Part 1: The Christian experience
We awoke to an especially hot summer day, with no sign of the relative coolness of Jerusalemâ€™s hilly location. After completing our morning routine we walked down to the Old City with our first guide of the day Johnnie, a Palestinian Christian resident of East Jerusalemâ€™s Beit Hanina neighborhood. The first part of our tour took us to Mount Zion, to the Dormition Abbey where, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary died. We also visited the place reported to have been where the last supper of Jesus, the Passover feast, took place. From there we stepped outside the Old City walls and walked towards the Mount of Olives, stopping on the way to hear Johnny relate to us various stories from the Christian tradition that relate to Jerusalem. Our walk took us to the foot of the Mount of Olives, to the church of Gethsemane where we saw ancient olive trees (reportedly over a thousand years old) and listened to the beautiful singing of nuns from East Asia, who were conducting a church service. Afterwards, we climbed back up to the Old City (quite a task in the hot sun) and walked part of the Via Dolorosa (Jesusâ€™ last walk on his way to be crucified) until we arrived at the Holy Sepulcher. This is the place where Jesus is said to have been buried. The church on the spot is a very grand, old and impressive church frequented by many visitors. We took in the sights and sounds of the church together and when we were done we settled down in a small (air-conditioned!) café in the old city where we had some much needed food, drink and rest.
There we thanked Johnnie for the insightful tour and met up with our Muslim guide, Ghassan Manaâ€™sra.
Part 2 : The Muslim experience
Ghassan Manaâ€™sra is a Palestinian Sufi Sheikh from Nazareth who resides nowadays in East Jerusalem. He introduced himself briefly and then walked with us to the Omar Ibn El-Khattab mosque, the first Mosque built in the old city of Jerusalem. There we removed our shoes, the women covered their heads, and we entered this very impressive building. The ancient arched building is carved into the rock so that the temperature even in the flaming summer heat was cool and pleasant. Inside the Mosque, Ghassan related to us the story of the Second Caliph, Omar Ibn El-Khattab who had come to Jerusalem and was received with great honor by the Patriarch. The latter invited him to perform his evening prayer in the church of the Holy Sepulcher. However Omar refused. When asked why, he replied that if he were to do so, future Muslims would say that since Omar had prayed at the church, it should be converted into a mosque. Since he did not want this to happen, he took ten steps from the church and prayed there. True enough, about two hundred years later, a mosque was built on that spot.
Besides this story, we also learned something about the conquests of Salah ad-Din (Saladin) who ousted the Crusaders from Jerusalem, and received an explanation about Sufism and Sufi history in Jerusalem. We shared some of our time at the mosque with a group from the refugee camp of Shuafat. The rest of the time we were there by ourselves (except for a brief visit by the mosque care-takers, who wanted to make sure everything was â€œalrightâ€). Afterwards, when we left, Ghassan told us that this was the first time he had been able to bring a mixed (Muslim and non-Muslim) group into this mosque.
From the Omar Ibn El-Khattab Mosque we made our way to the Dome of the Rock / Haram as-Sharif, in the hope that we would be allowed to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque as a group. We walked through the narrow alleys of the Old City and once we arrived Ghassan went to check for us the possibility of entering. We were very disappointed when, after some negotiations, only the Muslim participants were allowed to enter, and even an attempt by one of them to get a Christian participant in was unsuccessful (though quite entertaining). So those Muslim participants who were interested in entering went through (along with Vivian who became an honorary Muslim for the day) while the rest of us had to settle for a peek from the entrance and some rest time. When those who entered the Mosque returned, Ghassan explained to us a little about the history of the place and its importance in the Muslim tradition. With this our tour ended, so we thanked Ghassan and walked back tired and a little disappointed by the ending but altogether quite happy and content with our long day of touring the Old City.
At night we had our usual end of the day session in which everyone shared the stories of the day. The participants talked about how hot they were, how much walking we had to do, etc. They shared how new and interesting the experience was for them, being together in the churches and the mosque. Especially entertaining was the story of George, a Christian participant, who told us that on this day he learned â€œnot to mess with Druze policemanâ€, after his attempt to enter the Mosque by posing as a Muslim failed due to his very Christian name. After some laughs and giggles and the many words of praise that we lavished on the participants for their very mature behavior during the day, we ended our circle and prepared for the last evening outing.
We walked through a pedestrian mall in the western part of the city and then had some soft drinks and ice-cream, enjoying each otherâ€™s company.
Finally it was bed time....We had hoped that after four sleepless nights and a long day of walking in the heat they would be wiped-out and sleeping in no time. Our hopes quickly faded, leaving us gasping in awe of the young peoples abilities to function in sleeplessness.