You feel the weight of history in Jerusalem, some of it recent. Saturday is the Sabbath for one faith, but just another day for the others. Yelnick visited last Saturday, at the front lines of the New World Order.
The Old City was quiet, unnaturally so. All of Israel seemed to be trying too hard to be normal, as in that dry, prickly weather before the storm comes in. A week before, Israel changed its strategy in the fight on terrorism, by now targeting the leaders. The Hamas leader was first. Reprisals are expected, and the city was drained of visitors.
The Old City is full of history, and has been full of pilgrims and tourists for three millennia. Yet it would be a mistake to see it as a Disneyland of Monotheism. People live there, work there, own property there, and fight each other there.
We kept to the Jewish Quarter. We were told even though the Christian Quarter was safe, it was not policed, and a chance encounter with a Palestinian could lead to a knifing. The Christian Quarter is where most of the Stations of the Cross are, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, over the burial site of Jesus; the rest are in the Moslem Quarter, starting at the Temple Mount. Yelnick will have to see the movie instead.
The Jewish Quarter had been trashed after the fighting in 1947. The Zion Gate by which we entered was riddled with bullet holes. They hardly made a dent in the thick walls put up by the Ottoman Empire, built over the Crusader Walls, built on the Roman Walls, which were partly built over even older walls, going back to Canaanite foundations. When the Israelis re-entered in 1967, they had a rare opportunity to dig. Jerusalem is not a theme park. The people owning buildings and shops do not take kindly to archaeologists digging in their basements or leveling their living rooms. The Jewish Quarter still lay in ruins, and in the restoration came opportunity. We saw a bit of the restored Byzantine Cardo, short for Cardo Maximus, the main road of the pilgrims through the middle of the city. It went by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, just blocks away, but we couldn't go that far. We saw an even older wall dating back to 600 BC, when the city was under siege from Assyrians, and the hastily built wall kept them away. We came to the Western Wall, the part of the Temple Mount still in Jewish hands. We could not ascend the Mount, since it was in Muslim hands.
It is deceptively easy to conclude why this site was so special. It is on an escarpment, with steep valleys to three sides, easy to defend. It is near the edge of the desert, the long drop down to the Dead Sea (with Saudi Arabia beyond). Invading armies would have a difficult time crossing the wasteland, and could be seen from far off. The wasteland is the place for outcasts and prophets, loners who could live on a few drops of water, not mass forces. It is also at the edge of the pass which carries down the other way, to the coastal plane. All these strategic factors may have figured in the location, but it seems something else was at work. Israel lies in the buffer zone between the empires of the Nile and those of the Tigris-Euphrates. It may be the most fought-over land on Earth. Yet those armies traveled along the coast, and avoided the Jerusalem area. The Israeli guide (who was marvelous) explained that the site was chosen by David as in the middle between the northern and southern parts of the kingdom. It has long been a site of religious significance, even before the First Temple. It lies on a dramatic hill, much like the Parthenon in Athens or the Capitoline in Rome. The Rock (of the Dome) is allegedly the rock on which Abraham almost sacrificed his son - perhaps the same rock which dates back to Adam and the Garden of Eden, the Foundation Stone of the Earth. Or so it is said in these parts. The original structure may have been a Paleolithic observatory, the Stonehenge of the Levant. Every subsequent religion has wanted to claim the site for their own.
The Temple Mount was created by Herod the Great, leveling a vast area. The Romans later built a new city around it. The Byzantines added churches on all the major religious sites, and begun to turn the city into a place of pilgrimage, but did not rebuild the Mount, due to a prediction of Jesus that it would lay in ruins. (Interesting is that the Israelis date Byzantium to as early as 324 AD, when Constantine removed the suppression of Christianity that had begun in 64 AD with the Great Fire of Rome, when the Christians had allegedly started the fire to spark a revolt against Roman rule.) The Muslims took the place early in the 600s, and due to a political rivalry with Mecca and Medina, created one of the most important mosques in Islam - the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Jerusalem has that effect on prophets. This incident is not in the Koran but is accepted as doctrine, much as Mary's ascension, which also took place nearby. The Crusaders took it back, but lost it 200 years later. And so it has remained Muslim ever since. The Israelis declined to occupy it after the '67 war, perhaps for religious reasons. It is said that the (next) Messiah will not come until the Temple is back on the Mount. Some zealous Israelis have attempted to occupy the site, destroy the mosques and hasten the Messiah's arrival (or their own trip to the other side). They would be wiser to let God do His own bidding, rather than try to force His hand. The several mosques on the Mount are important to Islam, to architecture, and to history. It is incalculable what the consequences would be of such an act.
What Jerusalem teaches is that history is long.