Evening is falling as I enter Jerusalem for the first time. I’m excited. Jerusalem has been on my bucket list longer than any other: I’ve wanted to visit since I first became interested in the Israel/Palestine conflict as a child working on a current events project for school. I’m expecting to be awed by the historical significance of the place and hoping to be caught up in some of the emotional connection or religious fervor people experience here. I will be disappointed on all fronts.
I’m staying in a hostel just outside the Damascus Gate in the eastern, or Arab quarter of the Old City gate. All of Israel is immersed in a dense cover of dust, a product of a sandstorm in Saudi Arabia that’s the largest on record. The dust gets into everything, makes it hard to breathe, and is the kiss of death for photography. As I descend on foot through the gate I’m immediately struck by three thoughts: 1. It’s blessedly cooler inside than the 36C (96F) outside the stone walls; 2. Most western tourists would be intimidated by this chaotic scene of narrow alleyways crowded with people and vendors stalls, but I’ve come through Istanbul and it feels like home; and 3. This is Jerusalem? All these vendor stalls looks just like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. I could have just stayed there.
I continue past vendors competing for my attention, up steep stairways worn smooth by the passing of millions of feet and down narrow corridors that twist and turn with no logical pattern. I have a map but I instinctively know Jerusalem is a city best experienced by getting lost. I let myself be taken in by the pungent smells and exuberant sounds that in the next weeks I will come to identify with the Arab world. There’s a bustling energy in the Arab quarter that heightens my sense of adventure and excitement, and its loss is immediate and palpable the second I turn into the Christian quarter.
The streets are wider and emptier in this quarter, and for the first time I catch sight of western tourists. It’s fully dark now but I feel completely safe in the Old City. I pass the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered in Christianity as the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This spot in Jerusalem has been a Christian pilgrimage destination since it was built around 325 AD, but it is closed now so I just keep walking until I find myself at the Tower of David in the crowded plaza inside the Jaffa Gate. There’s a nightly sound and light show at the Tower, but it seems too touristy to me so I continue on my walkabout.
I escape the crowds by ducking into a random alleyway and notice as the area begins to appear wealthier, with higher quality shops and better upkeep than I’d seen in the other two quarters. I’ve entered the Jewish quarter. I also perceive a marked difference in how people are dressed here, reflecting how many Orthodox Jews populate the area. Hot as it is, I’m glad I opted for a long-sleeved blouse. Before I know it I’m caught up in a huge crowd. Big groups of schoolchildren, large families speaking a multitude of languages, and lone Hassidic men all crowd through ever-narrowing alleyways with barely any light. More and more merge from adjoining alleyways, and there’s an excited energy in the crowd. “Where is everyone going?” I ask a stranger and learn that I’m in the midst of tens of thousands of uber-faithful who come to Jerusalem from all parts of Israel and the world in the days leading up to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year and one of Judaism’s highest holidays, to pray at the Western Wall at midnight. The Western, or Wailing, Wall, is known in Judaism as the last remaining piece of the Second Jewish Temple built by King Herod on the site of King David’s original temple on top of the Temple Mount. I envy their fervor and excitement and wish I could muster up some of my own and feel a spiritual connection with this group, but instead my devout belief in atheism is strengthening by the second. It’s disappointing, because if I was a believer I’d probably be having lots of fun right now. There’s a community spirit among these strangers that I don’t feel a part of. Instead I feel squished like a claustrophobic sardine in a can that’s been left in a steam room. It’s still a few weeks before I’ll go to Egypt and get scuba certified, so I haven’t yet learned to control my oxygen deprivation phobia and I’m struggling to breathe in this massive press of humanity. I feel panic rising and I can’t get out of the crowd fast enough. For 15 long minutes I do my best impression of a salmon, elbowing, shoving and tripping my way upstream and cross-current, until finally I am free, dripping with sweat.
When I recover I continue my journey until I find myself at a viewing platform overlooking the Temple Mount, which is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims and is ground zero for the ongoing territorial conflict that dates back to the Crusades. I wonder if historians a thousand years from now will consider the current conflicts and wars to be part of the same Crusades, an endless thousand-plus year conflict. From here I can see the crowded plaza outside the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. The Dome is part of the Al Aqsa compound and is holy in Islam as the place from which the prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven. Upon seeing the gold-topped Dome I have my first moment of awe, but at the same time I can’t help thinking “This is the rock everyone is fighting over? Really??” I’m ashamed of such an irreverent thought, but I can’t help it. It just seems so childish and petty to me, so wasteful of human energy and lives, and for what? Control over a little spit of land where some important things may have happened thousands of years ago? I just can’t understand how anyone might think this is beneficial to humanity in any way. I find myself feeling sad, depressed and pessimistic about humanity’s future. As I stand there watching Judaism’s most faithful pray at their wall, a muezzin begins the Muslim call to prayer and in the distance I hear the pealing of church bells. From my objective perch apart from the devoted I can see synchronicity here from a broader perspective. This is how it should be, I think. Three different expressions of faith in the same place at the same time, in harmony.