Jerusalem is a city that transcends space and time.
A coach ride away through Tel Aviv, travellers flung from some far-away corner of the earth on a tin-can plane can find themselves walking in the same footsteps, breathing the same air as prophets and saints.
For millions around the world, these titanic figures live in the ink of the holy books read with ritual fervour. The words escape our lips, robotic obligations that don’t really pierce our hearts. But here, they are as real as the weathered shopkeepers who spin tall tales for tourists stopping by; they are as real as the holy-men and the nuns floating through the cobbled streets in sweeping robes, their rosary beads swinging hypnotically like pendulums at their sides.
As Muslims pray five times a day outside the crowning jewel of the city, the Dome of the Rock, we make our own ascension both spiritual and physical, to the heavens as the prophet Muhammad did before us. He flew on top of the back of a winged horse, we fly on top of musty prayer mats.
Inside the Dome of the Rock, there is a inconspicuous staircase close to the centre which takes you down to a small cave known as the Well of Souls (Bir el-Arweh). It is said that this small cave is the very place where the prophet Muhammad ascended into the heavens to make his infamous night journey atop a winged horse that sounds as if it leapt out of Greek mythology. Some say it’s where the souls of the dead gather until the day of judgement, others say it is where the Ark of the Covenant is hidden, and others yet still believe this is also the place where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac.
This small cave is a wonder; a mixture of myth and reality. Whether any of these momentous events occurred in this tiny cave, who knows? Here we stand in reverence not only in awe of what happened here, but also in awe of the prayers whispered over a thousand years hovering over us like an invisible mist, connecting us all past and present, with God.
Around one corner you hear “this is where Jesus spent a few nights”, inside a mosque you hear people talking about the room where Mary spent her time as a child, around another corner is where Salahuddin set foot when he conquered Jerusalem during the second crusade. The birthplace of Edward Said, the father of post-colonialism can be found a mile or tow away. Time folds in on itself as the greats of our times, then and now, leave their footprints for us to follow in. I can hear the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish speaking in my head, his soft words accompanying me every step along the way:
“In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy … ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.”
In the twilight hours, if you look close enough, you might just catch a glimpse of these ancients and contemporaries, finding their way through this golden city just as we continue to do so this very day.
If this place is considered the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, then what must heaven itself be like?
The sound of the call to prayer mingling with the ringing of the church bells; this is the Jerusalem envisioned by Salahuddin. But just as quickly that vision vanishes almost as if it were a dream, as the masses of people dwindle with the receding twilight hours of Ramadan, and only those with privileged birthrights, passports of coincidence, are allowed to soak in the hallowed sight of holiest of places.
The hardest challenge I face now is trying to bottle what exactly it was I felt in Jerusalem. It’s as futile as trying to bottle the golden light which envelops the city. I can only hope. I can only try. I can only pray that one day, this weary traveller will be fortunate enough to walk its stone paved streets once again.