by David K. Shipler
Jerusalem is a festival and a lamentation. Its song is a sigh across the ages, a delicate, robust, mournful psalm at the great junction of spiritual cultures. Here among the constant ruins and rebuilding of civilizations lies the coexistence of diversity and intolerance.
In Jerusalem, the moment of harmony comes at dawn. The first light sings a pastel tune on ancient stone. As the sun rises from behind the desert mountains across the Jordan and the Dead Sea, the rays touch the curve of the Mount of Olives, then illuminate the creations of man. The sunlight kindles the brilliant gold of the Dome of the Rock, built by Muslims around the massive stone from which the faithful believe Mohammad departed on his night journey to heaven. Then the adjacent al-Aqsa Mosque is lit, followed by the newest blocks of towering stone yeshivas in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, reconstructed by the Israelis as testimony to the revival of the Jewish state and to the holiness of Jerusalem to the Jews. The light catches the dome and eclectic superstructure of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the centuries by Christian denominations on the site determined by the mother of Constantine, Queen Helena, to have been the place of the crucifixion, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus.
The new sun casts a rose glow on the saw-toothed top of the wall that encloses the Old City. Practically every ruler of Jerusalem has added to the city wall, changing its configuration, building on the levels of earlier epochs. And as the sun climbs, the illumination descends along the courses of stone, working its way back through time, lighting first the repairs made by the Israelis, as the citys latest conquerors, to the uppermost ramparts erected by the Turkish sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Then teasing color out of the layers placed by the Byzantines, the Crusaders, King Herod, and finally, at the southeast corner, blocks that may have been laid during the time of Nehemiah, following the exile of the Jews in Babylon.
Within the walls, light slowly penetrates the narrow alleys and secluded courtyards where small communities of Jews, Muslims, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and other ethnic and religious groups reside with intense devotion to their traditions and their faiths. Below al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, the freshening day softens the shadow thrown by the massive blocks of Herodian stone that make up the revered Wailing Wall or Western Wall, which is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, or Mount Moriah, the plateau on which the Muslim shrines now stand, where the Temple of Solomon once stood, and where no Jewish place of worship has existed since the Second Temple was burned by the Romans in A.D. 70.
In most cities of the world, the first to wake are the servants and workers and merchants the bus drivers, the garbagemen, the cooks, the calloused men and women who bear their produce to early morning market. But in Jerusalem it is the pious who greet the dawn the Muslims, Jews and Christians who sacrifice sleep for prayer. Their calls and chants in the eerie half-light of the Old City mingle in an overlapping minor key like separate strains of the same plaintive melody.
Like the Dead Sea, saturated with rich and poisonous salts and minerals, this small quarter of Jerusalem holds a concentration of congested traditions and convictions of beauty and rage.
] The name of Jerusalem in Hebrew is Yerushalayim City of Peace. In Arabic it is al-Quds The Holy. Since its first appearance in manuscripts as a Canaanite city-state in the Bronze Age nearly 4,000 years ago and all through a succession of conquerors and rulers Jerusalem has known no line between warfare and religion. It is a center of conflicting absolutes, of certainty, of righteousness. Its lofty refinement of intellect and theology has given enlightenment to its violence, mixing the wisdom of the ages into eternal bloodshed.
Jerusalem is located on a ridge of rolling hills that have historically divided two fundamentals of human society the desert and the farm, the nomadic encampment and the sedentary village, the land of milk and the land of honey. On the east, the land runs down into the stark, dry Judean Desert and its milk-producing herds of goats tended by semi-nomadic tribesmen. On the west, the hills descend onto the coastal plain along the Mediterranean, with the sweet orchards and lush fields of the settled villagers. The land of milk and honey is thus two lands, merging and grinding at one another, shaping the nature of Jerusalem, which stands between the fertile and the arid, the rooted and the wandered. And Jerusalem in turn has zealously nurtured both the worldly and the parochial, the scholar and the bigot. The thick walls surrounding the Old City keep nothing out and nothing in, but bear witness to the flow of faiths and hatreds through the great gates.