Religious legends

A tour of Jerusalem reveals a city where sacred sites overlap.

Kidron Valley  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Kidron Valley
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In late October, UNESCO, the world heritage organization of the UN, adopted a controversial resolution criticizing certain Israeli actions around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The resolution’s exclusive use of Arabic terms to describe parts of the Temple Mount complex ignited cries of antisemitism and claims that UNESCO was attempting to deny Jewish connection to this holy site and city.
For thousands of years, Jerusalem has been the nucleus of a fight between the world’s three monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While some claim settlements, refugees or other challenges are the catalyst for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “the epicenter of the conflict lies in Jerusalem,” says Rabbi Ken Spiro, senior lecturer and researcher for Aish HaTorah’s Discovery Seminars and a licensed tour guide.
“There is no better place than Jerusalem that is so holy for all people who believe in one God in the world,” says former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior.
Jerusalem or iterations of it appear in the Torah approximately 750 times, said Spiro. The Temple Mount is where the first and second Jewish temples were built and where Jews believe that during a messianic era a third and final temple will be erected.
The Temple Mount, which today houses the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa Mosque, is also the site where Muhammad is believed to have arrived on the night he ascended to heaven and spoke with Allah (Koran, chap. 17).
“If you are a Muslim believer, you think of Jerusalem as the gateway to reach God,” explained Palestinian professor Sari Nusseibeh at the recent global forum of the National Library of Israel. “God can reach you anywhere. But to reach God, you have to go through Jerusalem.”
The steps at the southern end of the Temple Mount are believed to be where Jesus would teach, says Jerusalem tour guide Asher Altshul.
It is not just the Temple Mount that is wrapped in a web of religious legends. A tour of Jerusalem reveals that the whole city is steeped in overlappings of the sacred.
Some of the city’s holy sites are exclusive to one religion, while many others are shared by two or three faiths. Though the land has changed hands multiple times in the last two millennia – from Jewish rule to pagan to Christian to Muslim to Christian to Muslim and finally back to Jewish – in most cases, once a site had been recognized as holy, its sanctity remained regardless of religious or political changes.
“These holy sites in Jerusalem instill hope and provoke feelings of anger and hostility,” says Milka Levy-Rubin, curator of the humanities collection at the National Library of Israel, speaking at its recent global forum.
Collision of tradition The Temple Mount’s retaining wall is best known as the Western Wall, the spot closest to what Jews believe housed the Holy of Holies inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle where God dwelt. Thousands of Jews flock daily to the wall to pray. Yet, for Muslims, the wall also has significance.
It is there that Muhammad is said to have tied his winged horse, Al-Buraq, before ascending to heaven.
“Why did the prophet tie his horse to that wall?” asks Nusseibeh. “Does the sanctity of the wall come from the fact that Muhammad tied his horse to the wall or was the wall sanctified, for which reason the prophet tied his horse there?” Nearby on Mount Zion, David’s Tomb is celebrated as an important site for ritual and prayer by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The tomb is located in a small chamber on the ground floor of a Crusader-era compound.
For Jews, King David was an Israelite king who ruled for 40 years, from approximately 1010 to 970 BCE. He was responsible for conquering the Land of Israel and naming Jerusalem the Jewish capital. According to Altshul, the site gained significance for the Jews after it was won during the 1948 War of Independence. Then, when it became the border between Israel and Jordan and the closest place anyone could get to the Old City, the Jews developed it as a pilgrimage site and place of learning.
But the site is equally holy to Muslims, who consider Daoud (Arabic for David) a king and a prophet, too, explained Ahmad Dajani, an Arab Israeli tour-guidein- training whose family has historic ties to Jerusalem dating back 800 years. A minaret on the roof of David’s Tomb harks back to when it was a mosque dedicated in his name.
The Ottoman Turks gave the Dajani family the land on which David’s Tomb is located in the 1800s. The family was forced off the property after the 1948 war. Family graves remain.
