President Trump has announced that that the United States will soon recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, and begin to move the US embassy there. Obviously, this is just a formality – Israelis themselves have long considered Jerusalem their eternal capital, and the Knesset has been there since 1948. This is not how it was supposed to be, of course: the original UN plan was for the city to have an international status, somewhat like Danzig between the wars. But events turned out rather differently: the city ended up divided between Israel and Jordan, and then entirely conquered by Israel in 1967. Many people hold that the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem is illegal, but possession is 9/10 of the law, so here we are. What makes Trump’s move so provocative is that no other country formally recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, nor has its embassy there – most are in Tel Aviv, Israel’s most important city otherwise.
Personally, if I were Israeli, I would not want my capital in Jerusalem. This is largely because I don’t believe that Israel is the latest instantiation of the ancient Hebrew monarchy, but a nineteenth-century settler nation, and Tel Aviv is the perfect symbol for this – Jewish settlers built it themselves from scratch, and the city’s population remains predominantly Jewish. I would be very proud of this. Jerusalem, by contrast, belongs to the entire world, which you will discover if you ever get there. Certainly the Old City is only 1/4 Jewish, and East Jerusalem remains predominately Arab. Why bother trying to impose yourself on all this? An international administration would have been most appropriate for the place – too bad it didn’t come to pass. You could say that Tel Aviv is nowhere near as historic or poetic as Jerusalem, but plenty of countries locate their capitals in such functional places, viz. Ankara, Brasilia, or Ottawa.
Here are some photographs I took of Jerusalem in October.
The Damascus Gate, my first view of the Old City. A common way to get from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem is by shared taxi. You just get in the van, and it leaves when it’s full, taking each passenger to his or her destination. Since very few streets in the Old City can accommodate cars, a taxi driver will drop you off at the gate of your choice. (Actually, I had no idea what gate I wanted, so he just chose for me.) I eventually found the Ecce Homo Pilgrim Guesthouse where I had my reservation; I highly recommend this place if you’re ever visiting Jerusalem.
This is the archetypical scene – the Dome of the Rock over the Western Wall. The minaret to the left is called the Bab al-Sisila Minaret and is one of four on the Temple Mount. The elevated walkway is one of the entrances to the Temple Mount – it is only open at certain times, and you have to line up pretty early if you want to get in (I never managed to). You can just make out, beneath it, the divider between the men’s and women’s prayer sections on the Western Wall.
A close-up of some people in the men’s section. A Haredi Jew prays at the wall, while a worker cleans out the papers left between the cracks. An American fellow traveller who could read Hebrew told me that he wasn’t just throwing them in a trash can, but a genizah, that is, a vessel used to store worn-out sacred texts prior to proper burial in a Jewish cemetery.
On Friday evening, a festive mood prevails.
I saw innumerable groups of Christian pilgrims following the Stations of the Cross, from “I. Jesus is Condemned to Death” near the Lion Gate on the Via Dolorosa to “XIV. Jesus is Laid in the Tomb” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (pictured). Each station has at least a chapel associated with it, and often an entire church. The Holy Sepulchre actually contains the last four stations; it is also famously divided among six Christian denominations by an Ottoman firman of 1853, designated the Status Quo. Each denomination jealously guards its rights, and violence can break out over perceived threats to them; the ladder under the upper window in the photo above is known as the Immovable Ladder since “no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian orders may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of the other five orders.”
(I feel compelled to inject my opinion here that as a historian I am interested in sacred space, but as a Christian I don’t care much for it. Christianity is wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name. Christianity derives from the Bible and Church tradition, and you can have these anywhere. Whenever people designate a particular place or object as being essential to their faith, they are just asking for trouble – what happens when you lose control over it? Your entire life’s purpose then becomes getting it back, at the expense of everything else that matters.)
Some other Christian churches I saw were:
St. Helena’s Coptic Orthodox Church.
The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, near the Holy Sepulchre. I really liked this one – it was beautifully simple, and had a great courtyard.
St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, outside Herod’s Gate to the north of the Old City. It represents is a little slice of England in the Holy Land. I assume that it was an important religious venue during the Mandatory period.
Interior of the dome of St. Stephen’s Greek Orthodox Church, commemorating the site of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, just outside the Lion Gate to the east of the Old City.
The subterranean Church of the Sepulchre of St. Mary, in the Kidron Valley between the Old City and the Mount of Olives. This one is divided between the Greeks and the Armenians.
On the Mount of Olives, the Roman Catholic Dominus Flevit Church, commemorating the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, from Luke 19.
Fittingly, the window of the Dominus Flevit Church provides a great vista of Jerusalem, through Christian eyes.
The Roman Catholic Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, on the eastern slope of Mount Zion to the south of the Old City. This commemorates the site of St. Peter’s denial of Christ before the cock crowed.
The Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition, to the south of the Old City, commemorating the site of the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary (there is a dispute as to whether she actually “died”).
The interior of the Franciscan Monastery of San Salvadore, within the walls of the Old City near the New Gate. I found this one particularly appealing.
In the nearby village of Ein Karem, the Roman Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist, commemorating John’s birthplace.
Not too far away in Ein Karem, the Church of the Visitation, commemorating the site where St. Mary, while pregnant with Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth, while she was pregnant with St. John.
While visiting Elizabeth, Mary came out with the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior…”), recorded in Luke 1:46-55. This passage, in numerous languages, is displayed in the church’s courtyard. (The Church of St. John features the same display, but with the Benedictus, that is, the canticle sung by Zachariah on the occasion of John’s circumcision, from Luke 1:68-79 – “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, in the house of his servant David,” as the Book of Common Prayer has it.)
A bit of trivia: the Greek Orthodox symbol for Jerusalem, I discovered, is a combination of the letters tau (T) and phi (Φ), for taphos, meaning tomb. You see it all over the city. (As it happens I’ve seen this device before in another context: a Dartmouth fraternity, Phi Tau, also uses it.)
The Kidron Valley, to the east of the Old City, is a very popular place for Jewish burials, on the principle that this is where the Messiah will return.
The Ottoman-era Tower of David, just inside the Jaffa Gate. (Alas, I never got inside.)
“Here in the Muristan was situated the first hospital of the knights of St. John of Jerusalem during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1882, the Grand Priory in the British realm of the Most Venerable Order of the hospital of St. John of Jerusalem established an ophthalmic hospital in the Holy City in emulation of the humanitarian and charitable efforts of its mediaeval predecessors.”
Finally, and to return to more mundane concerns: the streets of the Old City are very narrow indeed, and some of them are even covered, giving the occasional impression that you’re in a large indoor mall. This is further emphasized by what’s on sale in the stores – largely souvenirs, and in the case of this store, t-shirts with American sports team logos but with the name rendered in Hebrew script. This I thought was very clever: simultaneously a souvenir of Israel, and a means of supporting one’s favorite team at home, giving tourists extra reason to buy them.