Soul-Stirring Walks Through Jerusalem's Maze Of Religion And Politics

JERUSALEM — The rabbis see me before I see them.

As I catch their gaze, the two rabbis bound up a flight of stairs to where I stand admiring the astonishing religious spectacle that is Jerusalem's ancient, walled Old City.

Just below, tourists approach the Western (Wailing) Wall at a solemn pace, tucking folded-up written prayers in its timeworn crevices. Just above, the golden Dome of the Rock, which covers the place where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, shimmers in the 80-degree heat.

In the background, on the Mount of Olives, the equally lustrous onion-dome Church of St. Mary Magdalene completes the spiritual panorama.

"What's your name?" one of the rabbis, now standing uncomfortably close, asks with a thick, jaunty accent.

I tell him, and without warning each man places a hand on my forehead. Then they begin to pray, loudly, in Hebrew, for what seems like a full minute.

"What's your mother's name?" the other rabbi says, ignoring my embarrassment over this very public display.

I tell them and once again they lay hands on my forehead and pray vigorously in Hebrew.

I've come to Jerusalem with the more touristy aim of exploring the Israeli capital's rich history and faith-spiked culture. But before this episode is over, God has received prayers on behalf of my dad and brothers, too.

It's said that some first-time visitors to Jerusalem come away with delusions of grandeur and divinity, so intoxicating is this most multifaceted of sacred cities.

Whether or not Jerusalem Syndrome is real, this "city of God," this "shining city on a hill" is certainly feverish with a spiritual energy that makes even a casual stroll a soul-stirring experience.

Its mazelike passageways and worship halls have borne so much hope and anguish that even a nonbeliever gets swept up in the heady atmosphere.

Legends, faiths and passions overlap here, inducing a mental whiplash that's startling at first.

The Jerusalem of my imagination comes from countless childhood Sunday school lessons and, as I grew older, disheartening news headlines about the ongoing tensions between the Jews who control the city and the Arabs who now make up about a third of the population.

But as I duck into a theatrically sun-dappled Arab souk, where ornately woven carpets, inlaid-wood boxes and extravagant-looking water pipes beg for attention, I'm confronted with the realization that this hotbed of religious and political activity, whose sites I know so well, is also a bustling urban center where everyday life putters at an eerily peaceful pace alongside the scenes of enthralled piety.

One second, you're shopping under the hot sun next to Orthodox Jewish men in stark black suits and Israeli soldiers with M-16s strapped to their shoulders, and the next, you're plunged into a tunneled passage so cloistered it's hard to tell night from day, the only signs of life the silhouettes of Arab women in flowing jilbab cloaks and hijab headscarves.

On street after street — the streets being no wider than city sidewalks — wares spill out of storefronts in an array of artistic formations. At one stall, a pile of satin slippers creates a dizzying display. At another, there's nothing but iron door and window fixtures. At still another, carefully tended mini-mountains of vibrant Middle Eastern spices look like gallery exhibits.

Just down from the Holy Rock cafe, a butcher chops hunks of meat from a creature I take to be a sheep. Another vendor dotes over his pistachios as if they were gems. Everywhere, people are serving little glasses of hot tea and selling fragrant flatbread cooked on sidewalk grills. As I pass a bakery, really a hole dug 10 feet below the street with a hearth dug even deeper into the bedrock, a baker looks up and smiles as he pulls out his creation with a giant pie pan. I marvel at the thought that this exact scene could have happened, and probably did happen, 2,000 years ago.

Given the ongoing and ever-fraught Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem is not the first place one thinks of for a carefree stroll. Its compact ancient quarter, for instance, is first and foremost the site of pilgrimages and processions and, on every street, prayers — public, protracted and prolific prayers.

At lunchtime on one of two recent visits, I look out over the city as Muslim calls to prayer blare from what seem like a hundred loudspeakers around the Al-Aqsa Mosque and mostly Palestinian-Arab East Jerusalem beyond, prayers sung in such a languid, haunting, reverberant form of Arabic they creep into the bones.

