This week we have visited some places considered very sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims – within the old city of Jerusalem. I’ve had the good fortune to enjoy two early morning runs, taking me along the famed Villa Dellorosa, through the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian Quarters, and out to the Western Wall. Visiting the city early in the morning is wonderful. There are no crowds, just the restless beauty of the city. And seeing the devout offer prayer at the Western Wall before everyone else has arrived is wonderful.
It was an amazing experience, made even better because we were treated to an expert tourguide, Mr Mel Reisfield. My good friend Doron introduced us when I told him we were interested in having a guide, and Mel brought his encyclopedic knowledge of history, a rich sense of culture, and very active sense of humor.
Jerusalem has enough history and culture to fill days, so the few hours we spent merely scratched the surface. I won’t attempt to deliver history lessons myself, rather focusing on the impressions drawn from the tour, and from my walks (and runs) through the old city. The main lesson is that understanding events in a single place always requires larger context. As we discussed the Hellanic and Roman influences on Jerusalem means understanding the culture of the conquerors as well as the conquered.
Mel’s contrast of the Southern and Western Wall of the Temple Mount was very interesting, comparing spiritual with historical. His discussion of the development of the Cardo within the city, under the Romans painted the picture of power shifts, client rulers, and ultimately the evolution of the city as we know it today. We got to see the results of the archeological digs that have taken place over the past 43 years (since the Israelis retook Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 war). This brought us into a discussion of Herodian Mansions, and the tax policies under King Herod. We spoke about the changes brought about by the acceptance of Christianity circa the 4th century, and of the evolution of Jewish identity from the days when the city was established as capital, through the Babylonian and Roman conquests, through the Diaspora and the establishment of the state of Israel.
It is a city in layers. We saw remnants of the wall from the First Temple timeframe, saw many of the steps and stones put in place during the Second Temple timeframe, and were surprised at some of the modifications made to the Citadel (commonly called the Tower of David) over the years. A small observation tower built on top of the famed Hexagonal tower was added during the period of British Mandate, while the rest of the structure dated from centuries back. The namesake tower was added during Suleyman’s reign in the sixteenth century, while the main tower dates from King Herod’s time, and the surrounding moat from the Crusades. In many ways, the history of the city is told simply by tracing it’s architecture.
This is a city sacred to many people, who hold different belief sets. Seeing many of them come to pray in these places is both thought provoking as well as inspiring. See Jews pray against the Western Wall, seeing many of them offer rolled up notes which are stuffed into the cracks, or seeing Christians weep as they kiss the Stone of Unction in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inspiring.