Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. The scent of incense filled the air, while candles flickered in the breeze from the doorway. Soot-darkened frescoes and rich fabrics lined the walls, seemingly held together with the dirt and grime of the ages, while bright icons and lamps reflected in the dim light.
Just beyond the entrance, a group of pilgrims knelt on the floor, whispering silent prayers and lamenting quietly beneath a line of eight ornate lamps. Others rubbed their clothes, mobile phones and other items across the surface of a large stone slab set in the floor beneath.
I hesitated, feeling a little like an intruder yet fascinated to witness such devotion. But then this was no ordinary church. I was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which is, for many Christians, the holiest place on earth.
I was visiting Israel for TBEX International, a travel blogging conference held in Jerusalem. With religion being such a cornerstone of the city, I was eager to visit some of the main religious sites and gain a deeper understanding of the religious importance of Jerusalem for people of different faiths.
Jerusalem is the most important holy place for Jews and Christians, and the third most important holy place for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina. Personally, I’m not religious; I’m more of a Mother Earth kinda girl. But I’m fascinated by religion and its effect upon people and cultures. Plus, as a classical historian and archaeologist, I was a little overwhelmed at the sheer weight of history here.
Here’s a rundown of my experiences visiting some of the most important religious sites in Jerusalem.
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Jerusalem, having religious significance to each of the three great monotheistic religions worshipped here.
It’s also the most contentious.
I didn’t actually visit the Temple Mount. I mistakenly thought I couldn’t visit as a non-Muslim. Until Friday, my last day, when I couldn’t visit because the site’s closed to non-Muslims.
But I did see the Mount from several vantage points. And it would be daft to write a post on the religious sites in Jerusalem without including it.
For Jews, this massive stone plaza in the southeastern corner of the Old City was the location for pivotal events in the Bible and in Creation. This is where God is believed to have gathered dust to make the first man, Adam. It’s also the location for Mount Moriah, where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac.
In ancient times, there were two Jewish temples here. The First Temple, Solomon’s Temple, housed the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the Ten Commandments. This was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Second Temple, completed 70 years later, stood for almost 600 years until the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD.
For Muslims, this is the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif). According to the Quran, one night in 621 AD Mohammed made a miraculous night journey on a winged horse from Mecca to Jerusalem. From here, he ascended to heaven, spoke with earlier prophets, conversed with God, and returned with some of the formative rules of Islam, such as praying five times daily.
Today, the Dome of the Rock, a stunning blue mosque topped with a glittering gold dome, sits on the foundation stone marking the point where Mohammed began his ascent into heaven. The less flashy Al-Aqsa Mosque sits at the edge of the compound, marking the spot where Mohammed first arrived in Jerusalem.
For Christians, the site is important as a place where Jesus visited to attend Jewish festivals. It’s also significant as the place where Jesus challenged corrupt practices taking place in the Temple – an action that set the chain of events in motion leading to his arrest and crucifixion.
While Israel has controlled the Old City since the Six-Day War in 1967, the Temple Mount remains under the control of an Islamic waqf. Jews and other non-Muslims are permitted to visit the site at certain times. However, Israel controls the entrances and non-Muslim prayer is strictly forbidden. Such a complicated arrangement leads to inevitable friction.
For around three thousand years, the one constant on the Temple Mount has been violence, controversy and bloodshed, as different religions, nations and cultures have fought for control of this small plot of land. And it remains the epicentre of conflict in the Middle East, with violence breaking out a few months after my visit.
Yet it looked so peaceful. The blue and gold Dome of the Rock dominates the plaza, surrounded by trees, fountains and smaller ornate structures. Looking over from a distance, it was like a beautiful Islamic oasis amid the hustle and bustle of the Old City. I’m sad that I didn’t set foot on the Mount during my trip to Jerusalem; that’s definitely something for a return visit. But it’s the bloodshed and violence in the name of religion that really saddens me.
Once I’d passed security I paused at the entrance to the Western Wall Plaza, zipping up my jacket against the chilly wind as I took in the scene around me. The plaza was bustling with people. Men wearing skullcaps and Orthodox Jews, dressed in black with long curls hanging down the sides of their faces, headed purposely towards the wall, pausing to ritually cleanse their hands at the fountain. Groups of young Israeli soldiers mingled excitedly, snapping selfies and taking group pictures with the wall in the background, their guns slung causally over their shoulders. Elsewhere, people simply stared in reverence at the giant tawny structure dominating the plaza.
The Western Wall is part of the ancient retaining wall surrounding the Temple Mount. Built by King Herod, it was the only thing left standing when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. With Jewish prayers strictly forbidden on the Mount, the Western Wall is the closest Jews can get to the site of the Holy of Holies, making it the holiest accessible place for Jewish worship.
The women’s section of the wall is around half the size of the men’s area and was twice as crowded. I took my time, sitting on a plastic chair and watching those around me reading their bibles, praying fervently or, like me, simply observing. Then I wrote my note and approached the wall.
Tucking my note into a small crevice, already overflowing with scribbled notes, dreams and prayers, I pressed my hands against the warm, beige stone, its surface polished from the billions of hands that had touched it before mine. Glancing nervously at a pigeon hovering above me, its bum poised directly over my head, I whispered a quick prayer to the pigeon to hold fire and closed my eyes. I can’t say I felt a divine presence, but I felt the history, as I do at many archaeological sites, and the shared experience of visiting this special place. I also love the fact that, unlike the Temple Mount, everybody is welcome to pray here, whatever their faith or belief.
