(Not finding) my religion in the Holy Land: confession of a sceptical in Jerusalem.

For some people, the moment of detachment from a religious view they used to hold is a momentous one, the culmination of days – perhaps months – of introspection, self-assessment and doubt.
In my case, instead, I cannot point out a precise moment where I moved from being a conscious, Church-attending Catholic to the person that I am today, aware about religion but nonetheless neutral about it. I haven’t become an atheist, but the vast majority of the spiritual overheads created by the world’s religions – forbidden foods, clothing choices and gender disparities – are complete nonsense to me.
It was no surprise, then, that entering Jerusalem’s Old City in such a frame of mind felt a little bit like being a teetotaller going on vacation at Munich’s Oktoberfest. A great occasion for people watching, sure, but one was bound to miss the point of it all.
In Jerusalem it’s easy to be ecumenical and inclusive, at least from a visitor’s point of view, for almost every major shrine sacred to any people of the Book is there, merely a few steps away from each other. Our starting point was the Wailing wall, the only remnant of the Second Temple that survived the thirst of booty of the Roman legions in 79 A.D. There it was, past the incongruous esplanade that opens up before it, an impossibly old wall standing before our incredulous eyes squinting in the glaring light.
click on the photos to start the slideshow.
Around us a spectacle that I had never envisaged unfolded. The vast square, divided from the wall itself by a brass fence, was host to dozens public parties taking place simultaneously as groups of soldiers, unruly school kids, elderly retirees and even a few company trips all celebrated the fact of being there. Kippah and flip flops, selfie sticks and automatic rifles, tanned bodies and perspiration-spotted acrylic shirts all meddled together in joyous entropy, as Jews from all over the country and beyond celebrated the fact of standing in front of the Wall.
Everything – the flags, the Haredi men lost in prayer, signs from the buildings – proclaimed loud and clear that this was the Jewish heartland. Indeed, nothing else seemed to be allowed in. I spotted three young girls approaching the metal detectors, dressed fashionably but wearing headscarves; they were lost in conversation with one of the guards as we were waved through, sending our daypacks and belts through the bowels of an X-ray machine, and didn’t see them entering the plaza after us.
The same religious homogeneity ruled in the vast esplanade above the Wall, where the Temple once stood – its rubble still cluttering the space below the southern ramparts – but this time it was Muslim-oriented. Moshe Dayan, the piratical Israeli commander who daringly snatched Jerusalem from the Jordanians in 1967, still had the presence of mind to entrust his enemies, the very same ones he’d beaten on the battlefield, with the management of Temple Mount, where two of the holiest places of Islam – the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque – stand to this day. In addition, rabbinical law prohibited access to the place to Jews, for the exact whereabouts of the Temple, and of his secret sancta sanctorum, which could be visited only by the highest priest only once a year, were unknown and a Jew might accidentally step in there, where God’s spirit was and is still believed to live.
Tourists can enter only from one side, up an Indiana Jones-y wooden walkway, past yet another metal detector and stern reminders to maintain modesty and hide any religious symbols. A rather sad parade of such paraphernalia – some Bibles, a handful of paper kippahs, a large Orthodox crucifix and, oddly, a Mexican flag – lied on some dusty shelves, practical testimony that the guards meant business. Along the walkway, stashed in neat lines, were the riot shields used by the Israeli police: modern, thick with padding on the inside as they were hard on the outside. Another, not-so-subtle or casual, display of power.
Inside the mood was tense. Guards lulled in the shadows of the trees, barking orders – cover up, go there, move on – to those whose first reaction was to stop and take in the place.
The Dome of the Rock is the undisputed star of the esplanade. A perfectly harmonious structure, built on the spot where God tested Abraham to offer Isaac in sacrifice, and where Muhammad ascended to the heavens, it felt like an irresistible beacon to us, an imperialist tractor beam directing towards a building so exquisite that, had it been the Death Star, it’d have been a shame to destroy.
We stood there for a while, wondering what the delicate Arabic inscriptions meant. Our ignorance also meant that our chance to enter was gone, for only Muslims are nowadays allowed in. The same applied to Al Aqsa mosque, banned to the unfaithful ever since a Christian extremist set fire to its pulpit pretending to be following orders from above, relayed to him in the dark recesses of his own conscience.
As with many Muslim places of worship, Al Aqsa’s foreground is meant to be a pacific oasis of tranquillity soaked in greenery, where the pious can perform ablutions in the shadow of cypresses. At a first glance the place seemed to be exactly that, until one noticed the detachment of police officers sitting under such a tree, rifles slung on their knees and backpacks from which hanged baton and helmet. Another man in blue stood with a gun looking like a fat rifle, his chest vest covered in pouches from which dozens of white cylinders poked out: a grenade launcher and its ammunition.
Suddenly, as we were about to look at each other with the glance that meant “Let’s go looking for beer” a group of women – sat in the corner of the mosque’s portico, a position that offered both shade and view over the entrance – began lamenting loudly. A high-pitched chorus tinged with alarm, a “Allahu akhbar”, repeated over and over with like a mantra, a clockwork cadence that made me wonder if they weren’t helping themselves with a metronome.
The cries, more akin to the whistle of a marmot that had spotted an eagle than a prayer, shook the place to life. The loitering men stopped and sprung up in attention, craning their heads like meerkats to see what was going on. The cops equally jump into action, moving towards the source of the noise as the one with the gas grenades legged it in a slightly different direction where, I noted, he had wind in his favour.
A man was strolling by, passing a few paces away from the entrance of Al Aqsa. A man we had seen, earlier, at the metal detector, standing with the confidence of one who knew the place. A man we assumed to be part of the security apparatus, even if he wasn’t in uniform or had any identification. A man wearing kippah and gartel over his jeans, the telltale signs of a devout Hasidic Orthodox. A man doing what Moshe Dayan thought best not to do, rubbing Israel’s victory in the face of the Muslim populace, wearing the symbols of his faith in a neighbourhood where his state – and religious laws – had decided to have a low profile.


