Tamil and Telugu in this babel. A group of nuns from South India are on a pilgrimage to the holy shrines in Christendom.

We join the throng and inch our way into the church, which, like Hindu temples, seems to have many altars, alcoves and prayer niches. There are stairs and steps, arches and naves, balustrades and ledges, seemingly secret passageways leading to more altars, some of them barred to visitors. Many walls are stained with soot from oil lamps, but there are exquisite murals depicting biblical scenes on others.

A MURAL IN the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was buried.-

It is evensong time. All the candles in the church have been lit, incense wafts from the many ornamental holders suspended from the roof. The interior of the church is cavernous and smoky. There is a tomb-sized marble slab the Stone of Unction on the spot where Christ is believed to have been crucified. Black-robed monks of the Greek Orthodox Church stand around the stone reciting hymns in chorus. We stand mesmerised by the melodious chanting, the candles casting chiaroscuro patterns on the walls and the wisps of incense smoke creating an almost magical miasma. The setting is surreal and the serenity, sublime. It is evident that for the hundreds of devotees gathered in this church at this hour, it is an intense emotional experience.

Solomon's temple

Evening prayers in the church.-

It is but a short step from Christianity to Judaism. But first you have to go through the kosher market, slung about with sausages and counters piled high with seafood, to emerge in an area secured by X-ray machines and barricades. On the other side of the security barrier is the Western Wall, the only relic of the original Jewish temple built by King Solomon, on a site that is known as the Temple Mount. Actually, two temples were built there and a third one was to have been built had not history changed the course of events dramatically.

According to the Hebrew Bible, the Jews were led from Egypt by Moses, who built a temporary sanctuary in the Sinai desert. The first Jewish Temple is believed to have been built in 957 B.C. by King Solomon. The holiest shrine of the Jews for over 300 years, it was destroyed by Babylonians who sacked the city of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The Second Temple, authorised by Cyrus the Great, was built in 515 B.C., possibly by Darius. This was also destroyed subsequently. King Herod rebuilt the temple on the Temple Mount and this structure survived until the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the seventh century.

OUTSIDE THE CHURCH of the Holy Sepulchre.-

Umayyad Caliph Abdal Malik ibn Marwan ordered the construction of an Islamic shrine on the site of the temple. Known as the Dome of the Rock, this shrine stands on the same spot as the earlier Jewish temple. Next to it is the magnificent Al Aqsa mosque in the same temple courtyard. The Al Aqsa mosque is said to be the oldest standing Islamic structure in the world.

The Temple Mount along with the old city of Jerusalem was recaptured by Jewish forces in 1967 during the Six-Day War. What remains of the original Jewish place of worship is just a wall. Thus we have a holy Jewish site enclosed inside an equally holy Islamic mosque to which Jews have no access. Also called the Wailing Wall because Jews moan the loss of their temple by banging their heads against this wall, this structure is the ultimate pilgrimage destination for the people of the Jewish faith.

A VIEW OF Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock virtually beckons one from anywhere in the city.-

We make our way to the 57-metre-high wall through the security barrier. There are hundreds of worshippers with a little book in hand, reciting prayers, pressing their heads to the wall, bemoaning and wailing their inability to gain access to the shrine. The Wailing Wall is indeed a microcosm of ethnic diversity. Jews of all nationalities and ethnicities come to worship here. Conspicuous among them are the orthodox Jews with their distinct side-locks, top hats and tailcoats. We are told that many of them spend years learning scriptures at Jewish seminaries funded by the state.

The women's section of the wall is separated from the men's enclosure. The thousands of cracks in the wall are stuck with chits recording the petitions of the devout to their maker.

