Managing God's letter box
The Western Wall – the ancient limestone wall in Jerusalem’s Old City which once supported the sacred Second Temple – is the holiest place on earth for the Jewish people.
Hello Jerusalem, where three sabbaths are celebrated by the many different religions who see this ancient city as a centerpiece of their faith. From the time of the Old Testament, through the Ottomans and Crusaders, to the birth of Israel and the modern battles for control of the Holy Places, it has seen the centuries come and go and remains a place of living history.
The water is cold, no question. And it is now up to my knees. But, to be honest, I am more bothered about the flashlight I am holding; if the batteries fail, I will be plunged into total darkness. Still, at least I have a rock wall to guide me and this particular rock wall has been standing here for a good while: 2,000 years, give or take. I am in a man-made tunnel still fed by the ancient waters of the Gihon Spring and I am walking in the very footsteps of the people of biblical Israel. This is living history and just thinking about it gives me goose bumps.
Jerusalem does that to me. The timeless Old City. The Golden Dome. The frequent prayer calls of the muezzin resonating through the narrow alleys. The hustle and bustle. The spices. The countless nooks and crannies. This is a city that has been fought over for thousands of years, occupied by all kinds of different rulers and religions and today manages to celebrate three separate Sabbaths. This is Jerusalem and there is simply nowhere on earth quite like it.
Hezekiah’s Tunnel is the climax to my visit to the ancient City of David, which many archaeologists agree is the true site of the biblical Jerusalem of King David, built well before the Ottoman-inspired Old City of today that stands just a stone’s throw away. Looking out at the panoramic view across the Kidron Valley to the east, it is easy to see why King David chose this particular spot for his capital. The huge valley offers a formidable natural defense against any invaders.
“This is the birthplace of Jerusalem,” says Avi, a member of the team of archaeologists that have been actively working here for years. “David made it his capital after he took the city from the Jebusites in 1004 BCE and buildings we have uncovered here are typical of major Caananite urban settlements. It was here he united the people of Israel for the first time, where the Ark was kept and where Solomon, David’s son built the first Temple.” Avi spreads his arms. “The city expanded outwards during the 8th century BCE under King Hezekiah and prospered for years until ultimately it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 576 BCE.”
The flickering light guided me
The tunnel is a fitting finale to a place that is unrecognizable from when I first walked along it over 15 years ago. Back then, the tunnel – which King Hezekiah had hewn from bedrock to provide a vital water supply to the city during times of siege – was hidden away under a tiny Arab village. At the entrance I was met by a young shepherd boy who gave me a small candle for a few shekels. The flickering light guided me as I waded through these very same waters to the Pool of Siloam at its end, where Jesus was said to have cured a blind man. This was pure Indiana Jones and ever since, Hezekiah’s Tunnel has always been a special place for me.
How times have changed. Today, that tiny Arab village has long gone and in its place are a major archaeological site and a spectacular tourist attraction, with most of King David’s original old city now excavated. It is still a working dig but guided tours run throughout the day. The site has been uncovered with loving care and a 3D movie shown beforehand reconstructs David’s city and puts it all into perspective. But Hezekiah’s Tunnel is only one of Jerusalem’s many hidden gems.
A few meters from the dig is Dung Gate, one of seven entrances into the Old City and the nearest to the sacred Western Wall. This last remnant of the Second Temple is the holiest place on earth for the Jewish people. The Wall and the wide plaza in front of it bustle with life 24 hours a day. It is the spiritual heart of the Old City with the dense Arab souk seemingly all around and the glistening iconic golden cap of the holy Muslim Dome of the Rock peering over it. There, like troublesome siblings, these mighty symbols of two great religions lie side by side but still seemingly poles apart.
Covering my head with a kippah, I walk up and lay a hand against the immense stones of the wall, glass smooth from millions of other hands doing exactly the same thing. Scraps of paper scrawled with messages of hope and prayer are crammed into every reachable crack, a tradition spanning over 300 years and a poignant reminder of just how important these ancient stones are to Jews the world over.
