Jerusalem is unique. Not just because it is an ancient city bursting with history. But also because it is a major centre for three different religions, attracting pilgrims from around the world. History and religion have made this an exceptionally diverse city: Jerusalem is home to many subgroups, both racial and religious.
The people of Jerusalem are keen to emphasise that their city is both diverse and inclusive. In his address to this year’s TBEX (Travel Bloggers’ Exchange) conference, the Mayor of Jerusalem stressed that “Jerusalem is for all people, all races”. One of our guides, Allan from Sandemans Tours, put it another way. The “Jerusalem in people’s hearts” is different for everyone, he said. We can all share the city, but it has a symbolism that transcends the physical environment.
But what does all of this mean for the visitor?
You Can’t Ignore Religion
“Are you a Jew or a Catholic?” asked my taxi driver on the way to the airport. He shook his head sorrowfully when I said I was neither. “No belief. That’s bad!” This seems to be a country where everyone is defined by their faith. More than 95% of the population class themselves within a religious group, even if they have no personal belief. For instance, around 67% of the Jewish population identifies as “secular”, while continuing to celebrate the major Jewish festivals. To some extent these differences are enshrined in law, with mixed marriages unable to take place within Israel.
Even if you are a non-religious tourist, you can’t ignore religion. For one thing, it is an integral part of the history of Jerusalem, from the earliest Jewish settlement to the Roman persecution of the Christians; from the European Crusades against the Muslim occupiers to the modern multi-faith city. For another thing, it is all around you today. Not just in the kosher restaurants and the Sabbath sirens, or in the churches and mosques of the Old City. But also in the pilgrims that flock to Jerusalem. I saw large groups of Christians (including one in a wheelchair) negotiating the steep and narrow streets of the Via Dolorosa (traditionally the route that Jesus followed to the place of crucifixion), and each morning tourists from my hotel piled into a bus labelled “Ecumenical Tour”.
The Astonishing Diversity of Jerusalem
The other thing you can’t fail to notice is the astonishing diversity of Jerusalem, the tangle of races, religions and cultures. One thing I hadn’t really appreciated before I went was the level of diversity within different religious and racial groupings. So Palestinians might be Muslim or Christian, while Christians could be Palestinian or Armenian (or, occasionally, European). And Jews could be anything from ultra-Orthodox to secular, with several sub-groups in between. These differences are often visible, apparent from a person’s clothing or headgear.
Of course all this diversity creates potential for conflict, and it is this aspect of Jerusalem that so often dominates our western media. But in most cases people seem to want just to get on with their lives and to enjoy the social and cultural aspects of living in such a varied community. (For the visitor one obvious benefit is the different types of food available!)
There are practical advantages to difference too. At the end of our Sandeman’s tour Allan told us a story about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This Old City church (supposedly on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion) has long been the subject of conflict between the various Christian denominations that occupy it. Naturally this led to a dispute as to who should hold the key to the front door of the church, as no group wanted to give control to another. The answer? For many centuries the door has been opened each morning by a member of a nearby Muslim family. A typical Jerusalem solution to a problem!