Jerusalem, a Jewel of Three Faiths
By Humayun Siddiqui
San Diego, CA

Ignoring the advice and pleadings of family members and friends, I decided to visit Jerusalem, capital of Israel, but called “occupied” by Muslim countries. For Muslims, Israel remains a pariah, a mystery and a dark force.
From San Diego, it was about 19 hours air travel to Tel Aviv via Chicago and Warsaw, Poland, where at the Israeli airline ‘El-Al’s counter, unexpectedly, while waiting for the boarding card, one Israeli security personnel came and took me aside for the security check. I was asked probing questions -- why was I going to Israel? (to visit Jerusalem and pray at Al-Aqsa), do you know anybody there? (Yes), their addresses? where would you stay? (Little House Hotel), address, etc. On completion of the query, he talked on his cell and told me that now his boss is coming who would also talk to me. A youngish person in suit and tie soon arrived and started asking a similar set of questions as he took notes.
After they were satisfied I came to know that I was finally going to Jerusalem to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Rock of Dome and for no other purpose. I was given a normal body search and then escorted like a VIP to the bus. I had requested for an aisle seat in the front row, but the boarding card showed my seat in the last row between two passengers.
While waiting in the bus a gentleman came to me and asked for my boarding card. My heart sank, thinking that I will be asked to leave the bus and directed to follow him. Instead, he took out his pen and after writing on the card, handed it over to me saying, “You have the front aisle seat, as you had requested.”
I must admit the whole affair was conducted in a very polite and respectful manner without any trace of hostility or rudeness.
I landed at Tel Aviv’s newly constructed Ben Gurion Airport, not knowing what was in store for me, being a Muslim of Pakistani origin, but carrying an American passport. However, there was the usual stamping of the passport at the immigration window. Perhaps, Warsaw security had informed Tel Aviv of my clearance.
Just outside the airport, I boarded a ten-seater mini-bus known as “sherut”, which plies round the clock between the airport and Jerusalem - about an hour drive - and leaves passengers at their destination. The cost: 45 ‘shekel’ (about $10). A taxi would have cost about $40. Herut left me at the hotel, where I had booked a room before leaving San Diego and had left its telephone number with my family.
Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and its largest city. It has a population of some 706,000. Tel Aviv, the first Israeli city and the first capital, has some 376,000 residents.
The City of Jerusalem has two faces: the Israeli-annexed old city or East Jerusalem, and the new or West Jerusalem, where the newly constructed Knesset (parliament), President and Prime Minister Houses and all government ministries, except Defense (Tel Aviv), are located. Modern houses in the area are inhabited by affluent Jews.
The Old City sits on the original hills of the City of David and is surrounded by a high wall, over four kilometers long with seven gates, 34 towers, and a citadel (the Tower of David).
It is the Old City which embraces the history of about 3000 years and is revered by the three most important faiths of the world.
In the old city one feels a magical sacred atmosphere which appears to be out of this world. Perhaps this is due to the holy sites of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions.
Here, one rubs shoulders with bearded young and old Jews in black hats and black dresses, Christian priests in their long robes and Arabs in their ‘Abayas’.
Although the name Jerusalem comes from Hebrew “Yerushalayim” meaning “City of Peace” but the city has witnessed war and peace, destruction and resurrection; its towering stone walls and ancient buildings have been witness to many a war fought in the name of religion.
We, Muslims call it “Al-Quds”, meaning “the Holy”.
Turn the pages of history. It was in Jerusalem, Rock of the Dome, where Prophet Abraham (PBUH) brought his son Ishmael (Ismaeel), as we Muslim believe or Issac (Ishaq), as the Jews say, to sacrifice on the command of Allah. It is here at the Temple Mount that Herod built the first temple. It is here that Prophet Jesus (PBUH), after his walk on Via Dolorosa -- the Way of the Cross -- was put on cross; and it is here at The Dome of Rock that Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) ascended to Heavens (Mairaj). At one time it served as the first Qibla.
Here, one goes back in time. One hears the foot steps of Caliph Omar along with his entourage, entering with his servant on the mount -- it was the servant’s turn to ride; European Crusaders making forays. Saladin’s (Salah ad-Din) forces instead of seeking revenge, treating enemy soldiers and the non-Muslim civilian population with mercy and kindness.
The Old City is divided into four residential quarters:
*The Jewish Quarter
The Jewish quarter, where about 200 yards east of it, adjoining the Masjid-e-Aqsa, is the most holy place and spiritual center of Judaism -- the Western Wall, called the Wailing Wall, before occupation.
It is a large -- 200-foot high and 1600 foot long -- uneven white stone, granite-blocks’ wall, which according to Jews, is remnant of Solomon’s Temple; the beacon towards which for over 3000 years Jew diaspora turned to mourn its exile and prayed to return to it.
Now, they have achieved what they wanted and are waiting for a ‘divine intervention’ to rebuild the Temple on Mount Moriah where Al-Aqsa and the Dome of Rock are.
We visited the Western Wall from Al-Aqsa side, where Israeli security checked our credentials and allowed us to enter the sacred compound, despite of being told that we were Muslims. We had to put on our head a paper skull-cap, ‘kippah’, which was in ample supply; without a Jewish style hat/cap nobody could enter the sacred zone.
Hundreds of bearded black-coated Jews were moving to and fro -- like our madressah students reciting the Qur’an -- facing near the Wall, to the rhythmic singsong of Torah/Talmud prayers.
We also visited the recently opened to public the underground archaeological tunnel, where one can see a display of artifacts, glass sculptures and a light and laser show highlighting Old Jerusalem’s central role in 3,000 years of Jewish history.
The tunnel called “Chain of Generations Center” is near the Al-Aqsa Mosque, parallel to the Western Wall.
There is a controversy over the tunnel excavations. According to Muslims, this is weakening the foundations of the mosque and damaging the buildings above the tunnels.
According to the Israelis “the whole site did not run under al-Haram al-Sharif or endanger the shrine. No work has been done in the direction of the Temple Mount. No damage can be caused as the site is at least 20 to 30 meters (65 to 95 feet) from the Western Wall.”

