JERUSALEM — Tour guide Doobie Sabbo stood just outside the walls of Old Jerusalem, the holiest city to Christians and Jews, the third most important to Muslims. King David’s ancient city is less than half a square mile, but has been fought over too many times in the name of God.
Things seem peaceful now, but Sabbo shook his head. “All those wars and fights, and all those prayers for peace over this small city. … We all worship the same God; we just have some different ideas,” he said.
A dozen or so of us listened intently to Sabbo on a chilly, sunny January morning. He talked about how the old city is divided into Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian neighborhoods, although “neighborhood” doesn’t begin to describe the maze of streets dominated by bazaars, shops, cafes, churches, synagogues and mosques.
Merchants are jammed stall-to-stall in the Muslim and Christian quarters, the two largest areas, which flow into one another without notice of the change. In the Muslim sector, two Israeli soldiers with rifles stood near a sign identifying the spot as a stop on the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus dragged his cross on the way to the crucifixion.
“May I take a photo?” I asked. They nodded yes.
The Jewish quarter, devastated between 1948 and 1967 during the long Jordanian occupation of the city and in Israel’s successful Six-Day War against Jordan and its Arab neighbors, has been rebuilt. So it has newer and more upscale shops and restaurants.
On the other hand, the only store I saw in the residential Armenian sector was a small grocery. Armenia? It was one of the first countries to embrace Christianity.
Virtually all structures in the old city are built from Jerusalem stone, a local limestone that reflects a soft shade of gold in the late afternoon’s light.
Our first tour of the day was the 20th Century Church of All Nations, adjacent to the site of the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives overlooking the old city. However, a garden across the street also claims to be Gethsemane, as does a third somewhere else. Little is certain in Jerusalem.
We walked shoulder to shoulder among scores of visitors, all of us babbling different languages, into the garden, with its neat rows of 1,000-year-old gnarled olive trees. The church, paid for by 16 countries, was built over a rock where Jesus is said to have prayed the night before his arrest. Pilgrims knelt to touch it, some with tears rolling down their faces.
An hour or two later, we were at the remaining Western Wall of the second temple — biblical history says the first was built by King David’s son, Solomon. The second was destroyed by Romans in 70 A.D.
Some 187 feet of the wall are above ground here in the Jewish quarter. This afternoon, dozens of men, most wearing black suits and hats, stood inches from the wall, bobbing their heads as they prayed in what sounded like a group hum. Women pray at a smaller section of the wall, separated from the men by a waffle-weave fence.
Our final visit inside Old Jerusalem was to the most sacred site in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried.
Vast and dim, the church has been built and rebuilt over the centuries. To complicate matters, it is divided into areas controlled — not always harmoniously — by six of the oldest denominations: Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Ethiopian.
But members of the same family have opened and shut the heavy church door for almost 1,300 years.
“We help them settle their disputes. We are the neutral people in the church,” doorkeeper Wajeeh Nuseibeh told a reporter in 2005. “We help preserve peace in this holy place.” He and his family are Muslims.
Daylight from the front door illuminated those kneeling at a marble slab where Jesus’ body is said to have been laid in preparation for burial. A short walk away is an ornate chapel over what was designated as Jesus’ tomb.
Behind it, Sabbo led us into a damp, musty chapel and pointed to a burial cave that could hold one person. “We know a cave like this belonged to Joseph,” he said, wondering with a shrug if perhaps this was where Jesus really was buried. I hoped so, thinking Jesus might have preferred simplicity over the ornate.
Near the front door, we climbed narrow, steep stone stairs to reach Calvary, the accepted site of Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s dark, lighted by candles and oil lamps, with masses of gold surrounding a cross holding Jesus’ limp body. Pilgrims were waiting in line to kneel and touch a stone beneath it.
“I feel a chill, just being here,” whispered a new friend.
