Heaven and Earth: Jerusalem the Enigma

It was an odd location to build a great city, but there is surely no place with so many layers of meaning for so many different people

Heaven and Earth: Jerusalem the Enigma
Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Getty Images)

We all have our Jerusalem. Our place of heavenly perfection, our city of joy. The culmination of our hopes and embodiment of our dreams. A true home, where we will live in communion with humanity and the higher powers in the comfort of certainty and the certainty of comfort.

Just please don’t get your Jerusalem mixed up with the real one. Because the real one’s in a bit of a state right now.

I don’t see Jerusalem as holy at all. What even is holy? You feel the Old City is the most pressured city in the whole world. Behind that wall you see so many aggressive, tense people. It’s supposed to be this holy city, city of love and sharing. But honestly, I don’t see it.

That’s what a Jerusalemite friend, Amoun Sleem, told me when I asked her what it meant to live in a holy city. But then she added: “I’m connected with the Old City beyond politics and what people feel. I can’t change that. I love it.” And she wrote as much in her memoir: “Nothing is more beautiful than my home, Jerusalem. My morning walk in the Old City has a beautiful magic.”

Jerusalem’s Old City is its walled core, still surrounded by 450-year-old ramparts. The name implies a new city exists too. Is there one? Twentieth-century history was mesmerized by the idea, largely because of the last third of the Book of Ezekiel, which describes how the building of a New Jerusalem will herald the end of Jewish exile and the ingathering of all the people of Israel in harmony and blessing, keeping God’s promise in the Book of Deuteronomy.

A word, if I may, about Ezekiel himself. He was a Jerusalemite priest who was captured by Babylonian invaders as a young man in 597 B.C., torn from his home and sent into exile, along with many compatriots. He spent the rest of his life in Babylon — literally in his case, though the metaphor of Babylon as the iniquitous, temporal counterpoint to God’s eternal, spiritual realm of Zion (meaning Jerusalem) remains familiar today, not least through Rastafari poetry and song. Ezekiel’s new home was Tal Abib — that is, Tel Aviv — “the hill of springtime,” east of Najaf in central Iraq, from where he communicated understandably truculent visions about calamity, retribution and divine justice. Judaism, Christianity and Islam revere him as a prophet, and his prognostications are full of creative metaphor, shaped to sustain his community in exile. Nevertheless many 19th-century European Zionists — and not just them — took his and others’ prophetic words literally, as the blueprint for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

So when the British, who invented the term “Old City” for Jerusalem’s walled area 100 years ago, the better to objectify and preserve it, also invented “New City” for the workaday areas beyond, it had a biblical resonance. It implied progress — toward modernity but perhaps also toward the glory of the end-times, a “New Jerusalem.” It felt, to many, like a fulfillment of prophecy. To others, it signaled calamity.

You find that push and pull, hot and cold, often in Jerusalem. It’s a prerogative of ownership, of belonging — to criticize, disparage, even to hate, but at the same time to love. I’ve had a friend tell me he knows the Jerusalem stories he grew up with are fiction, but still he would die to defend the stones that bred them. That’s only a part of what makes this city so hard to understand. Inevitably, too, there’s a gap between how a person might live in their city each day and how they might communicate that experience to peers and insiders, let alone to outsiders like me.

Jerusalem is not my city and never will be. That said, there has hardly been a year in my life in which it has not played a part.

Like so many of us, I am a child of migrants. All eight of my great-grandparents arrived in Britain between about 1887 and 1913, from Poland and regions of Russia now called Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. All eight were Jewish. Their grandchildren — my parents — identified as Anglo-Jewish and were determined to assimilate into middle-class English society. Home was a detached house in suburban Surrey, where I was born and grew up. The first overseas vacation we took was to Israel, in 1980. That was also my first visit to Jerusalem, and I’ve still got the earnest report I typed up about it. The word I chose to describe the experience was “unforgettable.” Little did I know.

After that, we kept on returning. There must have been five or six such holidays. At 13, my dad arranged for me to have my bar mitzvah twice, once at our regular synagogue at home and again in Jerusalem, at the Western Wall. Jewishness remained an embarrassing add-on for me, but I could see it defining a core identity in others, whether strangers on Jerusalem streets or, even more oddly, friends and family. My brother’s first wife was Israeli; we visited them often at their apartment in the West Jerusalem suburbs.

