Monday, 4 January 2016

Jerusalem - crazy and confusing, weird and wonderful

Jerusalem - the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish nation. That is, according to a law Israel passed in 1980, the official stand of Israel and hardly something they'll ever budge on. The international community's view on the matter is somewhat more complex. For instance UN does not acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital and owing to its controversial status, no country has its embassy there either. Marking quite a departure from the normal procedure, the embassies are found in Tel Aviv instead. 

Palestinians also consider Jerusalem as their capital and its status will forever be an issue that will paralyze any future peace talks.

Muslims consider Jerusalem sacred for two reasons: because of the association of the prophets before Muhammad had with it and because of Muhammad's magical nocturnal journey there which is also said to have taken him on a visit to Heaven. Jerusalem was actually the original qibla, the direction of the prayers, and was only later changed to Mecca.

Jerusalem is in all its absurdity a highly intriguing city, where the past is present at every step. Already its name echoes thousands of years of memories and mysteries. Sacred city of three religions, the holiness, especially in the Old City, is so tangible you can practically touch it. 

During her history millions of people have made their way here, each of them in the search of something. New life, making amends for the past, miracles... even just a glimpse of divine. During thousands of years their steps have worn the cobble-stone alleys of Old City smooth and slippery. In 1981 it was admitted on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

According to one theory the name means The City Of Peace. That, however, is one thing that has largely evaded her. Throughout her past Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 12 times, attacked 25 times and conquered 44 times. 

King David is said to have conquered the city from Jebusites and founded Jerusalem as the capital of the kingdom of Israel around 1000 BC.

(Lovely, capable nation, those Jebusites, I'm sure. It's hardly their fault their name sounds like a bacterial lung infection...)

His son and successor King Solomon was the one who started the building work for the First Temple, which later came to be known as The Temple of Solomon. The Temple was finished in 957 BC and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC.

(By the way, did you know that even after all the extensive excavations in the area no artifacts proven to be from Solomon's temple have been found? Not. One. )

The building work for the Second Temple got underway a year after the fall of the Babylonians in 538 BC and it's said to have taken 23 years ( even though the builders were probably not even Spanish... go figure). 

In 20 BC the ruler at the time, King Herod, renovated and extended the Temple, which became known as Herod's Temple. The Second Temple was fortunate to stick around a lot longer than the first one and was only destroyed in 70 AD. By the Romans, of course. 

After Muslim takeover of Jerusalem 600 years later in the 7th century, the Caliph of Umayyad Dynasty ordered the build of the Dome of the Rock. The Mosque was finished in 691 AD and Al Aqsa, located in its courtyard, is from the same period, too.

Still, as late as in 2012 Palestinian media blatantly claimed that there are no proof Jews were ever in Jerusalem. Last year the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem denied Temple Mount ever housed a Temple and stated how Al Aqsa Mosque had been there "since the beginning of time."

Not big on math then, boys?

Behind the southern walls of the Old City there's an excavation known as The City Of David, considered as the birth place of ancient Jerusalem. Excavations there were started in 19th century upon the discovery of a large fortress. It is one of the most thoroughly examined sites in the regions but also a very poignant example of how archeology can be harnessed for political purposes. 

It's located in the neighbourhood of Silwan (ancient Shiloah) in East Jerusalem, dominantly populated by Arabs who've felt the excavations are nothing more than another attempt to drive them out of their homes. 

Next to it, on the foot of Mount of Olives, is Kidron Valley (Biblical Valley of Yehoshaphat), home to the best preserved rock tombs in the city. One of them houses the last remains of Absalom, King David's third son who was killed in a mutiny he started against his old man. 

Modern day Jerusalem has grown far and wide around the Old City, but until 1860 Old City constituted the entire Jerusalem. Still today that tiny (less than 1 sq km) area is home to approximately 37 000 people. The walls that surround the area are from mid 16th century and Suleiman the Great's reign.

The city is divided into four: the Muslim, the Christian, the Jewish and the Armenian quarter.

In spite of its surprisingly small size, the are is home to a breath-taking amount of holy sites of various descriptions. The Christian sites have been divided between different denominations present here, though even they can't always see eye to eye. Occasionally their fist fights over the guardianship of the holy places even make it onto the papers. It all sounds as entertaining as it sounds exhausting: I've heard that even the Shepherd's Field has at least 3 "exact" locations - depending on which branch of Christianity you ask...

Jerusalem's position as the holy city of three religions (and their countless factions) really shows in her population, too; the range of which is every bit as bewildering. Orthodox bishops in their tall hats and large gold crosses, Armenian priests in their flowing robes and bushy beards, Catholic nuns from all sisterhoods imaginable and monks who look like they've just stepped from a Medieval painting... were it not for the lap top bag dangling off their shoulder.

