Jerusalem is a city where you can go to the same place every day and never have the same experience twice. For example, I think I have been inside the Church of the Resurrection three times. I was interested the first time, quite moved the second time, and rather put off the third time. I will go back, of course. The old city in particular is beautiful, but not really photogenic. The pictures in Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s cookbook are taken by professionals. Even though I’m no great photographer, and usually just have an iPhone for a camera, this place is especially hard to photograph well, and the photograph rarely captures much of what it was about a place or a moment that made such an impression. The other night, I was on a rooftop from which I could see the Church of the Resurrection, the Church of the Redeemer, the Mosque of Omar, the Dome of the Rock, and the Mount of Olives under a full moon. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen, and this doesn’t begin to do it justice.
Anger and sorrow are never far away though. Outside the building, a major thoroughfare had been blocked off to Palestinians, I gather to keep it clear and—I hate this word—secure for Jews going to the Western Wall for Succoth. I’m all for the Jewish community celebrating a divinely appointed festival safely. It’s just that it was done—and is always done—entirely on Israel’s terms. On another night, there might be no blockade (inshallah), but the moon might not be full, I might not have just heard such a good presentation at the Swedish Christian Study Center, or whatever showed itself on Tuesday might just not choose to show itself again. That’s Jerusalem for you.
At a social function last week, I asked a couple of people who have lived here longer than me what the most transparently holy place in Jerusalem is. Here are my own answers. They contradict one another. I haven’t visited every holy place in Jerusalem even once. I am a newcomer here, and will be leaving about the time I start to be less of a newcomer. Ask me again in December when I leave, and I might give you a different answer. Ask me again tomorrow, and I might give you a different answer. But at the moment, I think the most transparently holy place in Jerusalem is…
Chapel and Mosque of the Ascension
On the Mount of Olives, there are several places commemorated by various Christians (and in this case, Muslims) as the site of the Lord’s Ascension. This is one of them. The site was among those discovered by St. Helena. It is very easy to be cynical about Helena’s methods and motives, but I find that it is best to just set that aside, at least for a while. There have been a couple of churches on this site over the centuries, housing a stone with what are said to be the footprints of Jesus at the moment of the Ascension. Again, best to just go along with it. What stands today is the remains of a 12th century structure: a small rotunda housing the stone. You can go in for a small fee. There is usually a tour group.
What is particularly remarkable about this site is that it is on the grounds of a mosque. The crusader church was converted to a mosque by Saladin, but kept open to Christian pilgrims. Due to the large number of pilgrims, they built the prayer hall of the mosque adjacent to the shrine so that it can easily be used by anyone. This sharing is perhaps as much of what makes the site holy as what happened there. Still, when I went there three years ago, I was quite taken with the last place where Jesus stood on earth before he “ascended high above all things, that he might fill all things.” It’s very hard to explain why, but it’s something about the simultaneous presence and absence. Furthermore, being on the Mount of Olives, it overlooks the Kidron Valley, which is usually identified with the “Valley of Jehosephat,” where the Lord will judge the nations.
The last specific thing Jesus touched before he ascended to fill all things. A place where reverencing the holy doesn’t require exclusive possession of the holy. The place where “the Lord will judge.”
I don’t have a picture on my computer or phone, and wouldn’t be able to take a good one anyway. By the way, this is not the only place in the world were Christians and Muslims both worship. It’s not even that uncommon. There is also a mosque on the grounds of St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai peninsula.
Then again, maybe the most transparently holy place in Jerusalem is…
The Noble Sanctuary (or the Temple Mount. Same place.)
If the first place is sharing done right, here it’s not being done very well at the moment, though there have been whole centuries in which it was better.
There’s a rock here too. Everybody has a story about this rock. It might be the place where God began the creation of the world. It might be the place where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac. It does seem to be the place where the Holy of Holies once stood in the first and second temples, where nobody was supposed to enter except for the high priest, and only on Yom Kippur.
For Muslims, this rock was the point from which Muhammed began his journey into heaven, after he was transported from Mecca to “the farthest mosque.” The stone in question is underneath the Dome of the Rock, which is easily the most recognizable thing in Jerusalem. The farthest mosque, which is what al-Masjid al-Aqsa means, is on the eastern edge of the complex. The Western Wall below is not part of the former temple, but the edge of the plateau on which the temple stood, constructed in its present form by Herod.
