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Jerusalem: Holy for Jews, Muslims, and Christians

Jerusalem, Israel

The ancient walls of Jerusalem corral layers of religious importance: The Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall (where Jews mourn the destruction of their great temple), and the Via Dolorosa (believed to be the route Jesus walked as he carried his cross).

Complete Video Script

Jerusalem is a sprawling and modern city with about 800,000 people. Exploring its shopping boulevards and malls, an American feels right at home. But its historic core, the Old City — home to around 35,000 — feels lost in time. Its venerable walls corral a tangle of vibrant sights. Within a 10-minute walk you can see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — so sacred to Christians, the Dome of the Rock — treasured by Muslims, and at Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism: the Western Wall. For so many people, Jerusalem is the closest place on earth to heaven.

Much of Jerusalem’s importance rests upon a very special rock — which lies under this glittering dome. Muslims believe Muhammad journeyed to heaven from this rock, and they’ve worshipped here for 1,300 years. This glittering shrine, the Dome of the Rock, is one of Jerusalem’s enduring landmarks. Intricate geometric designs in stone and tile fit within its pure and simple lines.

While today this plaza functions as a massive mosque for Muslims, Jews call this place “Temple Mount.” It was the sight of their ancient temple complex — only the foundation of which survives. It’s here that they believe Abraham, as a test of his faith, was asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Considering this spot the center of the earth, Jews have worshipped here for 3,000 years.

A thousand years before Christ, King David united the 12 tribes of Israel and captured Jerusalem. His son, Solomon, built the First Temple right here. It was later destroyed, and the Second Temple was built. Then came the catastrophic year for the Jews: 70 A.D., when the Romans destroyed their temple and ushered in the Diaspora. That’s when the Jews became a people without a land and dispersed throughout the world.

Here, at that surviving bit of foundation — called “the Western Wall” — Jews mourn a horrible past, and pray for a better future. The square operates as an open-air synagogue. The faithful believe prayers left in cracks between these ancient stones will be answered.

It’s a lively scene, with intense, yet private worship mixing with the joyous commotion of Jewish families from around the world celebrating bar mitzvahs — a ritual coming of age.

The Old City, corralled by its wall into much less than a square mile, is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian. The Christian Quarter surrounds the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.

A high point for visiting Christians is the Via Dolorosa, the route it’s believed Jesus walked as he carried the cross. Pilgrims from around Christendom retrace his steps. The 14 “stations of the cross” remind the faithful of the Passion — the events that culminated in the Crucifixion.

The pilgrims’ journey ends in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Calvary Hill, or “Golgotha”. Today the dark, sprawling church is the most sacred site in Christendom. While Emperor Constantine had the first church built here in the fourth century, most of today’s church is the work of 12th-century Crusaders. Built around the tomb, or “sepulchre,” of Jesus, it’s shared by Orthodox, Coptic, and Roman Catholic Christians. Each sect controls a part of this commotion of holy chapels — a reminder of how any religion can be divided into factions.

Nearby is the slab upon which, it’s believed, Jesus’ dead body was laid. Devotion and emotion have been spilled on to this spot for nearly 2,000 years — a powerful experience to witness, regardless of your faith.

A Greek Orthodox chapel marks the site believed to be where Christ was crucified. Only a few steps away, under a grand dome, pilgrims line up to enter the Holy Sepulchre and place a candle near the tomb of Jesus.

The Old City is a labyrinth rich with sights, sounds, and experiences that reward the curious traveler.

Rick: Hello!
Juice vendor: Hello!
Rick: I’d like a pomegranate juice, please.

Even stopping for a drink can be memorable. And the pomegranate — that symbolic bundle of fertility — provides a welcome and refreshing break between the rich sightseeing stops this city offers.

Juice vendor: Pomegranate is healthy; it’s good for the heart, and good for the blood. I hope you enjoy your drink. Cheers.
Rick: Ten shekels.
Juice vendor: Thank you, brother.

The Muslim Quarter holds over half of the Old City’s population. Exploring its busy pedestrian lanes and market stalls, you feel like you could be anywhere in the Arab world. We visited just before a holy day: The shops were jammed, and the energy was exhilarating. Experiences are often edible…and tasty.

While complete Muslim control of Jerusalem is unrealistic, many Arabs envision an independent Palestinian state, with this part of Jerusalem — East Jerusalem — as their capital. It’s a very contentious issue, and Israel seems determined to keep Jerusalem whole and in its control.

In fact, while wandering the heart of the Muslim Quarter, you may see houses fortified and festooned with Israeli flags. These are the homes of Jewish families staking out this bit of the Old City for their community.

The Jewish Quarter is more orderly and modern than the other quarters. Much of this area was destroyed during the fighting in 1948, or under the ensuing period of Jordanian occupation. After they took control of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israelis rebuilt this quarter.

While it’s not convenient or economical to live in this medieval tangle, devout Jews find great joy in living and raising their families so close to the Western Wall.

The Damascus Gate leads from the Old City into modern Jerusalem. Joining locals in an afternoon stroll down Ben Yehuda Street, in Jerusalem’s New City, we appreciate this culture’s fascinating mix of east and west, secular and sacred, modern and traditional.