I never quite feel like anywhere is home. Home can sometimes be Florida, because my family is there; or Atlanta or NYC, because I spent some formative years there; or maybe it’s any given airport anywhere in the world or any number of hammocks or comfy beds in 5-star hotels I’ve snoozed in. But I don’t own a stitch of land or a bed or a chair, so I don’t feel like I have a real home of my own.
And instead of knowing where I should ultimately end up, I wander in search of the answer.
If you’ve been with me for a while, you know I’ve been wandering the wilderness for a long time. And as it turns out, there’s a place full of people that understand what it’s like to search far and wide, for a long, long time, for a home.
A promised land.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time forth and forevermore.
In Jerusalem, I was struck during my daylong ambles through its ancient streets that so many have come before me in search of a place to call home.
Many found it in Jerusalem, of course.
“I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Genesis 28:15
Before I wandered on my own, I took the Holy City walking tour with Sandeman’s. (I’ve since taken several of their free and paid tours around the world and can’t recommend them highly enough!) If my walking tour of Bethlehem was disappointing and over-commercialized, and my guide as well-versed in the Nativity story as a 2-year-old Sunday schooler, Jerusalem’s ongoing theme of redemption was in full effect as my guide Kobi lead our group through a few thousand years of history with expertise that impressed me ohsomuch.
“Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ Exodus 32:13
Kobi lead us through cobbled streets and cracking archways on the 4-hour tour with the aim of explaining what makes Jerusalem the spiritual center of the world for Jews, Muslims and Christians. He told us from the beginning that the tour would be without bias, and I don’t know how he managed it, but it was completely historic and not in any way political.
Not an easy task in the epicenter of world religion.
Jerusalem outside the wall
Jerusalem is one of those cities with so many layers of history, you’re never quite sure what you’re looking at. Is it 2,000 years old? 3,000? 150? Is it important to Christians, Muslims, Jews… or all of them? Am I supposed to be here?
I chose the paid tour instead of the free one in Jerusalem because you get a guided escort through security to the Temple Mount, the 3rd most holy site in Islamic tradition. Since I was solo, I really wanted to cross my t’s and dot my i’s and do everything just right.
This isn’t the hotbed of religious vigor for nothing, and I didn’t want to tick anyone off!
On the Temple Mount in front of al-Aqsa Mosque
The nation of Israel began here – it was almost the site of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and it’s the very spot where King Solomon’s temple was raised.
The Dome of the Rock
The striking Dome of the Rock shrine marks the site where the Islamic prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven, and it’s also believed to be the site of the original Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the first temple of the Jewish people.
Given the varied and often counterintuitive claims of all three Abrahamic religions, the site has always been hotly, and often violently, contested.
Gorgeous tile at Dome of the Rock
Since 1187, the Muslim community has controlled the site, though as part of the Old City, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have claimed sovereignty as well.
Many Israelis choose to walk on the outer edge of the Temple Mount in keeping with Old Testament rules
From Wikipedia: Israelis allege that Palestinians are deliberately removing significant amounts of archaeological evidence about the Jewish past of the site and claim to have found significant artifacts in the fill removed by bulldozers and trucks from the Temple Mount.
Muslims allege that the Israelis are deliberately damaging the remains of Islamic-era buildings found in their excavations. Since the Waqf is granted almost full autonomy on the Islamic holy sites, Israeli archaeologists have been prevented from inspecting the area; although they have conducted several excavations around the Temple Mount.
The Western Wall
In an attempt to keep the peace, the Israeli government enforces a ban on prayer by non-Muslim visitors. (Unless you do it in your head, and then you are a.o.k. to proceed.) Non-Muslims who pray openly on the site will be booted out by police… or worse.
Dome of the Rock – non-Muslims are not allowed to enter
With so many layers of history, bloodshed and conflict, Jerusalem’s vibe was heavy from the start. Just being there and trying to imagine what it must’ve been like in the early days of Christ’s ministry, I sensed such tension, yet an overwhelming sense of internal peace, too.
I was so enraptured by the history that every night after wandering until dark, I’d come home to Abraham Hostel and try to find answers for all the questions that came up during the day. It wasn’t one of those destinations where I had a good old time and fond memories of late nights and adventures.
It was much more of an accidental pilgrimage, and when faced with the reality of everything I’ve always believed in, I have to say I was staggered and awed and humbled.
Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey.
After my sobering visit to the Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock & Al-Aqsa Mosque, we walked just a few minutes up the road for the Christian portion of the tour, starting with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which marks the end of the Via Dolorosa.
For 1,500 years, this site has been the accepted location of Calvary – the accepted site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.
Built by Emperor Constantine’s mom way back when the Roman Empire legalized Christianity, I couldn’t help but wonder if the tomb and relics housed within really were the holy spots they claimed to be.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
I don’t know what I was expecting from the most holy Christian sites but it was certainly not what I found in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which were basically ornate cathedrals and gilt mangers and famous stations of the cross.
I understand why things are the way they are, and I appreciate the fervor and belief that have contributed to the sites as they are today, but I just don’t know that today’s interpretations demonstrate anything about the poor, humble, loving Jesus of the Bible.
Station V on the Via Dolorosa – Where Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus to carry the cross
I had a couple of weighty theological discussions while I was in Jerusalem – I mean, what else are you going to talk about in the world capital of religion?!
And without getting into it too much, I have to say that if the only thing you know about Christianity is little old ladies wiping dish towels on religious relics hoping to swipe some holiness, and/or inter-denominational arguing over doctrine, then no wonder there’s so much confusion about Jesus and his impact on the world.
It blew my mind just how far from the original biblical text the most important Christian sites seemed to veer off course.
And that’s all I’m going to say about that here. But if you ever want to discuss offline, you know how to find me.
One of the most fascinating things about Jerusalem is that it’s not over. Jerusalem is living history – an open air museum that is dynamic and breathing and simmering like a pot just about to boil.
When will the next notch on the timeline of significant Jerusalem events take place? I wondered if it would be while I was there.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May they be secure who love you!” Psalm 122:6
All was quiet while I wandered through the Jaffa Gate and the Damascus Gate, as I prayed along with dozens of Jewish women at the foot of the Western Wall, as I ambled down alleys in the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quarters, and as I scratched my head at the ornate religious monuments and minarets, crosses, mosques, cathedrals and temples that compete for space and hearts and minds.
And for that, I was grateful.