Passions Still Dominate Jerusalem's Politics

Article excerpt

Mark Twain

The Innocents Abroad

WITH ITS numerous holy places crammed into a square kilometre of tightly built-up space, the old, walled city in the Judean highlands looks as venerable today as it did when Mark Twain saw it more than 130 years ago.

Viewed from the Mount of Olives, it looks benign and at peace, its skyline dominated by the holy places sacred to the three great monotheistic religions. Yet this ancient city, now part of greater Jerusalem, has known little lasting peace.

Over the ages, the mellowed wails of old Jerusalem have echoed to the clash of arms, its labyrinthine streets stained by blood, as conqueror ousted conqueror -- 18 in all in its turbulent history. And, as conqueror replaced conqueror, synagogues, churches and mosques rose on the ruins of pagan temples. Jerusalem became sacred geography for Jews, Christians and Muslims, making it difficult to see the city objectively, as Karen Armstrong notes in her book, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.

For followers of the three great faiths, the Holy City has "become bound up with their conception of themselves and the ultimate reality -- sometimes called `God' or the sacred -- that gives our mundane life meaning and value."

There are few places that have been as scored by religion as Jerusalem's old city. And few places that can evoke so much passion. Like the air over an industrial city, the air over this city is so saturated with prayers and dreams that it is hard to breathe, an Israeli poet has written. While much of the rest of the world celebrated the start of the third millennium with elaborate festivities, Jerusalem ushered it in under the watchful eyes of military and police.

Fearing acts of violence by religious fundamentalists or political extremists, grin-bearing security personnel guarded Jerusalem's holy sites as the clock ticked into a new millennium. Christians celebrated the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus' birth while Jews and Muslims, who follow their own calendars, observed regular religious rites.

The millennium's eve happened to coincide with the last Friday in the holy month of Ramadan and an estimated 350,000 Muslims converged on a historic mosque in old Jerusalem for regular Friday noon prayers. The eve marked the start of the Jewish Sabbath when many observant Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall.

The Western Wall, or Wailing Wall as it is sometimes known, is a surviving remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Above the wall, on what Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, is a 35-acre area, covering about a fifth of the old city of Jerusalem. With its E1 Aqsa mosque and imposing gold-topped Dome of the Rock mosque, it is Islam's third holiest shrine. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional place of Christ's crucifixion, burial and resurrection and one of worlds most revered Christian shrines, is a short walk from here. …