The Mount of Olives sits on the opposite side of the Kidron Valley from the Old City. Named after the olive groves that once covered the hillside, this was the location for several biblical events though, like many things in Jerusalem, the exact locations are highly disputed.
Since the 3rd millennium BC, it’s also served as one of the main burial grounds for the city, with rows of Jewish graves stretching down the hill sprinkled with small stones; a tradition that demonstrates the grave has been visited by loved ones.
There’s an array of churches, chapels and mosques scattered down its slopes, many of which were closed when I visited on Friday. If you want to understand the different sites, I recommend booking a guide. Pushed for time, I wove my way down the hill, popping into a few places that were still open.
The Church of the Pater Noster sits over a cave where Jesus is believed to have taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster). It’s also thought his disciples returned here after his crucifixion to remember and pray for him.
Today, it’s the site of a Carmelite convent, and the church and grounds are lined with beautiful tiles depicting the Lord’s Prayer in over 140 languages. I spent a while wandering around the cloisters and gardens, captivated by the beauty of the languages on display. To me, the tiles were like mini artworks, and the peace and tranquillity so soothing after the hubbub of the Old City.
Outside the grounds, there’s a viewpoint with a sweeping view over rows of Jewish graves to the Old City and Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock commanding your attention with its brilliant gold dome. There was also some transport there, just in case you fancied heading towards the Old City in a more traditional style!
At the base of the hill next to the Church of All Nations is a small garden, where a handful of gnarly old olive trees grow amongst tended flowerbeds. This is the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is believed to have spent his last night praying before his arrest and crucifixion.
Although these trees aren’t old enough to be the ones Jesus prayed beneath, they are some of the oldest olive trees in the world and believed to be related to those here in the time of Jesus.
‘Here, take this…’
I turned to see one of the gardeners holding out an olive branch, recently chopped from one of the oldest trees.
‘Boil it up in tea and drink it for good health.’
I hesitated. I didn’t want to take the branch as I was leaving Israel and I’d heard stories about people being questioned heavily upon leaving the country. I could just imagine the conversation:
‘This? It’s a branch from one of the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane.’
But I didn’t want to cause offence. So I thanked the gardener for his gift, spent a while chatting about the trees he was tending, then left, clutching my branch and feeling like a thief. Once out of sight, I laid it gently amongst a flowerbed further down the hill and scurried away.
The Lions’ Gate marks the eastern entrance to the Old City and is the closest entrance to the Mount of Olives. This is the beginning of one of the most important pilgrimages in Christianity – the Via Dolorosa.
The Via Dolorosa is the Way of Sorrows. It follows Jesus’ path from when he was condemned to death until his crucifixion. The 14 Stations of the Cross are marked along the way, noting the location of specific events from that day. The fact that this is the exact route Jesus walked is disputed, but it’s highly symbolic nonetheless.
I followed the route out of interest, twisting and turning my way through the Old City, keeping my eyes peeled for the circular plaques denoting each Station. Some of the Stations are a little off the main route, so I had to double back a few times before I arrived at my final destination.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is at the heart of the Old City. Set in a hemmed-in square, it’s difficult to appreciate the size and importance of the church from its exterior. It’s a mish-mash of architectural styles; it looks a little messy and somewhat shabby.
But this is the most important church in Christianity. This is the location of the final five Stations of the Cross, for it was on this spot that Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried.
Stepping through the doorway, I was confronted by a throng of people. Pious pilgrims prayed, as photographers jostled for position in an attempt to capture the atmosphere. People wandered around looking in their guidebooks and on their phones trying to make sense of the layout; signage is basic at best.
There are around 30 different chapels and places of worship, themselves a melting pot of styles depending on which Christian denomination owns them. The Greek Chapel of the Crucifixion is opulent and dripping with gold, an almost obscene display of wealth and status. I much preferred the simplicity of the Armenian Chapel of the Finding of the Cross in the basement, which was echoing with a beautiful chanting prayer as I entered.
I queued for ages to see inside the edicule, the tomb where Jesus is believed to have been laid to rest. This was the only place on my visit to the religious sites in Jerusalem that I felt out of place, awkward, uncomfortable. I shared the tiny space in the heart of the tomb with two deeply religious, wailing women, crossing themselves and kissing the tomb, as I shuffled my feet and waited for an opportunity to get past them to the door.
But even here, in the most Christian of locations, there isn’t true peace. The different denominations that own the church have a deep distrust of each other. None of them trusts the others to hold keys for the church – that honour has befallen to a Muslim family since 1246 – while a wooden ladder sits on a ledge outside, symbolising the uneasy truce between the different factions.
Jerusalem is a city of great faith and I felt privileged to visit a place with such a deep and mesmerising history. Yet it symbolises much of what I don’t like about organised religion. The immense wealth that could surely be better spent on those living in poverty around the world. The sleight of hand that sees people weeping over a stone Jesus laid upon after being taken down from the cross, which actually dates from the 1800s. The arguments and fighting in the name of religion, even within different factions of the same religion.
Yet, this is part of what makes Jerusalem, Jerusalem. It’s a wonderful, confusing and beguiling place, and I loved my time there. It didn’t change my view of religion nor transform me into a believer, but it certainly gave me a religious experience I’ll never forget.
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