The U. S. Embassy prohibited all embassy personnel and their families from going into Jerusalem’s Old City during Passover. Too dangerous and volatile.
Religious passions were running high. Passover, Ramadan and Easter were all happening simultaneously, an unusual event. Jeff Weill and I had planned our hike down the Jesus Trail during this time because we thought it would be an interesting time to be in Jerusalem. We didn’t plan on it being dangerous.
Two days before we arrived in Jerusalem’s Old City, 150 people were injured and 400 arrested in rioting on the Temple Mount.
Rumors started spreading on social media that a small band of radical Jews was planning to sacrifice a goat on the Temple Mount, the site of the old Jewish Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago by the Romans.
Instead of the Jewish Temple, which can only be on the Temple Mount, stand two Muslim mosques, one of which, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is the third most holy site in the Muslim religion.
Hundreds of Muslims barricaded themselves in the Temple Mount mosques and started throwing rocks down on the Jews conducting their Passover prayers on the Wailing Wall below. The injuries and arrests occurred when the Israeli soldiers cleared out the Muslims using teargas and rubber bullets. One protester died.
During all this the King of Jordan, who rules over the Temple Mount, threatened to launch his air force. Hamas Muslim terrorist group fired missiles into the West Bank. The religious issues on the Temple Mount are serious stuff, enough to launch wars.
So what is so special about the Temple Mount that its religious practices can launch national wars?
The Temple Mount is the top of Mount Moriah, where God told Abraham to show his obedience by sacrificing his son. At the last minute, God stayed Abraham’s hand. A goat appeared as a substitute sacrifice. God rewarded Abraham for his fear and obedience by promising his ancestors would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. And that’s what happened.
The Jews believe the nearly sacrificed son was Isaac. This is where the Jews and the Muslims diverged, Isaac versus Ishmael. And they’ve been fighting ever since, three thousand or so years.
Christians, of course, also come from this same heritage. Christians believe the near sacrifice of Isaac was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus being the son of God. The Muslims also believe Mohamed ascended to heaven from the Temple Mount.
What’s amazing is the two major religions of the world, Islam and Christianity, now represent four billion believers, 1.8 Muslims and 2.3 billion Christians. That’s over half the world’s population linking their spiritual life back to one event 3,000 years ago on the top of Mount Moriah.
The Jewish temple must be on the Temple Mount. But there is none, only mosques. In fact, Jews aren’t even allowed up there to pray, although this policy is quietly changing much to the alarm of Muslims. Given that Jerusalem is in the heart of Israel, there is much public pressure on the Israeli government to push back against Islamic control of the Temple Mount, which would violate numerous peace treaties. The fighting continues.
The Jews are limited to praying on the Wailing Wall, the western structural wall of the old Jewish temple. We visited the Wailing Wall and saw hundreds of Jews fervently engrossed in prayer, enunciating Old Testament Bible passages from memory.
Christians also see the Temple Mount as a pivotal holy place through the story of Abraham and the site of the Jewish temple. For Christians, the Old Testament is crucial to understanding God’s purpose as he laid the groundwork for his son Jesus to save the world. But it’s different. Christians are much more focused on a living, ever present God and less conserved about historical shrines.
When Jeff and I told one man, who asked, about our religious affiliation, the Muslin man said. “Oh, Christians. Nice people. No trouble.” This battle in Israel is between the Muslim and the Jews.
It started thousands of years ago, but came to a head in 1948 when the Western colonial powers decided after the holocaust that Jews needed their own country. Problem was, there were already Muslims living there and they didn’t appreciate being pushed aside. Making matters worse, the Jews came in and created a country ten times more affluent and prosperous than the surrounding Arab states.
When I walked through the Jaffa Gate into Jerusalem’s Old City it had been 42 years since I last entered this magnificent, ancient city.
Back then, during my post-college, see-the-world backpacking tour, I was escorting a very blond and pretty young Swedish girl who was visiting her high school friend on a kibbutz. She was hesitant to travel in the Middle East without a male escort, and convinced me to be hers. (It was not a hard sell.) Whenever she started getting harassed, she would introduce me as her husband.
This time around, older, wiser and transformed by Ginny’s insistence that I go to church every week, I wanted to be where Jesus had been. It was a missing piece to my spiritual puzzle. And indeed, being there has made it more real for me.
Walking through the Mount of Olives where there are still olive trees. Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus asked God to take away his cup of poison. It was a small beautiful garden with ancient cedar trees. I didn’t know exactly which tree he prayed by, but it was one of them, right before my very eyes.
I walked down the Via Dolorosa, a windy path through the beautiful, ancient stonework of the city, lined with shops, cafes and living quarters, all piled on top of one another like a labyrinthine network of tunnels carved in the side of a mountain. There’s no other city like it in the world. These were the steps that Jesus carried his cross on the way to his crucification. I needed to be there.
The Holy Church of Sepulchre is the traditional tomb of Jesus. It is very elaborate. People pour oil on the slab where Jesus laid and wipe clothes to take home as souvenirs.
The Garden Tomb is an alternative site with a much simpler, more believable looking tomb. It stands next to a craggy hill that looks like a human skull, matching the description in the bible of the Hill of the Skull where Jesus was crucified.
Being Passover, the Jews were out in full regalia. It was amazing to watch. The tension in the air was palpable with spontaneous eruptions of chanting as machine-gun-toting soldiers warily looked on. On one occasion, 25 soldiers ran full speed past us then up some alley. Another time, a bomb squad removed an unattended package 50 feet from where we were standing. It was quite exciting and interesting, but we saw no violence.
Two days after we left, the violence erupted again in the Old City with dozens injured and riot police in full force.