Touring the holiest of cities

16:00, Dec 22 2012
The Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site.

The old man with a back brace and hobble and leaning on the helping arm of his wife had wandered back and forth in front of the windscreen of the minibus at least four times.

It had been an hour since the tour was due to leave and our travelling companions were nowhere to be seen.

Our Israeli guide, Avishalom, said more were to join but, except for my partner, Laura, and me, the bus to Jerusalem was empty.

With big sunglasses, highlighted hair, boosted lips, a Russian accent and a Prada handbag hooked over the forearm, Larissa and her husband, Leon, finally got on the bus at 9am.

There is a popular conception of the type of person who holds up tours - obstinate, stubborn, entitled and well off. Here, it seemed, was its personification.

"When did you get here?" Leon asked Avishalom.


"At 7.15am," he replied.

"How did you know this was the bus?" Leon said, turning to me.

"We looked at the sign," I said. "The name of the tour is the same."

They were angry and upset and it was not, they said, anything to do with them. They groaned and made their opinions known in the definitive awing vowels of immigrant New Yorkers.

The discussion about names on tour signs continued for some minutes. The same point was made again and again and again. I offered a solution.

"Let's forget about it and get moving."

At this rate the world would end and the Messiah would arrive before we even got to see the Old City.

Larissa apologised.

"I'm sorry. We are from New York. We get anxious about things."

Many things, we would learn. Larissa's main anxiety was to see the Western Wall - the area on Mount Moriah where David had placed the Ark of the Covenant and where his son, Solomon, had built the first temple.

It was a remnant of a place of worship which had been razed and rebuilt many times over. It was said to be the very home of God himself. For non-believers, it was a tourist attraction. For some Muslims it was where the prophet Mohammed tethered his winged steed before ascending to heaven. For Jews, it was the most sacred bond to a heritage thousands of years old and a thoroughfare to the will of Yahweh - the god without a name.

"We will see it, we will see it," Avishalom reassured her. Finally, the old man with the back brace and his wife toddled on the bus. Bob and his wife, Linda, offered an apologetic wave.

"In Jerusalem the truth is much less important than the myth," wrote the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. Its truths are never simple and always elusive.

The city, it has been said, does not just represent a history of the world, but also a history of heaven and earth.

Founded some time between 1200BC and 850BC, Jerusalem's yellow sandstone walls tell of ages gone by, of monuments misnamed and renamed and forgotten and appropriated as the place where the world would end - where Jesus was crucified, where Mohammed left this world to learn the signs of God and where the Jewish people staked their claim, citing, among other things, the will of that same celestial power. It is a patch of utterly non-strategic desert in the middle of the Judean mountains.

Its walls have been sacked, its rulers murdered and overturned, its buildings countless times destroyed and its citizens subjected to, and have subjected others to, acts of the vilest desecration in human imagination. It is truly a city of God.

On the Mount of Olives, we surveyed the outer walls looking over the Jewish cemetery that houses tens of thousands of cadavers all awaiting their first chance at resurrection when Armageddon arrives. The hill will split in two, with one half moving north and the other south.

Some have been waiting for thousands of years. In 2012, it still is prime real estate.

Bob set about inspecting the tombstones.

"We are probably the only people who go touring and inspect cemeteries," he said.

Bob, we learned, was previously a mortician, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease eight years ago.

The couple had visited 48 countries in that time - a statistic that their children, both police officers in California, disapproved of. Why would they go if their father would not remember it?

"He enjoys it at the time," Linda said.

Bob took out his camera, squinted into the viewfinder and snapped another shot of a tomb.

At the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before being sentenced to death and where Judas betrayed him with a kiss, a group of Swedish tourists in tank tops and denim shorts posed and grinned. They smiled for photos and giggled.

Everything seemed disturbingly trivial in the holy city. There was a frustrated sadness about it all.

"Are we going to see the Western Wall yet?" Larissa asked. "Are we going now?"

Avishalom sighed. "Yes," he said, "but it will be very busy, so we will have to walk. Stick together."

The walls of the Old City wrap around a patch of the not so neatly cleaved pieces delineating the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters. The character, language, population and trinkets meld and shift within the space of a few steps.

