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6th November, 2012

Could Jerusalem be one of the most overtly cosmopolitan cities in the world?

As with Bethlehem, Jerusalem is a city uncannily familiar to anyone that has attended Sunday School or read an illustrated bible. It’s also seen as the epicentre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So I was unsure as to what to expect.

We crossed into Jerusalem through the ‘Bethlehem 300’ checkpoint on foot – experiencing firsthand the challenge that Palestinians looking to reach Jerusalem face: a 30 minute wait with no explanation and a tense passport/ID check.

On exiting the checkpoint we were greeted by a welcome party of Israeli IDF soldiers. These soldiers – many still teenagers can be seen throughout Jerusalem. Compulsory military service means you quickly have to get used to seeing young people carrying rifles. The most startling example of this was when I walked into a toilet at the Central Bus Station only to find four IDF soldiers with rifles around their necks at the urinal. Never has such a simple task felt so tense.

Our journey to the centre through West Jerusalem makes it clear this is a different place to the West Bank towns that sit only a few kilometres away behind the high Israeli wall. Modern transportation, including spotless buses and a very efficient tram system, make the contrasts immediately obvious.

While the international community fails to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, everything else in West Jerusalem attests to this fallacy. But cross over into East Jerusalem and everything becomes confusing. (There are no physical demarcations now between East and West. This is one of the reasons that entry for Palestinians into Jerusalem is so carefully controlled and also why Palestinians living in Jerusalem have different ID cards.)

From Damascus gate to the East everything changes and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a Palestinian city, were it not for the glimpse every now and again of a Hasidic Jew or a Kippah.

This sudden contrast is even more apparent in Jerusalem’s dramatic old city. This walled town, straddling the intersection between East and West, is as fascinating as it is beautiful.

Jerusalem

The old city in Jerusalem

Divided roughly into four areas – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian – at one minute you are deep in the bustling souqs that rival those I’ve seen in Nablus, the next you are surrounded by synagogues and Jewish schools (the Jewish quarter is almost entirely newly built – though very tastefully done – due to the Jordanian bombing during the 1967 war). Dotted throughout are little chapels and Christian churches of every denomination imaginable.

It’s no exaggeration to say that religion dominates every inch of the old city. Walking through the Muslim quarter, you are constantly interrupted by Christian pilgrims walking the real-life stations of the cross. Many are struggling under the weight of full sized wooden crucifixes in the midday heat as they make their way towards the Holy Sepulchre – the fascinating, opulent and schizophrenic church that conveniently and astonishingly combines the place of Christ’s last hours, crucifixion, anointing and burial all only a few yards apart.

Jerusalem

Stations of the Cross

Jerusalem

Site of the Crucifixion in the Holy Sepulchre

But if you thought Jerusalem was only for Easter, then you’d be wrong. The Temple Mount is the most contested piece of religious real estate in the world.

Three religions all agree this is the site where Abraham bound Isaac. In addition, Judaism declares it as the place where God gathered dust to create Adam and also the location of the first and second Temples. Muslims revere this land as the third holiest site in Islam; the location of Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem and accent into heaven.

Once you have passed the airport security (the Temple Mount has been the scene for attempted terrorist attacks by religious extremists) you can either choose to go and see prayers and Bah Mitzvahs at the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) or queue for over an hour to climb up to the Temple Mount itself where the Al-Aqsa mosque and Jerusalem’s iconic golden Dome of the Rock can be seen. (The latter is only open to Muslims, many of whom can be seen praying in on the surrounding plateau.)

Jerusalem

Wailing Wall

Jerusalem

Man at the Western Wall

Jerusalem

The Dome of the Rock

The Temple Mount is managed by Islamic authorities and Jews are prohibited from accessing the area due to the sacredness of the site.

Away from the religious focus, a walk out of the old city through Jaffa gate and up Jaffa Road into West Jerusalem and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in any major European city. Trendy bars and restaurants fight for the attention of Israeli shoppers that throng the fashionable boutiques and enjoy coffee and brunch at cafes that would match any London equivalent.

While the West bustles with modern day energy, to the North, South and East of the old city, religion again comes to the fore.

To the East, the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane cling to the side of a hill housing mosques, Arab communities and a Jewish cemetery. To the South, the Mount of Zion features the Tomb of King David and the location of the Last Supper. And, to the North, the Garden Tomb, Anglican Cathedral and Russian compound – with dramatic Orthodox Cathedral mix with Mea She’arim – a small series of streets, home to a community of Hasidic Jews with buildings constructed in the style of their Eastern European heritage.

Jerusalem

Man in the Jewish quarter

Jerusalem

Jewish school

Culturally too, Jerusalem competes on an equal footing with any other major city and yet the themes of religion and politics are never far away. The large ‘Israel Museum’ – in West Jerusalem, near the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) – houses a vast collection of modern art as well as antiquities and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Also out in the West is Israel’s dramatic and moving memorial to those murdered in the Holocaust. Set in a large green space with beautiful views of the surrounding area, the museum at the heart of the complex tells with stark vividness the story of the Second World War and its horrific consequences.

We also visited the Museum on the Seam (located on the dividing line between East and West) which uses modern art to force visitors to reflect on wider themes of conflict and socio-political differences.

All of these factors considered and experienced, Jerusalem remains a hard place to fully comprehend.

Having travelled from the West Bank and having seen first hand the struggles of Palestinians, it was hard not to enter the city with anti-Israeli sentiments. But Jerusalem is the perfect antidote to this mindset.

Seeing citizens of all creeds go about their daily life and mixing freely makes you think twice. Yes of course there is still suffering and disagreement. The life of a Palestinian in Jerusalem isn’t easy and the ubiquity of IDF soldiers across East Jerusalem makes it clear this is still occupied territory.

Does the uneasy peace that exists in Jerusalem demonstrate that coexistence is possible or is it just a convenient truce? A convenience that masks the truth for the thousands of tourists that line the streets eager to soak up some of the mysticism of this city. A city that is both the source and embodiment of religious and political conflict and anger.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem at night


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