Here in the Old City of Jerusalem the honey-colored stone swells up into a domed cathedral. There it spreads out into plazas like wide sun-drenched pools. Limestone forms the living organism that is the streets, the walls of the buildings that merge one into the next along the street, the balconies that roof over the streets, and the tunnels lined with excavations twenty or thirty feet down showing the Roman streets of two thousand years earlier. Courtyards, paths and stairs open to the sun; awnings shade the row of men loungedin lawn chairs and smoking their midday hookahs from its glare.
We came into the Old City by the Damascus Gate on a sunny April morning in 2010, leaving our Palestinian hotel just a few blocks away. Crammed into the one-third of a square mile that Suleiman the Magnificent enclosed in 1537 are the holy places of the religions that call Abraham their earthly father: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Isaiah said, “Your eyes will see Jerusalem, a peaceful abode” (33:20), but Jerusalem’s stones are scarred with the blows of the wars among the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians through the past 1,300 years.
“This is the seventh station of the Cross,” called out the tour guide to his clump of pilgrims. In matching yellow baseball caps following the Via Dolorosa. We edged past them, brushed by men carrying trays of coffees balanced on yokes across their shoulders, avoided the eyes of beggars in corners, and arrived at the tunnel leading to the Western (Wailing) Wall and the Dome of the Rock. Fit, handsome young Israeli soldiers, male and female, guarded the entrance, searching bags and questioning all who arrived at the threshold. I came with a western woman’s expectation of independence and equal treatment, and so far found admirable equality – their guns were the same size, their uniforms identical.
But once in the plaza, men hurried to their stretch of the Wailing Wall, about three-quarters of its length, and women moved to their section, covering their heads with scarves and hats as they went. From the men’s side, chants ebbed and flowed; from the women’s side, only quiet. On the men’s side, glass covered an opening that lets worshipers look below to the only piece of wall left from the original Temple, the house in which God resided on earth. The women must never see this.
I washed my hands and walked into a crowded stone-paved space surrounded by six-foot canvas walls. Women sat in chairs reading their prayers from books in rushed whispers. The sparrows sang louder. Men stood on chairs on their side of the curtains and peered giggling over into the women’s area; women looked away silently. I pushed my prayer written on a scrap of paper into as high a crevice in the wall as I could reach, and rejoined Jim in the plaza.
“Let’s try the Muslims,” I said, and we made our way through a second set of security guards and up the walkway to the plaza that surrounded the Dome of the Rock. This spot remains the most sacred place in Judaism because Solomon’s Temple, built for Yahweh, stood on the Temple Mount where the Dome now rises. The stone from which Mohammed stepped as he was taken into heaven to join Allah is the top of the Temple Mount.
The guard frowned at me and gestured at my arms, giving me to understand that the sleeves of my shirt were too short. A long-sleeved sweater placated him enough that he let us past with another scowl. Men washed their hands and feet and faces at faucets and fountains around the plaza, but because we were not allowed to pray, we thought it wrong to wash. At the edge of the plaza we could look east past the Golden Gate, through which each of the three religions believes that God/Allah will arrive at the Second Coming. No equality in this plaza either, although some say that Islam gives women many rights that are not theirs inJudaism or Christianity. The Muslim women here, as elsewhere in the city, wore black coats that covered their ankles, their wrists, and their necks, and wrapped their heads in scarves. Their freedom did not extend to their dress, nor their behavior in the public space.
From there we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Many Christians believe that Christ was crucified, died and was buried on this site, and here rose from the dead. Today, six Christian sects have divided the church among themselves, and regularly engage in fisticuffs over acts by one perceived by others to be disrespectful. We passed a circular brass rack crowded with clumps of blazing candles stuffed there by supplicants desperate to have God see their prayers. It looked pagan, entirely unruly and enthusiastic. Greek Orthodox priests and monks, stern in black robes and clearing the spaces ahead of them with vigorous swings of their incense censors, marched chanting toward the Tomb. Here the women surged in waves, all races and costumes, alongside the lay men. The women have no more control here than at the Wailing Wall or the Dome of the Rock, but their voices shared in the collective murmur that rose and fell.
We returned to the afternoon sunlight on the slanting plaza. The guide for pilgrim group #19 waved his sign to attract his yellow-hatted swarm. A woman sat down a few steps up from us, set a slender cigar in a holder, lit it, smoked. She wore linen shorts, sneakers, a sleeveless white tank top, all setting off her tan and expensive blonde hair. The antithesis of the women at the Wailing Wall, the women on the Temple Mount, the women crowded in the Church, she made her own statement. We murmured “Amen.”