And Did Those Feet…
Still echoing through deserts, across mountains and over the seas, resonating around the world.
Whisper, shout, weep. Jerusalem!
The boy is running ahead, too fast for me in the late afternoon heat. He stops and waits patiently at a bend in the wall but before I can catch up he’s off again, flip-flops smacking on the warm stone. I have to stop, pretend to drink some water as I catch my breath. A forest of TV aerials, satellite dishes and washing adorns the corrugated roofs packed together in this square kilometre of humanity. A small football pitch is just visible to my right, and in a far corner of the City a golden dome is blazing in the sunlight.
A small dark head appears round the corner, giggling.
‘Come Mister!’ he beckons. ‘We nearly there.’
It’s cooler along this section of the wall, shaded by scrubby trees and white stone buildings; churches maybe, and mosques. The muezzin’s call to prayer echoes above the teeming city, over the walls and out into the hills beyond.
He has stopped at the top of a flight of steps leading down to a small courtyard. Two donkeys are being loaded with baskets of melons whilst barefoot (and bare-bottomed) children play with a ball. A group of black-clad women sit under an olive tree talking all at once, or so it seems, as the men silently continue their work. I wonder if Time has been unravelling whilst I was slowly making my way around the ramparts.
‘This way Mister!’ The boy is already at the bottom of the steps and the men are eyeing me curiously. The women have stopped talking, the children stare. It’s quiet here and I’m a long way from the bustle of the Jaffa Gate.
Like Hansel I follow him down the cool, narrow alleys of the Muslim Quarter. A spice-scented breeze mixed with the aroma of frying meat and clattering pans through the open windows reminds me that I haven’t had lunch. Gradually the dark streets merge into a wider thoroughfare, pale stone warmed by the sun.
I am momentarily confused by the throng of tourists, market stall owners carrying sacks of dried apricots, children (lots of them), nuns, Greek Orthodox priests, backpackers, Muslim women in niqabs, orthodox Jewish women in heavy, dark clothing and hidden hair.
My young tour guide is watching me. What will he think when he becomes a teenager, fired up by the collective history of his home? And what will he do?
Glancing up at a doorway I realise we are on the Via Dolorosa, at the fifth station along Christ’s ‘Way of Suffering’. Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry his cross when he stumbled here, so they say. Pilgrims come here to place their hands on the worn stone by the doorway.
The boy carelessly throws out the names of other stations as we pass them, before diving down another dark alley. I trot obediently behind him, regretting that I hadn’t brought more water. Eventually the passage opens out into narrow streets, orthodox Jewish men in their curious, 18th century garb are hurrying through the archways and down steps. For the second time that afternoon I have to remind myself that we are in the 21st century. Stalls selling embroidered skull caps start to appear and there is an urgency now to the stream of men and boys as we turn a corner. And there it is.
Below me is the Western or ‘Wailing’ Wall, the only remnant of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans, and the holiest spot in the world for Jews. The crowds already praying in front of it are dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of this ancient fortification, whilst armed soldiers patrol the surrounding plaza and perimeter barriers. Then rising high above the northwestern corner of the Wall on Temple Mount is the blazing orb of the Dome of the Rock, its blue Byzantine tiles blending perfectly with the pale Jerusalem stone of the Wall. Recognised as the third holiest place in the Muslim world, Temple Mount with this shrine and neighbouring Al-Aksa Mosque continues to be a lightning rod for Arab-Israeli or Muslim-Jewish clashes, even though both acknowledge it as the place where their shared patriarch Abraham offered up his son Isaac for sacrifice.
The boy waits patiently as I stand before the beating heart of these two faiths, inexorably joined forever by a shared history.
Jerusalem. Whisper, shout, weep.