Unless I spontaneously convert to Islam, I won’t have access to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aksa Mosque (two different buildings). But even so the area where Solomon’s Temple stood about 3,000 (!) years ago is very impressive. Fortunately, I am not an orthodox Jew, because then I couldn’t visit the site at all since I could accidentally desecrate the holiest of the holy.
I have to get up early to get the best light. My time window to enter the Temple Mount is between seven and ten in the morning.
If you live in the Muslim part of the old town, there’s no need to set an alarm clock. A dozen of muezzins takes care of thet when the ‘Fajr’, the morning prayer is due. The call from the minarets echoes through the alleys – crawls into my ear and then penetrates deep into the peacefully slumbering brain. Resistance is futile. I start pray myself- that the morning call will soon be over and I can go back to sleep. But Allah is great – and I am awake. It is 5:14 a.m., plus the one hour difference in time to Germany. It’s actually in the middle of the night.
My accommodation is still insider tip enough that I got a room on short notice. With a perfect view of the Dome of the Rock. It is not actually a hotel, but the oldest guest house in the city: the Austrian Pilgrim Hospice. That doesn’t sound particularly sexy, but it is actually an oasis of calm in the middle of the old town. The rooms are simple, but the Strudl cake at it’s coffeehouse is legendary. This is probably because Austria is very, very far away. But they also serve good Austrian Meinl Café for breakfast. Unfortunately, however, only starting from 7 a.m.
Still slightly shocked by the unchristian time (Yes! Pun! Intended!), I tumble out of my oasis onto Via Dolorosa. The alleys are deserted. Everyone is still praying I guess. I like the old town best at night from ten and in the morning until eight. The orange light from the lamps makes the scene seem unreal, all shops are locked and no crowds push through the alleys. The old town looks mystical, mysterious, fallen out of time. The cats now rule the streets.
The Dome of the Rock has several entrances, but as a non-Muslim, I first
have to go to ha-kotel ha-ma’arawi, literally ‘the western wall’, better known
to us Germans as the Wailing Wall. And with that we Germans are actually wrong.
To explain that, I have to go back in history.
In Herod’s time, the western wall was no more and no less than the gigantic surrounding wall of the aerial on which the Herodian temple was built (originally built by Solomon, destroyed several times). Herod the Great, that was the one with the alleged child murder in Bethlehem, which died in four years before the supposed birth of Jesus (there are also theories that Jesus was born in the same year in which Herod died). 1/3 of the wall is underground and 1/3 has been removed.
The wall was a whopping 54 meters high 2,000 years ago (I let you quickly calculate how high it is today). But as I said, it was not holy per se. But then, in 70 AD, the fantastic temple that stood on the plateau, on the 54 meter high wall, was destroyed by the Roman occupying powers. A few centuries later, still without a temple on the holy ground, the Jewish started to worship at the wall because they think it’s the closest they can be to God.
And the prayers of the men and women (they pray separately) in front of the wall with their shaking movements and wailing tone may well seem to outsiders like a complaint about the lost temple.
Which brings us to the Dome of the Rock. Do be able to climb the plateau, I have to go to the Western Wall first. From here I have access to the wooden ramp, the Moroccan Bridge, which leads me up to the compound. But before that, I have to enter the Western Wall Plazza. Everyone is allowed to enter the site around the clock via the three entrances, whether Indian, Chinese, European, Moroccan or Iranian. The access to Al-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock is only opened at seven. Until then I have plenty of time to study the prayer rituals of the Jewish believers.
With me maybe ten visitors are waiting for admission to the temple mount. And indeed, the it opens at seven o’clock sharp. Here too, all bags are x-rayed. But nobody seems to pay any interest in the metal scanner beeping as I walk through – but the German behind me gets stopped: “Is it a book you have in your backpack?” Interesting – they still know about the powers and danger of books here. The Israeli guard nods to the man as he pulls out a guidebook of Israel. If it had been a Bible or a Talmud, the story would have ended differently. Religious symbols other than Islamic as well as flags of any kind are not allowed on the Temple Mount, non-Muslim prayers or rituals are strictly prohibited. A sacred restricted area, so to speak. To this day Israel – even under Netanyahu – defends the iron law that the Temple Mount belongs to the Muslims. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan once said “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount, non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount” after recapturing Jerusalem in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The flag with the David star that was proudly hoisted by the victorious soldiers had to be pulled back from the top of the Dome of the Rock after four hours, and a small synagogue that was later built was torn down again. Since then, Jordan manages the area around the Dome of the Rock.
We are free to move around the compound, only the access to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa are denied to us non-Muslims.
Technically speaking, I could confess to Islam. All I have to do is speak the Shahada, the Islamic confession with conviction. “Asch-haddu an la Ilaha illal-Lah wa asch-haddu anna Muhammadan rasul-lallah” – “I testify that there is only one God, the one and only, and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”. Since these words in Arabic were drilled into my head when I woke up from the muezzin shouting, I would probably manage it. But I doubt that the guards would believe in my seriousness. So I let the wide compound do its magic on me and try to keep my anger in check that the sun is hiding behind the clouds. So much for the best light in the morning.
