As an atheist among believers in the holy city (Israel)

Dome of the Rock
Dome of the Rock

How much holiness can man take? Jerusalem stretches sanctity to the limit, too much for some, so that the Jerusalem Syndrome takes hold. The whole Old City is full of weirdos who race to preach or trade Bible verses like other people trade jokes elsewhere: “Have you heard this one?”

For Jews, the “Wailing Wall”, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, has been nothing less than the place of divine presence since the Temple itself and the Holy of Holies were destroyed by the Romans. Whatever an omnipresent God needs such a place for. The square in front of it serves as an open-air synagogue. All the bearded men in black suits, with big black hats or, depending on the current, big fur hats are magnificent to behold. Oh, the hats are really super! The ultra-Orthodox women, on the other hand, look like inconspicuous wallflowers. The mechanical bobbing on the wall seems very strange, but when I see them in town, often with a fashionable touch and mobile phone, they seem less old-fashioned than retro.

Jerusalem’s most radiant structure, however, is a mosque, or more precisely a monument celebrating Muhammad’s mystical journey to heaven. The Dome of the Rock (and the neighbouring Al-Aqsa Mosque) on the Temple Mount is one of the grandest early Islamic structures, even older than the mosque in Damascus. The model for the Dome of the Rock was above all the dome of the Byzantine Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Initially, it must have looked something like the smaller dome next door; somewhat later, the side walls were added. Similar to Damascus, the building was originally covered in mosaics. The blue tiles date from the time of Suleiman, the Ottoman ruler who built all the mosques in Istanbul.

Unfortunately, visiting the Temple Mount has been a farce for a few years now. One hour after opening, you are already being shooed out of the gate, and you have spent most of your time queuing for security. The interior of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock is only open to Muslims. Yet I was in there a few years ago….

The Temple Mount is also the place where the Last Judgement will fall upon mankind. Hence the huge Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives next door, so that the dead don’t have so far to go. Since God will have all kinds of things to do on that day, the Muslims have helped him a little and have already built the arches on which the archangel Gabriel will hang the scales.

Some say that the Ummayads also sanctified Jerusalem for Muslims for very mundane political reasons: to counter the power of Mecca. Perhaps they also wanted to celebrate the victory over Byzantium or to get rid of the remnants of other religions. Whatever the case, a period began in which Jews and (predominantly Orthodox) Christians could also continue to pursue their faith and life relatively undisturbed. This changed with the Crusaders invading from Europe; Jews and Muslims were massacred, the Eastern churches had their places snatched away, the Temple Dome was converted into a church and the Al-Aqsa Mosque into a citadel.

“One cross each”. The navel of the Christian world is only a few hundred metres away in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in its present form mostly from the time of the Crusaders (and from the 19th century, after the church had burnt down), but the Christians spread holiness right over the whole of the old city with their Stations of the Cross and all kinds of other holy places. Here Jesus has this, there Jesus has that. Without interruption, pilgrims stream from station to station. Some even drag along a wooden cross to really savour the suffering, but then usually a whole crowd carries the cross along. That’s not enough for a beautiful crucifixion. The crosses would have been too small anyway, you could at most strike a child on it, I guess. So I have my doubts about the devotion of these pilgrims…

In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself there is chaos. Flocks of pilgrims jostle each other, worship against each other, smooch the stone where Jesus was anointed, wait for their second on Golgotha and in the Holy Sepulchre. The queue in front of the tiny tomb is long. Every now and then a priest has to shoo a few pilgrims, lost in rapturous devotion, out of the Holy Sepulchre: “come on please, touch and go” and ” let’s go, Jallah.”.

Around Easter, the disputes between the different denominations can apparently still become really violent today. In the past, the ongoing dispute about who is allowed to do what in which corner and who owns which chapel, conducted with quite unholy methods, was so fierce that the Ottoman sultan had to intervene. Since then, the decree has been in force that nothing may be changed in the status quo. That is why no one clears away the ladder that stands above the portal and of which no one knows anymore who it belongs to. Similarly, the Israeli state is considering intervening because the denominations cannot agree to renovate the part of the church that is in danger of collapsing. The Greek Orthodox control the main nave, Catholics and Armenians are to the left and right of the tomb, the Copts have a tiny chapel behind it and the others are somewhere off to the side, e.g. the Ethiopians on the roof.

Some Protestants (Anglicans etc.) suspect that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not in the right place at all. Perhaps they are just miffed at having arrived too late to get their chapel off? Against the good argument that, contrary to the Bible, it stands inside the city wall, others counter that the outer wall was built somewhat later. And finally, the True Cross was found under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre! The Lutherans have their own church nearby. However, in typical Protestant fashion, they laugh at the mythical claptrap of the others, saying that it is not so important where exactly Jesus was crucified, but that he took away the sins of the world and so on and rose from the dead … and then they invite me to a Bible study.

Jerusalem does not only consist of the Old City, the centre in the east seems pleasantly normal.

The very Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem is something quite different. Here I immerse myself in a lot of pictures, films, in individual fates and eyewitness accounts, learn new details about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Einsatzgruppen, death marches and Treblinka, and pursue the insoluble question of how a nation could collectively commit such industrial mass murder. There are also works by murdered artists on display, as well as some commemorative and memorial monuments.

Read on

Backpacking trip Middle East and Caucasus 2008
Yom Kippur in Jerusalem
Hebron and Bethlehem
Tel Aviv and the North of Israel
MasadaMakhtesh Ramon