Jerusalem: Reflections in Stone

Old City, Jerusalem, Israel

“Mandelbaum Gate was over there,” said Ouria, our photo guide, as he pointed to a busy, modern intersection while we waited for the light rail along Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. I had never heard of the Mandelbaum Gate. On our second day in Jerusalem, I was just beginning to get used to the layered nature of the place, modern events taking place amid the ancient stones.

Two boys in white shirts walking next to light rail train

As surprised as we were to hear Ouria’s reference to the gate that was no longer there, he was equally surprised that we had never heard of it. “After the War for Independence, it was the only way to get from Israeli Jerusalem on the west to the eastern part of Jerusalem controlled by Jordan,” he explained. It was the Israeli equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie, the Cold War crossing between East and West Berlin. As newcomers to modern Jerusalem, we rarely thought about what Jerusalem had been like as a divided city from 1948 to 1967.

View over the roofs of Jerusalem's Old City to the Dome of the Rock and hills beyond

Ouria’s comment about the long-gone checkpoint made me look around modern Jerusalem and wonder what had been there before … and then before that. With more than 3,000 years of recorded history, Jerusalem has a lot of “before” for visitors to consider and absorb, layers of civilizations – Israelite, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Crusader, Ottoman, British, and modern Israeli and Palestinian. All their tales and yearnings are recorded in its golden stones, imposing walls and holy sites.

City of walls

From our hotel room we could look across the valley past the City of David excavation to the walls of the Old City. As we looked further the walls of the Old City seemed to merge with the new security barrier separating East and West Jerusalem. The walls don’t really line up, but their purpose does: to keep enemies out and citizens safe, apparently a dilemma as old as Jerusalem itself.

Walls of the Tower of David in Jerusalem

The heart of tourist Jerusalem is the Old City, a tangled warren of walls within walls, a fortified medieval city built by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in the 1530s. The town itself began as a Canaanite village near a local spring before the time of King David. Today the stone streets are filled with residents, tourists, pilgrims, endless shops, restaurants, and hawkers shouting in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Three of the most revered – and contested – holy sites in the world are located here.

Tourists and Orthodox men near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City

It took days of wandering before the geography, history and politics began to make sense to me. During the first day touring with our guide Madeleine Lavine, I wanted to enjoy the aromas of the spice shops and hunt for fabric for new living room pillows, but Madeleine kept us on track. “We can go up to the Dome of the Rock if we get on line at the checkpoint before 1:30,” she said.

Little boy with blue backpack between two golden walls in Jerusalem's Old City

Into the Old City

We raced through the streets down ancient stone steps, following her carefully. We passed the columns of the Cardo – the old Roman main drag – endless churches and numerous yeshivas (Jewish schools).

Man in gray jacket and keffiyeh walking past citrus stand in Jerusalem's Old City

There were Jews in skullcaps and black hats, Muslim women in hijabs and abayas, Muslim men wearing keffiyeh on their heads, tourists in flip-flops and spaghetti straps. We heard church bells, the Muslim call to prayer and Jewish students reciting their alef-bet.

Tourists at viewpoint overlooking the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Suddenly we were on a terrace overlooking a huge plaza facing the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. From our vantage point, three or four stories above the plaza, the people gathering near the wall looked tiny, the wall itself massive. Naively I had thought this place of reverence and tears for the destruction of the ancient Jewish temples was part of the Temple itself, but it’s not. Herod the Great, the Jewish king appointed by the Romans, had the wall built during the time of the Second Temple, around 19 BCE, to shore up and brace the hill now known as the Temple Mount. In short, it was built as a retaining wall.

The Western Wall of Jerusalem's Old City with the Dome of the Rock above and a covered gray ramp crossing the plaza

Looking at her watch, Madeleine nudged us away from our perfect Kodak spot, down several flights of stairs through the Jewish Quarter to the line for the checkpoint, only open for an hour and a half each day except Friday, the Muslim holy day. It was interesting to see how many Jews queued up to get a glimpse of two of the most holy Muslim sites outside of Mecca: the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. When the line finally started to move, men and women went through separate security checkpoints as we crossed from Israeli to Jordanian jurisdiction. No weapons allowed, of course. No Hebrew Bibles or prayerbooks either. And no spaghetti straps. The Muslim modesty police were on the job.

Men's and women's entrances to Dome of the Rock

To the Dome of the Rock

We walked up an enclosed ramp across the plaza in front of the Wall, emerging on the Temple Mount. We passed a fountain surrounded by spigots for ritual foot washing, then walked up a broad flight of stairs and under the Scale of Souls, a colonnade in front of the Dome of the Rock.

