Jerusalem is a loaded word. I could preface that with “these days”, but the reality is that it’s been a place of dispute more than peace. “It has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and changed hands 52 times,” according to Wikipedia. If Jerusalem was a sporting event it’d be the must watch game of all-time. We’d be glued to the television wondering how it was going to end, cheering when our side gained the lead and screaming in dismay when control changed hands. The only thing everyone would agree upon is that the officials, those “independent” outside arbiters, were terrible. Sadly the sporting analogy is all too apt, religions are the teams, officials are foreign powers, and Jerusalem is the trophy. Why fight for this trophy? The agnostic doesn’t see a reason.
The golden Dome of the Rock on the right is one of Sunni Muslim’s most sacred sites along with the location of the Holiest of Holies for Jewish people. Just behind this is the Church of the Sepulchre one of Christianity’s holiest sites.
Jerusalem and Israel as a whole is a place where assigned value trumps real value. The value of these places isn’t real, there aren’t $2 billion plus gold monuments like Shwedagon Paya in Myanmar. The land isn’t productive like Iowa. The riches don’t lie beneath the ground like in Venezuela. The country isn’t a paradise like Palawan. There is nothing tangible worth fighting for in Jerusalem or Israel. The reality is that if all of Israel were to fall into the ocean the world wouldn’t be affected. The problem is that people believe that it would affect us. Jewish people believe that the Foundation Stone in the Dome of the Rock is the meeting point of Heaven and Earth. Both Sunni Muslims and Christians believe that their prophet ascended to Heaven from Jerusalem. While these places have limited actual value, for the three of the world’s major religions, Jerusalem is priceless.
A woman making an under-the-table prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where it is believed Jesus was crucified and entombed.
Even within one religion there are territorial disputes and arguments over holy places. Much of Christianity views the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as Christianity’s holiest site. Intra-religion squabbles led to the church itself to be divided into three areas controlled by different sects (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholicism). As if that wasn’t enough, other sects don’t even believe this was the actual location of the crucifixion and entombment of Jesus, believing that this seminal event occurred at the “Garden Tomb”. Most interestingly, the main entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is actually controlled by two Muslim families, assigned by the Ottomans and Saladin. If one religion can’t even agree to where it’s most important event happened and for all of the same faith to share it, why do we hope for inter-religion agreement?
The best we may be able to hope for is a system that Jerusalem implemented hundreds of years ago: keep them separated. Everyone comes together to do business in the markets, but they live in distinct quarters of the Old Town. Even the Western Wall below provides Jewish people the opportunity to pray divided from the Islamic Dome of the Rock, the site of Judaism’s holiest spot. While there is no question that it is difficult to not have access to your holiest spot as another religion occupies the space, there seems to be a strong agreement to maintain the status quo.
A Jewish man praying at the Western Wall, just below the Dome of the Rock (El Aqsa Mosque) which is reflected in the windows of what was once a Christian Crusaders church.
There is no doubt that for the believers and non-believers alike that the religious sites of Jerusalem are beautiful.
While all these places have value to these faiths that an agnostic can’t comprehend, the faith exhibited by people can’t be denied. People treat their holy places with reverence rarely seen in the modern world. They touch shrines with the softness usually reserved for babies. They break into tears upon laying eyes on special places. They often struggle to descend steep stairs just to make it to a holy place. There is no doubt that a believer’s trip to Jerusalem is a special time.
Walking the town as an agnostic left me questioning why physical locations are so important to religions. Why is Jerusalem so important to the Abrahamic faiths? Why does each Muslim need to make a pilgrimage to Mecca? Why is losing Lhasa so terrible for the Tibetan Buddhists? If there is a an all-powerful God isn’t he everywhere? If there is a judgement won’t it be based on your daily actions, not if you made time to travel across the world? If holy sites ceased to be, why would the religion change?
What is it about faith that makes place so important?