My own take on Jerusalem, drawn around 1990
I love Jerusalem. So does everyone else. That’s the problem. God himself expresses an opinion in Psalm 137: “If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” When I say Jerusalem I cannot separate my brain from a picture of the old medieval walled city. It is an endlessly fascinating place to wander, and I have walked every step of its enclosed Crusader-vaulted streets many times. Jerusalem the metropolis is like visiting Rome, its antiquity is everywhere present - one door lintel from the past will be buried beneath the sill of the current one. It can be a problem when someone plans to build. If an artifact is discovered, they will halt all construction until the historical society makes a complete excavation, which could take years.
I have very fond memories of Jerusalem as a backpacker. My favourite eating place was outlined in the “Let’s go Israel” travelogue. The Green Door, is just that. Enter by the Damascus gate, walk a street, turn left, and you will see a green door. Inside, an elderly proprietor stands neck-deep in a pit, hoisting pizzas in and out of an ancient stone bake oven with a wooden paddle. Cheap and substantial, but charming nonetheless. Like the rest of Jerusalem, it will grow on you. I revisited it many years later, and found it unchanged.
Wandering Jerusalem, you will bump into an exotic selection of people and sights. It is presently divided into quarters: the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. The areas are jealously guarded and each has its own sites worthy of visit. One Friday evening I was beckoned inside by a Jewish resident. He wanted me to turn the lights on. His own religious rules forbade him from doing “work” on the Sabbath. You can get the idea how people nitpicked about little rules to adhere to their faith, while more obvious things were forgotten. It’s why to call someone a Pharisee is not generally a compliment.
They sell those joke T-shirts “I GOT STONED IN JERUSALEM” and if you hang around enough, it will happen. Walking with my (then girlfriend) through the city, someone heaved a jagged piece of stone at my head from up above. The rock was about the size of a bowling ball, and it grazed my ear on the way past enough to make it bleed. The stone bounced on the street and people walked past it without skipping a beat. It occurred to me that if the thrower had been more accurate, those same people would be hurrying by my corpse, because rounds of violence flare up and are as quickly forgotten in Jerusalem.
I saw an old man assaulted there, which reminded me that religion can drive people to do curious things. The old man specifically, was the ancient Armenian Priest from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dressed in a black cap, robes and sporting a long beard. I did not know who he was, just that he was up a ladder, removing a big Jewish Star of David from one of the Church windows. The star’s implicit message was “I OWN THIS” and it was placed there by ultra nationalist zionists spoiling for a fight. Such hot headed provocations don’t help anybody, in a part of the world where every square inch is contested and jealously guarded. I assume the old priest was up the ladder because his age and station afforded some protection. Not enough, however. One of the zionists rushed up, kicked out the ladder, and when the old man fell down, put the boots to him as well. Of course there was an uproar. Jerusalem, always on the edge of such tension is prepared. It didn’t take more than a minute for soldiers to come rushing from all directions. As I looked around me, the sliding metal doors from the shops all banged closed. The shopkeepers knew the score. In the melee, I was hit on the arm with a baton, and was teargassed. I was overwhelmed by such goings on before I could even process what was happening.
Because the city was under actual military conquest so many times, you can see how people can get hot headed. It’s instructive to read the story of Nehemiah in the Bible. The entire book is dedicated to the story of one man whose vision brought the ancient ruins from rubble, into something inhabitable and defensible, as a regathering place of the Jewish faith after it had long been torn down by the Persians and its inhabitants exiled to Babylon. Nehemiah instructed the builders to carry a trowel in one hand, and a sword in the other, and it might be the best advice for anyone thinking that holding on to this piece of land would be easy.
The old city is endlessly fascinating. Each gate has a medieval L-shaped blind passage that is designed for defence. When you come around the corner, you can’t see the fellow on the other side who is ready to take you down. Look up above, you will see an iron grate, where someone else can pour boiling oil on your head. Take a walk around the ramparts up above and you will get a spectacular view of the city, and cross various points where the wall was breached in the past. Not far down the road from the Damascus gate you will come upon the spot where armies of the First Crusade entered Jerusalem and established a Christian Kingdom there which lasted almost a century. There are eight gates in total; Damascus Gate, the New Gate, Herod’s Gate, Saint Stephen’s Gate, the Dung Gate, the Jaffa Gate, the Zion Gate, and the Golden Gate which is closed and walled over. The Golden gate is the spot where Jesus had his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and it is the spot where it is prophesied he will re-enter on his return.
It is tragic that a city so beautiful, with so much potential always seems to be on the verge of imploding. It’s the weight of human culpability - the possibility for so much good and evil. Jesus himself wept at its recalcitrant inhabitants.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling! Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you that you will not see Me again until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
And further in the book of Luke:
“He drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’”
Jerusalem seems never far off from trouble. When I was first there, the first Gulf War with Saddam Hussein was brewing up, and there was bellicose talk of the “mother of all wars”. My wife had to learn how to properly wear a gas mask, and how to care for possible chemical burns in patients. During that stay, a group of children, encouraged by this talk of war, started pelting me with stones, telling me that “Saddam will f* America”. It did not take much for me to become the enemy.
So much pressure on one piece of earthly real estate. Undeniably, Jerusalem is magical. I wonder how many people through the ages have found themselves under its spell. Hang around there long enough and things will happen. I found personal treasure in Jerusalem that changed the course of my own life. I met my bride there at a bomb scare, and spent the first part of my honeymoon in the Hotel of the Seven Arches, looking out over the walled city from the direction of Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus was betrayed. Hence Jerusalem is personally significant to me, forever part of my own history, splendid to behold, and always larger than life.