Regardless of your religion, it's worth making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem

Visiting Jerusalem doesn't need to be a religious experience. It's a chance to explore living, breathing history, writes Katharine Child

05 July 2017 - 12:29 By Katharine Child
Jerusalem is a fascinating melting pot of different cultures.
Jerusalem is a fascinating melting pot of different cultures.
Image: Katharine Child

Jerusalem is my high school history teacher, a teller of captivating stories that makes history real today.

In a single morning, I heard a nun sing the Lord's prayer in Aramaic, which was the language of Jesus; I visited a Russian Orthodox church; and then I watched children celebrate the 2500-year-old Jewish holiday of Purim on an ancient Roman road.

Jerusalem is delightful to walk around with many spiritual experiences contrasting against a soundtrack of church bells, Muslim calls to prayer and shopkeepers calling out for your business.

Women walked backwards from the wall, not daring to turn their backs on the holiest of Jewish sites, the only remaining part of the ancient temple, which was destroyed in 70AD.

The Wailing Wall was as authentic as the queue through the security scanners to reach it. On a busy Friday night, Orthodox Jews in their black suits and hats pushed forcefully through the queue to get through the scanner quicker than everyone else.

Queues and lines are not part of Israel. You need to push in. If you expect any semblance of a line at the bus stop, market or shopping mall, you'll be disappointed.

Parts of the stone city disappointed me with sites claiming religious significance in a money-making way, where myth meets and suffocates history.

Other experiences were so authentic they gave me goosebumps. On a Friday night, the start of Shabbat, Jewish pilgrims from across the globe prayed, sang and recited the Torah at the Western Wall.

American teenagers stood in the plaza behind the worshippers and danced and shouted about the wonders of visiting Israel.

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
Image: Katharine Child.

Queues and lines are not part of Israel. You need to push in. If you expect any semblance of a line at the bus stop, market or shopping mall, you'll be disappointed.

A few days later I saw female Asian tourists at the holy wall taking selfies and reaching selfie sticks over the divider to spy into the men's section of the wall - real tourist kitsch behaviour - which is inevitable in Jerusalem.

At the foot of the wall is the rather quiet Davidson Archaeological Park in which excavations have uncovered the ritual baths where Jewish men washed to be clean before entering the temple 2000 years ago.

You can also see stores where money changers helped people buy sacrificial animals. This may have been where Jesus overturned the tables in the holy temple.

Other parts of Jerusalem are not to be believed. There are two rooms in the Old City claiming to be the place of the Last Supper, two places claiming to be the garden tomb where Jesus was buried and a footprint left in stone on the Mount of Olives by Jesus when he ascended into heaven.

Historians agree (for once) that the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives cannot possibly be where Jesus prayed before death. Yet this replica of the olive garden is fenced off and is treated as holy with trees planted by the popes of the last century. Oil from the trees' olives is sent to the Vatican.

The four quarters of the old city are divided into the Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters. They offer history, endless tourist shops, artworks, delicious food and views of the gold Dome of the Rock.

The rooftops join in the middle of the city and my tour guide tells us about the author who said Jerusalem was united by its rooftops and divided by its people.

One night an Armenian shopkeeper named Mud tells me his story of living in the old city side by side with Arab brothers and sisters and how he feels they get a raw deal trying to get permits to build houses in East Jerusalem.

An Arab shopkeeper scolded me for asking the way to the ''Temple Mount" - it's known by Arabs as the al-Aqsa mosque.

A glimpse of the Mount of Olives cemetery where 70,000 Jewish people are buried. It is believed by some that those buried here will rise first on the day of resurrection because of the proximity of the cemetery to the holy city.
A glimpse of the Mount of Olives cemetery where 70,000 Jewish people are buried. It is believed by some that those buried here will rise first on the day of resurrection because of the proximity of the cemetery to the holy city.
Image: KATHARINE CHILD

Jerusalem does not need to be a religious experience for the visitor. It is living, breathing history.

The stone city has been conquered a stunning 44 times and attacked 52 times.

Each rock tells stories of battles fought, kingdoms established and later conquered. Many rocks and ancient stone columns marked with Hebrew inscriptions from the temple period 2000 years ago were reused in buildings over the centuries and are still discovered today in the walls of houses.

Thirty-thousand people live in the ancient city, 20,000 of them in the Arab quarter.

Buy their Arabic coffee cooked over a flame and flavoured with cardamom and sit in the sun watching tourists rush through thousands of years of history.

I missed it the first time, but hidden away on my second visit to the old city I found the Cardo, an old Roman road in Jerusalem way below the city of today.

I stared at the road and the 1500- year-old columns that once held a roof to protect shoppers from the sun and imagined the shopkeepers, donkeys, camels and the crowds buying the same spices, dates, incense, and fruits and vegetables on sale today in the ancient city.

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