Monday, November 23, 2009

the spectacle of religion in jerusalem

Coming to the border of Israel from Jordan, we entered a world which I imagine the future world will resemble. Layers of security, processes which no one understands, separating people by race for different treatment, security personnel carrying machine guns, holding pens, and endless detailed questioning as to your intentions. It was a rough and disillusioning journey through the border of this strange island of Judaism in this sea of muslims.

We drove at night from the border through the West Bank to reach Jerusalem. The read was heavily fortified and built far from any settlements. We got stopped several times for passport checks along the way. When we finally made it to Jerusalem, we got dropped off at Damascus gate, the original entrance to the city. Through the massive archway, we entered into an ancient souq in the Muslim quarter and it was like we never left Jordan. Yet suddenly, as if some invisible border mandated it, we entered into the Jewish quarter and it was like being on the Magnificent Mile. Shining white stone buildings lined the open lanes, and orthodox Jews stomped glumly through the streets. It was just that quick - we moved from women in headscarves and Muslim shop owners in long cloaks hawking spices and then, bam, men in suits with a variety of funny hats and (sometimes very long) curls dangling in front of their ears.

We continued through the Jewish quarter to the Western Wall, the most holy place for the Jews. The wall encloses the Temple Mount, where their central and most sacred temple once stood until it was destroyed by the Romans and built over centuries later by the Muslims. The space along the wall was split into male and female sections, and the behavior there was shocking to me, as many conservative religious practices are.

Many of the more devout members began to pray by reciting the Torah and rocking back and forth, often getting themselves agitated enough to begin wailing and kissing and touching the wall (sounds like a breeding ground for swine flu to me). On the Sabbath, many of the men enter into a little room which is closest to the temple, which Alex was able to enter. He told me that they were thrashing around like kids at a punk concert and that he had never seen anything like it. However, we ended up seeing this behavior all over Jerusalem - as it is a holy place for a whole variety of religions and sects.
The same shift we found from the Muslim to the Jewish quarter was true of the Christian quarter. Once inside, it is like being in Rome. Giant domes and Christian architecture abound, and every imaginable sect of Christians has a place here. We saw Russians, Greeks, Ethiopians, Arab Christians, Italians, Philippinos and Armenians. The costumes were as varied as the people - some men in scary hooded robes, some ‘servants of God’ wearing crowns, many colors and shapes of nuns in habits, catholic priests in white collars, orthodox men in funny fur hats. We listened to chanting Armenian monks and witnessed several different services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus is said to have died, been buried and resurrected. The keys to this church are held by a local Muslim family, who opens and shuts it everyday. This is so the Christian sects don’t fight over the rights to it.

Jerusalem is a like an ancient trade city - wildly diverse, but every different group loathes the other. Everyone has a story to tell, a belief to impose, a request to make. Everyone bemoans the downtrodden state of their sect, and it is always the fault of the Other. If there was ever a place where the insanity of religion is paraded in all of its hideous spectacle and implausible narratives, Jerusalem is it.

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