CAN YOU name a place that has seventy names of love and yearning? Ok, neither could I until I went to the eternal city of Jerusalem, writes Michael Cowton, where extraordinary stories of love, hate, religion, power, glory and defeat lie under every stone
Jerusalem overwhelms the emotions. There is promise here aplenty for the religious seeking a spiritual experience; there is archaeology for the curious; and there is entertainment, culture and the arts for the modern-day tourist. This is a city of unity, if only in terms of structure, with every building having been erected in Jerusalem stone. With Haifa as the industrial centre of Israel and Tel Aviv the financial hub, Jerusalem became the administrative centre. The city is also the home of two impressive academic institutions, the extensive campus of the Hadassa University Hospital, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With little hi-tech industry to speak of, around fifteen years ago a small industrial zone developed outside the city to help create jobs and attract more young people to the city.
Driving past the impressive Hebrew University, I stop at the observation deck located on Mount Scopus and cast my eyes over the city for the first time. Despite this being a hazy morning, my eyes are drawn immediately to the Dome of the Rock, one of the world’s most magnificent architectural treasures. Beyond, I see the dark grey outline of Al-Aqsa Mosque, which literally translates as ‘the farthest’ mosque from the sacred mosque in Mecca.
To my left is the Mount of Olives, one of the most prominent sites in the Jerusalem vicinity mentioned in the Holy Scriptures. At the base of the hill are the Gardens of Gethsemane, and herein the golden turreted Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalene. Besides the compound of churches adjacent to Mount Scopus at its north, it is perhaps best known for the extensive cemetery which faces Jerusalem all along its western slopes. This is believed to be the place from which God will begin to redeem the dead when the Messiah comes, and why Jews have always sought to be buried here.
At Jerusalem’s heart is the Old City
I head to the heart of Jerusalem, where the mightily impressive Old City walls, which were built in the early 16th century by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, have eight gates. All but one (the Gate of Mercy) still serve Jerusalemites and visitors streaming to its markets, and sacred and historic sites. Located in the southwestern corner is Zion Gate, which bears Jerusalem’s earliest biblical name in Hebrew and English, this gate’s Arabic name is the Gate of the Prophet David, as the Tomb of King David on adjacent Mount Zion is close by. The ancient walls are scarred with bullet holes, a reminder of 1948, when Israeli forces attempted to enter the Old City.
Zion Gate leads to the Armenian Quarter, home to around a thousand Armenians. It is as if I am stepping into a time machine. The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the fourth century AD, when the country adopted Christianity as a national religion and Armenian monks settled in the city. The quarter has its own unique charm, and is pleasingly quiet as I pop my head into one or two small shops and chat with the hospitable owners.
Walking from the Armenian Quarter to the flourishing Jewish Quarter, I am soon at one of the Old City’s archaeological marvels, the colonnaded Cardo, dating from the Roman-Byzantium empire. The Jewish Quarter was completely destroyed during the third Arab–Israeli War in 1967. Upon the liberation of Jerusalem by Israeli forces, the quarter was rebuilt, but not before major archaeological excavations took place, revealing some extraordinary finds, including the axis of a byzantine church, and a synagogue from 16th century. Most revealing of all, however, was the Cardo.
Every ancient Roman city had an artery which ran on a north-south axis, and comprising two parallel rows of columns with stalls for shops on either side. While there were many segments of the Cardo that remained, it was the particular stretch in the Jewish Quarter that the archaeologists chose to remain exposed, and thereby enjoyed by tourists. Other parts of the Cardo were covered, and homes built atop.
The Cardo, which links with today’s marketplace, houses a modern fresco depicting a typical market day scene during Roman times. If you have a sharp set of eyes, you will be able to identify some interesting details in the painting, including a boy from the modern era sporting a red baseball cap, standing next to a young Roman girl extending her hand with a pomegranate.
Western Wall – most holy of sites
Weaving my way through the crowds to the Western Wall plaza, I look down upon an extraordinary site, as thousands of worshippers and visitors line up close to the base of this most holy of sites, offering prayers and wedging notes into the cracks.
Beyond the wall stands the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, a sacred placed for Moslems and the most universally recognised symbol of Jerusalem. This masterpiece of Islamic architecture is located on a rocky outcrop known as Mount Moriah. According to Islamic tradition, the Rock (al-Sakhra) in the midst of the building was the spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven after his miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem on the winged steed al-Buraq.
My guide, Marion Forster-Bleiberg, explains that strong rivalry continues between the Jews and the Moslems over control of the Temple Mount. “The paratroopers that liberated Jerusalem in 1967 were led by Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan, who decided that, out of respect for Islam, he was going to leave Temple Mount in the hands of the Moslems. The problem now is that whenever Israeli Jews want to pray in the area around the esplanade, they become jittery and nervous. This is why there is so much confrontation.