*The Armenian Quarter
The Armenians settled in Jerusalem in the 4th century CE, and the St. James Cathedral was built in the 12th century. At the center of the church is a dome resting on four pillars, through which the sun shines and sheds light on the paintings on the walls.

*The Christian Quarter
The Christian quarter has churches, monasteries, and hostels that were built for Christian pilgrims. In the heart of the quarter is the most sacred shrine in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Resurrection, which, according to Christian tradition, was the site upon which Prophet Jesus (PBUH) was crucified.
The Via Dolorosa begins at the courthouse - which was located at what is now the Lions’ Gate – also known as St. Stephen’s Gate and ends at Calvary Hill or Golgotha, where the Church stands.
One can see many Christian pilgrims walking along the Via Dolorosa following the final path of Prophet Jesus (PBUH). Famous movie Passion of the Christ portrays the story, of that event and time.

*The Muslim Quarter
The Muslim quarter occupies the largest area. The most important site in the Muslim Quarter is Al-Haram al-Sharif, a rectangular 35-acre piece of the world’s most contested real estate, with fountains, gardens, buildings, domes and graves.
The Al-Haram al-Sharif is surrounded by a perimeter wall; at its southernmost end is the Al-Masjed-Al-Aqsa and at its centre the ‘Qubbet es Sakhra’ or the Dome of the Rock. In its north and partly extending to its western side, is the Muslim residential quarter with ten gates, after which the Jewish quarter begins. On its east and south lie the Biblical Valley of Jehoshaphat to which the trumpets of the Last Judgment will call the souls of all mankind at the end of the world.
Within the perimeter wall of Al-Haram al-Sharif, the Jordanian Waqaf takes care of the area, whereas outside it the Israeli soldiers control the entrances, ensuring that non-Muslims do not enter, except on days open to them. A few times I was asked to recite Quranic Sura Fatiha by the soldiers, to ensure that I was a Muslim. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Masjid.
It was here that the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) was brought from Mecca on a white winged steed, ‘buraq’. First he led the prayers attended by all the prophets. But, nobody knows the spot where the Prophet (PBUH) led the prayers. Then from the grayish white Rock, Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) ascended into Heaven (Mairaj).
On the first day of arrival, after the Fajar prayers we met Imam of Al-Masjed Al-Aqsa, Ali Al-Abbasi, who not only told the history of Al-Haram Sharif, but also took us around it. According to him the entire area is regarded as a mosque, and comprises nearly one-sixth of the walled city of old Jerusalem.
In 685 AD the Umayyad Caliph, ‘Abdul Malik ibn Marwan, commenced work on the golden Dome above the Rock, which stretches 20 meters in length over it rising to an apex more than 35 meters above. Since then it is known as ‘Qubbet es Sakhra’ or the ‘Dome of the Rock’. Then, in the 16th century, Suleiman the Magnificent commissioned inscription of the Qur’anic sura ‘Ya Seen’ across, inside the top, in the dazzling tile work.
According to a brochure, “Unchanged for more than thirteen centuries, the Dome of the Rock remains one of the world’s most beautiful and enduring architectural treasures, visible glittering from miles.
In 638, an army of Muslims led by Khaled bin Walid surrounded Jerusalem. The city Patriarch, Sophronius, after a brief siege, negotiated the terms of surrender but told that the city keys will be handed over to Caliph ‘Umar. He came and the people who had assembled to welcome him were surprised to see the Caliph entering on foot, with his servant on the mount as it was his turn to ride.
Oriental writers admit, “For the first time in its long history, Jerusalem had been spared a bloodbath.
“There was no bloodshed. There were no massacres. Those who wanted to leave were allowed to, with all their possessions. Those who wanted to stay were guaranteed protection for their lives, their property, and their places of worship according to the ‘Umariyya Covenant”.
Caliph ‘Umar went with Sophronious to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where at ‘salat’ time, he was offered a place to pray inside it. Caliph ‘Umar declined, fearing Muslims might threaten the church’s use as a Christian house of worship. He prayed outside instead to the south of the church, where now stands the Mosque of ‘Umar.
We offered Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, with thousands of worshippers overflowing it. Whenever we got the opportunity, we offered prayers at Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock.

Markets
We felt at home in the markets. Located in the narrow winding cobbled alleyways of the Quarters, the markets are tourist attractions: “like flea markets, noisy, colorful, the merchants call out their wares where one can buy local handmade souvenirs -- ethnic costumes, shawls, dresses, rugs, beads, etc; or one is attracted to the roadside food stalls and small cafes that emit tantalizing aromas and one can laze over a plate of Humus or ‘kebab’ sandwich’ followed by a cup of minted tea.”
After a long time, we were expected to bargain for wares. The concept of fixed prices is unknown. If one knows bargaining, one can bring the price down. We bought three hand-embroidered long dresses for $75, which were originally priced at $75 each by the Arab shop keeper!
I stayed in Jerusalem for seven days. Although my family members were calling me daily at my hotel to confirm that I was safe and sound during my entire stay, I never felt I was being followed or surveilled. I walked, I rode buses, I rode taxis driven by Palestinians and Israelis.
On the whole, it was a most satisfying and indeed an educative experience - historically and spiritually.



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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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