Jerusalem: A holy home to three religions

Ever in the limelight, the city of Jerusalem hovers between the sacred and the profane. Here the faithful come to be closer to their holy sites, while curious visitors venture to see historical sites and observe the rhythm of daily life unfolding in the meandering alleyways of the walled Old City, just as it has for thousands of years.

Holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews, and claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital, the city has a history stretching back to the fourth millennium BCE, embracing the histories of ancient cultures including Canaanites, Jesubites and the biblical Israelites.

But for the inhabitants of the much-contested Old City, which today is divided into four quarters — Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish — this is simply home. Here, under the shadows of the walls built in 1538 by Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent, they have raised families and made their livings.

Old divisions

Though neither Arab nor Jewish, Armenian Christians have also been part of the Jerusalem mosaic since as early as the fourth century A.D., with many of them arriving to the city in the wake of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-17, living side-by-side with their Palestinian neighbors.

Following the 1948 war of Israeli Independence, the city was physically divided by a wall separating Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and the Old City from Israeli-held West Jerusalem. During the war, Jews who had been living in the Old City fled to West Jerusalem, leaving behind homes and belongings while Arabs in West Jerusalem neighborhoods were also forced to abandon their property and flee. Only in 1967 was the city united again, coming under the sovereignty of Israel in a lightning-quick Six-Day War, which saw Israeli forces also sweep through the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Jews returned to the Old City, but Palestinians were not permitted to return to their property in West Jerusalem.

‘In everybody’s heart’

Sitting outside his corner hardware store located just a few yards away from the house where he was born, raised his family and still lives with his wife, Abu Basem Saeed, a Christian, is greeted with the honorary title of “Haj” by three schoolchildren lugging backpacks as they rush passed him along the stone-paved road.

Just like his father and grandfather before him, Saeed, 68, is a leader of the Christian community here, and spends much of his time helping with social events, charity work and conflict resolution within his community — working out traditional sulhas between the conflicting parties.

Jerusalem in the News
U.S. President Donald Trump brought the issue of Jerusalem to the forefront last December when he announced he was moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The new embassy is slated to open in May, and for the time being will function from the West Jerusalem Consulate. Guatemala, which soon followed suit, has also announced it would move its embassy to Jerusalem in May. While the Israeli government has lauded the American move, Palestinians have lambasted the United States.

Saeed recalls how during the hot summer months his grandfather Jacob used to treat the neighborhood children to cups of water with slivers of ice shaved off the blocks of ice he delivered to the neighborhood housewives, and carousing down the Old City roads in box cars he and his friends put together with odds and ends.

“Jerusalem is in everybody’s heart — Jewish, Christian and Muslim,” he said. “We think Jerusalem must be for all people. We believe the story of the Jews and it has continued with our religion. Jesus died here. We can live together in peace without anybody saying this part is for me, this part is for you. All of Jerusalem is for all religions.”

His family arrived in the Old City from the village of Taybeh, near Ramallah in 1820 in search of work. Today most of the 85 members of his family live in Jerusalem. During the 1967 war they stayed in Jerusalem though many of the city’s residents fled to Lebanon and Jordan.

“We are strong and we believe in God so God protected us,” he said. “There was no reason to say goodbye to Jerusalem. We have here our businesses and our families. And we are still here.”

Every place a memory

At about the same time as Saeed’s ancestors arrived in Jerusalem, Omar Amer’s maternal great-grandfather came to the city from Hebron, in order to be closer to the Muslim holy site of the Al Aqsa Mosque, eventually becoming the grand mufti of the city and founding the largest mosque in Jerusalem, the Abdeen Mosque located in the Wadi Joz neighborhood outside the Old City walls.

“We are connected in hundreds of ways to Jerusalem,” said 24-year-old Amer, an eighth-generation Jerusalemite, who recalls as a child helping out in his father’s souvenir shop where he works today in addition to being a volunteer emergency medic. “Every place inside the walls of Jerusalem or outside has a memory for us. We don’t have a problem with any religion. ... Jews were here before 1948. Our problem is with Israel and land stealing.”

Omar Amer, 24, stands outside his father’s souvenir shop in Jerusalem.

Despite the lack of housing and crowding of the Old City, Amer says he “can’t leave Jerusalem,” which, he says, has to be only the Palestinian capital.

“There is no solution,” he says, though after a moment of consideration he adds that only East Jerusalem should be under Palestinian control, allowing for a pathway for Jews to reach the Western Wall. Or maybe, he said, it should just be an international city.

“I see that the Western Wall is holy for (the Jews) but that doesn’t mean the Temple was there. ... What we have now there is the Al Aqsa Mosque, and that is a red line,” he said.

Controversy Over Church Properties
Another recent issue that has sparked concern among leaders of Christian churches in the Holy Land has been the proposal, by both the mayor of Jerusalem and the Israeli government, to tax church properties. The move sparked a protest from Christian leaders that resulted in the temporary closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.

Jerusalem is the third holiest city in Islam, and Muslims believe the Haram al-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary where the Al Aqsa Mosque is located, is the site of Mohammed’s ascent into heaven. To Jews, this compound is known as the Temple Mount, where once the two biblical Temples stood, before the Second Temple was destroyed by Roman Emperor Titus in 70 A.D., and the Jews were eventually expelled from Jerusalem in 135 A.D. by Roman Emperor Hadrian.

Sacred for generations

In 1812, seventh-generation Jerusalemite Moria Rotem’s paternal great-grandfather had also made a difficult journey to Jerusalem from Lithuania with his family. They went at the behest of his rabbi to be closer to the Jewish holy site of the Western Wall — the only surviving remnant of the Second Temple.

Moria Rotem, 68, holds a book showing her grandfather, Rabbi Avrahem Mordechai Weingarden, being arrested by Jordanian soldiers in 1948 in the Old City of Jerusalem, in her house in Har Homa, Israel. Photo by Debbie Hill

The family joined other Jews who were living in the Old City before them, living on a property they bought from the Muslim Waqf religious authority which also included two synagogues, one of which Rotem says dated back to the early 1600s. The family lived there until 1948, when her grandfather — Rabbi Abraham Mordechai Weingarten, who was the leader of the Jewish community — was arrested by the Jordanian legion during the war, along with his wife and daughters, and brought to Amman, where they were received by King Abdullah, who provided them with kosher food. Newly married, Rotem’s mother had been sent to the safety of West Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem was sacred for so many generations. It is the holiest place for Jews,” said Rotem, 68. “The first time it is mentioned in the Bible is when Abraham was supposed to sacrifice Isaac and God told Abraham to go to the land of Moria — the Mount of Moria ... afterwards King Solomon built the First Temple on the mount. My brother and I were the first Weingartens in seven generations to be born outside the Old City.”

In 1967 they were able to return to their property in the Old City, though Israel took over most of the property. She raised her family in the Old City and recalled how her Christian Palestinian neighbors would look after her children during the high holy days when the adults spent long hours praying. When her late husband became very sick 11 years ago, Rotem moved to West Jerusalem to be closer to her son. Soon the family will have 10 generations in the city when her grandson’s wife gives birth in the summer, she said.

“The prophets said that after the messiah comes everyone will be able to come and pray in Jerusalem,” she said. “I just want the whole world to be in peace.”

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.