At the beginning I said that orthodox Jews were not allowed to enter the Temple Mount. That’s not quite true. For the Jewish community, the Temple Mount is the center, the heart of Jewish life and the direct connection to God. But ultra-Orthodox Jews like Rabbi Iddo Veber say: The Torah no longer allows Jews to enter the Temple Mount today. Actually, it is also forbidden to non-Jews – but we are not responsible for them, he added. And so the (Jewish) Israeli society does what it does best: it argues about who is right. Because it is such a nice fun fact, here is a small excerpt from the reason why true believers are not supposed to enter the Temple Mount (in the ultra interpretation): “The Torah has special purity regulations to enter the holiest of holy. Visitors to the temple should clean themselves with the ashes of a red (sic!) cow. So says the fourth book of Moses, chapter 19.” By the way, the cow should be burned with its blood and with its manure. Well – that might even be feasible somehow. But then there is another, probably decisive, reason: “Since it is unclear where the temple was located, it cannot be ruled out that Jewish visitors may accidentally enter the holiest of holy. This would result in severe penalties. ” Well, actually I’d say all people who fight for the piece of land on the Mediterranean are already punished enough.
In fact, a group of Orthodox Jews followed me on to the site. Protected by Israeli security forces and skeptically eyed by an employee of Waqf, the Jordanian authority for the Temple Mount. They stay away from the Dome of the Rock, but in the end they leave the Temple Mount backwards (facing God), as required by the commandments, and, once outside, they lie down in the dust and say their prayers lying down on the ground.
One is constantly witnessing unusual rituals in this city. That makes up the charm and the soul of this city, which cannot necessarily be captured in photos. Asians singing Christian songs roam the streets, people dragging wooden crosses, Jews blowing the shofar, Orthodox dressed as if they had emerged from a Polish shtetl of the 20th century. There are so many things that seem crazy that there is even a diagnosis for the extreme cases: the Jerusalem symptom. A medically recognized mental disorder. To be read on Wikipedia.
From one religious madness to the next: To the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or Holy Sepulchre (both spellings occur in Jerusalem). The eastern church calls the building the “Church of the Resurrection”, the western “Basilica of the Holy Grave”.
The Ecclesia Sancti Sepulchri, as we Latins say (cough, cough), houses the traditional site of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. The number of different names alone gives an idea that every faith does its own thing here. Six Christian denominations share the church. The Greek Orthodox, the Franciscan Order for the Roman Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church have the main administration. The Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Copts were given a few smaller shrines in the 19th century. And the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is something of a squatter on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and they have flanged a small chapel (dedicated to Archangel Gabriel) to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Finding the Ethiopians is not always easy. In the forecourt of the church there is a small door on the far right. If it is open, you can get to the Ethiopians there easily. Otherwise a little hidden way from the souq leads you there, just ask for the seventh station of Jesus’ journey of suffering.
So while the holy squatters practically live on the edge, the other five have a kind of sacred shared apartment.
Anyone can imagine that there are always conflicts that go far beyond who cleans the bathroom and removes the wax from the candles.
Coexistence is complicated when everyone is convinced that they are closer to God and the truth than their roommate.
Some quarrels among monks were fought out by fist. That is why the Turkish Sultan Osman III. (then governor of Jerusalem) 1757 (renewed in 1853) established some rules. While Europe was ravaged by two world wars, the Ottomans were driven out and Israel was founded, and airplanes and the Internet connected the continents, everything here remained the same.
This status quo is still valid up to today. Every smallest change is
contested and the monks take great care to ensure that there is no increase in
power for the other groups.
At the right window, for example, there is a simple wooden ladder around which there are many legends. It has been leaning there for at least 140 years as can be proven by old photos.
To experience some spirituality in this place you have to get up early. I
read that the Palestinian family, who watches over the key to the main door,
unlocks the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in an enchanting ceremony. Monks pass
a ladder through a small hatch in the wooden door so that the key holder can walk
up and unlock it. But at five in the morning? No thanks, not even the muezzin
is awake so early.
At half past eight it is still reasonably quiet in the church, very different from the previous day at lunchtime, when crowds of people shuffled loudly through the church. However, a few hundred people are already lining up at the newly renovated Aediqula.
The shrine looks like a small church inside the church. Inside is a room the size of three telephone booths (for the younger ones: small, three-meter-high, stinking booths in which you made phone calls or looked up phone numbers when there were no cell phones with Internet). The grave of Jesus is said to be here. In fact, recent archaeological research has at least not ruled out the possibility. Worshiping stones is not my cup of tea, and I have been inside before without having to queue for hours. The church fills up – so it’s time to leave!
The weather is slowly changing. Jerusalem is also like Arabic pastries. Very sweet, but at some point it gets too much. That’s why I’m going to see the Dead Sea next.