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The skyline of contrasts

If the sights and sounds are a throwback in time, Jerusalem also sports most of the trappings of a modern metropolis, writes K.V. KRISHNASWAMY

Unmistakable landmark ...The gleaming golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock.

JERUSALEM is a city of contrasts and conflict, a heady mix of the ancient and the modern. The years of violence and war have taken their toll, the life on edge impacting in many ways. One apparent result: you hardly saw children playing in the open; it is no more safe. With shootings, and of late suicide bombings, becoming part of the daily scene, the abnormal has been accepted as the normal.

The contrasts are striking. The city, which must rank as among the oldest in the world and which the Israelis captured from the Jordanians during the 1967 war, keeps searching for its roots at a frenetic pace, seeking strength in its ancient history. Everywhere around you have centres of religious orthodoxy that vouch for the 3,000 years of history of this land. Black-clad orthodox Jews blend into the scene in perfect harmony, their long side curls giving the picture even a slightly comical touch.

In fact, sometimes the experience for an outsider can prove disconcerting. Especially in the hotels, even the star ones, when you run into rabbis who can be daunting with their stern face and sterner demeanour. They visit the kitchens to certify that the food is kosher, that is, cooked in accordance with Jewish law. Everything, even a hotel elevator, can carry the kosher label on the stamp of the rabbinate.

Young soldiers taking lessons in history.

If the sights and sounds are a throwback in time, Jerusalem also sports most of the trappings of the modern metropolis. The shopping malls and stores can compare with those in any Western metropolis. There is even a semblance of night life but under the shadow of the threat of violence.

You have, besides, scenes like the unforgettable one we witnessed: youth in military uniform squatting on the floor and taking lessons in history at the Yad Vashem memorial for Holocaust victims from an officer who must herself be hardly out of her teens and guarded by another with the machine gun on the ready.

Spread over hills and valleys with names that tease your memory such as the Judean Hills and Mount Moriah, Jerusalem wears its past heavily and makes no apologies for its history. A Jewish capital in renewed progress, digging for laying the foundation for new structures goes side by side with digging for the past. Approach it from any direction — from Tel Aviv and the Ben Gurion international airport in the west, or the desert plains of Jordan and the Dead Sea to the east or the wilderness of the south — the impact is remarkably striking. As you enter the city you realise that you are entering an open air museum.

If you arrive from India by the only service provided by the Israeli airliner El Al, you arrive in pre-dawn darkness and drive into a city that is still sleeping. But the first glimpse of the rising sun can be stunning. You learn later that by long tradition every building is faced in the limestone quarried from the surrounding hills and has an architectural unity that dates back to the pre-Christian era. Which should explain the canopy of golden hue in which the city looked enveloped as the dawn was breaking.

On the very first day you also came face to face with one other reality. Though Jerusalem is equally holy to the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (in the order of their age), make no mistake this is the city of the Jews and belongs, at last, to them. All faiths have free access to their holy sites — the city abounds in them — and all are well preserved and maintained but here in the holy land Judaism is more equal than the others.

The skyline in Jerusalem, however, is dominated by the gleaming golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock situated on Temple Mount (the Haram ash-Sharif to Muslims) in the Old City, the one unmistakable identification mark recognised around the world. You start your city tour from atop the Mount of Olives to the east where you get a breathtaking view of the ancient city across the Valley of Jehoshaphat, the Dome and the nearby Eighth Century Al Aqsa mosque, equally venerated by Islam, continuing to draw your attention. In the mid-afternoon when we visited it, we had a docile host standing by: a camel, which amid those surrounding hills seemed in perfect harmony.

You can join the prayer at the Western Walling Wall provided you are properly attired.

Past the Jewish cemetery, now reserved for national leaders, and across the valley you drive straight into the heart of the holy city and its religious symbols and structures. Dominant is the Temple Mount, steeped in religious history and sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Jews believe it was on Temple Mount, Mount Moriah in Biblical times, that Abraham, father of all three faiths, prepared to sacrifice his son on instruction from God to prove his faith. According to Islamic tradition, Prophet Mohammed ascended to the heavens from the sacred rock to receive the Koran. The Dome of the Rock was constructed in the Seventh Century and, ever since the ownership of the site has been a major point of disputation between the two religions. Till the 1967 war, Jordanian control ensured that there was no tension as this kept out the Jews. Today, Temple Mount continues to be out of bounds for Jews, a ban imposed by the Israeli government for security reasons in view of worsening Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Old City, bounded by stone walls which once formed part of a fortress, is divided into four quarters, Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Seven open gates let you into the area, the heart of Jerusalem. We entered through what was curiously called the Dung Gate (named after a nearby rubbish dump) and came straight into the city's pinnacle of orthodoxy in the Jewish Quarter. Traditionally robed Jewish males were screening people getting in. We were untouched and walked in to witness a sight that must be among the most familiar about Israel these past few years: devotees worshipping at the Western (Wailing) Wall.

You can join the prayer provided you are properly attired, at least with a fez cap covering your head. The wall is part of the retaining wall built more than two millenniums ago by the Jewish King, Herod the Great, to support the Temple, which was twice torn down and on whose site the Dome is located today. As the Western Wall is the only remaining physical evidence of what was the Jews' most holy shrine, it is a place of pilgrimage. The area in front of the Wall serves as a synagogue. In an adjoining enclosed area to the north of the wall, the faithful light candles and read the holy books. Excavations in a stretch where the wall continues have unearthed archaeological treasures and we were shown volunteers working in underground vaults. Beyond the stretch no work has been possible since the area falls within the Muslim Quarter and Palestinians have opposed dislocation of their residential areas to make digging possible, we were told.

As you look up from the Wailing Wall, you have a close view of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. The Muslim Quarter is a walk away. It is the most bustling and densely populated area of the Old City, its narrow medieval alleys reminding you of the bazaar scene back home. You can get the best of Middle Eastern, especially Egyptian, spices and spice mixes in the dingy shops where you can manage with Hindi.

Free access to all three major monotheistic religions.

If the Muslim Quarter is a scene of neglect, not much different is the Christian Quarter despite the fact that it hosts one of the holiest of holy places for the Christians. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre surprises you by emerging from the dark alleyways. As you walk down the paved steps to enter the church, you hardly realise that this was where Jesus was believed to have been crucified and resurrected and where, 300 years later, His body was recovered and buried. The church was restored extensively during the Crusades. In Jesus' times the Calvary where the church stands was said to have been a small quarry and you are shown a stretch of broken rock face preserved from that time.

The Via Dolorosa, marking the path through narrow streets, where Jesus was taken on his last walk to the Cross, the biblical Garden of Gethsemane where He had his last supper, the Temple Mount, the Wailing Wall: thousands of years of history in a land where the future continues to live in the past. Jerusalem proved an unbelievable kaleidoscope of emotions and experiences.

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