Israel is a country where religion cannot be ignored. Among the beautiful classical ruins of Bet Shean and Caesarea Maritima, in the archaeological sites of towns which may or may not have been built by Solomon, at the various places where Jesus may or may not have been, you are constantly aware that what you are seeing has significance beyond its face value. This is a land which has been fought over since anyone can remember. It was part of the empires of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans and Byzantines, even before the crusades began and religious claims were brought to the forefront.
As a tourist in Israel, visiting the famous sites and surrounded by tourist groups from all over the world, it is possible to be completely insulated from the current conflict. Millions of pilgrims pass through the country every year in search of ancient holy sites, not modern politics and violence, and their needs are catered for by the numerous tour packages on offer, by air-conditioned coaches and hotels. The tourist industry is one of the staples of the Israeli economy, and the government is keen to protect it. However, if you look around you, it is almost impossible to ignore the signs of tension and ongoing conflict. The formidable West Bank barrier cuts across the landscape, an aggressive symbol of division. Upon visiting Palestinian areas such as Bethlehem and Jericho, one is forced through numerous checkpoints, with armed guards at every turn. Jericho, the location of one of the oldest urban settlements in the world, is under siege, surrounded by Israeli trenches. I visited not long after the Gaza War, and the increased security and suspicion was intimidating even as a tourist.
With this level of segregation across Israel, Jerusalem comes as a pleasant surprise. Jerusalem is a sacred centre for all three Abrahamic faiths. The rock upon which the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock stand, is variously believed to be the site of the creation of Adam, Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac, Jacob’s dream, and Muhammed’s ascension into the heavens during the Miraj. For this reason, you find members of every denomination of every religion jostling for space. Mosques, churches, monasteries and synagogues of every description fill the city. The city is technically divided- the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters in the old town each have their own character, and yet the hundreds of shopkeepers and stallholders are happy to hawk their wares in every street as the crowds move freely about the city. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared by seven different Christian communities, with the closing ceremony requiring members of the Muslim families who have been given responsibility for the key. This arrangement, known as the status quo, is a little fraught, but demonstrates the religious compromise which is possible, and which is so desperately maintained in this most hallowed of cities.