But something else was starting to play below the surface. Once, around 1985, a friend of my parents drove me into Jerusalem from his farm in the hills to the west. As we reached the city and stopped at traffic lights, he told me how everything before us had been Jordanian territory less than 20 years before and how in 1967 Israel had liberated all of Jerusalem to be Jewish again. He sliced the edge of his hand sideways across the road junction to mark what had been the border and talked to me about violence and enemies and hardship and divine justice. I listened but could not relate. That friend later moved to a Jewish-only town in the West Bank — a settlement, illegal under international law — where he and his wife raised their kids. They still live there.

In my early 20s, I had the privilege to be able to go back to Jerusalem. The strangeness of the Israel I’d been brought up with was already showing through. Then I went to live in Cairo, where my horizons expanded so much and so quickly that I got vertigo and had to leave after half a year before I lost my balance completely. The following spring, having saved a bit of money, I holed up in East Jerusalem, helping out at a Palestinian-run backpackers’ hostel. For four or five months I barely left the Old City. All day, every day, was spent within the walls, out on the streets, walking, talking, watching, listening. Then I’d come back to the hostel and work the graveyard shift on the front desk. It was around this time, as a would-be journalist, that I got to interview a mid-level PLO official in Lebanon and talk to people in Sabra and Shatila, areas of Beirut where Palestinian refugees have been mired in poverty for decades. I started hearing new ways of telling stories I thought I knew.

When I tried to get a job in travel writing, in 1995, a guidebook company in London asked me to tell them about a place I knew well, so I wrote 1,000 words about Jerusalem. They hired me, and I lived a year or so in Amman, writing a guide to Jordan, where I finally grasped the size of the gap between what I had learned as a child and what I knew as an adult and how the center of that, the key to the whole transition, was Jerusalem.

There were more trips and more writing. I traveled the length and breadth of Israel and Palestine, as well as Syria and Lebanon again, and many times to Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Iraq, all across the Gulf from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to Dubai and Oman, and I wrote about Jerusalem for the BBC and CNN and others, trying to work out my understanding of the place. Having learned one thing for 20 years, it was only after spending 20 more unlearning it, plus another decade thinking about what I might usefully say, that a book about the city — or, rather, its people — took shape. But, just to be clear, I wouldn’t presume to give anyone a voice. Jerusalemites have voices. The Palestinians, in particular, have been shouting. We’ve not been listening. Maybe I can help focus some attention on what they are saying.

Ten thousand metaphors have grasped at Jerusalem. Layers of an onion is a popular image, not least since it evokes the layers of history diggable beneath every street. Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of Islamic studies, told me the benefit of living here was “like having the right plug. It lets you plug directly into the energy source.” And I’m fond of what another friend, the writer Yuval Ben-Ami, said. He called Jerusalem “the city of the frozen moment.” That encapsulates nicely the idea that everything you see is just a snapshot. Each tiny cross of the hundreds carved into the stone walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre speaks of the life of a single pilgrim, in the moment of their arrival at their destination. And if, as long suspected, the tiny crosses date from the Crusader era (recent research suggests they may be from earlier), then they also speak of the moment of conquest, frozen in stone by the sword hand of a pilgrim-knight.

Another example of the frozen moment: The dome of the Dome of the Rock wasn’t always gold. From 1022 to 1959 — some 937 years — it was dark-gray lead. Then it was renovated with sheets of anodized aluminum that looked golden, before in 1993 being re-covered in copper panels plated with a two-micron layer of actual gold. Over the past few decades, a blip in time, our image-saturated era has elevated the golden dome to be the emblem of Jerusalem. The golden dome, so often pictured against a sky of penetrating blue, means Jerusalem. (This is literally true in Palestinian Sign Language, in which Jerusalem is signed by the fingers of the right hand forming a dome shape over the back of the left hand.) The golden dome asserts the reality of Islamic Jerusalem. It even stands, gloriously, for Islam itself. It’s inconceivable, now, that it was ever gray or could ever return to gray. The dome is another frozen moment, a function of the building’s late 20th-/early 21st-century role at the nexus of religion and geopolitics.