The octagonal, blue tiled Dome of the Rock

Jerusalem’s most impressive sight with its blue tile mosaics and golden dome, the octagonal building is a shrine, not a mosque. Inside sits the Foundation Stone, which, according to Jewish legend, is the tip of Mount Moriah, where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac and where generations later the Ark of the Covenant was said to sit in the Holy of Holies in the Israelites’ First Temple. According to Muslim belief, Mohammed ascended to heaven from the same rock. As non-Muslims, however, we were not allowed inside to see it.

Pilgrims or tourists in front of the entrance to the blue tiled Dome of the Rock

From the outside, it was easy to admire the beautiful marble, the peacock blue tiles and the golden dome. But they didn’t speak to me. I didn’t belong there. I was a Jew in a Muslim holy place, a modern, secular person in a place where sacred stones are so revered that people are willing to die to have access to them. It was hard to feel holiness and peace in a place where I felt so Other.

Ancient gate at the east end of Jerusalem's Old City

We slipped back into the Old City through the Islamic Mameluk-era (1250-1517) Cotton Merchant’s Gate into a lively souk or bazaar selling anything and everything.

Orange and yellow spices with white signs in a spice shop in Jerusalem's Old City

What we wanted most was falafel and good creamy Israeli hummus. After lunch we had mint tea with a fabric merchant Madeleine knew who sent us to his brother because he didn’t have what we wanted. On our way we stopped at Elia Photo Service, where we enjoyed seeing modern prints of early 20th-century photos of Jerusalem. There was no plaza near the Wall then, and men and women prayed together freely, no partition or Jewish modesty police keeping the genders apart.

Along the Via Dolorosa

Shopping and history merged on the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, where Jesus is believed to have carried his cross to his crucifixion. We briefly merged with a group of pilgrims from India as they stopped at the marked Stations of the Cross. Number 8, where we caught up with them, faces an Internet café. That’s the way it is in Jerusalem. The holy and the profane mingle now as they did in ancient days.

Tourists or pilgrims from India stopping at the Stations of the Cross on Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City

Leaving the Indian pilgrims to their quest, we were enticed into an antiquities shop. “What era would you like to see, Abrahamic, Davidic, Roman?” the shopkeeper asked, drawing us ever deeper into the shop. “I’ve sold treasures to President Clinton,” he boasted, pulling out a scrapbook of letters from famous people. Glass and ceramics, some in good condition, some fragments, littered his storefront. Real? Fake? Truthful? Liar? I had no idea. It didn’t matter. Suddenly I was in a movie version of a Middle Eastern bazaar. For a moment I was Ingrid Bergman or Lauren Bacall instead of a tired tourist.

Two women in foreground looking up steps on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City

Madeleine, impatient watching us be seduced by the antique dealer’s spiel, lured us out of harm’s way and back onto the Via Dolorosa. Like the pilgrims, we were headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified and laid to rest. The tense home to six of the world’s oldest Christian sects which have been bickering for centuries, the church is a hotbed of legends of intrigues. The Christian denominations are so distrustful of each other that the keys to the church have been held for generations by the Moslem Neseibeh family, whose members unlock the church each morning with great ceremony and lock it again each evening.

Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with two arches and people out front in Jerusalem

The dark, elaborate chapels were built around two stones as famous as the Foundation Stone in the Dome of the Rock. Near the entrance to the church sits the Anointing Stone, where Jesus’ body is said to have been prepared for burial. Golgotha, also known as Calvary, is just feet away in the most decorated chapel of the church. This heavily visited spot is thought to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. We watched lines of pilgrims wait patiently for the opportunity to kneel under the marble altar so they could kiss the stone and embody their connection to Christ.

Interior of the Church of Holy Sepulcher with a man holding up an iPad to take a photo of the altar

I didn’t really understand what I was watching. I was unfamiliar with the nuances of the stories that the magnificent gilded art represented, and I didn’t understand the deep emotions that found expression here. But clearly the stones, the place, connected people through time to the foundation story of their beliefs. That seems to be Jerusalem’s secret. The city is a timeline set in stone, usually beautiful golden stone, that people of divergent and competing beliefs can touch to remind themselves that their beliefs are real.

Having toured the Muslim and Christian holy sites, it was time for me to encounter my Jewish one, the Western Wall. The next morning we set off with Madeleine for the Jewish Quarter, passing a recently built Chabad synagogue and a modern Sephardic center housing four congregations that date from the 16th century.

