Wednesday, July 2, 2008


May I never let go of the feeling of experiencing Jerusalem for the first time. The challenge of writing this blog is that now I have to try to find the words with which to describe it. I’m not sure I can, but here are four different ways of trying.

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It’s tempting to describe entering the Old City as “taking a step back in time,” but that would sell the experience short. What is special about the Old City is that you are at once in the present and very connected with the past, in a place where so many cultures mingle that Jerusalem seems at once foreign and familiar.

* * * * *

Walk through Damascus Gate and enter the Old City through the Muslim Quarter. You are in the suq, the pale stone of the old city’s walls filled with shops and markets selling everything imaginable – jewelry, vegetables, knickknacks, radios. Different languages compete for your attention – Arabic, Hebrew, English, French – as you wander through the marketplace, trying to take it all in. The shopkeepers try to lure you in as you pass by (“I just want to take your money, that’s all,” one salesperson calls out with refreshing candor). Arab children help out in the shops, sorting fruit and ferrying brass trays that carry cups of tea and glassfuls of mint lemonade to and from friends in neighboring shops.

The corner of your eye catches a gesture from a tour guide. He is speaking a language you can’t understand, but you follow his hand to a round, bronze disk that contains the Roman numeral IV. It is the fourth Station of the Cross. Without even looking for it, you’ve found the Way of the Cross, the route Christ is believed to have walked between his conviction and crucifixion, a path that is holy to millions. It is so totally intertwined with all of the commercial activity of tourism and Jerusalemites going about their daily business that you could have walked past it. But you are suddenly reminded that you are walking on streets that have been travelled for centuries, streets whose precursors were the paths worn by the prophets, religious and cultural leaders, of the millennia. You feel somehow connected with all of them.

* * * * *

An hour later, you prepare to exit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where many believe Christ lived his last hours, died, and been resurrected. The outside is unremarkable. The interior is dark and labyrinthine, and you’ve just finished wandering its many chapels, most of which are controlled by separate Christian groups (Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic etc.) which gives the experience of the Church a sort of randomness. You start to leave the Church, passing by the stone of unction, where Christ’s body is said to have been prepared after his death. People walk into the church, kneel down before the stone, and place their foreheads on it. The piety of the gesture is deeply moving.

From the dark you step out of the church into the full heat of the noontime sun. The sun reflects off of the pale stone of the walks of the church, pulling your eyes up to the blue sky. The air fills with the sound of the Muslim call to prayer, broadcast over speakers from nearby mosques. Tourists wearing shorts migrate to the few feet of shade at the sides of the square in front of the church, while women in full chador jostle past them on their way to mosque or market. The sentiment “Welcome to Jerusalem” could not be conveyed more meaningfully if the mayor of the city stood there welcoming you with open arms.

* * * * *

Or, here’s another way of saying it: I can’t believe I have lived on this earth forty (okay, okay, 41) years and not experienced this before.

I’m hooked. And I am going back tomorrow.


Julie said...

Couldn't be a more poignant contrast between what you wrote and what we saw today. Frankly, when you said you were going back tomorrow you scared the crap out of me, and had me scrambling to see when you posted. "Take care" is entirely inadequate, but seriously, take care.

Love and hugs.

Merry said...

I caught up on all your posts yesterday and the new one this evening. The sights and sounds, colors and flavors, light and shadows in your writing are arresting, especially when all the posts are read together.

I am adding my comment here rather than after the most recent one because this one (and also the earlier section on human history, and probably others too) made me think of this quote, so I found my copy of it to type for you:

"What we are is in part only of our making; the greater part of ourselves has come down to us from the past. What we know and what we think is not a new fountain gushing fresh from the barren rock of the unknown at the stroke of the rod of our own intellect; it is a stream which flows by us and through us, fed by the far-off rivulets of long ago."

I forwarded your link to my mother--I thought she would be interested, esp. in the historic sites of the multiple religions etc. She told me tonight that she read all the posts and really likes your writing. I think she will probably comment soon.

I am looking forward to reading more of what you see.

Take care.