Israel is filed with synagogues, churches and mosques everywhere (although most of the mosques will be in Palestinian territories). There is even the Bhai Center in Haifa. But a visitor to Jerusalem who is willing to take the time regardless of their religion, will be treated to some amazing experiences. I went there with Overseas Adventure Travels on their trip Israel: The Holy Land and Timeless Cultures.
In Jerusalem of course, there are many synagogues both ancient and modern. The standout in terms of antiquity, and which defines much of the Old City today, is the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. It’s the Western Wall of the Second Temple bit by Harrod the Great, which was built after King Salmon’s first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. It also serves as the western flank of the Temple Mount. Its history is long and involved, but you can read more about it here.
I have been to Israel twice now, the first time as 25 years ago. And both times, even as non-religious Jew, a visit to the Western Wall was an unforgettable, if not life-changing experience. On both trips, I paid three visits to the Wall (kotel in Hebrew). It was at times emotional, at times moving, and always a reflective experience. Some people go there and just observe how people react to power of the Wall. And some people go there and experience the power that many feel. And yes, many both cry while praying, and they leave prayers in the cracks within the wall. The prayers are removed regularly but are never destroyed. Rather, they are buried. Some might say they remain in the universe.
The Western Wall adheres to Orthodox Judaic traditions, so there is a divider, with man praying on the left side, and women praying on the right. From the women’s side there is a way to stand higher and see what is happening on the men’s side. From the men’s side that’s not possible! There is a project called Women of the Wall, and they have gained some momentum in Jerusalem. So a partition is currently under construction to the right of the women’s side of the Wall, and a platform is being built. From that platform, both men and women will be able ot attend whatever ceremonies are being performed, in the traditions of both Reform and Conservative Judaism. So this ancient synagogue wall that dates back to the 10th Century BCE, is undergoing changes today that speak to the more modern traditions of our times.
From what is now called the Western Wall Plaza, a visitor can go either up or down to see even more sacred places. Since the Western Wall is the western flank of the Temple Mount, its worth a visit there. That’s where the Al Aska Mosque is, as well as the Dome of the Rock. That’s the gold dome always shown in pictures of Jerusalem, but it’s on the East Jerusalem side of the Western Wall. The prophet Elijah is buried there, and apparently both Muslims and Jews revere the prophet Elijah. I was able to get inside 25 years ago, and I was simply awe- struck standing at the tomb of Elijah. Jews always leave a seat for Elijah on Passover. I jokingly told one gal on the tour that we don’t need to leave a seat for him anymore since we know where he’s buried.
The Dome of the Rock is just steps from the Al Aska Mosque, which I was also able to enter 25 years ago. This mosque is third in line behind Mecca in terms of its significance to the Muslim faith. The reason we cannot enter these two sites today, is because Ariel Sharon and 500 other people went up to the Temple Mount in 2000 and started the second intifada. Some religious Jews can go there to pray, but they need some sort of special clearance. We were advised not to wear anything that would indicate a religious preference, since the area is now heavily patrolled after 2000. I remember when that happened and thought then that for a head of state to go to a holy site like that to incite violence, didn’t go a long way towards establishing peace.
After we left the Temple Mount, we took our last look at the Western Wall before entering the tunnels beneath it. What an amazing feat of engineering to do all that, and to have it all be so connected! Some Orthodox women pray there daily, with tears still in their eyes that the second temple is gone and this is all that remains. But they are still excavating so much in the tunnels and even further down. There is a place to leave prayers in the underground tunnels, and those prayers are left for as long as six months.
When we came out from under the tunnels we were in the Arab Quarter, where we began our walk along the Via Delarosa. Many religious groups follow the path to the stations of the Cross. Our walk there took us to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Christ is said to have been first crucified, then buried and resurrected.
Seven different faiths take daily turns with the keys to his church, with one person in charge in case of any conflicts. Being a Sunday, there were church services going on simultaneously, and the Armenians were having one service while the Catholics were having another. It was grand, sobering, and it felt so Holy. The actual tombs were not available for viewing officially that day, but we walked past both, and they were each open as we passed so I peaked in both. The place was packed, but it was beautiful, and I could feel and appreciate the majesty of it all, as I had 25 years ago as well.
After that, we walked through the Christian and Jewish quarters, ending our day at the place where the Last Supper was held. It’s now a Mosque, church, and a synagogue all in one, with King David buried in the synagogue (on the woman’s side, no less!).
I do not know why all these sites move me, but they do. I was additionally moved on our last morning in Jerusalem at the beautiful Church of All Nations Gethsemane gardens, as well as the Mount of Olives. This is where Christ was said to have prayed the night before he was crucified. The beautiful view of the gold dome and the walls of Jerusalem which are so famous, are taken from above the Mount of Olives. It’s overlooking a Jewish cemetery where people want to be buried so they can be there when the Messiah comes. There’s also a Muslim and Christian cemetery there. It’s East Jerusalem, which is part of the conflict of modern times. So much of value is in East Jerusalem, and both sides want it.
If a traveler has an interest in religion, history or philosophy, a secular trip like this would really fit the bill. It’s hit the high notes for all religions. And since we are living in a time when it matters even more than any other time I can recall that we all respect each other’s beliefs, this trip allows for that kind of interaction with both fellow travelers and locals we met along the way.