We climb the highway from the Dead Sea, into the steep and dusty crags leading to the ancient city. We pass a sign carved into the rock that marks sea level and we keep climbing. The terrain is dry and sandy, an almost uniform beige, with hardly a sprig of green. We pass two arabs, herding a flock of goats just off the highway. Just beyond them, tucked between the slopes and ridges of rock and sand is a collection of roughly assembled shanties.
We continue to ascend into the hills and begin to see housing developments clustered on the sides and tops of the peaks. Some are perched above long banks of stone wall that is all that prevents them from tumbling into the valleys below. Others seemed to be carved out of the very rock.
Jerusalem rises out of the dessert mountains as we wind our way into its heart. We are seeking the old, walled city, but it is wrapped in another, modern version. We pass massive hotels, a university, the Knesset – centre of government. Even the YMCA is housed in a structure that might pass for some ancient temple.
We reach the walled city and see towers and domes rising from within. Signs point to the Damascus Gate in one direction, the Jaffa gate in the other. We are entering a realm of both history and myth, and soon we are walking narrow winding paths of smooth but uneven, cobbled stone. In North America, we marvel at places that are four hundred years old, but here we’re talking four thousand and some. And it feels that ancient, despite the long streets of vendors selling cheap tourist goods, with all the same, stupid t-shirts, mugs and keychains as any other tourist destination.
We walk past the Tower of King David and, referencing a map, head for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It’s obviously the centre of attention, so we enter and meander through it, but none of us has done enough research to realize its full significance until we’ve left and browsed through the pamphlets we’ve collected. We saw and touched the stone slab that Yeshua’s body was reputedly laid out on, and we saw the crowd waiting to see his tomb, but the literature tells us that the church is erected over the very spot where he was raised and died on the cross. “The actual spot?” I wonder. “Do they know, or was it an educated guess?” I imagine that, at the time, and for decades after, it wasn’t a spot of particular note.
But what really strikes me is how open and accessible the church is. We meander freely, in and out of chambers and halls, witnessing various devotional rituals as we pass them. The walls are covered in classic paintings of Christ, but there isn’t a rope, a pane of bullet-proof glass or a “Do not Touch” sign to be seen, anywhere. Amazing.
Another huge surprise comes when we enter the Muslim Quarter of the Old City (the others are Christian, Jewish and...Armenian?) and find that it’s populated. Families are living in these houses that must be many hundreds (or thousands?) of years old. But unlike in the ancient port of Jaffa that we visited while touring Tel Aviv, there are no luxury condos here. These are poor families; the kids running over the cobblestones are in well-worn clothing, and the old men sitting together in front of a tiny coffee shop wear faces as much carved by time and wear as the arched doorways.
It’s in the Jewish quarter where we encounter our only substantial security presence. The Wailing Wall is barricaded, we pass through metal detectors and there are soldiers everywhere. It is the eve of the Israeli national holiday, and ceremonies are to take place, but it all accents the striking differences among the zones.
Exiting the Old City, then the modern, thriving metropolis, amounts to a descent back into the desert. You fall out of Jerusalem into the forbidding wasteland. It’s a realm of stunning contrast. A city of the desert rising up to the Heavens; a place that figures as much in the daily headlines as in the texts of antiquity. And resting virtually on the border of the long-contested West Bank.
I like this place more than I ever thought I would. It is beautiful and haunted. I recall that the most poignant scene of one of my favorite novels, The Master & Margarita, takes place here – that curious reconstruction of Pilate’s interview with Yeshua, that almost convinces you that a previously unknown witness was in the room.
I can’t imagine having the name Jerusalem in my mailing address. But wouldn’t I love to spend a season here, tasting all of these flavors more deeply! The desert is so silent and dark as we drive north toward Tiberias. There’s a full moon rising over the Jordan River. Doesn’t that name bring back memories – those voices rising up in song in my grandfather’s Baptist church in Detroit, almost half a world away and a lifetime ago. “Roll, Jordan, Roll!” Image that!