So the frozen moment idea is good. But it doesn’t go far enough. There’s something still more challenging playing below the surface. The core truth of Jerusalem today, it seems to me, is a jagged dislocation between appearance and reality. Whatever you see here is not what’s really going on.

All my life cumin has meant my first trip to Jerusalem. I can’t make an informed comparison — I was only a child then — but I’d guess the city I saw in 1980 was very different from the city today. What I have in my mind’s eye from then is a scatter of impressions: flagstones worn smooth underfoot, gaudy colors and textures hung high over my head in narrow alleyways, my father doing something he wouldn’t dream of doing today: changing money at a Palestinian-owned booth inside Damascus Gate. And the smells. So many smells. Sweet things. Burnt things. Rotting things. Laundry soap. Hot bread. New leather. Smells I knew nothing about.

It was years later, at a time when spices had become a more normal thing for a suburban London family to buy and use, that I was able to put a name to the earthy scent I’d filed in my head for years as “Jerusalem.” So that’s what it was. Cumin. Then as now, cumin’s crimson-brown sniff of old warmth would plant me mentally in the middle of Jerusalem’s walled Old City, amid a crush of elbows on the crossroads of glittering, dizzying roofed pathways where the Souk al-Bazaar, or David Street market, turns left to Souk al-Lahameen, the Butchers’ Market, as multiple smaller markets crash in from both sides and the main alleyway doglegs downward to form Tariq Bab al-Silsila, the Road of the Gate of the Chain, on its way toward holy places. Everything was there at that intersection: gold, fabrics, money, fresh bread, fresh fruit, fresh meat, leather, fenugreek, perfumes, heat, sweat, color, new faces, new languages, new people, new ways of being. I watched but I didn’t understand. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. That was cumin.

For years I put cumin in everything. I was really putting Jerusalem in everything.

Jerusalem shouldn’t exist. I mean, there shouldn’t be a city there at all. That’s hard for us, who are not city-builders, to grasp, but in the era when Jerusalem began, if you were going to build somewhere to live, you wouldn’t choose that spot. Its water sources are too remote, down in steep valleys or far distant. Its hilltop ridges — which aren’t the highest around — are threateningly overlooked. Major trade routes pass nowhere nearby. Everything’s wrong. Yet here it is.

When the pharaohs cursed “Rusalimum,” in texts written in the decades either side of 1900 B.C., maybe they were cursing Jerusalem. We don’t know. But Jerusalem — perhaps named for Shalim, the god of the setting sun — was certainly a place by the time its ruler, Abdi-Heba, wrote to the Pharaoh Akhenaten, in the 1330s B.C. Later, around 1000 B.C., in a foundational tradition of Judaism, something special about Jerusalem prompted David, perhaps a ruler of Judah, a region to the south, to seize it and its fortress of Zion, then controlled by the Jebusites.

It seems the Jebusites — a nation or just a family; we don’t know — and all of Canaan, as the country was then known, may already have venerated Jerusalem as the center of the world. Spiritual energy could have been why they wanted to live here, despite the logistical shortcomings. Either way, when David’s son Solomon built a temple on one of Jerusalem’s stony summits, he probably incorporated preexisting forms of Jebusite (i.e., Canaanite) worship into his new, Israelite devotions. A rock at the peak of that summit, enclosed within the Temple buildings, became revered in Judaism — named after Judah — as the Foundation Stone, the interface between earth and heaven, source of creation and center of the world, beneath which raged the waters of the flood. It was where God had collected the dust that formed Adam. It was where Abraham had bound his son, believed in Judaism to be Isaac, for sacrifice.

The Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C., rebuilt and destroyed again in 70 A.D. By then, the first Christians knew of Jewish traditions focused on the Rock, but for them, the foundational drama of faith in Jerusalem played out some 500 yards to the west, at a rocky knoll known as Golgotha (and, later, as Calvary). Less than a mile to the east on the Mount of Olives, pilgrims venerated a rock bearing the footprint of Jesus from his ascent to heaven. Jerusalem remained the center of the world in Christianity, but the Temple’s demolition twice over obviously demonstrated God’s displeasure with the Jews. Christ’s teachings signaled a transference of understanding and a new beginning for humanity.

