The excitement of visiting a new place was fresh and bursting as I entered Damascus Gate. I wondered around Mameluke and medieval alleyways in the old city's Muslin Quarter, weaving my way through busy Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows.) The narrow streets were crowded with restaurants, bakeries and cafe owners inviting me in. After eating a fresh kunafa with cardamon coffee, I continued on my exploration of the old town, where store owners tried to engage me: “Where are from?” “Come to my store, no charge for looking...”
Workers pulled wooden carts filled with produce, fruit, nuts, olives, goat cheese and spices, in harsh competition with tourists, students and residents in the narrow streets. When my eyes could focus away from this teeming of life and bustle, I spotted the stations of the cross, the route on which condemned Jesus lugged his heavy cross to the Calvary. Maybe it was not appropriate, but I had to contain a chuckle when I saw people carrying a lighter version of the cross to emulated Christ's torture 2010 years ago.
I wondered aimlessly through Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian Quarters, my senses constantly jumping, not only at all the activity around me, but also at the interactions among people.
I stood in line with hundreds others to visit places such as the Mount Temple, the Dome of the Rock, and the Church of Holy Sepulcher, where it is believed that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. It did not scape me the animosity of some tour guides, site guardians and even pilgrims. It was with sadness that I felt these sites were treated just as another commodity by some, a place to be consumed and be done with. Revolt almost broke out a couple of times when tourist guides felt the line was not being observed. Once at the holy sites, pilgrims and tourists were often shoved out by guardians, without much concern for their faith.
In the city, the feeling of separation, specially between Arabs and Jews was very clear. When I asked for the direction for a bus line in East Jerusalem (Arab majority) in the new city (Jewish majority), people often did not know, and vice-verse. Taxi drivers were also reluctant to drive between the two areas, and we are talking just a few miles away.
Being in the new city was just like being in any big western city with great museums, cafes, restaurants and cultural life. The new surface metro (not yet operational) looks a lot like BART in the Bay Area, which made me feel at home. The Mahane Yehuda Market is a colorful, bountiful place filled with fresh produce, fruit, and all the middle eastern goodies like halva, olives, dates, figs and hummus. The weather this time of year is very mild and pleasant and being here during pomegranate season was a plus. On the other hand, it appears that not much public works has happened in East Jerusalem in recent years. Although it looks more interesting to me because of its ancient appearance, it is obvious that the Arab population is not getting their share of improvements done to the city.
Originally, Jerusalem occupied a small settlement around Mount Moriah, known in current days as the Mount Temple. In 997 BC, King David captured the city making it its capital, and Solomon, his son and successor, built the first temple. The temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC and later, Cyrus the Great, Persian Emperor, allowed the return of Jews and reconstruction of the second temple in 515 BC. After a few international power shifts, the Romans marched into Jerusalem in 63 BC. Discontent with Roman rule, the Jews launched the First Revolt in AD 66 resulting in the destruction of the second temple. The Second Revolt in AD 132 caused the Jews' exile, when Roman Emperor Hadrian razed the city and rebuilt it as Aelia Capitolina.
It just happens that it is at Mount Moriah or the Mount Temple, that Abraham, the great patriarch of the Jewish faith and prophet in both Christianity and Islam, offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice. This is the basis of the Eid celebration in Islam, symbolically represented by the killing of goats. Abraham prepared the slab of stone where he was going to sacrifice his son at the Mount Temple, and The Dome of the Rock is build on top of this stone. As the story goes, God himself appeared to Abraham, and pleased with his unshaken faith, allowed him to sacrifice a goat instead of his son. It is believed that The Mount Temple is also the location from which Mohammed ascended to heaven.
After being expelled by the Romans in the first century AD, the Jews stayed in exile until the 4th century. In the 5th century, under early Christian rule, Jews were more or less free to practice their religion, but were forbidden to enter Jerusalem, except on one day a year, to mourn the destruction of the Temple.
In 1099, the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem, massacring tens of thousands of its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. Jerusalem was established as the capital of the Latin Kingdom in the Holy Land. This Kingdom, however, collapsed some decades later. In 1187, Sultan Salah a-Din arrived from Egypt and besieged Jerusalem, ultimately gaining control of the city. Jews began to return to Jerusalem in 1210, ending their exile from the city. During the 19th century, immigration increased and the establishment of the modern Zionist movement revitalized the Jewish community throughout Israel, helped by the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 in England:
"His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
Overlapping civilizations, languages, religions, conquests, submissions and diversity, are Jerusalem's legacy, a potential melting pot. However, after being inhabited for at least 5,000 years, this pot is still not melting, and it is not living up to its name, City of Peace. There is disagreement and separation even between Orthodox and secular Jews. I felt much resentment from Israeli citizens who subsidize the living expenditures of the most religious, whose full time job is to pray. Most people also seem put off by their religious extremism.
As for the Arab population, they are clearly discriminated. Permits to expand or repair their houses can take years and may end up not getting approval. They also do not have the right to bring their relatives (living only a few miles away in the West Bank) to live with them. I have met couples who live in separate houses because one spouse can only receive temporary permission to cross checkpoints between the West Bank and Jerusalem.
As much as I was buzzed from visiting this amazing city, I could not help but to feel its tension and its pain. Five thousand years of bloody history seem to have left an imprint on each rock and on people's physic.
While walking on Jerusalem streets, I prayed for humanity's uplift and that the whole world could see peace one day, Yira Shalem.