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.
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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.