Jerusalem: A Profile
By Mike Leibsohn
Listen to it here instead of reading all this bish-bash
Jerusalem has been called by many names throughout her nearly five thousand year existence: Zion, Al Quds (the holy one), City of Peace, City of David, Ir HaKodesh (the holy city), Salem, and many more variations in languages as obscure as ancient Akkadian and as influential as classical Greek and Latin. This tiny city inarguably is, and has been for millennia, one of the most hotly contested and sought-after pieces of real estate in the world. Ancient and modern armies have laid siege to Jerusalem, conquered, liberated, divided, destroyed, and rebuilt her dozens of times throughout her dramatic history. Jerusalem's entire Old City is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and contains within its nearly 500 year old "modern" city walls scores, if not hundreds, of unique sites of various historical, cultural, and spiritual interest packed into an area less than half a square mile. Today, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim Jerusalem as their rightful capital city, further perpetuating the ages-old conflict surrounding what was once just a natural, fresh water spring between two rocky hilltops in the wilderness, far from the nearest trade routes.
Yet even in that distant past, Jerusalem always seemed to have some kind of magnetism, a special energy that emanated from her and drew others in. Perhaps that is why the three major monotheistic religions all believe that Abraham himself arrived at this very hilltop in order to sacrifice his son. It was here that King David later created the capital city of his united kingdom, and Solomon built the first Jewish Temple. Jesus preached on these city streets, and was later imprisoned, crucified, and buried here. The prophet Mohammed arrived here during his night journey, and the magnificent Dome of the Rock is easily one of the most recognizable symbols in the world today. In this same Jerusalem Judah the Maccabee led a revolt against the Seleucid Greeks, King Herod built his famous Temple, Roman legions suppressed numerous rebellions, great Arab rulers were toppled by crusading Europeans who themselves were replaced by the Mamlukes. The Ottoman Empire built the incredible old city walls that we still walk along today, and even the British left their cultural footprint during the brief mandate period. A 16th century German Protestant clergyman named Heinrich Bunting created the famous Clover Leaf Map (see photo), which cleverly depicts the three continents of the known world (Europe, Africa, Asia) with Jerusalem in the center, totally distinct and independent yet linking them all together.
The accumulated spiritual energy in Jerusalem is literally tangible; every stone in every random garden wall has a story to tell. There is not a single alley, stairwell, or rooftop that hasn't suffered the pounding of soldiers' boots trampling its beautiful hand-cut stones; not a single window that hasn't been witness to pillage and slaughter. However, the tears of history are not only those of sadness; the indescribable joy and ecstasy experienced by countless millions of pilgrims over thousands of years finally arriving at their most special place can still be felt in the air as more visitors continue to arrive every day. People come from all around the globe to celebrate meaningful events in Jerusalem, like weddings, baptisms, coming-of-age rites, and other religious and secular milestones. Billions of children around the world have grown up learning about stories that took place in and around these city walls, and each day this place is the focus of innumerable individual prayers offered from the hearts of devout believers in a multitude of faiths on every continent.
The beauty of Jerusalem is that you don't have to be religious or even know anything about religion or history to appreciate her splendors. You can take any average human being from anywhere in the world, plop them down suddenly in front of the Western Wall, or the Dome of the Rock, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and there is no doubt that they will immediately sense that something here is different, unique, and powerful. You can almost smell the raw spiritual energy of humanity, stripped bare of the trappings of politics, skin color, and language; your heart often flutters as if the air you breathe is so heavily laden with history's joys and sorrows that your human lungs simply aren't capable of processing it. But somehow you keep breathing, and slowly you begin to discover that inside of this strange little blurp in the space-time continuum, real people actually go on living their daily lives. While many Palestinians in East Jerusalem strive to create a better life in their own independent state, many Israelis in West Jerusalem frequent cafés, museums, and sporting events like in any other modern metropolis. Jerusalemites for generations have continued life as usual, despite the most unlikely and volatile of circumstances; they buy and sell food and other goods in the many local markets, their children walk to school and play football in the empty lot next door until evening, the varying communities rejoice, mourn, learn and pray together in their respective houses of worship and study.
Despite the proliferation of hotels, tour buses, visiting diplomats and celebrities, the security concerns and the ever-present threat of all-out regional war that could be sparked by a single well-meaning visitor, either foreign or local, who simply finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, Jerusalem and her residents trudge ever onward. They continue living life because that's what they've always done, by all means aware yet somehow stoically indifferent to the sociopolitical powder keg they call home. Even with the best maps and the most modern technology, it is as if Jerusalem herself is still convinced of her absolute centrality to the human experience. Her streets and alleys, her homes and businesses and public institutions, her stone walls and the very sun that sets over them, all of these feel uniquely and inherently powerful, as if the blood and the tears, the laughter and jubilation, the very emotions themselves have been transmitted into the essence of the stones. And with every step you take you can hear snippets of conversations that took place a long time ago in different languages by different people, yet somehow the meaning is the same as it ever was. Jerusalem is like a time machine, through which you can explore almost every phase of recorded history through the lens of a single dot on the map; every bit as arbitrary as it is indispensable to the human experience.