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Journey to the Centre of our Faiths
A look at Jerusalem from the perspective of the three religions that honour its holy places.

For many years, especially after performing the hajj in Saudi Arabia, I had a passionate desire to visit Jerusalem. For me, it became all the more urgent because in my interfaith work, I speak about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam flowing from the same source and that despite our differences and challenges, we are the children of Abraham.

Left: Herod's Palace, Caesarea; Right: A fortified wall built by Crusaders, Caesarea

And, when we ask, God answers. All of a sudden there was an opportunity to go. My husband and I decided that a visit to the Holy Land must be shared with those who have similar dreams. So we invited our dear friends Jim Evans, a United Church minister, and his wife Karen to come along.

Travelling towards Jerusalem was a moving experience because we felt we were going back in time to experience moments of miracles, sacrifice, and tolerance (something we seem to have forgotten today). Our first view of the old city was heartwarming. We had arranged to stay at a Scottish church guesthouse overlooking the walled city. From our room we could see the Dome of the Rock and it was an incredible synergy. We understood why the city of Jerusalem is known in Arabic as al-Quds or Baitul-Maqadis (the Noble, Sacred Place). Jerusalem is considered historically and spiritually significant to all three monotheistic faiths.

A Roman theatre, Caesarea. It is still used today for concerts.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism. According to the Bible, the Talmud, and other sources of Jewish tradition, several important events took place there. Here God gathered the earth from which He formed Adam. Here Adam, Cain, Abel and Noah offered sacrifices to God. Here Abraham passed God's test by showing His willingness to sacrifice His son Isaac. Here Jacob dreamt about angels ascending and descending a ladder while sleeping on a stone (the stone in the Dome of the Rock is believed to be the very stone). Here King Solomon built the Temple in 950 BC, which stood for 410 years until King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it in 586 BC. Here the Second Temple was built after the Babylonian Exile, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. During Maimonides' residence in Jerusalem, a synagogue stood on the Temple Mount alongside other structures and Maimonides prayed there.

Left: Close-up of tile work on the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem; Right: View from the Old City, Jerusalem

For Christians, it is the site of Christ's crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The Temple Mount is believed to contain the pinnacle of the temple from which Satan tempted Jesus to jump to prove His status as the Messiah (near al-Aqsa Mosque). The courtyard by the mosque provides an excellent view of surrounding Christian sites, including the Dome of the Ascension (marking the site where Jesus ascended into heaven) and the Dominus Flevit church (commemorating the spot where Jesus wept as He saw a vision of Jerusalem in ruins).

For Muslims it is important because Muhammad originally established Jerusalem as the qibla (direction of prayer) before changing it to Mecca. As well, Islam respects Abraham, David and Solomon as prophets, and regards the temple as one of the earliest and most noteworthy places of worship of God. Verse 17:1 of the Quran speaks of the Prophet's night journey to the farthest mosque (al-Masjid al-Aqsa). This is traditionally interpreted to be the site at the Temple Mount on which the mosque now stands.

A ruins garden, Caesarea

It was in the courtyard near the Western Wall we saw observant Jews hurrying to pray at the wall, religious Muslims going to the mosque, and practicing Christians going to their sacred spaces – each one respectful of the others. It was incredible to note that Catholic, Jewish and Muslim women all covered themselves and it was completely natural. The diversity was interesting and insightful.

The first sight of Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque was a wish come true. We had been dreaming of praying at al-Aqsa for many months now and here we were with our souls melted in the form of tears rolling down our faces as we stood in humility and awe in front of our first qibla. Inside the Dome we touched the Rock which is as big as a room. Steps leading to a room under the Rock took us to a tiny chamber where it's believed Prophet Muhammad prayed with other prophets including Abraham. The entire room is soaked in fragrance and we wanted to just sit there and reflect on this miracle of God.

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Dome of the Rock (Qubbat as-Sakhrah) can be seen from all over Jerusalem. It is the crowning glory of the Haram esh-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), or Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock is not a mosque, but a Muslim shrine. Like the Ka'aba in Mecca, it is built over a sacred stone. This stone is believed to be the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven during his night journey. The Dome of the Rock is the oldest Islamic monument that stands today and certainly one of the most beautiful. It also boasts the oldest surviving mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca) in the world.

