Journey to the place where it all began

By Ben Groundwater

There’s a moment when you realise that this is the spot. Right here: this is the place where history changed. This city, where your feet are planted, is where so many of the world’s formative spiritual events took place, where entire religions and kingdoms have risen and fallen, where so many of the myths and stories that have been told throughout our lives are centred.

Jerusalem. High above on the hill there is the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred sites in Islam, a mosque perched upon a citadel that’s considered deeply sacred, too, by the Jewish people. Below that sits the Western Wall, the holiest place for modern-day Jews, a site of pilgrimage and worship. And at your feet lies the paved walkway known as the Via Dolorosa, the street where, more than 2,000 years ago, a man said to be the son of God was forced to carry his own cross to his crucifixion.

This is the ancient city of Jerusalem, and surely there’s no place more closely connected to the spirituality of the world. Three of human civilisation’s greatest religious movements, their modern-day followers collectively numbering almost four billion, can trace their history to this beautiful but contested city.

Whether you’re a believer or skeptic, a follower of any or none of these religions, you can’t help but be affected by Jerusalem. Its walled Old City, an area inhabited for more than 4,000 years, is a slice of living history, a car-free warren of narrow alleyways and covered bazaars, where you can get lost in minutes, and yet stumble upon one of the world’s most important religious sites without even trying.

The most obvious of those sites is the Dome of the Rock, the gold-topped mosque that commands the highest vantage point in the Old City. These days, visitors can’t simply arrive at this point on Temple Mount without realising it — as one of the most contested areas of a divided city, seen as holy and extremely important to Muslims, Jews and Christians, Temple Mount is heavily guarded, off-limits to those of the Jewish faith, and a site even non-believers will have to be heavily searched in order to access.

It’s worth the hassle, however, to tread on these hallowed stones, to see the place where Jews and Christians believe God gathered the dirt to create Adam, and where Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The entire Temple Mount site these days is a peaceful haven, a place where men sit and chat in the shade of tall trees, and tourists move from site to site taking it all in.

Just below here lies another of the world’s most famous religious monuments. For Jewish people, given their barring from Temple Mount itself, the Western Wall, also known as the “Wailing Wall”, is the holiest place in which they’re allowed to pray. This 20-metre-high stone embankment on the perimeter of the mount is busy any time of the week; however, at sunset on a Friday, the beginning of the Shabbat, thousands of followers of the Jewish faith stream in from across the city to pray and chant and lay hands upon its sacred surface.

Near the wall, groups of Israelis, some young, some old, some in military uniforms, others in traditional Orthodox garb, gather in groups to celebrate the Shabbat. The devout touch the wall and chant. Tourists and other onlookers mingle and stare. It’s part festivity, part ancient religious rite.

Back on those paved alleyways, the Old City buzzes. Members of East Jerusalem’s Arabic community sell falafel and hummus from hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Ancient stores peddle antiques and knick-knacks.

Wander these streets long enough and you’ll inevitably stumble upon the third in Jerusalem’s triumvirate of history-defining religious locations. Near the end of the Via Dolorosa lies the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place of worship built on the spot where Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified, buried, and eventually resurrected.

The church, charmingly ramshackle for such an important site — different parts of the building belong separately to Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Oriental Orthodox Christians — has been built to surround Jesus’s original tomb, a structure that’s lit brilliantly during the day by beams of sunlight that descend from the ceiling high above. You can’t fail to feel the significance of this beautiful place of pilgrimage. There are many other sites in Israel and the Palestinian Territories that Christian tourists come to see, from Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem, to his home city of Nazareth, to the site of some of his miracles at the Sea of Galilee, but this is the one in which their fervour seems at its most intense.

It’s fitting for a city such as Jerusalem that an event as formative as Jesus’s crucifixion should have taken place here. This is, after all, where history and religion, stories and myths, parts of life that once seemed so abstract, actually happened. That realisation, in itself, is a religious experience.

Please note: The rules regarding entry to the Temple Mount area for non-Muslims are in a constant state of flux, and should be checked by travellers before they attempt to visit.