If you happened to be born an extra terrestrial life form and did not understand religion, Jerusalem would be an incredibly strange place. This city has seen conquerors, zealots, pillagers and many a religious inspiration — some of the most famous people to weave themselves into the fabric of time.
If Mount Zion had somehow gone the way of Vesuvius and buried this city under a horrendous cataclysm like Pompeii, it would persevere. It is a testament to either the most admirable or the most stupidly stubborn force that drives people to achieve amazing things: faith.
Only here will you see a Hassidic Jew walk through an Arab soukh on his way to the remains of Solomon’s temple, while on his way his shadow will cross many a steeple of churches of various Christian flavours.
If there is one thing this place does not lack it’s holiness. But what’s really interesting is how that lives with the practical necessities of the current residents. Via Delarosa is the current name of the way which Jesus Christ walked to his death on Calvary. Along that path today are not just the staples of Christian faith but also a playground where children play, cars driving along the lane and many other signs of real life, as existed before, during and after Christ’s time.
The salesmen of the soukhs of the Old City are nowhere near as aggressive as some of the others around the Middle East I have encountered. Occasionally, one will ask a staple question such as “where are you from?”, the genius of which lies in that tourists can’t help but answer, forcing them to pause, at which time the salesman will find a fast segue into how his goods are hand made and will be useful. It is a game they play — the tourists want them there because it lends to the atmosphere, and the soukhs are there to make money, an unspoken partnership that is older than the white walls of this city.
It’s true, the trademark smell of fresh spices, brand new clothes and hot stone breathes a little frivolity into the Old City, so that this otherwise impractical toy city can exist. They are the life between the reverance and old rocks. They colour the walk to the holy places that make this real (in a sense) and not just in the imagination of the visitor, who must piece together the former glory of some old ruin’s useful days.
Speaking of reverence, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a truly moving place. Its romanesque walls lead up in the centre to the dome below which not a single block of stone lacks the strange property of divine inspiration and awe. It doesn’t matter if God exists or not, he will speak to you here. Perhaps it is the history of where it stands, upon the burial cave of a carpenter turned messiah, where the miracle of resurrection took place, or the incredible work of mankind to truly bring this earthly location to some kind of metaphysical place just within the periphery of God’s throne.
There is also the Western (Wailing) Wall of Solomon’s Temple, a place seemingly in tune with the Jewish sense of belonging and sadness of the past. Indeed, people come here to this day and weep over the ruin of a building torn down and looted by a civilization that has disappeared. There is a certain permanence and persevereness that I believe resonates as a point of pride for each and every Jew when they come to this place, knowing that every group of people that have come to conquer Jerusalem have fallen, from the Babylonians to the Romans and onwards to the Crusaders and Ottomans. No one has ever broken the Jewish spirit and this is what the Wall means. Time and the stubbornness of a mule has allowed this place to rise up again and again, and the covenant of Abraham stays true.
But one gets tired of walking around the soukhs in which only the tourists find what they’re not looking for and the mind needs a break from the meaning and purpose of the places and people God has inspired. And for that is the rest of the city just on the other side of the Jaffa or Lion or Zion Gates, with stores, restaurants and places modern people who are living in today’s conveniences live.
Except, of course, on the Sabbath, when the city could not be more empty save for those lively arabs in the Old City, still peddling their objets d’art and their fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. It is genuinely haunting walking through a city where everything is closed and no one is about. The feeling is not unlike being Clint Eastwood, entering some tiny gold miner’s refuge in rugged Montana, looking for the guy who stole his gold and left him for dead as the shopkeepers and residents shut the shutters on their windows, expecting an inevitable gunfight.