Hundreds of letters simply addressed to “God, Jerusalem”;
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, Rabbi of the Western Wall, has the responsibility of managing this paper mountain. The notes are removed from the crevices twice a year, once before Passover in spring and again before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, in late autumn and respectfully buried in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. Each year Rabbi Rabinovitch also receives hundreds of letters simply addressed to “God, Jerusalem”; these too are folded and placed between the mighty stones. In July 2008 Barack Obama left a handwritten prayer note which was taken by a student and sold to an Israeli newspaper, provoking a global outcry.
I know it is impossible, but as I lay my hands flat against the centuries-old stones pressing my own hand written note into a worn crevice, I feel something; a frisson; perhaps a rhythm from the past, or perhaps just the spirits of millions of others who have been here before me.
On the left side of the plaza is the entrance to yet another journey back in time. The Western Wall Tunnels provide a guided walk directly underneath the Western Wall and the Temple Mount itself. Walking through chambers hewn from actual stone from the time of Herod the Great, I meet a group of highly emotional women praying in a narrow corridor. “We’re almost directly under the original Temple Mount now,” whispers Lev, an historical scholar and close friend. “The original Ark was kept there, and these women are praying strongly because it’s the closest they will ever get to it.”
Actually touching Herodian stone from the time of Jesus is one thing, but to be directly under where the original Ark of the Covenant used to be and witnessing such emotion in an enclosed space is almost overwhelming. Up on the surface, the 60-meter expanse of the Western Wall is what the world sees, but down here, there is another 500 meters of it. The excavated tunnels stretch almost the entire length of the Temple Mount with the giant Western Stone the undisputed star of the show. This 15-meter-high single block, part of the original supporting base of the Western Wall, weighs more than 500 tonnes.
The heaviest object ever lifted by humans
“It is the heaviest object ever lifted by humans without powered machinery,” says Lev as his fingers trace across the rectangular cutouts used thousands of years ago by those ancient engineers to lift this enormous stone. “These stones supported the walls of the original Temple as well as the Foundation Stone directly above us in the Dome of the Rock, which Jews believe is the spiritual crossroads between Heaven and Earth.”
Back in daylight, I follow a rather innocuous ramp just to the right of the Wall that gives access, after a rigorous search, to one of the holiest sites in Islam. But this is no Mosque. The glorious octagonal Dome of the Rock is a shrine built by the Umayyad Khalif Abdul-Malik ibn Marwan in 691 and named after Khalif Omar. It is a shrine shared in reverence by both Muslims and Jews, but for very different reasons.
“Muslims believe it is built over the rock where Mohammed ascended to heaven on his winged horse leaving a hoof print behind in the rock face,” says Lev. “But for Jews, that rock is the very one on which Abraham laid down his son Isaac ready to sacrifice him according to God’s wishes. It’s the holiest site in Judaism, the Foundation Stone around which the Temple was built and the direction to which Jews pray to all over the World. Isaac was ultimately spared, but this single act alone created the whole ritual of circumcision.”
The Dome of the Rock is almost the perfect example of political incorrectness and never fails to ignite passions on both sides. “Look at it!” exclaims Lev, warming to one of his favorite subjects. “This shrine is so beautiful but it stands directly over the site of the Jewish Temple, the Holy of Holies for the Jews. This alone has caused and understandably continues to cause such tensions here.”
Access inside is only granted to Muslims
It is extraordinary how few changes have been made to the shrine since its construction, although in 1993 King Hussein of Jordan paid $8 million to cover the dome with 80kg of solid gold. These days, access inside is only granted to Muslims, but for non-Muslims the exterior it is well worth a visit. I take a moment to stand and stare at the sheer beauty of the complex mosaics and gilded wood.
Inside, the Rock dominates the interior, and there is indeed an outline of what looks like a hoof shaped into the rock face. On the southern wall, a small semi circular niche called a Mihrab, points the way to face Mecca for prayer. It is still the oldest preserved Mihrab ever found in the World.
Leaving the plaza, the Arab souk beckons. Narrow clogging alleys giving way to the occasional open doorway showing me a fragment of other lives. Hidden deep inside its timeless twisty streets, I find the Via Dolorosa, the street along which Jesus carried his cross towards his place of execution, winding its way past artisan butchers, bakers and spice merchants whose customs and practises still follow the ways of their families, handed down through the generations.
