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
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
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
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
We, Muslims call it “Al-Quds”, meaning
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
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
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 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 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
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 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
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
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
“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.
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
On the whole, it was a most satisfying and indeed
an educative experience - historically and spiritually.