The Many Colors of Jerusalem!

by Avner Ofer

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Jerusalem! The name invokes a multitude of images; of historic battles and bloodshed to amazing architecture and people. From religious struggles to religious monuments. From Jews to Muslims to Christians. If Israel is considered the melting pot of the Middle-East, then Jerusalem marks the center of that diversity.
A few gray clouds lay motionless on the horizon as I drove along the ridge of a mountain road toward Jerusalem. The back road offered panoramic views of the Judean hills and the green valleys they encompass. I stopped along the way to view the sights and read the information displayed on wooden signs, which described historical and biblical events.
Within a few miles of Jerusalem, I passed an army road block. All roads into Jerusalem are controlled by these stations that act as security buffers. Scattered along the hills were Arab villages with a tall muezzin tower of the mosque jutting into the gray skies. After a few miles, I reached a new tunnel built as a way to bypass the once volatile Arab village of Beit Lechem.
Emerging from the tunnel, the first views of this holy city enfolded. The apartment buildings, shops and other constructs seemed similar to any other city, but the major distinction is that all are built using cream-colored limestone called Jerusalem stone. These stones are quarried in the nearby hills and by law are the only material permitted in construction of new buildings. Thus, the whole city keeps with the tradition and even new modern architectural creations have an historic look.
High walls of huge rock surround the old quarter of the city. I walked past David's tower through the Jaffa gate and into history. There I was in the old section of Jerusalem among cobbled alleys and peddlers. The dark, narrow alleys, crowded with visitors, enticed people with their many stores, artifacts and characters.
Never have I witnessed such agglomeration of diverse people. Religious Jewish men wearing black suits and hats with long beards and curled side burns, mingled with Arabs who wore traditional kaphia head covers (a cloth with a black rope tied on the forehead) and a long gown-type dress. Among them were local Arab businessmen in suits, Israelis of different ethnic backgrounds, each with a distinct appearance, Arab woman with their head covered, Israeli soldiers, police and of course tourists from every part of the world. A multitude of languages echoed off the old rocks. I recognized Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, German and English, but many others were new to me. jerus13_s.JPG (24928 bytes)

For hours I admired the diversity of people all crowded into this small area. The market was bustling with haggling, yelling and excited shop keepers and tourists. Young Arab boys tried attracting customers into stores by pleading, pulling and begging tourists. Everything from gold jewelry and religious artifacts to a variety of souvenirs, including stuffed camels, whips and kaphias were available. Again, like everything else in Israel, there was also an amazing diversity in the merchandise. Side-by-side stood Jewish stores selling Israeli and Jewish artifacts, Arab stores displaying their traditional products and both selling Christian artifacts.

The alleys and passages of the old city create an intricate labyrinth of interesting sites. In the Arab market, small shops line narrow corridors where local people make their day-to-day purchases. Meat dangled from hooks, chicken heads were cleaned and displayed on a table and fresh fish laid on mounds of ice. Specialized shops that sell spices displayed a wide assortment of colorful condiments that added to the aroma-charged air. Other stores sold clothing and household utensils.
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Between two stores, a small open door offered a glimpse into a local mosque. Five times a day the religious Muslims enter the enclave to pray. Carpets covered the marble floors and men prostrated on them toward the east, facing Mecca. jerus6_s.JPG (20092 bytes)
Jerus1_s.JPG (7864 bytes) From the Arab section I made my way to one of the most sacred sites for Christians, the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows), believed to be the path over which Jesus carried his cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Church is believed to be the place of Jesus' crucifixion as well as his burial and resurrection site. Thousands of visitors pass through the arched entrance to view this sacred site. Inside, many small rooms displayed Christian motifs and alters where people prayed. I walked through the large complex, mesmerized by the powerful display of architecture, artifacts and worshipers. The tomb is simple compared to the elaborate tapestries that decorate the walls. The center shrine is located under a large dome, surrounded by spires that loom toward the ceiling. In one isolated corner, leaning against an old stone arch, a woman covered in a white shawl prayed peacefully. In another area, nuns dressed in blue robes and hoods sat on the floor in front of a shrine and engaged in deep prayer. After an hour of exploration, I emerged into daylight again.
Within walking distance of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I saw an Egyptian Coptic church, an Ethiopian monastery and a group of Greek Orthodox monks. I realized that a wide range of Christian denominations place Jerusalem as the center of their religion. Thus, it was no surprise when I noticed Russian Orthodox churches, a Mormon church, Armenian churches, Eastern Orthodox Churches, Roman Catholic churches and many others decorating the landscape.
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My last religious stop was the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall because of the sorrowful prayers that are said there to mourn the destroyed Temple. The only part of the Second Temple that is still standing is the most sacred site for the Jews. Located adjacent to the Dome of the Rock mosque, this religious pilgrimage site attracts thousands of visitors each day. I reached the area following the small narrow alleys of the old city. For security reasons, everyone entering the area of the wall must go through a metal detector and a search by an Israeli police officer.
Within the compound, hundreds of people gathered. I entered the men's side of the complex, separated by a screen from the woman's side. Everyone entering this holy area must cover their head, either with a traditional Jewish head cover, a Kippa, or any other appropriate cover. I took a Kippa from a box at the entrance and joined the pious Jews near the wall.
As in other places of extreme religious importance and sacredness, I felt an overwhelming energy. The devotion of worshipers, their intensity in prayer and the expression of awe toward the sacred wall and God, deeply effected me. People from all over the world lined the wall hoping to touch it and to leave a note with their prayers in it. Every crack between the huge stones was crammed with paper notes holding the prayers of the worshipers.

Religious Jews prayed by the wall, rocking back and forth to the rhythm of the prayers playing in their heads. Boys celebrating their 13th birthday came with their families to perform rituals in the presence of this sacred place. Uniformed Soldiers put on traditional religious garments and joined in prayer. I approached the wall and felt the energy and intensity of it draw me closer. I leaned on it, and prayed.

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Jerusalem evokes much more than images. It is able to draw out a wide range of emotions from its visitors as well. A Japanese man I met while in Israel told me that the moment he set foot in Jerusalem he started crying. He explained that the energy of the place was so powerful it overwhelmed him.
With the history, the conflicts and the religious importance the city is unique among the world. If there ever was a city that is the center of our small planet, in the sense of importance, diversity and sacredness, it is Jerusalem.




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