As soon as we enter into the Old City of Jerusalem, I realize that this is what we have traveled all this way for. It’s an ancient city filled to the brim with history, culture, and religion. It feels as though every brick has a story to tell, every door holds behind it the potential to step into another world.
We arrive before any of the shops have opened at the Turkish market, just as a few other tourists are trickling into the ancient streets. Another benefit to the private tour – we are always one step in front of the crowds.
Rami takes us to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the other potential site, along with the Garden Tomb, that the crucifixion and burial of Jesus might have happened. We sit outside of the church as he tells the history, specifically noting the Islamic interaction with the church. A mosque was built a few feet away and the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre fell into the hands of an Islamic family, who once charged a fee to enter, profiting off of the pilgrims who visited. While they no longer charge to enter, they do still hold the key to the door, which they lock every night, maintaining control of a holy site that is not their own. The intermingling of the religions here is both frustrating and fascinating. It’s as though everyone believes they have a right to everything in the Old City.
The city is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Armenian, and Muslim. Unfortunately, since it’s both a Friday and Jewish Holiday (Sukkoth), tensions are high within the Muslim quarter, where the Via Dolorosa is located, which keeps us from seeing a few of the sites on our list. Instead, we stick to the Jewish and Christian sections.
Rami takes us to Mount Zion, where the Last Supper is said to have taken place. It has a strong presence of the three Monotheistic religions that were born in Jerusalem. An Olive Tree represents the Christian belief that Jesus continued to Gethsemane after this particular dinner, the floor below the Upper Room is a temple where the Jews can be heard praying on Sabbath days, and a more recent addition of an Islamic prayer chapel sits alongside the wall facing Mecca. On Friday afternoons in particular the three religions will gather, their prayers intermingling and conflicting with one another, like some ancient argument.
Just a short walk down the stairs is King David’s Tomb, which is split into a Men and Women’s prayer section. Similarly split is the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, which was the true highlight of my trip.
Before we get to the wall, we stop for lunch at a sidewalk cafe. Traditionally, worshipers who visit the Wailing Wall will write their prayers on small pieces of paper, fold them up, and place them in the crevices along the wall. Rami provides us with paper and we sit around the lunch table, one by one, writing down our prayers.
There’s something powerful about written words and seeing a prayer in your own handwriting. It’s a really beautiful practice.
Beyond any monument or cathedral or tomb that I have seen on this trip, this moment is by far the most impactful for me. To watch the four people that I love the most on this earth write down their sincerest requests is beyond humbling. Sometimes the faith of others is all you need to believe.
On the way from lunch, Rami stops us to show a panoramic view of the wall, where we could see the tiny figures of the masses huddled in prayer. As he is telling us the story of the most sacred place in the Jewish religion (it is the last remaining structure from the original temple built by Herod more than 2,000 years ago), we hear three loud gunshots from the direction of the wall.
Bang, bang, bang. The worshipers stop mid-prayer and begin to run. Screams come from both sides, more shrill from the women’s section, as everyone turns and scatters away from the wall. Israeli soldiers run along the stairs, bounding toward the top of the wall with guns drawn. A chill goes down my spine and the little paper prayer trembles in my hand. I truly believe that we are witnessing a shooting or some sort of equally horrific event. For what seems like an eternity, we watch, wide-eyed.
To my surprise, Rami keeps lecturing until I stop him to point out the obvious chaos. “What is going on here?” I ask. He shrugs his shoulders and explains that the wall backs up directly to the Muslim Quarter and that the Muslims were just praying on the opposite side. Oftentimes, especially during Jewish holidays, those on the Islamic side will fire off a gun, creating a disruption on the Jewish side. Several years ago, they would throw rocks over the wall to hit those in prayer. Rami’s mother had been hit by one, which tore down the side of her face and into her shoulder. Doctors informed her that had the stone landed two inches higher on her head, it would have killed her.
I just can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the tension that I’ve seen in this entire country, but especially here in the Old City.
After a few minutes, the commotion surrounding the wall calms down. We make our way down the steps, separate by men and women, and enter into our respective sections along the wall.
There’s no other way to explain it, but this place feels different. So far, I have not been emotionally touched or affected by any of the sites we have seen, but there is an electricity in the air at the Western Wall. It’s the same feeling I’ve had when standing in front of an ocean and looking out at the endless expanse. It’s the realization of how small we are and how big the world is around us.
We wander among women from every cultures and walk of life imaginable – all of them are in a state of worship or prayer. We pass by open Bibles, open Torahs, open texts that I don’t recognize. The soundtrack is a mixture of sobs and whispered prayers. To me, it’s just the most beautiful site to behold as I tuck my paper message in a crevice amongst the thousands of other prayers in other languages from other hands attached to other lives. There’s an overwhelming sense of enormity here.
Something about this place just feels alive and I have the sensation of being flooded. Not with tears, it’s not an overly emotional experience for me. Just flooded by the surroundings. For lack of a better word, I am struck. Struck with awe and reverence and love. That’s the best feeling I could ask for, to be awestruck.
After we take our moments at the wall, still a little nervous from the gunshots, we meet together again and make our way out of the city. For all of us, I think, the trip to Israel is complete. We have seen a place that has topped our bucket lists for years and, in the end, it has touched us all.
What I’m listening to in Jerusalem:
You saw my pain, washed out in the rain
Broken glass, saw the blood run from my veins
But you saw no fault, no cracks in my heart
And you knelt beside my hope torn apart
But the ghosts that we knew will flicker from you
And we’ll live a long life.
So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
Cause oh that gave me such a fright.
But I will hold as long as you like
Just promise me we’ll be alright.
– Mumford & Sons, “Ghosts That We Knew”