This ancient city's meandering roads, majestic churches and quiet gardens invite exploration and discovery, says Princess Naik
By the rivers of Babylon …
This famous song was sung with sadness by the Israelites when they were held captives, looking forward to the day they could enter Jerusalem. I hum the song to myself as I walk the pilgrim way on the Via Dolorosa following the 14 Stations of the Cross.
Jerusalem lies at the crossroads of three world religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and carries its ancient heritage well under a cloak of modernity. Its charming Old City is full of Biblical sites flooded with tourists. Known by many names — Sacred City, Golden City, City of Peace, City of David — Jerusalem remains the city of narrow stone-paved pathways that you read about it in old books, but interspersed charmingly are beautifully planned quarters with well-designed houses and majestically structured churches.
It is 7 in the morning and the roads are packed with vehicles and people heading off to work, school and pilgrim spots. The latest cars rush past little boys bobbing along on mules. The Old City crowded with churches lies beyond the New Gate and Dung Gate. Jostling for space with the fast-moving tourists on the roads are men with little carts selling varieties of bread. The smell of freshly baked bread is inviting and I settle for one sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds with a seasoning of parsley and extra virgin olive oil.
The elegantly built Church of the Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives stands at the traditional site of Christ's teaching of the Lord's Prayer. All along the walls outside, on glazed tiles is a translation of the prayer in 197 languages and in Braille. An Israeli friend points out the Tamil translation and I delightedly click pictures. Inside the church, the original cavern where Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer is well preserved and maintained by the Carmelite Order.
A panoramic view of Jerusalem can be seen from this point and the Dome of the Rock, the mosque with a gold-plated dome holds centre stage. The dome of the Chapel of the Lithostrotos marks the second station of the Via Dolorosa — it was here that Christ took up his cross.
I gather my thoughts over a cup of cappuccino and soak in the warmth of the golden rays of a winter sun. A visit to Jerusalem is not complete if you have not been to the Western Wall also known as the Wailing Wall. A site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries the wall dates from the Second Temple period. There are separate quarters for men and women and the cracks in the walls are crammed with bits of papers filled with prayers and requests. The place is crowded with men and women reading the scriptures, their heads pressed against the wall.
At lunch I discover that there are plenty of options for vegetarians. Israelis have mastered the art of step-gardening and almost every hill-side grows fruits and vegetables. At the restaurant, tables overflow with shredded green/purple cabbage in cream sauce, fresh parsley and spinach salad, carrots and cucumber mildly pickled in vinegar and sugar, varieties of olives, sprouts, beans, peas… the list goes on. Glasses of pomegranate juice refresh you.
In the afternoon, I walk by the Mount of Olives and I am overwhelmed by the knowledge that this was the place most frequented by Christ, the site from which he preached. The history of this Mount can be traced back to King David's time. In the Garden of Gethesemane (Gat Shamna means olive press in Aramaic) are old and gnarled olive trees, believed to be from the time of Christ. I religiously buy an olive leaf bunch as a memento.
Its almost evening as I walk back to the hotel with a draught of cold breeze blowing across the city. Most churches close by four, and most business centres down their shutters by 6 p.m. The roads are almost deserted. Jerusalem is a quiet city at night — so quiet that I fall asleep pondering over the rich culture of this land.