Jerusalem: City of Mixed Blessings


On Saturday 4th October 2014, Jews around the world observed the fast of Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. At exactly the same time, Moslems around the world celebrated the festival of Eid Ul-Adha. Both festivals concern forgiveness and salvation and both include the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.

Our Mosaic religions, unsurprisingly, have a great deal in common.

Recently I was visiting Jerusalem, and took a long walk around the Old City, passing through the Four Quarters: Armenian, Christian, Moslem and Jewish Quarters. It was late afternoon, towards the end of the Jewish Sabbath, and the ancient narrow streets were relatively quiet. The tourists had gone, and a number of the shopkeepers down the Street of the Chain, that forms the central ‘spine’ of the Old City, were relaxing around small tables outside their shops and stalls playing cards or backgammon.

It felt as if I had the ancient streets and alleyways almost to myself.

Descending down the steep, narrow street of shops with it steps and ramps polished by millions of footsteps, I turned left into the broad, open street of the Muristan with its cafés and shops selling leather goods and entered the Christian quarter. As I walked past the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I heard male voices singing, the sound spreading out from the church into the enclosed square in front of the entrance. Just inside the entrance stood a circle of priests, each holding a candle, and chanting prayers. I stood for a while, marvelling at both the sound and the sight.

I carried on back down the Street of the Chain towards the Har haBáyit / Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary) the most important religious site in Jerusalem for both Jews and Arabs. However, I knew that for many years there has been a police barrier near the entrance and that – as a Jew – I would not be allowed to enter the wide acres of the Haram al-Sharif.

In 1969, when I first visited the city, there was no such barrier, and I was able not only to walk up onto the large plaza but also to respectfully enter the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. As (then) a rather typical ‘long-haired hippy’ but also very aware of where I was, I felt no animosity. A man asked, in English, if I needed any help. I explained I was visiting the city and was interested to see these famous and holy sites. He said I was most welcome, but to remember to take off my shoes when entering the mosques.

I was recalling that memory as I neared the barrier.  Resisting the temptation to carry straight on, I turned right, following the sign to the Kotel/Western Wall, the last remnants of the Temple, and the holiest site for Jews. For centuries it was known as the Wailing Wall: a place where Jews lamented the destruction of the Temple. It was nearing sundown, and as I passed through the security barrier and entered the huge plaza in front of the wall, the Adhan, the Moslem call for prayer, rang out from the towers high on the Haram al-Sharif, the extraordinarily evocative sound echoing around the city and bouncing off the walls of the buildings that rise up high above the plaza. A number of those buildings are Jewish yeshivot or religious seminaries, and as sundown marked the end of the Jewish Sabbath, the air now filled with the sound of chanting and singing as the evening prayers began and the sound streamed out from the many open windows.

In that clear, warm, golden Jerusalem air, I stood absolutely still; caught, wonderfully, in a swirl of voices from two religions, two very different worlds. But it wasn’t a competition, and while I am not a particularly religious person, I was mesmerised by what was a mutual celebration of religious and spiritual belief.

I happened to be standing near a tree, and suddenly the two-way stream of sound was joined by a third as the dozens of birds in the tree started to sing. It was truly a magical and very moving moment.

After a while I moved on, and carried on walking up through the Jewish quarter, passing the remains of the Cardo, the pillared main thoroughfare of Roman Jerusalem: a reminder that Jerusalem has always been a city of different civilisations and religions. I headed towards the Armenian Quarter and left the Old City via the Lion Gate, the outside of the gate still pockmarked with bullet holes from the 1967 war.

One abiding thought from that evening’s walk is that while it may be Jerusalem’s fate ever to be the focus of, sometimes bitter and tragic, religious and political struggle, there is a common thread that binds us all together. And, whatever one’s position on Israel, it remains one of the few cities in the Middle East where the songs and prayers of Christianity, Islam and Judaism can co-exist in relative harmony.