And then there are the Jews and their dazzling diversity, which reflects on the men's appearance. The branch, movement or faction they follow can be deciphered from their clothing and choice of head wear. The size and material of kippa alone usually tells where the wearer stands on the issue of nationalism. 

Hats on the other had can tell whether he's Hassidic (Jewish spiritual movement that was born in 18th century Eastern Europe) and if so, which one the many dynasties (yes - that's what they're called, named after the rabbi whose teachings they follow) they belong to.

The best day for observing the many faces of Judaism is, of course Shabbat. Little boys with curly sidelocks to their chins, Yeshiva students wrapped in the prayer shawls talliths rushing to the Western Wall, fathers out on a walk with their large broods, dressed as any self-respecting 19th century Lithuanian in knee-length coats, fur hats and knee socks (!)... 

A good way to get to the bottom of things is to get on top of them. Same goes here, too, and the Ramparts Walk offers a great way to explore the city within and without the walls for mere 16 NIS (roughly €3, children half price). 

The view from the walls is amazing and many of the places mention earlier are visible here. Among the most noteworthy ones is Mount of Olives and its cemetery. It consist of approximately 70 000 graves, serves as the final resting place of many important figures and is quite possibly the most significant cemetery in the world for Jews. 

Through times people have actually moved to Israel in order to fulfill their dream of being buried here. Why? Because this is where the resurrection of the dead begins upon the coming of Messiah.

You might start getting an idea of what a spectacularly special place Jerusalem has in the collective heart of Judaism and what the outcome of the Six Day War of 1967 really meant?

That's when Israel occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and for the first time in nearly 2 decades Jews could pray at the Western Wall again. Under the Jordanian rule that was off limits to the Jews, you see. 

The most important place in Jerusalem is of course, the Temple Mount and mysticism that surrounds it sometimes reaches downright bizarre proportions. The most devout Jews wouldn't go anywhere near it in order to avoid any risk of trampling on the Holiest of the Holies, the part of Temple where only the descendants of the Kohainim, the priests, are allowed and even they are only allowed there after the place has been sanctified for religious use again. The next Temple will be built by Messiah and in order for that to happen several other things are required to happen. And one of them very nearly did. 

One of the things that are needed for sanctifying the Temple Mount is the sacrifice of a red heifer. Which, I'll tell you, are very, very rare. In the early 2000's the Israeli press actually reported of the birth of one, which was greeted with suitable amount buzz. However, the colour faded before the heifer reached the proper sacrificial age. 

Ready for some more tantalizing trivia? Here you go! The descendants of Kohainim are forbidden from coming in touch with the ritual impurity of the dead, which is why they are not even allowed to fly over cemeteries. That's why you, too, might have seen pictures of Jews on a plane, wrapped in plastic sacks...

(Didn't I tell you? Weird and wonderful!)

The only part of the destroyed temple that still stands is its Western Wall, also known as Wailing Wall. This is very largely responsible for attracting millions of visitors here each here (10 million annual visitors was reached already back in 2003).

According to tradition, after the destruction of the Temple Shekhina, the Divine Presence, remained in the wall and never left. For the past 300 years this tradition has lived alongside another one: the prayer notes. Notes left in the cracks of the wall are believed to go straight to Heaven, so they are taken very seriously. Each year more than a million notes are left behind and twice a year the Rabbi of the Western Wall (his actual job title) and his assistants carefully remove them in order to make room for the next ones and bury them in the Mount of Olives.

In case you can't get here in person, you can send your prayer note via internet (kid you not) and Israeli telephone company Bezeq even has a special fax number designated for these (again, true story). 

You know how Santa Claus magically gets all the children's letter from around the world with a mere "Santa Claus, North Pole" scribbled as the address? Well, hundreds of letters arrive here every year, addressed to "God, Jerusalem". Each of them is opened and the note placed in the wall (no, I'm not making all this up).

Jerusalem is crazy. Confusing. Incredible. Intriguing. Weird. And oh, so wonderful. Visit to the Western Wall alone makes your head spin. Down below the Jews are praying, women on their side, men on theirs, the activities ranging from loud sobbing to cheerful dancing. Church bells can be heard tolling from somewhere while the Armenian shops are blasting out Christmas Carols. And on top of it all towers the majestic golden dome of Dome of the Rock.

Jerusalem's ability to make people lose their minds is actually a well-documented phenomenon and has even had a syndrome named after it. Jerusalem syndrome is a psychosis inflicted by intense experience of religious nature, triggered by the holiness of the city. The city actually has a hospital specially designated to care for the sufferers of the condition, which is estimated to affect more than 100 travelers each year, with nearly half of them needing hospitalization. 

Obsessive bathing and/or nail-cutting, need to give public sermons and desire to turn hotel linens into a toga-like garments are only some of the symptoms - for more (and just to be on the safe side...) just see here!

Blasting off my iPod right now: Matisyahu: Jerusalem




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