The first Muslims also knew of Jewish traditions, and Christian ones. Jerusalem was, to them, already a site of cosmic importance. It was where the prophets Abraham, David, Solomon and Jesus had lived and prayed. It was linked with Mecca by the Night Journey of the Prophet Muhammad. “There is not an inch in Jerusalem where a prophet has not prayed or an angel has not stood,” said Ibn Abbas, cousin of Muhammad. The Foundation Stone took on new significance: Now it bore the footprint of Muhammad from his ascent to heaven when he received God’s instruction to pray five times a day.

Below it gaped the Abyss of Chaos, source of the Rivers of Paradise. In Islam, the Rock stood as the focus of the Quranic site Al-Aqsa, a mosque that some believed had been built by the first human, Adam, and renovated by Solomon. Over and around the Rock, Jerusalem’s new Muslim rulers designed an architectural evocation of the city’s crucial role as the location of the Day of Judgment — a building that was octagonal, like the Throne of God, with a golden dome beaming the message of Islam to the world. The esplanade around this new Dome of the Rock was where the souls of the dead would gather to hear the archangel Israfil blow the trumpet announcing the end of the world. Islam, in its turn, signaled a transference of understanding and a new beginning for humanity.

As in the previous traditions, there was a physical Jerusalem and a moral, spiritual one; an old, corrupted message and a new, clear one. So it didn’t matter that the city had no river, no strategic value and no natural sources of commercial wealth. It had God.

Some seek to belittle others’ attachments. Much is made, for instance, of the fact Jerusalem is not mentioned by name in either the Quran or the five books of the Torah.

But names are tricky things. Jerusalem has long been understood as the place referred to in the Pentateuch as “Salem” (Genesis 14:18), “Moriah” (Genesis 22:2 — though not agreed by all) and “the place God will choose” (Deuteronomy 12:5). Likewise in the Qur’an: “the farthest mosque” (17:1), “an honorable dwelling place” (10:93), “this town” (2:58), “the olive” (95:1) and others. Oral traditions and later texts in both religions refer to the city more explicitly under various names, such as “Zion,” “the Sanctified House,” “the Holy [Place],” “the Temple” or “Jerusalem.” Whether or not identified by textual names we might recognize today, Jerusalem has always been pivotal to religious observance and spiritual yearnings throughout Islam and Judaism, as well as, of course, Christianity.

Onlookers today talk of balance. That’s another tricky word. We hear it most in relation to news media. It conjures images of a seesaw. It implies that there are two sides — and in Jerusalem’s case that invariably means an Israeli side, where “Israeli” is often conflated with “Jewish,” and a Palestinian side. Devote equal resources to both sides, this wisdom says, and the seesaw will be level. You will have achieved balance.

Jerusalem, obviously, has many more sides than two. To reduce the city to two sides and then treat them both the same would be terribly misleading about the limitless complexity of this place. Those two sides — and, especially, representations of their being irreconcilable — are a convenient fiction for the disengaged or the lazy, and any balance that may result from treating them equally can never be equitable, because they do not start as equals. Israel has the overwhelmingly larger proportion of power, influence, assets, status and visibility. The seesaw is not level to begin with. To achieve an equitable balance, one must act unequally.

In 1965, when an international border ran through the middle of Jerusalem — or, rather, when Jerusalem consisted of two cities in different countries — a king arrived to open a hotel. A photo of the event survives, showing Hussein of Jordan, only 29 years old, striding through the lobby of the swish new St. George Hotel, his smile as tight as his suit, buttoned and narrow-lapeled.

“There was a time, you know, when [if] anything happened, it happened here.” Bookseller and literary impresario Mahmoud Muna leans over his till, casting shadow onto a monograph by a Palestinian artist. “Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, Abdel Wahab — they all came first to Jerusalem,” Mahmoud says, naming the three megastars of 20th-century Arab music. “This city has lost its charm.”

