Where stories are more important than facts

Jerusalem is perhaps the weirdest place I have ever been. It’s like Disney Land for religion. Want to see where Jesus had the Last Supper? The queue is quite big over here, why not go to the Amharic one in the old town? Fancy seeing the rock where Abraham prepared to sacrifice one of his sons to God and where the prophet Muhammed ascended to heaven? Sorry, it’s closed today for tourists but why not go touch the stone Jesus was laid upon after the crucifixion? Or pop over to the Western wall to slip a note to the Almighty? All of these things are within a 2km radius and you can see them all in one day. People in unusual clothing are everywhere, from monks in scratchy looking robes to Hisidic Jews with their big furry hats, nuns in wimples, men in skull caps and fedoras, women in all sorts of veils.

As an athiest, I find faith a bit baffling. Perhaps I am closed minded. Perhaps I don’t want to understand. I just don’t really get how you can take that kind of leap beyond imagination and believe that something out there other than a person is watching you (surely that is a bit creepy?) and then take all this time to do all these things to fulfil that belief. I’m fine with people believing and living by their own principles, but personally I feel I’m better off without it. I just couldn’t get the way some people were acting at some of the sites; what were they feeling and why? I walked around muted, trying not to stare and invade people’s privacy, although their emotion and prayers were often so public.

I love history though and I adore a good yarn, so the Holy City was not wasted on me, although it was all met with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Unlike Jesus, who could’t afford to stay in the old town and had to rough it on the Mount of Olives, we were flush enough to stay at the Citadel hostel, which had rooms like little caves and an unbelievable view from the roof terrace.The old city alone is worth seeing:it’s a rabbit warren of closes, twisting alleyways, covered markets, all made from the same yellowy stone. The floor is shiny and smooth from the thousands of feet that must unwittingly polish it every week. It sometimes feels like tunnelling. At night, the alleys are deserted, except for a silhouette crossing in the distance, a cat or a man (rarely a woman).

view from the roof of our the hostel; the rooftops of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives

We did a walking tour (no surprises there) that took us round the 4 quarters of the city; Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian. Why Armenian I hear you say? They were some of the first Christians and settled here early. We leant about how the Crusaders clearly didn’t have a tour guide when they arrived so gave lots of things the wrong name. They also brought lots of cats to keep the rats away, so you could say cats are now the fifth resident group. If you find a way up above the street level in the old city, a lot of the rooftops are actually connected so you can walk all over. The city is divided by it’s people, united by it’s rooftops, or so the saying goes.

It’s the kind of place where you come away with more questions than answers. For instance, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you see a slab of marble on which Jesus is believed to have been crucified, the stone on which his body is believed to have been annoited after the crucifixion, and the tomb in which his body was laid in. Maybe I am being picky, but it all seemed suspiciously close. Did no one else think that? Were they disappointed? Or did it not really matter? Perhaps I missed the point?

Hugo never actually made it into the tomb. I had given him (already laden with stuff) my  open bottle of water while I took a picture of some of the lanterns hanging from the roof of the church while we were in the queue. On entering the tomb, you have to bend double as the door is tiny. As I squeezed through the hole I heard the sound of water splattering on the sacred stone floor behind me and then the angry Greek Orthodox queue manager shouting, “OUT! OUT! OOOUUUT!!!” I was left to contemplate the tiny tomb by myself while the “doorman” was trying to catch his breath. No unholy water, rebaptisms or sheepish Québécois are permitted in the tomb. Poor Hugo, a long pilgrimage and no compensation.

It was a Friday the day we were there, which meant the Dome on the Rock/Temple Mount /the Foundation Stone was shut for Friday prayers. Instead we went down to the Western Wall (literally the Western wall of a temple built around the aforementioned rock where Abraham and Muhammed did their things, on which stands a beautiful golden domed Mosque). Jews are not generally permitted hereto pray at this special rock, so the Western Wall is as close as they can get. The history of this piece of land with a rock sticking out of it is so complicated and contentious, I fear I am over-simplifying and/or offending someone of some faith somewhere. Apologies, please don’t troll me.

The wall is also known as the wailing wall, although this is seen by some as derogatory. No wailing took place when I was there, just lots of praying and head bobbing, whispering and sometimes groaning. The wall is split by gender, so I went off to my side and got into the spirit of things, screwing up a tiny note with a wish and slotting it into the wall along with everyone else. The wall probably spat it back out. No wishes for heathens. We stayed to watch the Shabbat celebrations and the plaza in front of the wall filled up with about a thousand people, praying, dancing, singing. It looked like fun but I’m not sure we would have been welcome, not knowing any of the songs or the prayers or the real meaning of what was taking place.

Shabbat celebrations at the Western Wall, with the Dome of the Rock in background

Seeing Jerusalem was a fascinating and baffling experience. In each quarter of the city, you can’t help but try to think about the things you have seen and learned from from the point of view of the residents: Arabic, Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Armenian,and all else besides. This shifting perspective means that it feels like the city slides about in front of you, difficult to grasp but always interesting to watch.

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