ORTHODOX JEWS AT the Wailing Wall. Jews of all nationalities and ethnicities come to worship here.-

The Dome of the Rock

From the Wailing Wall, you can hardly see the Dome of the Rock on the other side of the wall although the gorgeous golden dome beckons to you from virtually everywhere else in the city. We pass through another elaborate and lengthy security barrier to visit the dome and the mosque. The dome sits on a perfectly symmetrical blue ceramic octagonal base, graceful and serene. Widely considered as a sacred site in Sunni Islam, Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was transported from the Sacred Mosque in Makkah (previously Mecca) to Al Aqsa during the Night Journey.

A BREAD VENDOR in Jerusalem.-

Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet led prayers towards this site until the seventeenth month after the emigration, when Allah ordered him to turn towards the Ka'aba. According to Wikipedia, the dome is in the shape of a Byzantine martyrium, a structure intended for the housing and veneration of saintly relics, and is an excellent example of middle Byzantine art. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the exterior of the Dome of the Rock was covered with Iznik tiles.

Being non-Muslims, we are denied entry into the mosque. We then wander off to the Armenian Quarter to check out their quaint squares and homes. We spot a Chabad House in one of the streets and I am reminded of the Chabad House in Mumbai, one of the targets of the 26/11 terror attack.

A covered street in the Arab Quarter with men in traditional attire. It could well remind one of a scene out of the Bible.-

The next day, we wander off to Ein Karem, the birthplace of St. John the Baptist and home to an assortment of churches, chapels and other Christian places of worship. Situated atop a hill, Ein Karem provides an excellent view of the city. A clutch of gilded onion-shaped domes of a Russian Orthodox church glint on the hillside. A Catholic church built in the second half of the 19th century on the remnants of earlier Byzantine and Crusader churches is said to house an ancient cave where, according to Christian tradition, John the Baptist was born. There is also the Church of the Visitation, built to commemorate the site where Jesus' mother Mary visited her kinswoman Elizabeth.

The Palestinian side

Another day, we take a ramshackle sheruth, the ubiquitous Arab minibus (in contrast to the swanky Israeli buses), to a border post reinforced with miles of steel and concrete and wrapped in copious quantities of barbed wire. We are on our way to Bethlehem on the Palestinian side. You have to cross hugely reinforced and highly guarded security posts to get into Palestine to visit the shrine. While exiting Israel, the security does not stop you although you are subject to elaborate scrutiny on your way back to Israel. In fact, it is a common sight in Israel to see young army recruits in olive fatigues virtually everywhere. All of them carry their firearms as casually as we would carry our wallets or shopping bags.

The Church of Nativity is six kilometres from the border. The day we are there is the day on which the Israelis attacked the Turkish flotilla headed for Gaza. There are protesters outside the church, silently holding placards and lining the walkway. There are hushed exchanges among local people, shops have downed their shutters, and there is an uneasy calm.

THE CHURCH OF the Visitation, built to commemorate the site where Jesus' mother Mary visited her kinswoman Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.-

Theologians agree that Jesus was born in a cave in Bethlehem and raised in the northern city of Nazareth. In A.D. 326, Constantine and his mother, St. Helena, commissioned a church to be built over the cave. This first church, dedicated on May 31, 339, had an octagonal floor plan and was placed directly above the cave.

THE CITADEL, JERUSALEM. Its walls separate the old city from the modern part.-

In the centre, a four-metre-wide hole surrounded by a railing provides a view of the cave. Portions of the floor mosaic survive from this period. There is a long line of devotees waiting to touch their forehead to the floor with utmost reverence. We wander through the church and admire the mosaics and murals. Not far from the church is the Shepherd's Fields in the village of Beit Sahour, a site where, according to legends, shepherds first glimpsed the Star of Nativity.

OUTSIDE THE CHURCH of Nativity, a protest against the Israeli attack on the Turkish flotilla on the day it happened.-

Our travels take us to the Dead Sea, the biblical city of Jericho and to Ramallah in Palestine and to Haifa and Acre in Israel. Barricaded, besieged and beleaguered, Ramallah is the seat of the Palestinian government. Gun-toting men guard PLO leader Yasser Arafat's tomb even as his smiling visage looks down on his beloved city from a giant hoarding on a nearby building.

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