On the second floor of the compound is a room known as the Cenacle, which some identify as the chamber of Jesus’s last supper. There are also several churches on Mount Zion, including the Dormition Abbey, built atop the ruins of a Byzantine church on the site of what Christians claim is the Virgin Mary’s death. For decades, the Catholic Church has sought ownership of the Cenacle, says Altshul.
Despite the fact that archeology has now led to the understanding that David is likely not buried on Mount Zion but in the City of David, an area of the Silwan neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem, “the Dajani family wants it back. The Vatican wants it.
Radical Jews who say the Messiah is coming and we need to control it and want it back,” says Altshul. “It’s a game of tug-of-war with three ropes, and everyone is falling down.”
High on the Mount of Olives, near the enclosure of the Church of the Ascension, is a lesser known tomb that is shared by the three monotheistic faiths: Hulda’s Tomb (Jewish), the tomb of St. Pelagia (Christian) and the tomb of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya (Muslim).
“Each faith agrees a woman is buried there,” says Altshul. “But these are different women.”
Hulda lived approximately 2,700 years ago, during the reign of King Josiah. According to legend, she warned Josiah that the people were sinning and punishments listed in the Bible for idol worship would apply. As a result, the Jews renewed their covenant with God.
The Christian tradition dates back to the sixth century. Pelagia was a beautiful actress and singer from Antioch who, after hearing a sermon by a bishop named Nonus, converted to Christianity and repented for her sins. Ultimately, she disguised herself as a man and traveled to Jerusalem, where she lived as a hermit in a cave on the Mount of Olives until the day she died in 457 CE.
Rabi’a was an Iraqi slave born in 714. The story goes that her master saw a golden halo surrounding her while she prayed and hence freed her to become a Muslim mystic who wrote love poetry to God. She died in 815 CE.
In an essay titled “Sharing Sacred Spaces,” Open University professor Ora Limor points out that all three legends, though superficially different, center on asceticism and repentance.
“The alternating names should not mislead us,” she writes. “Behind them lie three similarly structured traditions.”
Altshul says there is also a shared tradition in the Kidron Valley, situated between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives, where all three religions agree the Messiah will enter the city. There is a protruding column in the valley believed to be part of the foundation of the Golden Gate built by King Solomon. Jews believe that in the End of Days there will be a thin pathway or “tightrope” stretching over the valley from the Mount of Olives to the Golden Gate.
“Sinners will fall and die and the righteous people will make it across,” says Altshul, noting that Christians and Muslims share similar traditions.
Gateway to heaven or hell? Over these religious sites and traditions there has been so much bloodshed, persecution and cruelty, says writer Amos Oz.
“Why can we not agree that these disputed holy sites be accessible to every worshiper?” Oz asked at the National Library event.
Dajani says it is because Jerusalem is not man-made, but a representation of God Himself and His holiness.
“It’s like if you have a pie, it is sweet and delicious, so everyone wants a bite,” says Dajani.
In contrast, Rabbi Melchior says he believes many religious people are misrepresenting God and His holiness in the city’s bricks and mortar.
“A place is not divine,” explains Melchior. “We don’t have holy places in Judaism. Only God is holy.”
Melchior says that instead of Jerusalem being celebrated as the birthplace of humankind and the gateway to heaven, it has become a “dangerous, a slippery slope to hell and the source of a holy war.”
Recent archeological findings help corroborate biblical stories.
For instance, a gold medallion featuring a menorah, shofar and Torah scroll and dating back to the seventh century CE sheds light on early Jewish life in the Holy City. In areas like the City of David, archeologists have found seal impressions bearing ancient Hebrew lettering, including the names of figures mentioned in the Bible. But Spiro cautions that archeology is not direct evidence of biblical narratives.
Melchior agrees. He says that although one can respect archeological findings, “We know our own truth and are confident in our truth. Still, we must have respect for the history of others.”
Melchior says that with so many eyes on Jerusalem, it is the challenge of “the people who believe in one God.” He says no solution to the conflict will be accepted unless it is first supported by the faithful and their leaders.
“Jerusalem can be the source of peace and hope… if we accept that Jerusalem is holy for all three monotheistic religions,” says Melchior.