Jews, Christians and Muslims throng Jerusalem’s ancient streets – a testimony to their common heritage. Yet today this holiest of cities is still beset by ongoing strife. Within the old city walls of Jerusalem, rebuilt four centuries ago by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, lie three pre-eminent shrines of the three great monotheistic religions: the western wall (more popularly known as the Wailing Wall), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock. The great religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam come together in this ancient place.
Jerusalem was little more than a tiny hill town in the Judean desert when David captured it from the Jebusites in about 1005 BC and established it as the capital of his kingdom, Israel, which eventually stretched from the Red Sea in the south to the River Euphrates in the north. When David’s son, Solomon, built the first temple inside the city walls to house the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments that had been given to Moses, Jerusalem became sacred to the Jewish people.
In 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of the greatest empire in Western Asia, besieged the city. He destroyed Solomon’s Temple and took the Jews into captivity in his capital, Babylon. The Jewish exiles who later returned rebuilt the temple in about 520 BC, and this building stood for more than 500 years as a succession of foreign powers ruled over Israel. In 19 BC the temple was rebuilt yet again, this time by Herod the Great, whose name is forever linked with the ‘Massacre of Innocents’. According t the Bible, Herod ordered the slaughter of an entire generation of infant boys because he had heard of the birth of a child destined to become King of the Jews. This building stood until AD 70, when it was systematically destroyed by the Romans, following a Jewish rebellion.
Today, all that remains of Herod’s Temple is the Western Wall, which to the Jewish people is the most sacred place on Earth. Its more popular name, the Wailing Wall, derives from the Jewish tradition of bewailing the fate of Jewish exiles and the destruction of the temple, while praying beside the wall’s cherished stones. Many worshippers place written prayers inside crevices in the wall, and thereby inside the holy temple itself, in the belief that their words will rise directly to God.
The area of Mount Moriah where King Solomon built the first temple is as holy and precious to the Muslims as it is to the Jews. The Prophet Muhammad (570-632) had been dead just six years when, in 638, the Muslim leader Caliph Omar conquered the city and proclaimed the site a sacred precinct of Islam. At the summit of the mount is an outcrop of rock 12ft (4m) high, the place from which Muhammad, accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel, is said to have ascended to heaven on a stairway of light to receive instructions for his mission on Earth.
Enclosing the rock stands the imposing structure of the Dome of the Rock, the oldest existing Islamic shrine and, after Mecca and Medina, the third most holy Muslim place of worship. A symmetrical octagonal building supporting a glittering cupola, it was built in AD (687-91 by Caliph Abd al-Malik and designed both inside and out according to strict mathematical principles governing harmony and balance. The base of the supporting walls is decorated with marble, the upper part contains 45,000 glazed tiles. The dome is 66ft (20m) high and 33ft (10m) in diameter, and to many is the most memorable symbol of the city. It was originally built of wood which was sheathed in sheets of pure gold. The present dome, made of aluminum alloyed with gold, is embellished with verses from the Koran and was completed in 1963.
The history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the spot where Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in a tomb carved out of the rock, dates from AD 135, when the Roman Emperor Hadrian razed Jerusalem to the ground, and built a temple to Venus over this sacred site. When Helena (later St Helena), mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, made a historic pilgrimage to Jerusalem in AD 326, she located the tomb beneath the temple with the help of the Greek Bishop Makarios. Constantine had the temple demolished and built a basilica, a group of buildings enclosed within a rectangular framework, in its place. At the heart of this complex, which are consecrated in AD 335, was a circular shrine enclosing the tomb of Christ (the Tomb Rotunda). Other buildings included a cloistered open court – the site of Golgotha, or Calvary, where Jesus was crucified – and a church called the Martyrion where services were held.
The Madaba Map, a sixth-century mosaic map which once covered the floor of the church at Madaba (an ancient town in present-day Jordan), includes the earliest known plan of Jerusalem. Found in 1884, it shows the Basilica of Constantine, beyond it is the Tomb Rotunda and close by an open space marked by a cross – Golgotha. These three major Christian landmarks were finally brought under the same roof in the 12th century when, after Constantine’s basilica had been destroyed rebuilt and destroyed again, the Crusaders constructed a magnificent Romanesque church which was consecrated in 1149.
The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre built after an earthquake in 1927, is a faithful reproduction of the Crusaders’ edifice. The religious significance of this collection of monasteries, chapels, shrines and tombs is such that six Christian communities – Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian, Ethiopian and Coptic – share responsibility for maintenance of the premises and worship there side by side.
The most spectacular moment of the Easter celebrations in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the appearance of the ‘holy fire’, which the Greek Orthodox patriarch brings from inside the holy tomb to present to the congregation. The believers, who wait with flaming torches and candles greet the fire ecstatically.
Today, history weighs heavily on Jerusalem, as the holy city continues to be torn by religious and political strife. For many, it remains the city of God but voices that could be raised in unison are often heard disagreeing over their inheritance. This sublime place is at once their glory and the subject of their quarrel.