The first thing that strikes you when you land at Tel Aviv is the modern monumentalism of Ben Gurion airport. This is tiny country with a big sense of its own importance.
Next it’s the laconic attitude of the old Romanian mini bus driver who has no intention of leaving for Jerusalem until he has reached his full compliment. So almost an hour later we are ready to go. The mixed lot of passengers somehow reflects the multiculturalism of the country where 120 nationalities live.
First there is the beautiful young Palestinian woman with her baby who are home from Saudi Arabia for one of their regular visits. We detour and drop her off at a village outside the city limits.
There are 3 smart young Chinese tourists from London, a South African middle-aged man coming for a retreat in an Orthodox monastery. Then there are the two mid 30’s American women who have come from the Greek Islands and belying their hippy look, seem to be short on time since they want to know if they can “do” the Old City and the Dead Sea in one day. Obviously ticking their way through a bucket list!
Finally I arrive through a pedestrianized area at the Arthur hotel named for Arthur Balfour of the famous Declaration.
The downtown centre and the suburbs are clean, green, sand hued and multicultural. Splashed with the distinctive clothing of the Conservative Jew, Sephardic or Hasidic, there is an easy colourful street life with bars and restaurants lining streets in the centre.
Young soldiers often attractive and vivacious girls, sometimes smoking, are frequent sights nonchalantly dangling their Uzis. But there is no sense of insecurity on the streets although we are told of frequent universal text messaging to warn citizens of any potential troubles.
The first shock is realising that most of the urban fabric has been built since the late 1800s; back then various national interests established large institutions, like the German Hospital, in the central core of Jerusalem near the Old City. That practice continues albeit on an individual/family basis rather than a national level. Many a mega wealthy overseas Jew has endowed the city with a grand building dedicated to a worthy cause.
The outskirts of the city, all the major centres and suburbs are mostly the result of population growth particularly since 1948. The city centre was once 6 sq ks; greater Jerusalem is now 70 sq ks.
From the trams regularly travelling the main street to and from the Old City to the wider freeway infrastructure through out the country, you have to be amazed at all that has been achieved in the past 75 years.
The Old City
This is the magnet and the contested. Roughly one square kilometre, this walled city is the current manifestation of layers of cultures, kingdoms and religions ruled by different nations since the 11thcentury BC.
Until the mid 19thcentury this Old City constituted most of the city of Jerusalem. It is recorded on the World Heritage List.
Here are located key sites of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Were the world a sane place, these religions would live there happily together in the spirit of their teachings.
The Old City was formally designated into 4 uneven quarters in the19th century although traditionally the 4 areas had existed for centuries.
Those quarters are:
- the Christian quarter (pop around 5.500) where one can find the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre;
- the Muslim quarter (population over 30,000);
- the Jewish quarter (population 4000 plus; and
- the Armenian quarter (pop 500)
The population figures I give are estimates only and given only to show the order of difference.
In some streets in the Palestinian area people are moving out because the shops in the Old City are closing and they have to shop outside the walls.
The (Muslim) Dome on the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are found on the (Jewish) Temple Mount; hence an uneasy peace sits over this area that has the Jewish Western Wall as its base. In1967, during the Six Day War there was hand-to-hand fighting on the Temple Mount when Israeli forces captured the Old City. Today, the Israeli government controls the entire area.
When we were there armed police escorted a few Jewish faithful across the open ground in front of the Mosque and the Dome on the Rock to the sealed Golden Gate located slightly below the level of the Temple Mount. According to the Jews when the Messiah comes, he will enter Jerusalem through this gate. To prevent him from coming, the Muslims sealed the gate during the reign of Suleiman.
The struggle is obviously a Jewish/ Palestinian one. Three Jewish army security towers guard the Damascus Gate, the only gate they guard. This is where where Palestinians enter the city since it is near the terminal for buses from the north, the area where most Palestinians outside the city live.
Groups of young heavily armed police are also at the intersections of the various religious quarters in the city. When I asked one what he was doing there without hesitation he said that they were on the lookout for young Palestinian troublemakers.
I was told that young Palestinian men under the age of 35 are not allowed to enter the Old City to go to the Dome on the Rock for Friday prayers unless they can prove they are married with children. All Palestinian men under 50 and women under 40 have to show their identity cards at the gate.
Walking through the Muslim quarter, it is clear that the Jews are trying to establish Settlements within the Muslim areas of the Old City and it is estimated that 1,000 Jews now live there. Mostly these Jew are the ultra conservatives who are determined that all Jerusalem will be theirs.
I saw a Jewish father with an obvious gun showing as he escorted a tiny child hand in hand from school. Schools are being established in the Old City and it is easy to pick where they are as security cameras focus on the narrow cobbled street in both directions. If any Jewish person or child leaving school exits these enclaves they have a private security firm protecting them, one man in front and one behind.
And all this dance of dare goes on in a tiny walled city packed with oblivious tourists who are simply signposted through the Christian and Jewish quarters.
The Christian quarter where Christ’s Way of the Cross is marked and where the Church, built at the site believed to be where he was crucified and later rose from the dead, is thronged with the faithful.
I couldn’t help thinking that these sites, as were others in this country, which are seminal to Christian belief and practice are, in fact, not all that physically imposing. Perhaps emptied of the queuing pilgrims who seemed to be dominated by those from Africa and South America the days I was there, perhaps in silence it might be different; there might be an aura.
Outside the Old City across a deep ravine, is the hill known as the Mount of Olives mentioned in the New Testament. At the foot of the slope is a church abutting the Garden of Gethsemane, built here in remembrance of the night before his crucifixion when Jesus prayed while his disciples slept.
Down the side of the Mount demonstrating again the entwinement of the religions are Jewish graves. They are vying to be close to the sealed Golden Gate on the other side of the ravine where the messiah will appear and the Just will enter the Old City on Judgment Day. It seems everyone wants to be close to the Messiah when he gets there as the burial sites are fiercely sought after.