From the vantage point of Mount of Olives, I see the golden-coloured Dome of the Rock soar above the Old City of Jerusalem -- a tight cluster of pale limestone buildings, domes, and towers. Entering into the walled city from a glossy, well-planned outer suburb area -- home to all branches of the Israeli government –– I feel that I am in some another time period. Of course there are signs of modern-living, but that makes little difference.
Streets paved with setts run past ancient colonnaded houses with wrought-iron balconies. Below them shops and restaurants sell hot pizza, falafel and shawarma. Soon the streets turn into narrow lanes and alleys of bustling markets full of locals and tourists alike.
An Array of shops sell a range of souvenirs that easily catch a visitor’s eye (or dazzle it) – from exotic artifacts, fine local handicrafts and antiques to religious articles, jewelleries, textiles, rugs, cheap clothing, ceramics, glassware and small keepsakes to take back home to remind you of your visit to the holy city.
I head down some covered markets in the Muslim or Christian quarters. They are so devoid of natural light that lamps from rows of shops light the way. Walking down these vibrant marketplaces while passing by a variety of colorful goods and wares and amid merchant calls, you may just walk past a hidden mosque, a church or some religious sites of importance without even knowing. Your mind is too busy processing the multitude of exotic images pounding on it.
People can be seen sitting sipping coffee or fruit juice in the outdoor cafes scattered in small squares or built around ancient fountains. But then suddenly, mingling with a colourful mix of people, our guide takes us through a crowded lane of the Christian quarter and past a small archway to the courtyards of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the venerated site where it is believed Jesus was crucified and buried.This makes the church one of the holiest and most important pilgrimage destinations for Christians.
Built on the ruins of temple of Aphrodite in the 3rd century, the church building was damaged a number of times by fire, destroyed by invading armies, and has undergone numerous renovations, and restorations since its initial completion. Entering into the church through a narrow entrance with hordes of pilgrims, I see not only lavish decorations and beautiful mosaics inside the large structure, but also prayerful contemplation of the pious.
After letting some of the spirituality of the place seep into our being, we were hoping to visit the Dome of the Rock that glowed in tall majesty over Old Jerusalem. Erected in the 7th century on the site of the Second Jewish Temple demolished during the Roman Seige of Jerusalem, it is one the most venerated Muslim shrines which commemorate Muhammad’s journey to heaven.
But we were in for a disappointment. For some reason, non-Muslims have been permitted very limited access to the Temple Mount area, where the Dome of the Rock sits. Non-Muslims are entirely prohibited to enter the two mosques that it houses. Two people in our group were of Muslim faith, so they had no problem getting in.
Others however had to contend themselves looking at pictures of the marvelous octagonal structure and the golden dome atop it, its bluish tiled façade, the lavishly decorated interiors and finally the rock, also known as the Foundation Stone, which Jews say is the spiritual junction of the Heaven and Earth and hence the holiest site for Judaism.
For Muslims, the 8th century Al-Aqsa Mosque, situated at a short distance on the same site from the Dome, is the third holiest site in Islam.
Thereafter, we headed for the Western Wall (or the Wailing Wall), perhaps the world’s most famous wall, together with the Great Wall of China. It is actually a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Jewish Temple, making it a place for Jewish prayer (and pilgrimage) for centuries.
Large number of Jewish people of all ages gathers here to kiss the limestone blocks that make the wall while engaged in – in the words of Charles Wilson -- “sorrowful mediation over the history of their race.”
Of course you see some chanting psalms and prayers for the fulfillment of their wishes (it is a direct postbox to God, our guide said) even weeping with their head and hands against the walls.
Being home to many sacred sites of tremendous religious importance to the three major monotheistic faiths, and that too in an area of only 0.9 square kilometers, can be both boon and bane.
For Jerusalem (as well many places spread across Israel), it is a boon as it has always been a place of worship for millions of people of these three religions. But that the ‘holy city’ is claimed by each of them also creates all sorts of problems.
Controlled by the Jewish State -- both partially or wholly -- since the founding of Israel in 1948, the city's status has always been a subject of international controversy and dispute. Conflict between Israeli Jews and mostly Muslim Palestinians over the land has sparked two bloody conflicts – the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the 1967 Six-Day War -- and countless violent skirmishes, riots and clashes, including numerous suicide bombings that have claimed thousands of lives.
The numbers speak for themselves. According to Eric H. Cline’s tally in Jerusalem Besieged, during its long history the city has been “destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked an additional 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times."
But why is this small piece of land igniting so much passion, outrage and fervor. Why do its stories spill over newspapers and nightly newscasts all over the world?
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said that to understand this one has to take into note that Israel’s lies at the intersection of Asia, Europe and Africa. The area has been a meeting point of various civilisations, cultures, religions and empires for millenia.
In Northern Israeli city of Haifa, Ambassador Reda Mansour said during a talk session that this unique location of Israel led to territorial disputes with people of various culture and faiths who arrived over centuries staking their claim over the land.
So, according to Mansour, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the 20th century is a culmination of thousands of years of mistrust, animosity, bitterness and violence among the world's major faiths --two of which (Christianity and Islam) have over 4 billion adherents.
