A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The “Holy City.” It is not difficult to understand how Jerusalem earned its nickname. Walking through the Old City, every few steps seem to bring a different site of religious significance.
During my first few days in Jerusalem these sites dominated my vision. Everything I saw of Jerusalem was through the lens of the holy sites within its walls.
But the more time I spent in Jerusalem the more I began to see Jerusalem as something else: a living city.
That term, “living city,” is one that our guides used from the beginning of our two-week trip to Israel. They urged us to see the living city of Jerusalem and not just the stones that have been in place for thousands of years.
When I first heard this term, I made a careful distinction in my mind: on one side you have the Holy City and on the other side you have the living city. At first, I did my best to see both sides of the city. We toured many of the holiest sites in the world, such as the Western Wall, the Aksa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We also interacted with many of the people who make Jerusalem a living city, and I was careful to understand the significance of each of these activities.
Just a few days into our trip we met a shopkeeper named Omar. The hour that we spent in his shop was an experience unlike any other. He and his sons showed us around the shop, proudly displaying the ancient well in one corner and carefully presenting their beautiful merchandise to us.
It was much more than a friendly sales pitch, though. One of Omar’s sons playfully brought out expensive artifacts for us to wear, including ancient helmets and crowns which were clearly too expensive for any of us to buy. This fact did not bother him, as he seemed to get tremendous joy out of seeing these antiquities being worn by American college students in sweatshirts. Seeing this interaction, an idea began to form in my head, one that merged together the Holy City and the living city, which had once existed so separately in my mind.
Before we left the shop, Omar picked up on something one of our group members said. I do not remember what the exact remark was, but the conversation that ensued is one of the most remarkable I have witnessed.
Omar told the student not to focus on his brokenness or the brokenness of the world around him but to recognize the beauty he brings to the world around him. He added that he saw pain in the student’s eyes, but also love and compassion and that those are the virtues that should be focused on.
Here was a Palestinian Muslim shopkeeper who knew almost nothing about us pouring out tremendous love and guidance to a Christian American college student he had met less than an hour ago.
As we walked away from Omar’s shop, the idea that had begun to form in my head took much clearer shape. Until that moment, I had been guilty of a sin I think a lot of travelers unknowingly commit; I had pulled apart the place I was visiting in my head based on preconceived notions; I had separated two elements of Jerusalem that in reality were not exclusive.
Jerusalem is both a Holy City and a living city, but more importantly it is a Holy City because it is a living city. Too often we associate holiness exclusively with sites and rituals and not with one of the holiest elements of human life: relationships.
That is not to say that a site cannot be holy. In fact, Jerusalem seems to prove exactly the opposite. But what makes a site holy is not the rocks it stands on or the architecture that defines it. What makes a site holy is the relationship between it and the people who interact with it.
The holiness of Jerusalem is not merely preserved in its rocks and structures; it exists in each person living there. For many travelers who visit Jerusalem, the most powerful moments come when they pray at the Western Wall, al-Aksa Mosque or Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
For me though, that moment came when I spoke to a Muslim shopkeeper in the Old City.The author is a senior majoring in communications at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.