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Travelogue: A Journey to Jerusalem

Sakher points out to a magnificent sculpture of David playing the harp gifted to the city of Jerusalem by a Russian Oligarch. The statue has been attacked and vandalised several times, and note not by Arabs as some might quickly conclude but by Orthodox Jews, who consider it an idol, a graven image prohibited based on their understanding of Old Testament law.

Al Aqsa from the Mount of Olives

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand. forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my highest joys. (Psalm 137)

O Jerusalem, the choice of Allah of all his lands! In it are the chosen of his servants. From it the earth was stretched forth and from it shall it be rolled up like a scroll. The dew which descends upon Jerusalem is a remedy from every sickness because it is from the gardens of Paradise. The Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them. which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! …And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. Jesus in the New Testament (Matthew 23:37,Luke 21:24)

Al Quds in Arabic meaning ‘the Holy’ or Jerusalem (Anglicised Hebrew) meaning the City of Peace (Salaam, Shalom, Salem), is one of those strangest ironies of mankind for its name claims to be Holy and a place of peace, but has been one of the most war ravaged and hotly disputed cities in the world.

Outside it’s gates has come almost every prominent standing army the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander, the Romans, the Christian Byzantines, the Sunni Arabs, the Shia Fatimids, the Crusaders, the Kurdish Ayyubid armies of Saladin, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, the British , the Jordanians and now under the state of Israel. But I did not come to Jerusalem as a warrior.

I came here with my family and my elderly father, because of a promise I made to my late mother, that I would take my father to the Holy City. I came to Jerusalem to fulfil that promise. I also came as a pilgrim and a curious sceptic. Our Palestinian Arab guide Sakher Rizkalla had been forewarned that I would be someone who would not be satisfied with easy answers and that I would cross check everything that he would tell us. I bought a mobile internet pack for my phone to exactly do that.

It is said that the great Caliph Umar who captured Jerusalem from the Byzantine Christians entered the city on foot as a mark of reverence and at the request of Jerusalem’s Christian Patriarch. Nearly 1300 years later, as the city fell to the British, General Allenby did the same, following the example of Caliph Umar. We also entered the city on foot, not so much out of religious reverence, but because it does not make sense to drive a car into the narrow streets of the Old City.

In the Old city it is said that there is every possibility that you will meet people of every nation (much like in the streets of Dubai or New York), but they haven’t come here for trade or commerce, they have come here seeking, searching and perhaps like me trying find answers to deep questions.

Bullet marks on the walls of Jerusalem

Sakher shows us the old walls that protect the city. These walls that have seen the face of so many invaders. Not everything about these walls is ancient, these walls have fallen many times and rebuilt again. Our guide Sakher shows us a part of the walls that have bullet marks, left behind after the Israelis invaded what was then known as East Jerusalem from the Jordanians.

The spot where we stand was a spot where from ancient times, pitched battles have been fought over.  In one of the city gates, Jewish legend held that on the night the Roman Emperor Titus destroyed the Temple (AD 70), the despairing priests had thrown the keys of Jerusalem to heaven crying “God, henceforth be Thou the guardian of the keys.”  

I remember another old story this time about Saladin the Great when he laid siege to Jerusalem. It is said that around the same time, there was a Christian wedding happening inside the walls of Jerusalem. The bride’s mother quite anxious about the wedding function sent a request to Saladin, if his Siege Engines and Trebuchets would stop the attack, so that the festivities would continue, and the bride and groom could have a peaceful and joyous first night Saladin ever considerate and merciful asked his military commanders to stop the attack on that part of the city. The bride’s family in turn sent some of the best wedding delicacies, to thank the Sultan. 

We are visiting in May, but the weather in Jerusalem is quite cool and pleasant in complete contrast to Masada in the Judean desert from where we have just arrived. Jerusalem is not a very big city, but on every nook and corner, there is history lurking around. Our itinerary for the next day has been fixed with Sakher. For now, we are thankful that we can see the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the horizon (will be writing more on this in the next part) from the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before He was betrayed to his captors.

Just below the Mount of Olives we pass by large burial grounds of Jews over centuries. The cultural belief that you must be buried closest to the (old) Jewish temple (now non-existent) to get to Paradise

Then there are other more historical and religious locations that we have to visit, I am already writing down my sceptical questions for Sakher. We have asked him also to take us to the Holocaust Museum and the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) (both are not usually in Holy Land tour packages).

For now, though we pass by the Orthodox Jewish quarter of Jerusalem to visit the tomb of King David (Dawood in Arabic, Dawid in Hebrew). Jerusalem is after all known as the city of David. Sakher points out to a magnificent sculpture of David playing the harp gifted to the city of Jerusalem by a Russian Oligarch. The statue has been attacked and vandalised several times, and note not by Arabs as some might quickly conclude but by Orthodox Jews, who consider it an idol, a graven image prohibited based on their understanding of Old Testament law. So even though David maybe the hero King, God’s friend as the Old Testament describes him, a sculpture of him is unacceptable. This has also led to frequent clashes between orthodox Jews and secular Jews.

Statue of King David in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem

Ironical as it may sound, but about 65% of the Jewish people of the ‘Holy Land’ are atheists as the popular Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports, and the Orthodox Jews are deeply disliked by them. The Orthodox Jew is not required to do compulsory Military service unlike his fellow countrymen. Many of the menfolk give their life to study the Torah (Old Testament) and are seldom part of the national workforce (the state rather finances various subsidies for them), which is also something that ordinary Israeli’s dislike.

The Haredim (as the Orthodox call themselves, a Hebrew word that means: one who stands in awe of God) are also one of the fastest growing populations in Israel and that as I realise is a concern among secular Jews.

It’s evening now, we have got into Sakher’s tourist van and are heading to Bethlehem. The hotel prices in Bethlehem are far cheaper than those in Jerusalem, but Bethlehem comes under the Palestinian authority. I am looking back still pondering about Jerusalem, I have walked in those very places that great men have walked, the city that has been described as the centre of the World, the City of God, yet the most conflict driven place on earth but for me as a Christian the promise of a New Jerusalem that will one day come, where God will finally make His dwelling and then city that will truly live by its name: The City of Peace.

I am still in my thoughts, and I can sense the van slowing down, and I can hear Sakher mildly tense, turning back to me and saying: ‘Keep your passports ready!’. It is an Israeli army patrol that has stopped us. An attractive but serious looking young woman with an automatic rifle slung on her shoulders along with her male comrade comes to our window and asks for passports. Sakher has shown them his ID.  They say something to him in Arabic (I presume).

Our 9-year-old son gives the soldier a toothed grin, she cannot help but smile. She looks at our passports and says ‘Hodu’ (the Hebrew word for India, that is also found in the Old Testament in the book of Esther) and then with the smile again, hands back the passports to us. This is what I often observe whether with Arab or with the Jew, the people of Hodu or Hind are people whom they are fond of. From the western coastline from where my ancestors come from, we Indians after all have had friendships and trade with Jews and Arabs for almost 2000 years and the bonds still live on.

(The writer and his family visited Israel in 2016, this is a travelogue series based on what he saw, learnt and understood from his visit to the Holy Land)