Following in Jesus' fateful last footsteps on the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Suffering, I dodge the Christian faithful who stop intermittently, stoop on bended knee, squeeze their eyes shut and recite Scriptures aloud before the Stations of the Cross.

Back at the Western Wall, just below the sacred Temple Mount, Jews press their faces against the honey-colored Jerusalem stones and lose themselves in psalms.

Still, there's no better way to experience this collision of the mundane with the ethereal than to set out alone and let curiosity guide you through the Old City's undulating labyrinth of Christian, Jewish, Arab and Armenian quarters.

In the Christian quarter, children in white robes stream out of a chapel after a youth pageant. Meanwhile in the superbly maintained Jewish quarter, little girls kick a soccer ball in a shaded alleyway.

On my walk back to the Old City from the nearby Mount of Olives, where Jesus wept and Jews lamented the destruction of the second Holy Temple, I pass a beggar grappling for shekels and Arab hawkers selling loaves of sesame-seed bread to ancient-looking men.

It's possible to get caught up in the picturesque quality of it all, but it only takes a fleeting glance at the Israeli-built separation barrier that runs like a concrete spine over East Jerusalem's hills, or the security checkpoints manned by guards at the portals leading to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall, to remind you this is also a city of cordons and jealously protected enclaves.

As I'm turned away from the leafy courtyard housing the beguiling white-and-blue tiled shrine on which the Dome of the Rock sits ("Muslims only," a guard says), I struggle with feeling so drawn to a city that sections itself off with such strict efficiency.

My sense of spiritual ownership of this place, fueled by deeply ingrained Bible stories and a Baptist upbringing, is a fancy at best. Who am I to stake yet another virtual claim on a city far from home where a sense of historical belonging runs deeper in locals than the gnarled roots of the old olive trees that pop up between the holy sites?

On a map, the Old City's ethnic neighborhoods line up in seeming harmony.

In truth, there are barriers and blind alleys everywhere, both real and imagined.

The moments of serenity I experience as I cross enclaves are momentary lulls in a seemingly endless turf war.

This is made clear again when I turn a steep corner in a deserted section of the Arab Quarter and catch the gaze of a lone little boy squatting on the steps, his chin propped in his palms. His face brightens when he sees me. I take that as permission to pass.

But as I walk past him and start to head up into the neighborhood, he starts shouting behind me in perfect English, "Hey, Mister, where are going? Only Muslims here! Hey, stop, you can't go there! Muslims only!"

He runs to catch up with me and keeps shouting for me to stop. I smile nervously and keep walking. After all that fuss, I find that my little guard is standing sentry over a rather normal street with doorways leading to private Arab homes but little else.

In Jerusalem, even a harmless, wandering stranger can upset the delicate balance. Normality is precious and hard won here. If maintaining it means challenging curious visitors, then that's the way it has to be.

Even monks from the various Christian sects that vie for time at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, have engaged in fistfights with each other.

There's some cosmic justice in the fact that the doorkeeper to the holiest place in Christendom has come from the same Muslim family for 1,300 years.

When I stand near the perch where the rabbis prayed for me, I can see the largely Palestinian Silwan district, just outside the Old City, which looks for all the world like a tranquil village of white-cubed houses with laundry flapping in the wind.

What Palestinians living in the area see from their vantage point, however, are unwelcome excavations by Israeli archaeologists who believe this property is the fabled City of David. Nearly two dozen homes are to be razed to make way for a park celebrating Jewish history.

Same place, different worlds, sparring perspectives. The more layers of Jerusalem you peel away, the more complicated the birthright. Your view can never truly square with the city's changeable reality.

Perhaps it's better to accept the surface calm for what it is and marvel at the paradox that a city so exotic and forbidding on one level can also be so welcomingly familiar on another.