Samir Zalatino is a Palestinian baker who runs a tiny 140-year-old bakery deep inside the souk on Khan el Zeit street. The entrance is almost entirely hidden by vendors and his opening hours are shrouded in mystery, but ask anyone and they will point you in the right direction. Seeking just this advice I ask Bashar who is squeezing out fresh pomegranate juice on his stall and am instantly embroiled in a political debate. “We are Palestinians!” he says. “We are proud people who work hard. We are not like the rest of them, so give us respect, we deserve it.” After much hand waving, he points directly behind him to where Zalatino’s doorway awaits and is thankfully open for business.
We’re still using my great grandfather’s recipe
Zalatino is famous for making just one product, which has become the stuff of legend throughout Jerusalem. It is a small cheese pastry parcel called a mutabak. “My great grandfather Mohammad began making mutabak here in 1860,” he says. “Five generations later, we’re still using his recipe.”
Samir is now passing on the secrets of the almost transparent dough to his children. “They are our future,” he says as we sit together at one of only four small tables in an ancient cellar under the streets of the old souk. “Eating mutabak at Zalatino’s is a tradition, a way of life. I want it to be here forever.”
The souk has no shortage of tawdry souvenir shops, and vendors promising to sell me “a piece of the actual cross” are commonplace but I ignore all this and just revel in its sights, sounds and smells. All along The Via Dolorosa I can see remnants of its biblical past. I spot scratch marks on walls where Roman soldiers played their own form of tic-tac-toe to stave off boredom on guard duty. The Stations of the Cross where Jesus is said to have paused to gather strength on his journey up the hill to his place of execution are all clearly marked.
The Via Dolorosa eventually leads me to the holiest spot in the Christian faith, the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the hill where Jesus was crucified, laid to rest and resurrected. Up a steep stone staircase inside to the right of the doorway is Calvary, the place of the Cross, where a glass-encased rock has a slot clearly carved into it.
Miracle of the Holy Fire
Downstairs, the center of the church is dominated by the huge Sepulchre over the empty tomb of Christ, where each Easter the “Miracle of the Holy Fire” takes place. This involves a priest entering with an unlit candle and emerging a short time later with it miraculously ablaze. Other candles are lit by its flame and passed on until the whole church is filled with candlelight. For the rest of the year a candle constantly burns from this flame and is used to light visitors’ prayer candles.
Today, the Greek Orthodox Movement administers the building and I ask a priest guarding the entrance to the Sepulchre about its historical accuracy. “There are many arguments about that, although there are far more who agree this is where our Lord was laid to rest than those who disagree,” he says. “However, what it is really all about is faith. This is real. This church is much more than a simple historical location. This is where you come to reinforce your faith.” As he says this, a foreign woman approaches holding a candle and lights it from the ‘miracle flame’.
For me, regardless of historical right or wrong, no one can take away the sheer emotional majesty this church evokes. The actual building has been steeped in history since the second century, changing hands and religions many times since then, with Persians, Byzantines, Ottomans and Christians each leaving their own particular mark on it. Remnants of the past speak to me from nooks and crannies everywhere I look.
With the Sepulchre’s history still resonating, I visit another site suggested as the tomb of Jesus. There is a cave just outside the Damascus Gate called the Garden Tomb which carries many of the hallmarks described in the scriptures. A rolling stone once sealed its entrance and it was part of a garden owned by Joseph of Arimathea, the man who the Gospels say donated his own prepared tomb for the burial of Jesus.
The place of the skull
The surrounding rock face also has a skull-like appearance, leading to speculation it is the real Golgotha, “the place of the skull” as described in the Bible. There is no doubt it was a tomb and its proximity to the Old City makes it an excellent candidate, but whether it was the actual place of the resurrection remains a mystery. Still, there is nothing wrong with a little intrigue and speculation.
