Jerusalem is where three great religions meet and the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam give the city an essential spiritual relevance that continues to this day. This religious aspect has been ignored in any peace talks so far.
Jerusalem was illegally annexed by Israel after it conquered the city in 1967. Almost 50 years later, the 350,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem still live under a brutal Israeli occupation that ignores their rights, and they have no realistic hope of any change. What makes their situation worse is that they say they have been “deserted”, “forgotten” and “betrayed” by the Palestinian National Authority and the Arab world.
Jerusalem is cut off politically from the West Bank as the Palestinian National Authority is allowed no place in annexed Jerusalem, and the city is physically isolated by Israel’s Wall as West Bank Palestinians are not allowed to visit Jerusalem. The Israelis are strangling Jerusalem’s unique Arab culture which must rely on its own powerful heritage to give itself what strength it can find.
Jerusalem is special because of its importance to three major faiths. Pilgrims from Islam, Christianity and Judaism cross paths and rub shoulders in the streets of the Old City every day. This spiritual dimension is an essential part of Jerusalem, and it has been ignored in the attempts to find peace in Palestine.
Jerusalem has been home to exceptional spiritual sites for more than 3,000 years. The Old City is important to all three great monotheistic faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. These People of the Book, as Islam refers to the three revealed religions, may share several texts and many prophets, but are now bitterly divided by politics.
But in occupied Jerusalem the faithful from all three religions pass each other every day in the narrow streets of the Old City. The obvious spirituality of the place leads many political thinkers to argue that any future peace treaty between Palestine and Israel cannot be based on borders alone but must also include some “religious equity” contained in a political structure that recognises the spiritual importance of occupied Jerusalem to three faiths and two peoples.
What are the major Holy Sites in Jerusalem?
Al Haram Al Sharif
Al Haram Al Sharif is the mosque precinct containing both Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which make up Islam’s third most holy site after Makkah and Madinah. Very early Muslims were directed by the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), to pray towards Al Aqsa and only later changed the direction of prayer towards Makkah.
The Dome of the Rock is a shrine that encompasses the tip of the mountain where Abraham had his altar, and where the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), came in a dreamlike state on the Night Journey, Lailat Al Mi’raj, when he ascended on the flying horse Al Buraq to Heaven where he received further directions from Allah. Many faithful believe that Al Buraq’s hooves left imprints on the Rock, which are still visible today.
Al Buraq Wall
The foundation stones of the last Jewish temple built by Herod in 20BC make up Al Buraq Wall, called the Western Wall or Kotel by the Jews. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD70 and the huge stones visible today are the last remnants of the temple. As such they are a holy and venerated site for all Jews.
After 1967 when the Israelis captured the Old City, they bulldozed the houses nearby and forced the creation of the modern day plaza in front of the Al Buraq Wall. Al Haram Al Sharif is directly above Al Buraq Wall and the more extreme Jews believe that they have the right to intrude into Al Haram Al Sharif to prove their dominance over the Muslims. The Israeli police and authorities have permitted this activity despite it being illegal under international law.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Occupied Jerusalem is also where Jesus was tried by the Romans and crucified, and then resurrected as the Christians believe. The sites of Jesus’ trial and walk to his death are marked along the Via Dolorosa that still survives to this day in the Old City, leading from the site of the Roman fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which covers the sites of both Jesus’ crucifixion and grave.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was established 1,700 years ago by the Byzantine Empress Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, who toured the Holy Land between 326 and 328AD and established the exact site of many of the holy events, often building churches or memorials that remain in place to this day.
Large numbers of pilgrims from all three religions cross the Old City every day. Jews make their way down Al Buraq Wall along David Street (Julian’s Way) from the Al Khalil gate (Jaffa Gate) or down Tariq Al Wad from the Al Amood Gate (Damascus Gate), which they share with large groups of Christians who retrace the route of Prophet Jesus’s final day along the Via Dolorosa, which crosses Tariq Al Wad in the middle of the Muslim Quarter, walking around the groups of Muslims heading for Al Haram Al Sharif.
The Palestinians in East Jerusalem are quite relaxed about all this religious activity from all three faiths. They make a sharp distinction between the peaceful profession of religion, and the politics of occupation even though they are sometimes deliberately mingled such as when extremist Jews set up colonies in the heart of the Old City.
Everything changed in 1967 when the Israelis conquered East Jerusalem and the West Bank, along with the Golan Heights and Gaza. They took control of the Old City and proceeded to send in the bulldozers to remove hundreds of homes to make the open plaza that is now in front of the Wall.
They have also tunnelled under the Muslim Quarter to follow the Western Wall further north from the traditional areas for prayer in the exposed area at its southern end. These illegal and highly controversial tunnels are in part designed to offer more Wall for Jewish prayer but are also a rough attempt at archaeology in what would have been the deep Central Valley next to the site of the former temple on Mounts Ophel and Moria.