Journey to the city at the centre of the world
With its artistic and café culture, today’s Jerusalem may well be one of the most vibrant of modern Middle Eastern cities. But its main attraction is the one square kilometre of ancient historical and religious sites that make up the Old City. For millennia the battlefield of countless military campaigns, it is also the focal point of our great western religions. And pilgrims flock there by the thousand. It is where pages of the Bible come to life before your eyes. And as Bay’s Nick Smith discovered, until you’ve visited Jerusalem, you can’t say you’ve really travelled…
Looking out over the Old City from the Mount of Olives, it’s easy to see why Jerusalem is sometimes called the ‘City of Gold’. Dominating this dazzling vista is the gilded Dome of the Rock. Enclosing the city are ancient rough-hewn limestone walls, watchtowers and fortified gates that were once in place to fend off attack, but now shimmer peacefully in the early morning light. There are few places on earth that can match the sheer grandeur of a city that, unlike any other, seems to have taken up so many pages of the world’s history books.
The walls are there with good reason. The city that was once thought to be the ‘centre of the world’ has also long been the focus of never-ending dispute. In the past three millennia it’s been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked a further 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times. Today, there’s little evidence of the city’s bloodthirsty past, and it has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981. Overlooking the Garden of Gethsemane there’s a busy, energetic city going about the noisy process of waking up. In the soft yellow light that is a photographer’s dream, I’m reminded that Israel’s unofficial national anthem is ‘Jerusalem of Gold’. Closer to home, the England cricket team has adopted Sir Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, as an entrance anthem, today known as ‘Jerusalem’. The very same hymn was even my old school song when I was at Olchfa, and for all I know still is. Everyone it seems has a connection with this most exalted of pilgrimage sites.
Driving into Jerusalem, my first impression was that this was going to be a travel writer’s worst nightmare. And that’s because this really is the place where (sorry about this) East meets West, ancient and modern worlds collide, where old and young, religious and secular, civilian and military all intermingle in a tapestry of contrasts that makes a fool of anyone daft enough to attempt to describe it. Sitting on my five-hour flight from London to Tel Aviv – you need a taxi for the final 40-odd miles inland – I’d been disappointed by the clichés that ruined my guidebook to Jerusalem. I was about to visit one of the ‘most historic cities in the world’. Furthermore, I was going to spend my days in a ‘city of gold’ where, even when the sun goes down, ‘there is still plenty that shines’.
For once the guidebooks aren’t exaggerating. As we thread through the complex of narrow streets into a smart area of the modern metropolis, I start to think that this is one city where those platitudes about vibrant art and café culture have been coined with reason. Everything is extraordinary. As I pay my cabbie I look up to see hundreds of brightly coloured umbrellas suspended above the street. In a city where summer rain is front-page news, I conclude that something else must be going on. It turns out the good people of Jerusalem take their public art very seriously. Everywhere you go there are installations, galleries, museums, musicians, statues, artists and poets.
Because Jerusalem is a ‘city of contrasts’ you can quickly find yourself at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. One minute I am in the Museum of Israel looking at Damien Hirst’s 40-foot ‘Spot Painting’ L-Leucine-15N, 2001, or at Albert Einstein’s statue at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities; while the next I am deep in the Old City walking along the Via Dolorosa, ticking off the Stations of the Cross in my notebook. I find myself touring a military pillbox from the British Mandate era (that’s now an impromptu modern art gallery and a camera obscura), the Ticho House art museum (that was Jerusalem’s first ophthalmic surgery), and a former leper sanatorium. There are workers’ and artists’ collectives, open air choral performances and, of course, the fabled Machane Yehuda Shuk, where dried fruits, spices and nuts are in abundance and where, if you enjoy haggling with the market stall holders, plenty of free samples are dished out with delicious fresh mint tea.