Also close by Damascus Gate, beneath the northern wall of the Old City, lies the subterranean network of caves and tunnels known as King Solomon’s Quarries or by others as Zedekiah’s Cave. It was from this massive site that the huge stones of the Temple were first carved for King Solomon and it has been used for thousands of years to build much of the Old City – including the Western Wall. Everyone from Herod the Great to Suleiman the Magnificent used its stone for one reason or another, prompting the great scribe Josephus Flavius to refer to it as the “Royal Caverns”.
Suleiman the Magnificent was responsible for the impressive 16th century ramparts of the Old City walls. They still offer a lofty perch with some wonderful views of the areas outside the walls and a bird’s eye view inside of the city’s four distinctly different quarters. I look out over the Christian and Muslim Quarters at their tangled souk, the Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
There is no access around the Temple Mount
The smaller gated Armenian Quarter is Jerusalem’s city within a city and home to the beautiful St James Cathedral, while the Jewish Quarter is markedly different, the result of being devastated in the 1948 War and subsequently rebuilt. The ramparts walk is split into two sections as there is no access around the Temple Mount but I start at Jaffa Gate, the Old City’s main entrance, and take a clockwise route to Lions’ Gate before going back to take the counter clockwise route from Jaffa Gate to finish at Dung Gate.
Outside the walls, Jerusalem’s magic continues with the legendary Mount of Olives rising up in the east. The distinct shape of the Seven Arches Hotel at its summit often glints bright in the sunlight, a direct contrast to the golden glow from the Dome of the Rock far below. It is a 760-meter climb to the top but a sherut – a shared taxi – takes me to the summit, where I plan what to see during a gentler stroll down.
The southwest slopes of the Mount of Olives have been used as a place of Jewish burial since biblical times and, according to Jewish tradition, it is where the resurrection will begin when the Messiah finally comes. The cemetery now holds more than 150,000 souls, many dating back over 3,000 years. There are some notable names interred here, both in the cemetery itself and in various churches nearby. Among them are King David’s son Absalom, former prime-minister Menachem Begin and his wife Aliza, and even Princess Alice, mother of Philip Duke of Edinburgh, and the Hollywood-immortalized Oskar Schindler.
The haunting Yad Vashem holocaust memorial
The Tomb of the Virgin Mary, the Cave of Betrayal and the Garden of Gethsemane lie suitably close to each other at the base of the Mount, befitting the drama played out there. Standing next to Gethsemane’s ancient olive trees, a biblical picture opens up in my mind and I silently relive the story of Jesus’ betrayal.
Beyond the Old City stretch other landmarks of a newer Jerusalem. The sleek modern designs of the Mamilla shopping mall, the former “sniper alley” now transformed into an area of super deluxe hotels and designer shops. The haunting Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, the uber trendy German colony district and the market stalls, smells and sounds of the legendary Mahane Yehuda food market – probably the best value produce in the whole of Israel.
The Old City looks down on them all with a haughty disdain, and why not? It has seen them all come and go during its long lifetime, from King David and Hezekiah’s Tunnel to the Knights Templar. The Old City of Jerusalem is not simply an historic city. It is simply historic.
The Western Wall – the ancient limestone wall in Jerusalem’s Old City which once supported the sacred Second Temple – is the holiest place on earth for the Jewish people.
The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem eventually leads to the holiest spot in the Christian faith, the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the hill where Jesus was crucified, laid to rest and resurrected.
In Jerusalem, I follow a rather innocuous ramp just to the right of the Western Wall that gives access, after a rigorous search, to one of the holiest sites in Islam. But this is no Mosque.
The Arab souk of Jerusalem has no shortage of tawdry souvenir shops, and vendors promising to sell me “a piece of the actual cross” are commonplace but I ignore all this and just revel in its sights, sounds and smells.
In Jerusalem my challenge was to get permission to photograph the regulars at the Western Wall. Not an easy task for a man with a camera who could pass for just a tourist.
Hezekiah’s Tunnel is the highlight to my visit to the ancient City of David in Jerusalem. As I’m wading through its waters of living history, I get goose bumps all over.
Outside the walls of Old Jerusalem, the historic city’s magic continues with the legendary Mount of Olives rising up in the east.