I felt frustrated. And overwhelmed. There were too many people, too much commotion and not enough time to absorb it all. Sabbo was an excellent guide, full of information. But I wanted — needed? — to explore Old Jerusalem alone, at my own pace. So I returned and spent most of three unstructured days there.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” is what Jews all over the world say at their ritual Passover dinner, called the seder. They pray to be reunited in their holy land.
While as few as 10 percent of Israeli Jews are said to be religiously observant, most do visit the Western Wall at some point, as do visitors of many faiths.
I sat for about 45 minutes on a stone bench in the rear of the female’s area at the Western Wall, surrounded by women of all ages, even children. Some read holy books held inches from their eyes, others nodded and prayed. Like almost everyone else, I wrote two or three prayerful petitions, folded the papers tightly, and stuck them between crevices in the wall, hoping they wouldn’t fall out.
On the other side of the Western Wall is the Dome of the Rock, an octagon-shaped, seventh-century shrine with exquisite mosaic walls and a 24-karat gold dome. It’s part of what Muslims call Haram Al Sharif, where they believe Muhammad ascended to Heaven to receive commandments from God. This area of Jerusalem ranks in importance to Muslims behind only two cities, both in today’s Saudi Arabia: Mecca, where Muhammad was born, and Medina, where he was lived and was buried.
But Jews call this low hill in Jerusalem’s Old City the Temple Mount, the holiest of holy places. They believe the stone inside the Dome of the Rock is where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac before God intervened; that it was the center of the first temple, built by King Solomon; and where the Ark of the Covenant stood.
While all of Old Jerusalem has been accessible since 1967, ultra-conservative rabbis say Jews are forbidden by the Torah to enter the Temple Mount grounds as long as they are in Muslim hands. Less strict Jews do visit, though only Muslims can enter the building. Hours are limited, purses and bags X-rayed.
There were few other outsiders when I took photos of the mosaics and watched Muslim children play and run and laugh. One veiled mother proudly posed for a photograph with her baby, the gold dome behind her.
An hour later, I ducked into the 3 p.m. daily service in the Armenian Cathedral of St. James, a cavernous church that smelled of candle wax and heavy incense. Most of the 30 or so worshippers and observers stood; I joined a few others seated on cushions atop a stone ledge in full view of massive square columns, partly covered by blue-and-white tiles. Dark paintings in need of a good cleaning hung above oriental carpets on the marble floor. Illumination was by candles, hanging oil lamps and an opening in the rotunda and windows high above a Romanesque arch.
Two choirs of young white-robed seminarians participated in the service, with maybe 10 priests chanting in deep, rich voices. They wore white vestments and triangular black hoods. It was as much a pageant and procession as a service. Afterward, I approached a priest and told him that it was a highlight of my visit in Old Jerusalem.
He looked at me and asked, “What faith are you?” I told him, then he asked, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
At the Syrian Church of St. Mark in the Armenian district, a gray-bearded priest conducted a 4 p.m. vespers for five people in a tiny chapel. After the service, he spoke with two young men. One, Ablahad Iahdo, visiting from Sweden, explained that the language of this church was Aramaic, one of the few languages in use for 3,000 years.
He introduced the Rev. Tev Shemun Can, who wore a black cap covered with white crosses shaped like fleurs-de-lis. “We say Jesus came here for his Last Supper,” Iahdo said.
But Father Can, smiling, contended, “We have no agreements (about that and other things) among Christian religions. Jesus is waiting for all of us to come together for the glory of his holy name.”
I returned to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for an early evening visit before catching a bus to the airport for my post-midnight El Al flight home.
The church still was crowded, but this time, I knew the way up the steep stairs to Calvary, and I joined the line to kneel and touch the stone under the cross.
I wanted to see Father Can’s Syrian chapel, which he had said was behind the big tomb. But it was only when I looked it up in my guidebook that I realized it was the same chapel with the burial cave. The guidebook said this simple cave helped to establish the authenticity of the church and tomb. I smiled to myself.
Was it serendipity or God’s direction that brought me here? I don’t know, but these were the types of connections I wanted to make and the Jerusalem I’d hoped to find.