Phillip’s take on Jerusalem

11 Apr

Were I to even begin to try and do justice to my thoughts and experiences in Jerusalem, you’d be reading a book (don’t worry, I won’t do that to you). Rather, I’ll stick to some of the major themes on which I continually ruminated during the six days we were in Jerusalem.First, this trip was different for me. I’ve been to Jerusalem a number of times, and each trip is always different. So, from that standpoint, it was the same (lol). I mean by different that, before going this time, we both knew that it would be our last time going, at least while we live here in the Middle East. Our last trip was only 3 months ago with Rachel’s parents. After we’d returned to Jordan, I decided I already began planning this final trip to coincide with Easter/Passover and decided that I was going to make it the granddaddy of them all. We stayed longer than we have before. And this time it was just the two of us. That meant we set our own schedule (or, to be fair to Rachel, I set a schedule that she was gracious enough to more or less follow). Finally, I’d decided to re-read all the books and information I’d read previously again, along with some new material from recent archaeological digs, etc. I’ve usually given historical comments when we’ve visited sites about which I knew something, but this time I’d read about pretty much every site, so it was really like a tour. Honestly, it was as much for me as it was for Rachel. I process information out loud, so walking around a city that is so rich in history and culture, it helped me to take it in and appreciate it by talking out loud (thanks, RR).

A great view of the Western Wall complex (holiest site in Judaism - below) with the Dome of the Rock on top of the Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary. It's quite busy due to Passover.

A great view of the Western Wall complex (holiest site in Judaism – below) with the Dome of the Rock on top of the Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary. It’s quite busy due to Passover.

The southwestern portion of the city walls (which date from the 16th century AD as they stand now). This view is from "David's Citadel," which is actually an Islamic-period reconstruction of an earlier fortress that Herod had built. It's the most likely site of Jesus' condemnation.

The southwestern portion of the city walls (which date from the 16th century AD as they stand now). This view is from “David’s Citadel,” which is actually an Islamic-period reconstruction of an earlier fortress that Herod had built. It’s the most likely site of Jesus’ condemnation.

Second, in my preparation for the trip, I focused not only on the religiously significant material, but historically and culturally relevant material as well. I really wanted to get a holistic picture. For example, I really wanted to pay attention to the walls this time. The current walls around the Old City date to the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, a 16th century Ottoman Sultan. The story of Jerusalem’s walls is a long and complex one, about which there is some debate. There were already walls when David and his men took the city. Those walls remained and were expanded by the 8th century (at the latest) to the western hill. Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed them, and Nehemiah is said to have still found them in disrepair over a century later. They were rebuilt and expanded several times again, until the city was again laid waste by Titus and his troops in 70 AD (only a portion of the wall was left as a base camp for his troops for over 200 years!). Byzantines and Persians, Arabs, Mamelukes, Ayyubids, Ottomans, British, and finally, Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians have since fought around and over these walls. I thought of the many men who fought and died to possess and protect the city from those walls.

A view of the Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary from south of the Old City. You can see the city walls.

A view of the Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary from south of the Old City. You can see the city walls.

The southern portion of the western retaining wall that Herod had built for the Temple. The pavement is 1st century AD. You can see the initial portion of Robinson's Arch, one of the large arched stepped entrances onto the Temple Mount.

The southern portion of the western retaining wall that Herod had built for the Temple. The pavement is 1st century AD. You can see the initial portion of Robinson’s Arch, one of the large arched stepped entrances onto the Temple Mount.

I also really wanted to focus on the complex that stands atop what the Bible refers to as Mt. Zion, but what Jews have for a long time referred to as Mt. Moriah and the Temple Mount. It’s the spot David purchased and brought the Ark to rest upon. It’s the spot his son, Solomon, is said to have built a magnificent temple (well, not him exactly, more like harshly-treated Israelites and Phoenicians). The Temple was destroyed by that pesky Nebuchadnezzar, re-built by the returnees under Zerubabel, and then completely rebuilt by Herod the Great. Herod, however, didn’t just want to rebuild the temple itself; rather, he wanted to create a huge complex. So he cut away the bedrock to the north of the temple, filled in uneven areas to the east and west with fill, and created a series of underground vaulted chambers to support the southern portion of what is really an esplanade dozens of football fields squared. It was said that, if you hadn’t seen Herod’s temple, you hadn’t truly seen beauty. Ironically, it was finished only two years before the Jewish revolt began, and only six years before Titus’ troops razed it to the ground and pulled down its retaining walls. A portion of the western retaining wall to the temple complex (NOT the temple itself) is what Jews today call the Western Wall (or the Wailing Wall) and what constitutes the holiest site in Judaism. The mount was given the name Moriah because of the later Jewish tradition that says that it was on that same spot that Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac.

