Jerusalem: The Holiest of the Holy

Text: Žikica Milošević

The world’s holiest city, so sacred to all three major monotheistic religions, and a city that has been a symbol of discord over the centuries, is the disputed capital of Israel, Jerusalem; a city loaded with holy sites.

The heart of the Middle East is composed of several cities, and standing out the most among them are those with names carried by ancient poetry: Damascus, Jaffa, Baghdad and, of course, the most sacred and most coveted of all, Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was divided immediately after the British withdrawal: East Jerusalem belonged to Jordan, while West Jerusalem went to Israel. The Old City and the Mount of Olives became part of Jordan and a visit to Jerusalem meant a visit to two countries. Since 1967, however, Jerusalem has been again unified under Israeli rule. The colours, smell, tastes and sounds of the city are something that cannot be easily forgotten, as it was right here that almost all of the main prophets were born and died, resurrected and ascended skywards.

Jerusalem is a serious metropolis with modern roads, the Calatrava Bridge, modern trams and all the other wonders of the modern world. It is located at a site where the sky is close, and from there, in the desert, it is easiest to think about eternity. That’s perhaps why Jerusalem has been the “most productive city” for religious thought since time immemorial. There are also older cities, and those with longer artistic or military tradition and impressive buildings, but this is undoubtedly the planet’s most magical city. Jerusalem, whose name in Hebrew (Yershalayim) means “city of peace”, has always been condemned to live completely contrary to its name: tensions around it continue to this day.

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Historically, Jerusalem has been the spiritual centre of Judaism since 1000 B.C., when King David established the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel right here. This Jewish city gained even more meaning when David’s son, Solomon, built the most sacred temple dedicated to Yahweh, today known as the “First Temple”. However, as the torture and execution of Christ also happened here, the city also became sacred for Christians, with its many holy site of striking beauty. To complicate matters even further, Muslims also consider this as being their holy city, the third most important after Mecca and Medina, mentioned in the Quran as the place of the “Farthest Mosque”. The farthest mosque was built on the site from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven, precisely on the site of the Temple Mount. Throughout its history, the city’s administration has changed hands as many as 44 times.

For the Jews, who were the first to declare this city as being sacred, the most important location is the Western Wall, which is located on Zion Hill and also marks the site of the tomb of King David. Here is also the place where Abraham (Ibrahim for Muslims) started executing his son Isaac (as a sacrifice) following Yahweh’s command, but God prevented him from doing that and sent an angel to stay his hand, satisfied with his fidelity. It was here that King David made the sacred Ark of the Covenant. According to legend, it was here that the world separated from chaos during Genesis… King Solomon built the First Temple here, but it was destroyed by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586BC. The temple was rebuilt by Herod the Great and renamed the Second Temple. A Jewish uprising resulted in the Romans destroying Jerusalem and the Temple, and on the same site they erected – at the time of Emperor Hadrian – a pagan city called Aelia Capitolina and a temple dedicated to the their god, Jupiter (it is interesting that Hadrian first introduced the name “Palaestina” for this region). Only the west wall of the great Jewish temple remained. This wall, due to the tragic history of the Jews and the building itself, is today known as the Wailing Wall.

The most popular form of prayer today is to write wishes on pieces of paper and insert them into the cracks in the wall, while it is also possible to send a letter addressed “God, the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, Israel,” which will be neatly tucked into the wall by a postman! After a while, pieces of paper and letters are sent to the Cemetery of Desires. Just as all Muslim places of worship face Mecca, so all the world’s synagogues (at least their altars) face the Wailing Wall. The mosque known as the Temple on the Wall was built in 692AD, when the Muslims snatched Syria from the Byzantines in a violent rush. The mosque, which is also the oldest standing Islamic building in the world, has a gold-plated dome. It represents the iconic symbol of the city, as the central point of most panoramic images and postcards. At its heart is a stone foundation, a large wall at the base of the building, which in the Jewish concept of the world is considered the navel of the world. Muslims also believe that the stone foundation traces the hooves of Muhammad’s winged horse, Buraq, who had a woman’s face and the body of a peacock, and on which the Prophet ascended to heaven, straight to Jennet, i.e. Paradise, after his night journey from Mecca. Close to the mosque, which is an excellent example of the Byzantine influence on early Muslim art, there is another mosque, Al-Aqsa. It, together with the nearby turquoise shrine, composes the unified holy place of Hassan ash-Sharif.

And finally is the most hidden and most mystical part of the city, the Christian part. Jerusalem is the place where Jesus was killed and rose from the dead. Before he died on Golgotha Hill, he traversed the city through Via Dolorosa or the Street of Pain. Today the Via Dolorosa is an impressive street in the old part of the city, through which Jesus carried his cross, and there are 14 places where Jesus succumbed, fell, was addressed etc. It is believed that nine such places are “proven” by the Gospel, while five may have been created later through stories. The most sacred site for Christians is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Golgotha Hill, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified. Then there was the cave in which Christ was laid after his mortal demise on Good Friday, and from where he was resurrected on Easter Sunday. The church was erected by the Holy Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine – the Roman leader who formalised the Edict of Milan in 313AD and proclaimed religious tolerance for Christians, after having seen a sign of the baptism that brought him victory on the battlefield. Interestingly, the church is divided among Greek, Coptic, Georgian, Armenian Monophysite, Roman Catholic, Syrian and Ethiopian churches, while the tomb can only be entered simultaneously by three pilgrims, with everyone able to stay only for three minutes, due to the large number of visitors. This period is enough for meditation, they say.

The place where Jesus taught his disciples is perhaps the calmest and most beautiful in Jerusalem: this is the Mount of Olives. It is where Christ, following the resurrection, summoned his followers and ascended to heaven as his last act on Earth. There is also the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ was arrested. Across the street is the Lion’s Gate, through which, according to the Jews, the true Messiah will pass. The Christians say that will be Christ during his Second Coming, while the Muslims say that he will not come, because there are no prophets after Muhammad, but they chose to brick up the Lion’s Gate anyway, just in case. Christians and Jews laughed at this, saying that the Messiah can demolish a wall in a single motion… when he comes.

THE FOUR QUARTERS

The old city of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. The Muslim quarter is the most populous and most colourful, and extends from Lion’s Gate to Damascus Gate. It’s full of colourful alleys and streets where you can enjoy the Orient. The Christian district stretches from Jaffa Gate, while the Armenian quarter is the smallest and contains shrines of the Monophysite Armenian church, which has stubbornly survived as an independent church.

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