He talks about the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the dispossession and loss that accompanied war and the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, when Palestinian society was destroyed. In another war in 1967 — or, more accurately, another part of the same war — Israel defeated Jordan to become military occupier of Jerusalem’s east. That area includes the Old City, enclosed by its 16th-century walls, site of the most significant Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy places. Israel defined new boundaries for east Jerusalem and later annexed it to the Israeli state, shunting the locus of urban energy westward, marginalizing Palestinian character and expanding Jewish presence and influence, in particular within the Old City. It still calls east Jerusalem’s 370,000 or so Palestinians merely residents and strips them of even that status if they do not continually furnish proof that their “center of life” is in the city.

As west Jerusalem was constrained by the Jordanian border before 1967, so east Jerusalem has become constrained since by a ring of Israeli settlements, illegal under international law, that encircles the city, along with what’s euphemistically called Israel’s Separation Barrier, an 25-foot-high wall of concrete through the suburbs. The wall physically and psychologically slices Palestinian Jerusalem away from its rural hinterland and isolates Jerusalemites from wider Palestinian society and economy. Not a single international hotel has opened in east Jerusalem in the decades since King Hussein did his walkabout. Visitors almost without exception approach Jerusalem via Israel. Of the city’s 12,000 hotel rooms, nearly 11,000 are in the west. That ratio of 9:1 is mirrored in the marketing profiles of the Israeli and Palestinian tourism ministries as well as in the relative visibility of government and nongovernment messaging in media and social media. A single narrative of Jerusalem dominates, locally and globally.

Underpinning this is Britain’s invasion of Palestine in 1917, which brought to an end more than 1,200 years of Muslim rule in Jerusalem, a period broken only by the 88-year aberration of a Crusader kingdom in the 12th century. British colonial rule furthered the ambitions of Palestine’s Jewish communities over all others. Jerusalem wasn’t always a zero-sum game, but Britain made it so, in our time. For Arabs and Muslims around the world — as, once, for Jews — Jerusalem has become distant, a symbol of longing, more potent in imagination than reality. Most of them cannot visit and even Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza cannot enter Jerusalem without Israeli permission, which is rarely given.

“There’s a weird energy in the Old City,” Bashar Murad, a musician who lives in east Jerusalem outside the walls, told me. “It’s a beautiful place, but if you go down there you see Israeli soldiers everywhere, standing around with their guns, and if you go to visit Al-Aqsa, you’re questioned by them at the door, treated as if you’re a criminal. It makes you not want to go at all.”

Then there are the provocateurs. Extremist elements on the Zionist religious right — in Israel and elsewhere, both Jewish and evangelical Christian — espouse the idea of razing the Dome of the Rock and replacing it with a Third Temple, as a prelude to, or in conjunction with, the return of the Messiah. For more than 50 years, rogue rabbis have been emboldened to act out the fantasy, leading illicit prayer services, building coalitions of the zealous and displaying models in the Old City itself of what such a temple might look like.

“The 1967 war transformed Jerusalem from a vessel of humanity’s most noble aspirations of sanctity into a playground for pyromaniacs,” one Israeli human rights lawyer tweeted gloomily.

If the area inside Jerusalem’s walls were a free-standing city, it would be one of the 20 most harshly surveilled in the world, roughly on a par with Dubai or China’s Uyghur capital, Urumqi. Israeli police in a remote control center monitor a network of four hundred CCTV cameras, watching every street and alleyway in the Old City 24/7. In some areas cameras are mounted every 65 feet. They place the Palestinian people who live and work there — as well as every tourist and visitor — under fearsome levels of scrutiny. Israeli intelligence uses satellite technology to follow the movement of individual smartphones through the streets, while drones monitor activity from the air. In 2019 the U.S. network NBC reported that face-recognition software was being used to track individuals in east Jerusalem; the Israeli police denied it.

Current estimates put the population of the Old City around 35,000 or slightly more, over 90% of whom are Palestinian. About two-thirds are under the age of 30. Israel’s occupation exacerbates poverty, poor mental health, alcohol and drug abuse and other social ills, not least overcrowding. In some Old City neighborhoods, more people are packed in per square foot than in the densest districts of Karachi, Hong Kong or Nairobi. Yet even though ideologically driven Jewish Israeli settler organizations harry Old City residents with offers of millions of dollars (often via deceptively sympathetic intermediaries) for any property, large or small, by which to expand their presence, most people are determined to stay put.