The police moved swiftly, taking him to the far side of the Mount, away from the lamenting women, as another officer began talking with them, appeasing them. We loitered a little longer, baffled by both the disrespectful showing off and by the irate, automatic response. We exited through another gate, those cries – the cries of a wounded, alarmed animal – still resounding in my ears.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre lies at the end of a momentous – albeit short – journey. Christ dragged his cross along the aptly named via Dolorosa on his route there; he fell, he was helped by Simon of Cyrene and then continued along the stretch of road that now hosts shops, restaurants and many a group of marching faithful chanting hymns in Spanish, Polish or Russian. He then arrived on the Golgotha, now occupied by the church, were he was stripped of his clothes, nailed to the wood, rose above the ground, died, descended and was prepared for his ultimate rest.
The main gateway in the epicentre of Christianity is not quite like St Peter’s basilica. A small courtyard, an old, elaborated Gothic arch and the rock that saw Jesus’ death is already there, circled by Russian matrons kneeling to leave crucifixes on the stone, as if trying to charge up them from an invisible power source.
Upstairs a steady flow of people goes through the places where parts of Jesus’ last moments on Earth took place. The mix is representative of how Christianity became globalised, from Catholics to Brazilian Evangelic in football shirts; the only ones not mixing up are the clergymen managing the place.
Decades of squabbles, arguments and vicious fist-fights fought between bearded holy men supposedly dedicated to lives of generosity and love-thy-neighbour-ness, resulted in a strict division, a status quo agreement that reached the absurdity of an EU agreement.
The Holy Sepulchre compound was strictly divided in chunks, with Greek Orthodox priests manning the entrance to the Sepulchre itself, Copts in charge of the rear and Franciscan friars of one side of the nave. Where such special divisions weren’t possible the various Churches, when not busy arguing who was more Christian than the other, divvied up the goods like ravenous heirs slicing up the deceased’s possessions, as it was the case of the lamps standing above the rock of crucifixion. Where things weren’t that important they were left there, forgotten but not to be touched, as it was the case of a humble stepladder, left under a window for the best part of 150 years and counting, forgotten up until somebody touches it.
Everyone seemed to have their own stash of Jesus memorabilia and clung jealously to it, everyone but the Ethiopians, the only historic Church made up entirely of people of colour and the only ones who had to live in shacks above the temple, that some imaginative mind called “monastery”.
We sat down in a quiet corner in the Armenian quarter, beside a banner remembering the 100th anniversary of that people’s genocide at the hands of the Ottomans. We sat down and I ran through the mental images of that day: the metal detectors at the Wall, the man at Al Aqsa, the meticulous carving up of the Sepulchre. I ran through them and made a mental check: after this day, my faith remained firmly nowhere to be seen.

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6 Responses to (Not finding) my religion in the Holy Land: confession of a sceptical in Jerusalem.

  1. varasc says:

    Great reading, nice mix of history, travel impression and opinions. Superb.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Inger says:

    Your travels always seem to take you to interesting places. An interesting read, I much appreciated the impressions, felt like I was a fly on the wall:)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lexklein says:

    This is a fascinating account! Your experience on the Temple Mount was a little scary. It’s interesting – when I was there I, too, heard a sudden rhythmic chanting outside Al-Aqsa and I felt nervous. It turns out it was a group of boisterous school kids, and I felt sheepish making a negative assumption about the origin of the chant. You’ve woven some great facts into your own feelings here – great post! Overall, did you enjoy Israel and Jerusalem? I think a big part of my positive feelings was the gorgeous summer weather that seemed to naturally lighten people’s moods. Your weather and political timing look a bit more ominous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Did I enjoy Israel? Mmmh, it definitely was a worthwhile experience, but I can’t say I really *liked* there. Jerusalem it’s a gem of a city and the Israelis make an admirable job of keeping it shiny, and the vast majority of people were an absolute pleasure, but some things just didn’t stack up. I’m trying to put all my mental ducks in a row (mental in the sense of being in my mind, not that they’re crazy!) and prepare a decent farewell post to Israel in a couple of weeks’ time.

      Liked by 1 person

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