“What is Jerusalem? Your holy places lie over the Jewish temple that the Romans pulled down. The Muslim places of worship lie over yours. Which is more holy?” Balian of Ibelin, Kingdom Of Heaven (2005)

Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre jostle to touch a replica of the slab on which the body of Christ was laid following His crucifixion.

Quoting Orlando Bloom may not be the most auspicious way to begin a blog post, but his character’s words perfectly encapsulate the dilemma of  the holiest, most contested, city on Earth. And it also sums up the feelings I went away with following an emotional journey in 2010 to a place that has been fought over by Jews, Christians and Muslims for centuries.

You can find a full album of photos from my trip here.

As a Christian of many years, it had been an almost lifelong dream to visit the Holy Land. In the Old City of Jerusalem lies many sites holy to Christians, ranging from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditional site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and burial, to the Via Dolorosa, or the Way of Suffering, the traditional route that Christ took to his crucifixion on Calvary. There is also the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus spent an agonised night in prayer.

Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the spot where the body of Christ is said to have been interred.

Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Spanish pilgrims listen intently as a priest within the tiny inner sanctum of the Edicule conducts mass.

Jerusalem, Via Dolorosa

Imagine living on this street.

Jerusalem, Garden of Gethsemane

Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane that are estimated to date back to the time of Christ.

But the holy site that I associate most with Jerusalem has to be the Wailing Wall, one of the last remnants of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great around 19 BC. A place of sometimes intense prayer, praise and worship, it is, for Christians and Jews, a visible reminder of God’s promise to His chosen people: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). I found myself drawn to it several times during my trip to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, Wailing Wall

Jews and Christians alike pray at the Wailing Well, the last remnant of the Second Temple built by Herod.

Jammed into its crevices are thousands upon thousands of slips of paper with prayers written upon them. I read somewhere that a million pieces of paper are removed from the Wall every year, and then buried on Mount Zion. At the request of several friends, I made several contributions to the Wall, as well as adding my own prayer.

Jerusalem, Wailing Wall

Slips of paper with prayers jammed into the stones of the Wailing Wall.

In the book of Exodus, the prophet Moses stumbles upon a burning bush. When he goes closer to investigate, the voice of God calls out to him: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground”. That was exactly how I felt at the Wailing Wall: awed, silent, unsure of how to respond. This sign seemed to sum it all up:

Jerusalem, Wailing Wall

Approach the Wall with reverence and awe.

But the plaza before the Wall was filled with devotees who seemed to know exactly how to respond: bearded Orthodox Jews with hats dressed all in black, their faces framed by ringlets. Some wore tefillin, or black, cube-like leather boxes, strapped to their heads. The boxes contain four handwritten Biblical quotes from the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, a reminder of God’s command to wear the Word of God upon their foreheads and arms.

Jerusalem, Wailing Wall

An Orthodox Jew who looks like he came straight out of the Old Testament.

Serendipitously, some of them broke out into song and dance as I stood watching.

But Jerusalem is not just about Christianity and Judaism. Literally metres from the Wailing Wall are also some of the holiest sites in Islam as well as Judaism, all surrounded by armed guards, security checkpoints and metal detectors.

  • The Temple Mount or Haram Ash-Sharif, where Jews believe the Divine Presence of God rests, and sacred to Muslims as the place where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
  • The Dome of the Rock, a mosque completed in 691 AD, contains the Foundation Stone. Jews believe it is where the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the First Temple built by King Solomon, was located. It also covers a slab of stone on which the patriarch Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Issac (Jews say it was Isaac, Muslims say it was Ishmael) to God.
  • The Al-Aqsa Mosque, built over the traditional site where the prophet Muhammad prayed before his ascension.
Jerusalem, Wailing Wall

The plaza before the Wailing Wall at night, with the Dome of the Rock just metres away.

Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock

The magnificent Dome of the Rock, where only Muslims are allowed to enter.

Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock

An elderly Muslim studies the Koran outside the Al-Aqsa mosque.

All around Jerusalem are reminders of the battles that have been waged over it. I walked through the Zion Gate, one of several entrances to the Old City and the site of fierce resistance during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Its walls are still pockmarked with bullet holes.

Jerusalem, Zion Gate

The bullet holes at Zion Gate.

I also climbed up to the ancient battlements surrounding the Old City, completed by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in 1541.

Jerusalem, Old City

Standing on the battlements

I can still remember my thoughts as I touched the Wailing Wall and knelt before it in prayer: would the Holy Land ever know peace, or a day when it would not have to be protected by men with guns? I thought about the terrible things that believers have done in the name of God, and the wars that have been fought by the modern-day state of Israel, simply in order to survive. I remembered the words of Jesus in the book of Luke, as he wept over Jerusalem: “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

In the end, all I could do was commit my faith and the hope for peace to God, and pray the eternal prayer of the Jewish exiles: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.”

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Sunlight bursts into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Have you ever been to Jerusalem? What was the experience like?