The Baedeker guidebook of 1876 commented: “It is only by patiently penetrating beneath the modern crust of rubbish and rottenness which shrouds the sacred places from view that the traveller will at length realise to himself a picture of the Jerusalem of antiquity.” Fifty years later, T.E. Lawrence could do little better. “Jerusalem was a squalid town. … [The] united forces of the past and the future were so strong that the city almost failed to have a present. Its people, with rare exceptions, were characterless as hotel servants, living on the crowd of visitors passing through.”

A century after Lawrence, there are still those who value stones over people. You see it often in Jerusalem, when tourists (let alone the authorities) treat Jerusalemites not just as tangential to their goals but as an impediment to them, worthy only of contempt and dismissal. “The shine in their eyes has gone,” writer George Hintlian told me one afternoon about his fellow Jerusalemites. “You can tell what the mood is like because people’s shoulders are down.”

Here’s a story about walls, and the spaces they enclose.

When the Jewish Temple existed, it was designed as a sequence of concentric courtyards. After Herod’s rebuilding, the outermost was named the Court of the Gentiles, accessible to all. Next came the Court of the Women, restricted to Jews only. From there, only Jewish men could access the Court of the Israelites. The inner Court of the Priests held the temple building itself, within which a vestibule led to a holy chamber. At the back of this chamber, the core of the whole complex was the ornately decorated Holy of Holies, a space holding the Ark of the Covenant, a chest out of which God spoke to Moses and which contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Only one man, the High Priest, could enter the Holy of Holies, and then only on one day a year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But the Ark had disappeared, perhaps during the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C. By Herod’s day, the Holy of Holies had been empty for more than 500 years. There was nothing there.

Hold that image.

To reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, two gated entrances from public streets open to the parvis, the enclosed courtyard before the church door. From here, worshipers enter the church itself and pass through the building to a central rotunda known as the Anastasis (“Resurrection”). Here, beneath a great dome, stands the decorated Edicule, a small building-within-a-building at the core of the whole complex. Within the Edicule, a vestibule chapel leads through to the holiest of spaces, which contains the tomb of Jesus. Because the Son of God triumphed over death by rising on the third day, the tomb is empty.

The Haram al-Sharif, or Al-Aqsa mosque compound, has 10 gates currently in use, which open from surrounding streets to an enclosed esplanade atop the leveled summit of the mountain. Once within this enclosure, worshipers ascend to a second raised platform, demarcated by free-standing arcades. Atop this platform rises the glitteringly decorated Dome of the Rock. Entering through the doors of this building brings you first to an outer ambulatory, then an inner ambulatory that encircles the exposed Rock itself, the Foundation Stone, the interface between earth and heaven, and the point from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to an audience with God. Steps from the inner ambulatory access the holiest space of all, a cave beneath the Rock known as the Well of Souls, where the spirits of the dead await Judgment Day. Apart from a niche indicating the direction of prayer, the cave is empty.

These three spaces — the Holy of Holies, the Tomb of Christ and, to a lesser extent, the Well of Souls — are fundamental to belief and practice in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem is a city of walls and gates and stones, accreted in concentric layers. Their encirclement, as Hisham Matar wrote about Siena, “does not repel so much as intensify” the Jerusalem-ness within. We pass the walls, we walk through the gates, we touch the stones. We navigate our path from the outer courtyards of our everyday world to the inner courtyards of what is most holy, most Jerusalem. Once we have done enough to gain access, once every barrier has dissolved and every gate has fallen open, we arrive, emotional, awestruck, in a room that has nothing in it. Penetrating to the very heart of the mystery brings us to ourselves, in empty space.

Such an encounter with the invisible and the intangible — the ineffable, if you like — is why this city exists. Whatever you see here is not what’s really going on.

“Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City,” is published today by Profile Books (U.K.) and Other Press (U.S.). It is available here and all other retailers.

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