Globe-spanning pilgrimages that compel devotees to get on their knees and kiss sacred relics; unholy fistfights between clergy of competing denominations; zealotry and seething discontent between the three of the world’s largest faiths; crusades and jihads; land grabs and settlements; missile and terror attacks; protests and intifadas; gilded statues and marbled churches; devotion and epiphany; faith and hope. Only one city can instigate all these with such passion: Jerusalem.
It is the capital of both Israel and Palestine and a holy site for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The issue of its sovereignty continues to stymie Middle East peace efforts as it has for decades. The ruins of Roman roads, Crusader fortresses, Israelite temples, and Ottoman baths litter this most ancient capital. It draws 3.5 million travelers yearly. Evidently, the world still covets Jerusalem.
Numbers tell the story
It is a small city, home to just over 700,000 people—a volatile mix that is currently 64 percent Jewish, 32 percent Muslim, and 2 percent Christian. These statistics are not mere numbers; they reveal a battle for the city’s identity that escapes most visitors’ attention. Arab population growth, similar to those found in the poor developing world, is twice that of Jews, whose numbers resemble those of affluent Western Europe. This threatens the very character of the Jewish state. In a few years, Jews will be a minority in a country that claims to both a democracy where the majority rule and a Jewish state.
What strife exists is mostly within the family. Palestinians and native Israelis are one and the same people divided only by religion and history. DNA studies by geneticist Ariella Oppenheim in 2000 show they are genetically indistinguishable. After all, Islam came after Christianity, which in turn came after Judaism. The lineage of many Arab Israelis and Palestinians today can be traced to people who were once Christian or Jewish before they converted to Islam. Oppenheim notes, “Muslim Arabs are descended from Christians and Jews who lived in the southern Levant, a region that includes Israel, Sinai, and part of Jordan” and that the Palestinians are “descendants of a core population that lived in the area since prehistoric times.”
Statistics and studies alone cannot communicate the passions that move Jerusalem. One needs to observe a person candidly without his knowledge as he goes through his day in the city. And there is no better subject than the pilgrim, a man whose foreign eyes appreciate what locals take for granted. The objective observer also needs to discern all that a devotee fails to realize as the pilgrim immerses himself in his own religious experience.
The devotee at the Calvary
A gray-haired Filipino pilgrim, already bowed by the weight of his years, adds to his burdens the heft of a cross his own size. The cruel corners and edges of the huge wooden plank cut into his shoulders. The coat he wears fails to mitigate the weight and discomfort. Still, he trudges on though winding cobblestone alleyways past Christian, Jewish, and Muslim corners of this ancient maze. A few elderly women, his pilgrimage tour companions, help him steady the cross he bears. Not all welcome this brazen intrusion of tourists from halfway ’round the world into their neighborhood. He is oblivious to the Israeli soldiers he walks past. They are in full battle gear with their fingers resting on their trigger. Despite its weight, the cross he carries is but a tourist version of the one that allegedly lofted a Messiah. It has a steel wheel affixed to its bottom, lest the life-sized crucifix be the death of the pilgrim as well. And at the end of the Via Dolorosa—the Way of the Cross—is a place that is nothing as portrayed in the Bible and in so many Passion plays and movies.
Golgotha, “the place of skulls” where Jesus Christ was crucified, no longer resembles a barren godforsaken mound. The maze of narrow alleyways, neighborhoods, and numerous shops selling antiques, trinkets, textiles, incense, and other items for tourists now mask its elevation as a slowly ascending cobblestone path. Modern-day Jewish and Muslim graffiti add to the statues and plaques left by Romans, Crusaders, and other past conquerors. Still, the pilgrim soldiers on.
The Holy Sepulchre—the tomb of Christ—like many sites of religious relics, has been transformed over the centuries into a gilded palace of worship. From the niche that the Roman guards had sealed with a large stone at the entrance that the Bible described, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has become quite literally and figuratively a Byzantine affair wrought in gold and marble, scented and veiled by incense smoke, and illuminated by stained glass and candlelight. Its ancient domed profile hides the stone chamber of Christ’s tomb and the mound of Golgotha underneath.
Some 325 years after Christ’s death, Saint Helena, mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine, ascertained this location to be the tomb purported in the Bible. It was here that she also allegedly discovered the True Cross upon which Christ was crucified. On this spot, she found that pagans had constructed a temple to Venus in the three centuries since Christ’s death. Constantine himself ordered it destroyed and in its place built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The elderly Filipino pilgrim waits his turn at the long queue filled with tourists from around the world. He squints his eyes to piece through the incense smoke and the darkly gloom. He struggles to bend his knees and cower under the plethora of low-hanging gilded chandeliers. Despite the frailty that comes with his age, he kneels to kiss a relic. He then cocks his head to pose for barrage of flash photos.
He and the hundreds of pilgrims that flock in veneration daily fail to note simmering tension that threatens to wreck the Church of Holy Sepulchre. Six Christian denominations—Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic (called “Latin” in Jerusalem), Coptic (Egyptian), Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox churches—all have been jostling for control of the Church for several hundred years. The rival sects have maintained and defended their claims since 1853 when a decree from the Ottoman Sultan, who then controlled the Holy Land, established their current areas of control.
Guides will point out the so-called “immovable ladder” that has remained in its perch below a window since 1854. No one dares moving it for fear of sparking hostilities. As recent as November 2008, a fistfight erupted between Coptic and Armenian monks. In another incident, a Copt who moved his chair some 20 centimeters to avoid the heat of the sun provoked a fight with Ethiopians that left 11 people hospitalized. Hence, the crumbling state of disrepair of the church’s architecture. Nonetheless, the church’s contrasting African, Latin, Middle Eastern, and East European religious artworks are an enthralling experience to behold. With its beauty, it is all too easy to ignore the unholy tension between the church’s rival custodians.
After visiting holy sites, our pilgrim finds himself strolling through Jerusalem’s Arab Market. Numerous shops selling trinkets, textiles, incense, spices and other items for tourists line the souk. From intricately hand-carved antique hashish pipes to the signature Arab Keffiyeh scarf, to moonstone amulets and earrings, the Arab market offers a veritable treasure trove. But it is also home to the most aggressive and intimidating merchants on Earth.
The affable pilgrim, buoyed by his visit to sacred sights, has only a smile to give to many of the shopkeepers. But some shout out as he walks past, “Why are you walking away while I am talking? Why are you offending me?” Exploiting negative western stereotypes and fears of Arabs, some merchants seek to bully customers into entering their shops. Upon their unsuspecting customer’s entry, some merchants even will have burly men close off the entrances while they forcefully implore the hapless tourist to buy their merchandise. But one only has to politely but firmly stand one’s ground, insist on being let through, and say with a smile, “Kalas” (“Enough” or “No more”). As with most things in the Middle East, it is all part of an act.
When the pilgrim and his fellow travelers arrive at their hotel, they realize to their good fortune that it is the day of the Sabbath. On this sacred day of rest, Jews abstain from all work, domestic or otherwise. Affluent families opt to stay and feast at hotels that entice them with a generous buffet. Needles to say, all food is kosher. After enjoying a sumptuous meal of meats, bread and freshly pressed local olive oil, the elderly Filipino pilgrim makes his way to his room, unmindful of the bomb shelters located at every floor stocked with gasmasks. Such precautions are mandated in Israel.
As he boards an elevator, he attempts a little Hebrew and says, “Shalom.” The bellboy smiles, reveals his identity and replies, “Salam”—Arab for “peace.”