In the days following my trip to Bethlehem for Christmas, I spent my time exploring the rest of Jerusalem. While I greatly enjoyed wandering the city with my friend Ron, now I had a opportunity take leisurely strolls through town, revisit the sights to take all my pictures, and explore distant places we didn’t have time for earlier in the week. Jerusalem is a remarkably fascinating city to learn about and I am repeatedly surprised by how many important religious landmarks are crammed into this relatively small plot of land. To any travelers out there considering a visit to Israel, I highly recommend spending at least a week in Jerusalem, there is far too much to see in just a couple days. Today I want to share my three favorite attractions in Jerusalem: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock.
Conveniently they even cover the three major religions in the region. Bonus points for equal representation!
From a Christian perspective, my favorite stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified and buried. When I first walked into the building, I was surprised by how disheveled and dilapidate the interior was. Many of the stones in the common areas are badly damaged and while some have been removed, instead of replacing them new stones, they just covered the hole with a piece of particle board. Moreover, many of the walls are covered in scaffolding that hadn’t been moved in years and there are piles of construction material in the corners of the building. Considering the church sits on the location where Jesus died and was buried, I thought there would be more of an effort to keep the building looking nice for pilgrims.
Apparently, the common areas in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are split among seven different Christian denominations: Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox Church, Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox. Years ago, the groups agreed to Status Quo stipulating that nothing in the common areas of the church could be changed, altered, or even so much as moved without unanimous consent of all parties involved. It should come as no surprise that the various denomination rarely ever agree on anything and, as a result, the building has remained unchanged for centuries. The church is in desperate need of repairs after years of neglect, but not a single stone, piece of scaffolding, or pile of construction material can be moved without everyone’s agreement.
What could go wrong?
Just to drive home the idiocy of the whole matter, above the main entrance to the church is a small wooden stepladder, dubbed the “Immovable Ladder,” that has come to represent the absurd political gridlock among the seven denominations. Apart from being temporarily moved on two occasions, the ladder has remained in the same exact same spot for the last 200 years! Under the Status Quo Agreement nothing – not even a ladder - can be legally be moved without the unanimous consent of all parties. While the ladder is now a comical tourist attraction I feel it accurately summarizes the ridiculous religious issues that plague this region of the world.
And as if it the situation weren't convoluted enough, in 1187 a Muslim family were given the keys to the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To this day the family is still responsible for opening/closing the doors each day.
From a Jewish perspective, my favorite spot is the world-renowned Western Wall. I remember learning in school about the conflict surrounding the wall the landmark’s significance among the Jewish community. The wall used to be part of a massive temple complex built on a hill called Temple Mount that once housed the Holy of Holies; the most sacred place on Earth in Judaism. The area is important for three reasons: 1) it is believed that God’s divine presence manifests here more than another other location on earth 2) that from this spot Earth expanded into it’s present form and 3) this is where God gathered the dust to create Adam. The temple was destroyed years ago and since the exact location of the Holy of Holies is no longer known, many Jews do not walk on Temple Mount to avoid unintentionally entering the sacred area. Instead, Jews congregate along the last surviving wall of the ancient temple to pray as it is the closest they can get to the Holy of Holies.
While I’m not Jewish (much to the disappointment of the numerous people who repeatedly asked me during my visit) the dozens of people lining the walls reading from their prayer books creates a remarkably unique atmosphere. Religious opinions aside, it is a wonderful feeling to be among individuals who believe in something so strongly. While I do not share their religious views, the pilgrims gathered at the Wall were all very accepting and I never felt anxious that I’d inadvertently offend someone. I’ll never forget the experience of standing shoulder to shoulder among the hordes of people who’d flocked from all corners of the world to pray along the Wall. While I know I didn’t fully appreciate it, it is a mesmerizing experience to run your fingers along the gargantuan stones and know that you are standing just feet away from a place so many people consider the holiest spot in the world.
From a Muslim perspective, my favorite stop was the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount. Like so many buildings before this, much of my fascination with this building is the result of the art history class I took back high school that I referenced during my visit to the Hagia Sophia. There are a number of aspects about the building that I remember studying all those years ago, and to finally see it in person is quite remarkable. Thanks to rampant religious issues of the region, entrance to the top of Temple Mount is restricted to non-Muslim visitors to four hours each day, is closed Friday through Sunday, requires a security check beforehand, and the whole schedule is subject to change without notice. Getting onto Temple Mount requires a fair bit of patience and perseverance, but even if you do make it up, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock!
Even with all of the frustrations and time spent waiting in line, I have to say it was worth it. There are few buildings as iconic as the Dome of the Rock and up close it is truly a wonder to behold. The entire perimeter of the octagonal structure is covered with elaborate mosaics of bright blue tiles that reflect the radiant sky above and capped with a giant dome gilded in 80 kilograms of gold (~176 pounds). Each of the small arches along the sides contains intricate designs made of various color ties ranging from white, green, and yellow and along the top is a banner with beautiful Arabic calligraphy - I can’t understand a word of it, but it doesn’t deter one bit from its beauty. This relatively modest little structure has stood in this basic form for the last 1,300 years and houses the Foundation Stone that Muslims believed is where Muhammad ascended into heaven and spoke with God. Coincidentally, this where many Jews believe where the Holy of Holies is located.
This is why I love Jerusalem, the spot where Christians believe Jesus ascended into heaven (The Chapel of Ascension), Muslims believe Muhammad ascended into heaven (The Foundation Stone), and where the Jews believe the entire Earth was created around (The Holy of Holies) are all within two miles of each other!
Moreover, Muslims and Jews believe their holy spots are the same plot of land!
While a never-ending source of conflict for the region, I will say it is convenient for travelers.
Temple Mount can be seen in less than an hour, but be prepared to deal with a crowd of individuals attempting to sell you tours of the area when you first enter. Personally, I find it a bit sacrilegious considering the “holiness” of the site, but really I just hate being hassled two steps into the facility. Once past the tour guides the atmosphere changes dramatically with people going about their day, children playing in the open areas, and dozens of people spread out around the Dome of the Rock reading/discussion the Quran in circles. Off in the distance I saw the Mount of Olives under the midday sun and it finally hit me, I was physically standing on Temple Mount, one of the most world-renowned, iconic locations in all if Israel!
And this was just another “normal” Friday in my life!
Jerusalem holds many treasures and even though I’ve been here for almost a week, I’ve only just scratched the surface of this great city. I’m thankful for the time I got to spend here, but I have new adventures lined up and I don’t have a moment to lose. I’ll be back, but for now I’m off to visit the ancient city of Masada and float in the famous Dead Sea!