I have never been a religious person, so I had mixed feelings on visiting Jerusalem, centrepiece of organised religion and religious dispute too. We drove there after a fraught day of work, and a slightly fraught drive, although as we arrived early evening most of the traffic queued it's way in the opposite direction, not so much streaming as leaching from the centre.
The old city walls were pale and warm in the evening light, like bleached sandstone. We entered the old city through the Jaffa gate and plunged through into the Suq al-Bazar, a narrow stepped street dividing the Christian and Armenian quarters. My feet slid on the polished stones, more marble than sandstone, worn shiny rather than down. In the street were triangular wedges abutting the steps, positioned to allow cartwheels to go up and down without being shaken apart, but standing on them in flip-flop sandals took the soles away from you.
My friend led us surely through the streets, and quickly, I had time to notice the side streets, the doors set into walls and cave-like shops behind them, time to notice the graffiti, and the sun piercing shafts through the lace-like stonework on the tops of the walls. We abruptly turned a corner and went down steps into a courtyard and into the church beyond, this turned out to be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. By the door we entered, a slab of stone that Christ's body was said to have laid upon, and several women kneeling, rubbing it with cloths.
Naively, I did not know that this is where the body of Christ was supposed to lay, I suppose I assumed that with the resurrection that there was no tomb. I read later that it is also the site of the crucifixion. My friend told me that the church was administered by several different Christian sects, and in the queue for access to the tomb, the group behind mentioned that wars would break out over the placing of candles. The arches drew the eye upwards to the domed ceiling as we waited.
I was a little unsure of being there, knowing that I do not believe, but that other people do, I hate to be a tourist of belief. I told myself it was silly to be so timid, as this was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of opportunity, and decided to go into the Aedicule. It was irrelevant anyhow, although dressed in a T-shirt like a couple of my (male) colleagues, the guardian decided I was improperly dressed and turned me away.
After looking at a couple of the other sites within the church, we left and again followed my friend. Unsure of the way, we went through back streets in the Muslim quarter, walking through boys and young men playing street football games. I hadn't realised that even in the Old City, it was still a living neighbourhood, it was heartening to see that it was not only a tourist trap. Past a street of shops, under cover, a high roofed tunnel where men sat and smoked through water pipes. A boy ran alongside us and told us "It's closed", and sure enough, as we headed to the end of the street, I saw the outline of the Dome of the Rock; and guards told us that it was closed to non-Muslims at that time.
Back out, taking a left, and through another broad tunnel, after sending our bags through a security tunnel, we emerged into the broad expanse under the Western Wall (the presumably politically correct term for the Wailing Wall). More barriers. There was a wall which allowed people to look over at the Jewish worshippers, and they were themselves segregated into a men's and women's side. The sun was setting behind us, and we walked up steps to a viewing point to watch it finally disappear. The battery in my camera died.
Back through the Armenian quarter, where the shops were all closing up, most of the tour buses having left for the day, and retracing some of our steps up the polished stone steps. Stopping for a coffee by the Jaffa gate and reflecting. I had iced chocolate, the cocoa grains gritty with ice against my tongue as the temperature swooped downwards.
I think I approached Jerusalem with an open mind. I loved the streets and the stones and the buildings, the archways, some vaulted and turning into tunnels, the living part of the town cut into the walls. It felt like somewhere to explore at greater length, but somewhere you would need to explore for a while before it seemed familiar. I recalled getting completely lost in one area of Venice, even though we had a map, even though we followed the street signs, but still not being able to head in the right direction; Jerusalem had that air about it.
But, despite the closeness and consanguinity of the different parts, the different quarters and religions, the impression I took away was of difference, of exclusion. Each religion, or place of worship I suppose, each of them excluded others for grounds sometimes religious, sometimes (it seemed to me) due to blind prejudice. It reminded me that religions are built on the "If your name's not down, you're not coming in" principle; worship as we do to be included or else. I do not see a religion of inclusion, of acceptance of the diversity of humanity. Jerusalem is indeed an exclusive symbol