No I wasn’t a pilgrim. But how could a tourist be in Jerusalem and not visit these famous sites. So I decided I would explore these famous sites. Starting today with the the oldest of the religions in Jerusalem, Judaism and its holy sites – the Western Wall.
Hey! The guard called out to me. A straight unsmiling face stared back at me, his right hand holding on to an assault rifle slinged from his shoulder. He raised his left hand and motioned aggressively, demanding that I go over to him.
What did I do? I mouthed.
His hand motions got more aggressive, the grip of his rifle firmer. His palm clasping the rifle with more tension.
I wasn’t about to disobey a soldier with a gun so I moved to the other side. Another guard laughed, “that was the exit, my friend. You need to pass through security here.”
I took my valuables and metal items out of my pockets and walked through the metal detector. The stern soldier broke into a smile and asked, “China?”
“Haha, no Singapore.”
I walked out into the Western Wall. Here I was, standing on the site so bitterly fought over by religious folks for thousands of years. I stood there for a few minutes taking it in.
So this is it, one of the most contentious sites in the world. It looks much less imposing now that I stand here in person, and yet this is the most sacred part of Judaism.
I reached into my pocket to take out my phone. I should capture this memory shouldn’t I?
No photographs. The sign at the entrance ordered me, the red stroke across its cartoon called out to me at me. I kept my phone in my pocket and walked on.
The morning breeze brought with it chills on my back despite my three layers of clothing and a winter jacket. Two young men in black suits and yarmulkes walked past me, weren’t they cold? They put on their tallit prayer shawl and carried on to the western wall.
Why were these people praying at a wall?
The Western Wall is from the era of the Second Temple of Jerusalem (built during the time of King Herod), but it was not a part of the temple, it was merely a retaining wall used to support the base on which the large Temple Mount was to be built.
Model of the Second Temple of Jerusalem at the Israel Museum
What is the Temple Mount? Time for a history lesson.
According to Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, the founding story of these faiths was the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham was a man from the Israeli area, a holy man, a good man. But an old man without a child. To help him with a child, his similarly old wife (supposedly menopausal by them and around her 70s) suggested that he mate with her handmaiden to bear a child. He did and just as her handmaiden Haggai became pregnant with a child, so too did Sarah. Abraham was into his 80s when his first born, Isaac was born and later his second child Ishmael. Isaac is considered the “father” of Judaism and Christianity (since Christianity views it self as a fulfilment of the Judaic Messianic prophecies), while Ishmael is considered the “father” of the people who would eventually become Muslims.
The Israelites then were pagans and the monotheistic God wanted to reveal himself to a man worthy of him, who had utter faith in him and so God spoke to Abraham and asked him to offer sacrifice of Isaac to Him. Abraham obliged, but just as he was about to sacrifice Abraham, an angel appeared to stop him and reveal that this was a test from God. It was here that Abraham, seen as the as the first patriarch of the biblical faiths, was promised a family – the Jewish family (the chosen people).
The temple mount is the site of Mount Moriah, where this act of the Binding is believed to have taken place.
Followers of Judaism pray at the Western Wall because it is the closest part that allows them to pray to the Holy of Holies – the most holy site in Judaism where the Temple was built over. The Holy of Holies is a small inner sanctum within the temple that is supposed to hold the Ark of the Covenant. What is the Ark of the Covenant?
Here is the story of another pillar of the Old Testament, Moses.
The people of Israel had them been caught as slaves and put under the control of the Pharaoh. They were a despised people and an oppressed one. To bring them out of this bad situation, a Jewish orphan who later became an Eygptian prince, Moses was sent by God to persuade the Pharoah to let the Israeli people return to their homeland. Initially, the pharaoh refused, to force his hand a series of 10 plagues (each more terrifying than the last) were sent on the people of Eygpt. To save his people, the Pharaoh agreed and Moses led the Israelites out, passing by the Red Sea and many tremendous journeys.
The people journeyed for 40 years before reaching Mount Sinai where he climbed up to listen to God’s commandments and returned with the 10 commandments. This established the moral foundation on which the new Jewish society was to be built.
The Holy of Holies is is a gold-covered chest that is supposed to contain two slabs of stone on which Moses brought the 10 commandments from God and it is what is believed to be placed in the tabernacle within the holy sanctum of the temple. By praying through the wall, the only exposed part of the second temple still standing (the temple it self was destroyed) the belief is that a believer is most able to be connected with the Holy of Holies and the Temple Mount through this wall.
This wall is facing controversial, politically problematic times. The establishment of the Jewish State in 1948 stirred up a lot of anger in the Arab world (more on this in a separate post).
Jerusalem and this quarter of the old city was not originally under Jewish rule, but the Six Day War changed all that.
Being within contested Palestinian territory, some scholars have argued that this wall is not part of Jewish property but rather Muslim property.
But even among Jewish people, there is tension. The most exposed part is operated by the Orthodox Jews and a central line divides the males from female but other Jews want to be able to worship next to believers without separating by sex. This is something that can be done in the unexposed parts of the wall.
Walking around the wall felt strange. Here I was, a person who was just curious looking at people near me praying with fervour. This was a site open to tourist but first and foremost a religious place. I decided to move on and leave the praying devotees in peace.
ON THE MAP