There are two “Centres of the Earth” in Old City, Jerusalem. You could call it part of the problem, or you could see it as part of the solution.
The first “centre” lies in the middle of a tiled floor in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Christian quarter of the Old City, near the place where Jesus was said to have been crucified and then was resurrected. The door-keeping responsibilities are held by two Muslim families, now for over 800 years. The second “centre” lies a few hundred metres away, at the heart of the Temple Mount, in the Jewish quarter. The al-Aqsa mosque, which has brought Israel and Palestine to a fresh brink, lies here. The area is monitored by the Jordan Waqf or Islamic Trust, but the Israelis hold the keys to the only gate from which non-Muslims can enter the compound.
It is hard to be here and not be moved by the quiet, undeniable power of faith. At the Holy Sepulchre, women devotees are pressing their crosses to the stone where Jesus was said to have been laid to prepare him for his burial. Others are rubbing liquid on the stone, then pressing it to their skin. They ignore the tourists, both those moved to silence, and the others taking photographs.
The cave holding Jesus’s “grave” has a long queue of sombre devotees. It is almost closing time, but as a family holds a service for their dead, they wait calmly, stoically. The al-Aqsa, the third holiest site for Muslims, is open only to the community, and following Israeli restrictions, just for certain parts of the day and till recently, just for certain Muslims (those between the ages of 15 and 50 were essentially barred).
The Wailing Wall that lies adjacent, overlooking a Chabad offering free food to the poor and a huge courtyard, however, has pilgrims trooping in all through the night. They lean in, they sob, they put in chits of paper holding their wishes into the crevices of the large stones, holding thousands more such scrips. Others sit in chairs, mumbling prayers or in silence. A group of toddlers is studying religious scriptures, reading them aloud, as their teacher keeps a watch. He instructs that they are not to be photographed.
The devotees are grieving for two destroyed temples considered holy by Jews. The wall that stands, with large stones at the bottom and distinctively smaller ones at the top, lies closest to the second temple, making it the most sacred site for Jews.
The men and women pray separately, with the women allotted a much smaller section — a sign, many worry, of the growing orthodoxy among the Jews.
Those signs are everywhere, among people sitting on benches, waiting for the bus, hopping on the cobbled pavements of the Old City, or even in what brought the Temple Mount to this crisis. It was the aggression of some Orthodox Jews, amidst growing settler activity by the Israeli government, around Temple Mount that ignited Muslim fears that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to change the status quo at al-Aqsa.
To a normal tourist traversing the quarters of the Old City, the demarcations can be stark, and abrupt. The Christian quarter has shops doing brisk business, in kuffiyehs (the white-and-black chequered scarf made famous by Palestine’s beloved leader Yasser Arafat), and Kashmiri Pashmina. They giggle loudly when you point out the latter. Past the Holy Sepulchre, into the Muslim quarter, the lanes become narrower, the police presence more heavy, the shadows darker as men, women and children head home carrying their shopping.
Jews are being settled here too, and their presence is obvious. Fingers on the trigger, police are happy to pose for tourists, as well as to guide you along further into the Old City, the apprehensions regarding attacks on Jews notwithstanding. Our Azerbaijan-born, half-Christian-half Jew, “secular” guide Ada Elkin laughs nervously, only a little reassured to be among tourists. The day earlier, she had just got off the bus that was later attacked by a Palestinian.
She also tells you to watch, carefully, as she leaves the Muslim quarter for the Jewish. “I call it entering the light,” she says, adding that all money, all development has flowed into this area where Jews, who had fled following the 1948 Jordanian occupation of the city, are being brought back in increasing numbers by the government to settle. The rent, Elkin adds, is astronomical. The demand extraordinarily high. Next to a synagogue called just “The Ruin” are shops in blazing light, selling everything from bakery goods to Dead Sea products.
The Armenian quarter, overlooking the Arab neighbourhood of Silwan from where the namaaz rings out from all corners at dusk, is the quietest. They don’t encourage tourists, and the shops selling Turkish-inspired ceramic — another proof of the long, rich, varied and contested history of this 0.35 sq miles of land — are grilled. It’s only 8 pm, but the quarter has retired for the night. The only people out on the road are tourists and the police, who go blaring past in cars giving us a quick once-over.
Just as you exit, from the Jaffa Gate, next to the Tomb of David, there are Arab shopkeepers, among others, selling their wares. The city is metres away now, and here, just within the reach of the old and the new, Abdullah can’t hide his glee at Indian customers. The products though are all invariably made in China.
A few more steps away, abutting the steps of the Old City, is Mamilla Mall, Jerusalem’s poshest shopping street. On the other side of its long, brightly lit corridor lined with American brands, adorned with Christmas-like lights, lies one of the new city’s newest areas where, they tell you, a Jew woman aged 50 has just then been stabbed by a Palestinian. He was shot.
At least 76 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli security forces since October 1, just over half of whom were allegedly carrying out or about to go through with attacks. Twelve Israelis have been stabbed, shot or killed in Palestinian attacks in the same period. For many, the disproportionate response tells the story of this fight. In a city where present is never far from its past, perhaps the answer lies in a ladder.
Given the competing claims over The Holy Sepulchure, an 1852 mandate decided that it would be jointly administered by six Christian denominations: the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox churches. Rules govern transit rights of groups through each section on any given day. A part of the agreement was that not a thing in the complex could be moved. In 2002, a monk moved a chair out of the sun, and 11 were hospitalised in the fight that followed.
So a wooden ladder that someone once put up to presumably repair a window can’t be moved. It has stood at the same spot, as per recorded history, for two centuries. Peace is a delicate thing. We should know.