Orthodox Jews wearing woollen trench coats in the height of summer morph into grey-bearded Muslim pomegranate juice sellers into Israeli Security Forces holding automatic weapons into baseball-capped American tourists intent on seeing God.


The history of Jerusalem is a history of people.

We assembled at the entrance to the Western Wall. At this point, the women had to split off. Larissa, Linda and Laura were on their own. "Look after each other," Avishalom said. "Do not get lost. We will meet you back here."

The men followed our guide further into the courtyard. We passed the colour and pageantry of Ethiopian Jews, passed children and their families celebrating their bar mitzvahs.

We donned disposable yarmulkes and walked towards the wall. There were men praying and rubbing their hands on the stone. Some looked in pain. To me it was a wall - a tourist attraction. I turned, walked back into the courtyard and waited.

They emerged from the crowd arm in arm, Larissa's head on Laura's shoulder - her face red, flushed and wet in the eyes.

"What happened?" I mouthed from across the courtyard.

Laura shook her head. They had ventured into the throng, she told me. Larissa had hooked her arm in Laura's and they surged towards the rock. Then it began. Larissa began to cry.

"Say a prayer for me," she said. They wrote notes on pieces of paper and stuck them into the cracks of the wall. As they backed away, her crying became more intense. There was an awkward confusion as Larissa broke down. Then she turned to Laura.

"I have cancer," she said.

It is why she wanted to come here. It was a place of last resort.

Two years earlier, Larissa's stomach had filled with water. Her doctor sent her to the emergency room, but they could not do tests because there was no work on the Sabbath at a Jewish hospital. A few days later, no-one had told her what was wrong.

A rabbi came into the room and said: "I am here to pray for the woman who has cancer."

"Who?" Larissa said. "Who has cancer?"

She went through two rounds of chemotherapy, lost her hair and refused to leave the house. But now she and her husband were out and this is where they wanted to come.

Larissa tied a red string around Laura's wrist as we walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She tied another around her own.

About 100 people a year are overwhelmed by expectation and disappointment when they visit here. "Jerusalem syndrome" is a real thing - keeping one of the city's mental-health units filled with hysterical pilgrims.

Places of such significance and spirituality are reduced to terrestrial attractions - ones whose authenticity can be directly challenged by history and archaeology.

For many, however, it does not matter. In the church, women crowded over a polished stone where Jesus was said to have been prepared for burial. They put key rings and postcards and personal trinkets on top and rubbed them down with holy fragrant oil bought from a local corner shop.

A man fell to his knees at Golgotha, the place where Jesus was said to have been crucified, where a reddish hue caused by the oxidisation of rock marks the blood of Christ.

"How long have you been waiting?" we asked a woman in line to enter his supposed tomb. "About an hour and a half," she replied. By the look of it there was still some time to go.

Police barriers kept them in queue. They waddled forwards every couple of minutes.

"They know there is nothing in there, right?" Laura said later.

It is a reminder of the bizarrely powerful nature of human faith - a reminder that history is indeed written and rewritten by the victors. It gives rights, bestows ownership and applies a dubious narrative to the chaos there.

As we drove into the disputed territories to visit Bethlehem, there was a sense of guilt at the one-sided nature of what we had seen. One day in Jerusalem gives you only subtle reminders of the hopelessness of it all.

That shelteredness only recedes just slightly come afternoon prayers in the Muslim quarter. There, armed guards block the entry points to the Dome of the Rock, where only those who look Muslim - with a beard, a hat and a tunic - are allowed to pass. The rest, with the baseball caps and the T-shirts, are ushered away.

Six-metre-high concrete walls emerge, with guard towers, barbed wire and checkpoints with armed guards against spray-painted murals proclaiming love, peace and land. Then, that recedes too.

We all got back on the air-conditioned bus and rattled out of the Judean Mountains.

Larissa went home to New York and her dog, Lucky, with her red string still tied around her wrist. Laura kept hers too.

Larissa had touched the Western Wall.

Her prayers, like those that stretched down through time to the handprints of countless others who came to the last surviving part of the Temple of Solomon, were now with her God.

Charles Anderson travelled courtesy of Celebrity Cruises and Cathay Pacific as the winner of the 2012 Cathay Pacific Travel Writer of the Year competition.

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