The road to hell may well be paved with good intentions; however, Jerusalem's narrow, historic networks are crammed with pilgrims of a similar bent.
Unlike any other city, three world
monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - are centred (packed) inside the Old City's 0.9 square kilometer walled area in four congested, complicated ecclesiastical quarters: Armenian, historically first to administer Christian interests (Cathedral of St. James, Church of St. Marks, Christ Church), Christian (St. Saviour Church, Church of the Redeemer, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, St. John Church, and the Latin, Greek Catholic and Coptic Patriarchs' residences along with the Omar Mosque to add some spice), Moslem (St. Ann Church, Virgin Mary's Birth Church, Church of Flagellation, Ecce Homo Basilica, St. Veronica Church, Church of Our Lady of Spasm, St. Julien Church, Red Mosque, Mawlawiyeh Mosque), Jewish (
Western Wall, Menachem Zion Synagogue, Ramban Synagogue, Porat Yosef Synagogue, Hassidei Braslav Synagogue and just inside the
Western Wall where Barack Obama and millions of others wedge prayer notes inside ancient stones, The Dome of the Rock and Mount Moriah's Temple Mount.) Add to the overlapping mix of interests the Stations of the Cross (Via Dolorosa), assorted seminaries, convents and chapels, and you have a robust recipe to keep a pilgrim busy for an entire month!
Turf wars erupted from the beginning as successive Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Byzantine, Roman, Muslim, Crusader, Mameluke, Ottoman and British interests struggled for control of this prized city. When the
U.N. declared Israel a state in 1948, it was immediately attacked by Arabs and Jordan controlled the entire Old City, destroying all but one synagogue and not allowing Jewish access until 1967's decisive war.
I sit inside the ornately decorated Austrian Hospice, having passed a group of Israeli soldiers assembled on El Wad Street - young men and women armed with automatic rifles. The Music Director of the
Israeli Opera, Dan Ettinger, introduces a group of singers and musicians who will perform arias and duets from three Cleopatra operas. No sooner do they begin when a loud recording interrupts from a nearby minaret stationed outside to announce Adhan,
the call to prayer summoning Muslim mandatory prayers (five times a day). We wait seven minutes. Such is Jerusalem.
At the City of David, Jerusalem's latest archeological cause célèbre, my female guide, Nofit, claims that one does not require Lonely Planet, Michelin or other worldly guides. She pulls out a Bible which she says makes history real, as I watch clumps of pilgrims led by religious and secular guides, their large buses parked wherever there is space.
Jerusalem is the quintessential act of faith, Disneyland for the soul. Wily Romans fearing the politics of monotheism, were slow to adapt it under Constantine (306 to 337) to suit their affairs of state. When the Jews rebelled in 68 CE, the Romans destroyed the second Temple, ironically restored 2000 years previously by Herod after the original Temple built by Solomon was shattered by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. Long before the Temple, Abraham stood on this mount to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and Jacob slept here, dreaming of a ladder to heaven.
At the Western Wall to the Old City, I witness a joyous celebration of Jerusalem Day, a national holiday commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and establishment of Israeli control over the Old City during June's 1967 war. Youth gather in a large circle, dancing and singing the national anthem while waving Israeli flags with their distinctive
Star of David.
For my guide, Nathan Shapiro, attending the Western Wall with tourists is bittersweet. An ex-paratrooper in the
Six-Days War, with sadness welling in his eyes, he never fails to see images of fallen comrades at the wall. He himself was shot in the chin by an Egyptian sniper but remarkably survived with a slight scar.
Military service is mandatory at 18. Men serve three years; women, 22 months. When they enter schools afterwards, Nathan claims that they make serious students. We learn that Israel is a hi-tech leader with centers throughout the country, surrounded by Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Existing peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt create worry now that Arab upheavals seem geared to radical change. The young soldiers readily oblige my request to take their pictures. They smile and carry rifles the way Canadian youth carry hockey sticks.
Security is a constant issue. I travel along modern highways with adjacent concrete walls and barbed wire lining both sides to "protect against terror." However, at Tel Aviv's
Ben Gurion Airport and inside Jerusalem, I have never felt safer. I amble through the Jewish Market, a multi-sensory exploration featuring crowded stalls that sell every conceivable Mediterranean product from fig, olive and spice to sandals, clothes and DVDs.
Depending on your version of Islam (Sunni, Shia or Suffi), there are holier sites in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere, but the Judeo-Christian sites here attract relentless mobs, steady streams of tourists and pilgrims. One learns to be patient. I walk through the small Garden of Gethsemane with twisted, ancient tree trunks mirroring Christ's agony and I attend a communion service in the adjacent Church of All Nations. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, prostrated pilgrims kiss the slab where Christ's dead body was washed and prepared for burial. At the
Mount of Olives, I observe a Jewish cemetery crammed with 150,000 graves that line the hills. In the distance is the road where Jesus entered the city on Palm Sunday.
Nathan tells me it's hard to get anything done in Jerusalem. Every time one digs up a road or makes a repair, archaeologists are summoned to a new discovery. We witness an ancient main road excavated in the last year amidst a children's playground. Remarkably elaborate, it dates from Herod's time, complete with pillars and ceramic decoration. We climb through a narrow tunnel excavated beneath the entire length of the revered Western Wall, passing through Medieval structures to arrive opposite the foundation stone and the holy of holies where I observe a woman transfixed in prayer. Add to the mix of religion and antiquity, the coalition parliament or
Knesset which contains 26 vying political parties, and progress remains a difficult by-product.
Before the trip, I attended a superb performance of
Jesus Christ, Superstar at the
Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Here, the actors are real -
Pontius Pilate, Christ and his
apostles (a church sits where Peter denied Christ three times) as well as
Mary Magdalene (honoured by a Russian Orthodox church) and countless others. For instant cultural and historical enrichment,
Jerusalem is the city to visit, and be sure to bring a Bible!
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.