On the night of his ascension, the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, prayed first at the Dome of the Rock, laying his hand upon the Rock. As he went out, the Rock, to do him honour, rose up, but he laid his hand on it to keep it in its place and firmly fixed it there. To this day it is partly detached from the ground beneath.

Currently, the Temple Mount is governed by the Waqf, the supreme Muslim religious council. The site has been under Muslim control since the Muslim reconquest of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century.

Left: A tourist complex on the sea, Caesarea;
Right: The author in a souk in the Old City.

Needless to say, we visited Temple Mount as often as we could during our stay in Jerusalem but more importantly, we were able to visit other holy sites with Jim and Karen, who became our spiritual guides because they had done extensive homework and had books of history. Our biggest surprise and delight was that every step we took showed us the incredible bonds that link us together with our brothers and sisters in creation.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been an important pilgrimage destination since the fourth century, and it remains the holiest Christian site in the world. It stands on a site that is believed to house the tomb and burial slab where Jesus' body was placed before his resurrection.

A tourist area on the Mediterreanean, Tel Aviv

We went with Jim and Karen inside the church, where you can feel the agony of Mary as she stood on the stairs and watched her son's body being anointed on a slab. The walls of the sanctuary tell the heartrending story and I could sense the sadness. It's powerful and moving and everywhere we went, there was light – even in the darkness. We lit candles for all the people we know who wanted to be there but could not, yet. Then we went across the street to the mosque and prayed there with Jim and Karen. The realization that we are connected is very strong for those who can sense the fragile ties that bind us together.

We walked to the Mount of Olives, which has many sacred sites. The Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives is a Christian and Muslim holy site that is believed to mark the place where Jesus ascended into heaven. The small round church/mosque contains a stone imprinted with the footprints of Jesus. Outside the chapel is an unmarked tomb believed by many to be the grave of Rabia al-Adawiyya, the first Sufi saint of Islam. We were blessed and honoured to offer a prayer there.

Wares on display in a souk in the Old City, Jerusalem

The Garden of Gethsemane is at the foot of the Mount of Olives, within the walled grounds of the Church of all Nations (also known as the Church of the Agony). It's a peaceful garden among a grove of ancient olive trees, looking back at the eastern wall of the City of Jerusalem. A modern Franciscan church marks the spot where Jesus wept. There are 12 olive trees and a stone statue of Jesus weeping which could turn the hardest heart to tears. Caliph Umar also prayed at Gethsemane in 638.

We then visited the Church of Mary Magdalene, which has stunning gold domes, the Church of John the Baptist and the Convent of the Pater Noster where it is believed Jesus taught His prayer. There is a serene green sanctuary where the Lord's Prayer is listed in 60 languages on huge tiled walls. Having learned the Lord's Prayer in convent school and being a fervent supporter of it in Canada, I was moved by the spot. We also prayed at the Tombs of the Prophets which is a site on the Mount of Olives that a medieval Jewish tradition identifies as the tombs of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Both Jews and Christians venerate the site as the tombs of these prophets of the last three books of the Old Testament.

7 am, Jerusalem: Dome of the Rock, seen from the Jewish Quarter. In the bottom right hand corner is the men’s only section of the Western Wall

From the Mount of Olives we saw the Gate of Mercy, the Gate of Gold, the Gate of Eternal Life, Sha'ar Harahamim. This appears in the legends of all three religions. An early Jewish tradition holds that it is through that gate that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem. According to Christian tradition, Jesus made His last entry to Jerusalem through the Mercy Gate. The Muslims refer to it as the Gate of Mercy and believe it to be the gate referred to in the Quran, through which the just will pass on the Day of Judgment.

I have heard that many eons ago Jerusalem was considered to be the fountain of wisdom because of the shared knowledge of our three traditions. I hope and pray that we will one day learn to share that knowledge again, and use it for peace with each other.

Raheel Raza is a public speaker and interfaith advocate. She lives in Toronto.

Originally published in the Presbyterian Record, March 2009.

 

 
 
 
 

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