A modern Chabad school stands right next to the ancient Roman columns of the Cardo in Jerusalem's Old City

Historical signage nearby, revealing layers of history no longer apparent on the street, explained that the entire area was rebuilt after being destroyed during the wars of 1948 and 1967. I tried to imagine the confusion, the fear, the rubble and the sorrow of living there and defending the Jewish Quarter during those difficult days. But like Ouria’s Mandelbaum Gate, the recent history felt like a wisp of memory grafted on to the ancient stones. I was still pondering the fighting that went on here when we approached the security checkpoint we had to clear before we were allowed into the plaza facing the Western Wall.

At the Kotel—the Western Wall

Since the area directly in front of the Wall is segregated by gender, Madeleine and I veered off to the right to the smaller section reserved for women. We agreed on a meeting point, and David headed to the men’s area on the left.

View of the Western Wall in Jerusalem showing the partition between the men's and women's sections

Respectfully Madeleine left me on my own to have my own experience. Suddenly I was face to face with this famous wall that Jews have yearned to get close to since the Israelites were exiled by the Romans millennia ago.

Dozens of women stand up close to the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Cheap, white plastic chairs occupied by young ultra-Orthodox women who wanted to settle in and pray were pulled right up to the Wall. There was no space to sidle in and touch the Wall without disturbing them, no chance to put a note between the stones with my own heartfelt desires. If I had cared more I might have made room for myself next to the Wall, but the women seemed so intent in their prayers I didn’t want to interrupt them. It was hard to find my own voice amid the weight of the stones, the history and other people’s religious fervor. So I did what I do as a tourist when I’m uncomfortable; I took pictures. Looking up at the amazing structure, I discovered a white dove in a nook between the massive stones. That’s my favorite picture of the Wall.

Men lined up to pray along the golden stones of the Western Wall or Kotel in Jerusalem

After about ten minutes, I told Madeleine that I was ready to go meet David. He told us about a picture he wouldn’t take of a weeping man with his head resting up against the wall. Of course we had no idea of this man’s sorrow, or perhaps his joy, but clearly his relation to the place was very different from ours.

Questioning the stones

Back inside the maze of shops, I wondered whether possessing this wall, this piece of historic real estate, was worth the lives it cost over the centuries. What about the lives it has cost during the last 70 years? David wondered about the veneration of so many stones in this city that is the centerpiece of the world’s great monotheistic religions. Abraham is said to have destroyed his father’s idols. Are these stones any different? Why are they so important to their respective peoples? Does touching them ground people in their faith? Don’t we have the Torah, the Bible and the Koran for that?

Attempting to understand Jerusalem’s competing narratives in a tourist week is a fool’s errand. It takes imagination to travel back in time and envision Jerusalem’s many pasts — seeing the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount or the light rail hugging the old armistice line. One looks for answers in the eternal stones, but in the end they are like mirrors, reflecting back what we want to see.

We strolled out of the Old City through Jaffa Gate, crossed the highway overpass to bustling, modern Jerusalem, and headed for lunch.

White dove in a niche in the Western Wall in Jerusalem

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  1. Wonderfully written. There is a book by a German Scholar Holger Kersten which is very interesting. I trust that you would read it and write bit on this place and matter of the Crucification. As usual, enjoyed your beautiful stringing of your pearls!

  2. Fabulously well written!

  3. Interesting in-sites! It’s time for us to plan a trip to Israel.

  4. Great trip. Feels like i’m there again.

  5. Great conclusion. In fact, great narrative voice. Few people would have the courage to talk about not feeling what they were supposed to feel. Since that’s thew story of my life, I really appreciated reading someone directly write about it.

  6. Although I have spent a lot of time in Israel, I enjoyed your descriptions and experiences immensely. As others have said, beautifully-written and thought-provoking. Your final paragraph left me with much to think about! Thank you.

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments. As many of you know first hand, Jerusalem provokes many thoughts and feelings, not all of them comfortable, but all worth exploring.

  8. I think I feel a bit more kinship with the seekers of the stones than you — a tangible connection to sacred history can be a very powerful thing. But it is easy to fall into a kind of idolatry where we valorize the stones where our ancestors walked and forget the values our ancestors upheld.

    One of the saddest places for me in Israel was Kever Rachel. According to tradition, Rachel is buried along the road to Jerusalem where she weeps for her children as they are led into exile — she is the ever-compassionate mother-of-exiles. Today, her tomb is a walled bastion in the midst of a Palestinian neighborhood, overlooked by apartment buildings that were condemned in order to protect Jewish worshippers from thrown stones. How can the mother-of-exiles be honored by sending others’ children into exile? That is what I would call a kind of blasphemy.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I can really understand how you found Kever Rachel so sad. I hear the news every day and want to cry. How can our people, who were exiles from so many places, lack compassion for others’ pain? It feels like a betrayal of our values and our history.


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