A close-up of the Dome of the Rock. It is inlaid with tiny painted pieces of tile, with verses from the Qur'an ringing the structure.

A close-up of the Dome of the Rock. It is inlaid with tiny painted pieces of tile, with verses from the Qur’an ringing the structure.

Atop the since-rebuilt walls of the mount sits one of the oldest examples of Islamic architecture (although it is not typical of Islamic architecture) – the Dome of the Rock. At the southern end of the mount, which the Muslims call al-Haram al-Shareef “The Noble Sanctuary,” sits the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Islamic tradition holds that it is from the rock upon which the Dome of the Rock sits that Muhammad ascended through the levels of heaven on a golden ladder and received, among other things, the commandment to pray 5 times daily. The same rock – a natural part of the bedrock of the mount – is thought by most scholars to be the location of the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple. Rabbinic tradition holds that that same rock was the first stone laid in creation (the foundation stone of the earth), as well as where Adam was created.

It is an awesome and strange place. You can feel the holiness afforded the site by so many, and yet it has become a site where politics and nationalism have collided more and more as well. Many Jews are eager to reclaim the mount and build the third temple, but some see this as something only the Messiah will accomplish. Arabs control it currently and, due to lack of Palestinian control over much of their land and lives, exercise their control with great jealousy and see any encroachment as a threat to Palestine.

Me sitting on stones that were part of Herod's western wall but were pushed down after the Roman general, Titus' men took the Temple Mount in 70 AD.

Me sitting on stones that were part of Herod’s western wall but were pushed down after the Roman general, Titus’ men took the Temple Mount in 70 AD.

Thirdly, I wanted to take in the city as a living city. Despite its small area (less than half a squared mile), it is home to at least 30,000 people, thus it is very much a living city. There are markets and stores just about everywhere you look, along with restaurants and a variety of establishments. The holy and historical are mixed in layers with the modern and, sometimes, the fabricated. Pilgrims of each of the three Abrahamic faiths come and visit, most of the time walking through and among the faithful of one religion to get somewhere else. To get up to the Muslim Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount) you cross through the open Western Wall plaza. The Via Dolorosa (The way of sorrows, that is, the cross), the path tradition holds that Jesus walked with the cross to Golgotha, is largely in the Muslim quarter. The “Citadel of David” (actually a Hasmonean/Herodian palace that was rebuilt as a fort) straddles the line between the Christian and Armenian quarters.

We would often just wander around the old city from quarter to quarter and notice the different activities afoot in each quarter. It’s remarkable how diverse and different the modes of religious practice that take place in each quarter are, while at the same time how similar they are. Jerusalem represents so many things. History, faith, culture. It represents the central point for so many. It is a city of dreams, of longing. It plays a central role in the world to come in each of the three faiths. It is, however, a city of division and strife, with so many of those dreams and beliefs opposed to one another. It is often remarked that the different faiths tolerate each other in the city. That is true to a great degree. However, I think they tolerate each other because, aside from the police force that enforces it, each believes that, one day, they won’t have to tolerate the other anymore. One day, the city will cease being theirs only partially, and become theirs fully. One day, it will reflect the realization of their hopes and longings and faith.

My personal dream would be that their visions would change – that they would begin to encompass each other. That Jerusalem would ring with a diversity that is cherished, as it is already by me now. I love walking among Muslims gathered together to study the Qur’an on the Noble Sanctuary on my way to visit the Haredi Jews at the wall, the various churches in the Holy Sepulcher, etc. Jerusalem is a unique city, which has to be experienced to be believed. It’s something a little different for everyone. For me, it is the center of all of my interests and passions. It is for me, as it is for countless others, and has been for many throughout the past four thousand years, the center of the world.

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3 Responses to “Phillip’s take on Jerusalem”

  1. Reg Stokes April 11, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    Wow, son..awesome!                              

  2. Sharon Dyar April 12, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

    Thank you,reading and seeing this makes my heart full!You and Rachel should write a book!

    • Joanna April 13, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

      So impressed with y’all. I am amazed!

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