I have always found something very compelling about the common Jewish notion that only the Messiah can rebuild the temple, and that the place is best avoided in the meantime. Very few Jews have any interest whatsoever in rebuilding the temple. They instead worship at the outer wall of where the temple once stood, and will stand again in the messianic age. It reminds me of how in the apophatic tradition, the divine essence is unknowable, and even Moses is not thought to have seen God so much as the place where God dwells. God is fully present, and yet there is more to God than is accessible to us.
Christians have usually focused their attentions elsewhere in Jerusalem. Most of us believe that Jesus is in some sense the third temple. But Jesus was here too for the Presentation, his being found in the Temple, and his teachings in the final week of his life. The crusaders of course put the complex to Christian use, but were driven out again, thank God.
The Jordanian foundation that administers the site is obliged to allow non-Muslims to visit during certain hours, but not to engage in any outwardly visible form of worship. I went up onto the Temple Mount three years ago during non-Muslim visiting hours. In retrospect, I probably should not have. It’s one of the few things left for Palestinians that is mostly off-limits to others. The visits are a source of tension. And when someone causes trouble, the police intervene and Palestinians get arrested. When I went up there, it was before the troubles of 2015 had really gotten going. I was impressed by how quiet it was. Noble Sanctuary is not just a name; it really feels like a sanctuary. It’s beautiful. And its holy, but not in a way that knocked me over.
I think what make the place so appealing to me is how it is at once the center of the world, and also its farthest edge. It’s the beginning of creation, but it’s also the uninhabited Mount Moriah to which Abraham must journey for three days. It’s the holy of holies, but most Jewish life and even most of the ancient temple liturgy is conducted elsewhere. It’s the farthest mosque. The people who pray outside face the temple complex; the people who pray inside face elsewhere.
But actually, I think the holiest place in Jerusalem is…
Damascus Gate and the Arab Market
Damascus Gate is one of the main entrances into the Old City, and the main way into the Muslim Quarter. It’s from out in front of it that I and many others got my first view of the Dome of the Rock. Right inside the gate is a market that is one of the major commercial centers of East Jerusalem. There are stalls catering to tourists, but this is also where many Palestinian residents of Jerusalem do their essential shopping (tip: there’s another market just outside the gate and across the street; it’s often less hectic and a bit cheaper, but not always). To me, this is Jerusalem. People are always coming and going.
There are the more permanent shops and stalls, but there are also women who find a place to sit and sell herbs and fruits from their gardens. There are a few bottlenecks, and you often have to move out of the way for delivery carts. It’s chaos, only compounded by tourists and pilgrims. Nevertheless, I am much more comfortable bringing my obscenely wide double-stroller here than most other places in Jerusalem. It’s always a mess here, so people are used to having to walk bit creatively.
This may be the Muslim Quarter, but it’s also the best way to get to the Holy Sepulcher, and the Via Dolorosa runs through here.
This makes for an interesting mix of worlds. Life is going on on the narrow streets, and then a tour group comes through taking up three quarters of the street. Or is it a procession of pilgrims? What’s the difference, anyway? Some are pretty clearly here to have an experience that they’ve bought and paid for. Some are here to pray, and might be quite open-minded about what that means. I’ve been annoyed by them and assertively pushed my way through. I’ve also been very touched, and have risked blocking traffic myself in order to listen to them sing, or join in the singing. I’ve also been annoyed with locals, and they’ve been annoyed with me. (Midwesterner with a dash of southern that I am, I know that a smile and a pleasant greeting don’t necessarily mean somebody doesn’t want to kill you.) They also pronounce blessings on me and my children, and I on them and theirs. Might some people have mostly been annoyed when Roman soldiers paraded through here with yet another man to be executed? Probably. And some also blessed him.
They say that this land is the fifth gospel. It is, but only because there are people here. If you come here to pray, you have to pray among the people who are trying to survive an occupation. They may be annoyed with you sometimes, and sometimes they may pray with you.