A place of prayer for all nations
“Israel is not impermeable. We have all this hatred around us, and are seeing more violence today than twenty years ago. However, we cannot stay in a bubble, isolated from the hatred. Having said that, when you walk on Temple Mount, you feel as if you are walking on eggshells.” This, the holiest place to Jewish people, is a place of prayer for all nations; a place with no restrictions. In fact, every religion in the world wants to be represented in Jerusalem, including the Mormons, who now have The Jerusalem Centre, Brigham Young University’s centre for study in Jerusalem. The Centre is located on Mount Scopus, overlooking the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley and the Old City.
When Jews arrive to pray at the Wall, they come for an individual prayer, not one directed by the Rabbi. I am fascinated by the swaying that takes place. According to Marion, it is a way of offering a rhythm to the prayer, helping them to focus. It is as if some are in a trance-like state.
I am transfixed by the number of pieces of paper stuffed into every conceivable nook and cranny. The tradition of placing notes in the Wall was begun by a small Jewish community in Poland a century ago. Whenever anyone in the village discovered that a friend or neighbour was travelling to the Holy Land, they would hand them a note to place in the Wall. Today, the majority of visitors place their own personal messages.
A long queue has formed at the entrance to the underground Western Wall Tunnels as I approach the Moslem Quarter. The closest point to where the Temple’s Holy of Holies once stood, the complex of underground tunnels are supported by arches and contain stairways that once connected the ancient city with the Temple Mount. Today, these passageways support streets and homes in the Moslem Quarter.
The narrow alleyways in the Moslem Quarter are thronged with traders, locals, visitors, police and military.
It is an extraordinary hive of activity as we escape into a restaurant for lunch.
Rooftop view of the Old City from the Austrian Hospice
The next attraction transpires to be an oasis of peace and calm. The Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, the former residence of the Austrian ambassador in the 19th century, offers panoramic views of the Old City from its rooftop, with all four quarters clearly visible.
DID YOU KNOW…
- Visitors enter the Old City via seven gates. The eighth gate, the Mercy Gate, is blocked up, waiting for the arrival of the Messiah
- In the time of Herod, the area of the modern-day Jewish Quarter was part of a luxurious ‘upper city’, occupied primarily by the families of important Jewish Temple priests
- The oldest olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane dates back eight hundred years
- The history of Jerusalem’s development outside the Old City walls began in 1860, when residents of the overcrowded Jewish Quarter began building houses beyond the walls
- The Old City is home to 48 monasteries and churches, over 30 mosques, and 142 alleys, including 43 in the Jewish Quarter
- The Jewish cemetery in the Mount of Olives is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world.
Back on the street, we pass a number of security checkpoints, which prove to be comforting rather than disconcerting.
I find myself on the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows) which, according to Christian tradition, was the final route taken by Jesus from the courthouse to Golgotha Hill, where he was crucified and buried. The route includes the fourteen stations through which Jesus is believed to have passed while carrying the cross, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Also known as the Church of the Resurrection, this is among Christianity’s holiest sites. The building I enter today dates back to the 12th century, during the time of the Crusades. Beautiful it may not be, says Marion, but in terms of how important the church is to the history of Christianity, it is major.
Leaving the Old City via the Jaffa Gate, our vehicle takes us past the King David Hotel, on David HaMelech Street. Traffic is brought to a standstill by police motorcycle outriders as a fleet of 4x4s sweep out of the car park, one carrying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
My final evening in Jerusalem, and we eat at the splendid restaurant Eucalyptus (www.the-eucalyptus.com), run by owner and executive chef Moshe Basson, with a menu inspired by food mentioned in the Bible, which changes on a daily basis, according to what herbs and mushrooms chef picks during his daily trips to the Judean Hills. This is followed by a visit to The Tower of David, where we are treated to a Night Spectacular, a sound and light show and multi-sensory experience, where cultures, religions, rulers and legends of Jerusalem are projected on the ancient walls and among the archaeological remains of Jerusalem’s citadel.
My brief time in Israel’s cultural and spiritual capital has been nothing short of captivating. Conquered, destroyed and rebuilt, with every age leaving its indelible mark over the past three thousand years, this place of prophets and kings, and holy to three monotheistic religions, has helped shape part of the world we live in today.
Its spiritual magnetism will continue to draw me, time and again, not only because of its overwhelmingly impressive sites, but by its history, culture, arts, gastronomy and, most of all, its people.
I almost forgot, some of those seventy names for Jerusalem – Gai Hizayon (Valley of Vision), Ir Ha’Elohim (City of God), Ir Ha’Emet (City of Truth), Killat Yoffi (Paragon of Beauty) and, most poignant of all, Shalem (Peace).
All images © Michael Cowton Photography/Essential Journeys
Michael Cowton travelled as a guest of the Israel Government Tourist Office and Pegasus Airlines.
TEL AVIV with Pegasus Airlines – Pegasus Airlines launched its route to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport in June 2012. The airline currently operates double daily flights from London Stansted and daily flights from London Gatwick to Tel Aviv via Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen. Return flights from London to Tel Aviv start from £245.32 including taxes and charges.