Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sanctum Sanctorum

Jerusalem. The Big One. During my travels I have managed to visit the holiest sites of Hinduism, Sikkhism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism (Varanasi, Amritsar, Bodhgaya and Chak Chak respectively), but there is no place on earth as holy as Jerusalem. In this single city are the holiest sites of Judaism and Christianity and the third holiest site in Islam - a recipe for disaster if ever there was one. For the ancient Jews and medieval Christians the city was quite literally the centre of the world (even the universe), a fact attested by the maps of the time showing Jerusalem in the middle with the rest of the known world surrounding it. Our topographical knowledge has progressed since then but religious dogma doesn't change as rapidly and the city has been the cause of numerous conflicts throughout the ages, most famously the Crusades which were launched to "liberate" the church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Arabs, and recently as the basis for the intractable dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis over the partition of the country. The hardest thing about the Muslim-Jewish tiff is the fact that they're both fighting over the same piece of real estate, the Temple Mount, which was originally the main Jewish temple (first built some 3000 years ago by Solomon) until it got razed by the Romans. With the advent of Islam it is said that Muhammad ascended to heaven from that very spot.

And the disputes aren't only between different religions, the Christian denominations are often at daggers drawn trying to bag as many important Biblical sites associated with Jesus as possible. Every branch of Christianity worth its salt has at least one church in the city. The most represented are the Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Russian Orthodox and the plucky Armenians who despite their small numbers own a large chunk of holy real-estate. But along with these one can find Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic (both Orthodox and Catholic), Protestant, Anglican, Romanian, Scottish, Syriac (again, both Orthodox and Catholic) and even Mormon churches jostling for space. Even the smallest episode mentioned in the Bible has a lavish church above the spot where the fateful events occurred. This is most blatant at the aforementioned church of the Holy Sepulchre, built atop the small hill of Golgotha where Jesus was first crucified and then buried. Initially Jerusalem belonged to the Greeks who built their own cathedral on the holy spot. The coming of Islam didn't initially change things much and the Greek churches were left more-or-less unmolested. When the European Crusades rolled into town the Catholics took over. Then when the Ottoman Turks arrived on the scene the Armenians, Syriacs and Copts tried to get a slice of the action as well. The Turks, being Muslims, weren't particularly bothered and so they imposed a compromise by decree parcelling out the bulk of the church between the Armenians, Greeks and Catholics with some minor roles for the Ethiopians, Syriacs and Copts and even assigned a couple of Muslim families to act as custodians of the keys to the gates. Since then there have been several attempts to find better solutions but the different sects have proved to be intractable, unwilling to cede any of their privileges. To show how volatile the situation is bellow the apparently calm exteriors of the priests here's a funny story. The Copts and the Ethiopians each have a man on the roof who are there to ensure that the other side doesn't try a quick land grab. Some 5 years ago, in Summer, the Coptic priest was feeling a bit hot and so decided to move his chair into the shade. The ensuing bust up sent 11 priests to hospital. Essential work is also often held up. For example, at the moment, the sewage outflow pipe from the latrines is blocked, but so far they haven't been unblocked due to intransigence from the Armenians (who are trying to use the situation as leverage to get a favourable response from the Greeks concerning an unrelated dispute). Perhaps the oddest manifestation of this stalemate can be seen on the facade of the cathedral. Some time before the final status quo was signed in 1852 someone had left a ladder out on a ledge above the main entrance. And since this is common ground then no one group is allowed to change anything, and so the ladder remains in the same place to this very day (see if you can spot it in the picture below).

Despite so much history and significance the old town is disappointingly devoid of old, historical buildings with many of the current structures dating from only the 19th century. However the one saving grace of Jerusalem's status as the holiest place on earth is the fact that it's a very cosmopolitan city. If you take an amble through the cobbled alleyways of the old city you are likely to come across Russian, English, Greek, French, Armenian and Italian as well as Hebrew and Arab. Though many of these are religious nutters: from the Hasidic Jews, with their black hats and curly sidelocks; bearded Orthodox monks (also dressed in black) gliding past; or just groups of European Christian pilgrims following in Jesus' footsteps spontaneously breaking out their hymnbooks and bursting into rapturous song in the middle of the road. Let's just hope that the latter are here only because last week was Easter, because they're beginning to get on my nerves.

No comments: