Cultures Collide in Jerusalem's Old City

Inside its medieval saw-toothed walls, the city is a teeming world's fair of different lifestyles and religions

JERUSALEM'S fabled Old City reveals its secrets even at a distance. From across the Kidron Valley and atop the Mount of Olives, where it can be viewed in one sweeping glance, its jumble of towers, battlements, and domes tells of diversity and intensity.

Inside its medieval saw-toothed walls, the city is not so much architecture but people - a montage of importunate shopkeepers and pious clerics, of grim-faced soldiers and religious pilgrims of a hundred nationalities - that make the same point.

Planted in the heart of modern Jerusalem, the Old City is a teeming intersection of cultures, lifestyles, and religions, a veritable world's fair of color and vitality that has been a magnet for the faithful and secular for millenniums. Along its narrow, winding alleys, tourists dodge donkey carts and barefooted children at play to gain access to the cramped stalls of Arab merchants with their treasures of spices and fresh vegetables and pottery.

In dozens of churches, temples, and mosques, others have a different quest, finding spiritual renewal in this sacred space that has been a wellspring of the great monotheistic faiths. In all, 30 religious denominations worshiping in half as many languages are squeezed into this evocative realm of 200 acres.

But if Jerusalem's Old City is a testament to human diversity it also speaks to the limits of tolerance, as demonstrated each day in the colorful Arab quarter. Precisely at noon, Palestinian merchants shutter their shops as part of their 22-month uprising to protest Israel's rule over the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Arab East Jerusalem, site of the Old City.

The sudden, lingering silence reminds one of how little understanding that generations of physical proximity has fostered between Arabs and Jews.

UNDER a succession of rulers and conquerors the boundaries of the Old City have expanded and contracted. Outside today's walls (erected during the 15th century) is the sloping hillside claimed by David as the first capital of a united Israel 3,000 years ago.

Inside are the remnants of past eras graced by the lives of some of the most spiritually minded men ever to have lived.

Within these walls Jeremiah and Isaiah caught their visions and bellowed their warnings to the Jewish people. Here, centuries later, Christ Jesus taught and healed, and was tried, crucified, buried, and resurrected.

Here also stands the Temple Mount, the former Jebusite threshing floor where Solomon's Temple once stood. Some traditions say the Temple Mount is the place where Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac and Jesus faced temptation. Its giant retaining wall, the most sanctified spot for Jews, once buttressed the great temple built by Herod and destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

According to tradition it was also from the Temple Mount that the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven for a day, leaving an imprint on the rock now covered by the golden dome that has become one of the holiest sites in Islam and one of Jerusalem's most famous landmarks.

Superimposed on history, in crowded tenements and spacious town houses, are the 27,000 Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who make the Old City home and who contribute to the m'elange of sounds and odors and sights that make it one of the most exotic spots on earth.

One famous 6th century mosaic found in Madaba, Jordan, depicts Jerusalem's walled city as the center of the world. The impression is reinforced each day as multitudes dressed in bright kaffiyehs, somber kopots, and Western T-shirts stream through the Old City's seven massive gates, to gawk, pray, or shop for bargains.

The attractions are diverse but one stands out: the chance to rediscover in this venerable place the roots of faith.

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