WALKING DOWN THE BACK STREETS OF THE BIBLE
But the big attraction is the Old City. And while not everyone will feel the spiritual call to walk among the cobbled stones, it would be a very incurious traveller who didn’t want to wander in the one square kilometre of biblical history. While, in mediaeval times it took Chaucer’s pilgrims weeks to travel from Southwark to Canterbury, for me to get to the most ancient parts of Jerusalem was but a short walk along the high street. Follow the tramline, said a helpful cabbie, and within ten minutes I was standing at the Jaffa Gate about to take a stroll down the back-streets of the bible. As I made my tour of the Old City, visiting the Room of the Last Supper (that isn’t really the Room of the Last Supper), weaved my way along the Via Dolorosa (that isn’t the original route along which Christ carried the cross), and gazed in awe upon the empty Tomb of the Messiah (that probably isn’t the original empty Tomb of the Messiah, no matter how awe-inspiring), I couldn’t help feeling that here, archaeological and religious history is as much about what you want it to be as anything else.
You can spend days, and I did, wandering the walled city’s four quarters – Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian – marvelling at the synagogues, churches and mosques. A labyrinth of shabby narrow alleyways leads you past site after site of mind-boggling antiquity and reverence. From the Western Wall to the Pool of Bethesda, from the Dome of the Rock to the Tomb of King David, the Old City is a living history book. In the furnace-like heat of noon I sat shaded in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which according to 4th century tradition, houses both the site of the Crucifixion and the burial tomb of Christ.
One of the most fascinating things about the courtyard though – despite the inexhaustible stream of pilgrims – is an innocuous ladder, located beneath a first floor window, looking for all the world as though left there by a workman. In fact, that’s exactly what the ‘Immovable Ladder’, as it is now called, is. Made of cedar, it’s been undisturbed since 1757, mainly because no one can be sure of the legal and ecumenical issues connected with moving it. The local people of Jerusalem cheerfully admit that ‘it’s a crazy place’, and if you ever wanted confirmation, look no further than the ladder, which by holy order of Pope Paul VI, cannot be moved until the Catholic and Orthodox churches reach a state of harmony.
There are times when adventure travel writers can be critical of mass tourism and often, when they are, they like to loftily lift a quote from one of my favourite poets, T S Eliot, who in his Four Quartets writes: “we had the experience but missed the meaning.” And while the conveyor belt of box-ticking site-seeing can be a soulless affair – and I’ve complained of this myself often enough – at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the complete opposite happens in that you are surrounded by meaning, while the experience gets missed. And that’s because the church interior – though bustling and bristling with the adoration of the massed faithful – is an unruly shambles. To say that it is signed badly would be an understatement. And so you’re left to wander around, trying to make sense of a rambling interior that, due to continual refurbishment, is more like a builder’s yard than a place of worship. No matter, because this is the cradle of Christianity, and to visit its two holiest places under one roof (well, two domes to be precise), is an extraordinary experience, even if you’re not quite sure what’s going on. Of course, I’d researched all this before my visit, and for sure I queued for what seemed like hours to spend a moment in the second room of the ‘aedicula’, that supposedly contains the tomb of the Messiah, but never have I been more convinced that a church is not its masonry, but its people. To see hoards of disciples joyfully taking selfies on their smart-phones was a wonder to behold.
Upon leaving the Old City you may wish to contemplate such spiritual matters in the wonderful American Colony Hotel. Located within walking distance of the city walls, north of Herod’s Gate, with its cool, green gardens and colonial architecture, this is where the discerning traveller to Jerusalem stays. And you’ll be in good company. Everyone who is anyone has checked in: from Lawrence of Arabia to Bob Dylan, Winston Churchill to Sting, Graham Greene to Mikhail Gorbachev. John le Carré wrote a book here, while Peter Ustinov (whose grandfather was one of the hotel’s first proprietors) made a film on site. Its atmosphere of shady palms and Turkish carpets, exquisitely painted ceilings and tranquil fountains, lends an air of a secret oasis that, while only yards from the hustle and bustle of the Old City, transports the weary pilgrim a thousand miles away and a century back in time. Today’s feeling of utter peace and calm is strangely in keeping with the origins of the American Colony, which, as its name suggests, has its roots in a utopian society for American (and Swedish) exiles.
All too soon it’s time to return to Blighty. But not before one final look over the Old City where the golden Dome of the Rock still dominates a skyline so rich in history, so steeped in tradition and so out of tune with the modern world. On the aeroplane home my guidebook informs me that I have just left a ‘city of the imagination’, and although the writer in me can’t help wincing at yet another cliché about this ‘city of cities’, I also know that there are times when a place can leave even the best of us simply lost for words.