He also suggested that the conflict is an offshoot of a clash of eastern and western civilisations that has been going on for millennia.
Still Israel is much more than epic accounts you read in the Bible, the Holy War, Saladin’s Muslim army wresting the control of the city from the Crusaders or -- to talk about recent times – emotions playing out in the streets Gaza, the West Bank or Jerusalem in international newscasts.
For instance, the port city of Haifa on the blue Mediterranean coast is suddenly very quiet and serene, far from the sometimes maddening historic and religious fervour of Jerusalem.
Tree-lined streets winds their way up the Mt Carmel atop which one can view the dome of the beautiful Baha’i shrine that overlooks the sprawl of the city. Our guide tells us that the symmetry of the temple’s terraced gardens that goes all the way downtown (the plush German colony with its bars, restaurants and boutiques) professes the equality between a woman and a man including all of humanity.
The tranquility of the town can also be felt in the soft-brightness of the mono-colored limestone houses and buildings that dot all of Mt Carmel.
Then leaving the hilly town – for Nazareth, Galilee, Golan, Tel Aviv and Dead Sea -- one learns that despite its small size (Israelis love to talk about how their small country takes up so much of international news column), Israel consists of variety of geographic features steeped in history.
The lush Jezreel Valley, the Arab town of Nazareth -- where Jesus spent his childhood -- and Jordan river-- where he was baptised, then the beautiful mountain ranges of the Carmel and Galilee – driving through the Israeli countryside of green fields and highly developed agriculture industry (thanks to more than 270 kibbutz, farming communes spread across the country that employ latest agriculture science and irrigation technology), you see that the land which was swampy, rocky or entirely desert until few decades back has blossomed like a rose (and I think to myself how we Nepalis are turning our own green and lush valleys and plains into a concrete desert).
Plus, Israel is also home to unique geographical marvels such as the Dead Sea (where tourists like to takes photos of themselves floating reading a newspaper) or the spectacular scenery offered by Masada that rises high above it.
To the city that never sleeps
Majority of Israelis live in the coastal plain. And Tel Aviv, which is one of the world’s most beautiful coastal cities, is Israel’s financial capital and major business and cultural hub. With its fantastic beaches, good cuisine, thriving nightlife, beach bums, dog lovers and surf enthusiasts, the city by the sea is also the ‘party capital’, and with its 24 hr culture truly a ‘city that never sleeps’.
It is a perfect getaway if you want to escape an overload of religious and history lessons (and hordes of tourists who come for it) that others parts of the country offers.
This could be reason why on weekends (called the Sabbath, Israel official day of rest is also Saturday) and other holidays, thousands of Nepalis studying in agriculture schools or employed as caregivers and agriculture workers all over Israel flock to the city to mingle, play cards and prepare delicacies like momos and spicy masu bhaath to feast with their brethrens.
Most of the Nepali workers I met were employed as caregivers to the old, elderly or disabled (Israelis have the highest life expectancy in the world) and were in Israel on a five-year visa with the possibility of extension.
Being one of the most highly industrialized and advanced countries in the world with high standards of living, the Nepali workers also earned anywhere from $1000 to 1500 every month with additional money they could make through working overtime. They report high savings, good working environment and friendly employers.
According to them, Israel’s tough labor laws safeguarded workers’rights including those of foreigners such as Nepalis, Indians, Philipinos and Vietnamese. Unlike in many oil-rich Gulf states, where foreigners involved in blue-collar jobs face discrimination, dismal treatment or even abuse/rape (in case of house maids), in Israel there were no such problems.
With more than 7,000 Nepali workers (previously it used to be 20,000) currently employed as caregivers or agriculture workers who earn substantial amount of money to send back home, I found that Israel is fast becoming the most attractive destination for Nepali migrant workers.
‘Peace be upon you’
One of the most common misconceptions about Israel is that there is continuous war, tension and strife in the country. But Israel is not a war zone as it is often portrayed to be. On the contrary, with over 3.5 million tourists visiting the country annually, Israel is one of the safest places to visit in the world.
Security problems such as suicide bombings are things of the past now, even though Israeli army strikes in response to sporadic rocket attacks by Hamas militants sometimes escalates into full-scale military operations in the country’s border regions.
But at the end, it all comes down to this question. Will there ever be peace in Israel? Will there be peace in the Middle East?
Over the years, world powers to reckon with have come up with number of solutions to resolve the tension and conflict in the Middle East, and chief among which was creating an independent state of Palestine (called the two-state solution) by combining the West Bank and Gaza strip.
Yet, peace continues to elude the people of Israel and Palestine, as the hardliners and religious zealots among them continue to bicker over trivial matters to spoil genuine chances of reaching to some sort of resolution to end the centuries of mistrust and bitterness.
It may be that this country, which gives so much emphasis to the past (the finest example would be the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem), should shed and altogether forget a bit of its difficult history of violence, enmity and suspicion among people of three different faiths.
For that they would have to let go of the organised dogma of each of their religions that separates them and go to their core teachings -- which is mutual respect, co-existence and above all love.