Arthur Hagopian, the former press officer of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem currently residing in Australia, spent two weeks in the Old City recently, after a 15-year absence. This is the fifth installment of his report on his sojourn there.
A gentle breeze has sprung up, cooling the ardor of the morning sun. Above me the cupola of the Dome of the Rock shimmers like a glorious beacon pointing at the sky, the golden tiles reflecting the aspirations and prayers of a thousand genuflecting worshippers.
I am waiting for my guide, Abu Fadi, thoughtfully provided by Dr. Yusuf Natsheh of the Waqf, the Supreme Islamic Council.
Over a cup of sweet Arabic coffee in his spartan office, Natsheh, who is also the director of the department of Islamic archaeology, has brought me up to date on the latest developments affecting the city’s Muslim denizens.
It is not a happy state of affairs because access to the “Haram al Sharif” sanctuary, which encompasses the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, is controlled by the Israeli police and not the Waqf, as it had been during the previous Jordanian administration, and is restricted for security reasons. The police do not want a repetition of the riots that sparked the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) or of attacks on the sacred Muslim shrines.
Ordinarily, access to the sanctuary is possible via the Dung Gate (Bab el Magharbeh), one of 12 entry points, but Abu Fadi has been waiting for me at the Lion Gate entrance, and I have therefore to run the gauntlet of a laborious security check before I am let in.
Abu Fadi turns out to be an enjoyable companion, knowledgeable and loquacious. As he walks me through the paces of a royal tour of the compound that occupies one sixth of the area of the Old City, I am overwhelmed by the magnificence around me. With every step I take, I am reliving history.
I read with fascination the golden Qur’anic verses that adorn the Dome of the Rock, like a necklace around its neck, in the words of Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway, associate professor of philosophy and Islamic studies and director of the Islamic Research Center at Al-Quds University. I will be meeting with him later, and over a lunch of lahmajun (Armenian meat pie), he conveys to me the special significance in Islam of Al Aqsa, the second holiest shrine for Islam, the fruit of the labors of the two 7th and 9th century Umayyad Caliphs, Abd Al-Malik Ibn Marwan and his son Al-Walid.
“The magnificence of the architecture of the Dome of the Rock and the southern most building within the parameters of Al-Aqsa is witness to the importance of these holy sites in Islam,” Abu Sway says. He points out that it is the religious duty of Muslims all over the world to maintain Al-Aqsa Mosque both physically and spiritually.
“The relationship with Al-Aqsa Mosque is primarily fulfilled through acts of worship, but the physical maintenance of the mosque is also part of the responsibility of all Muslims.”
Abu Fadi pauses before Saladin’s wooden minbar (pulpit) in the Dome of the Rock, now enclosed within a protective barrier. It is a replica because the original was destroyed in a fire. There’s not a single nail in evidence: The wooden joints are all masterfully held together without the aid of any metal artifice.
The tour over, I pause for a moment under the shade of a tree. An Arab family is holding a picnic nearby. I catch their eye and a little girl of 4 or 5 sashays over, perches herself on a rock, and gazes up at me. It’s a moment of pure, ineluctable innocence and mystery, an ineffable purity, to capture and treasure. I snap a picture—and she vanishes.
I do not know why she chooses to privilege me with her presence and her smile. But I can’t help wondering, What does the future hold for this child? Or for a Jewish, Christian, or other child growing in the turbulently ailing maelstrom, Jerusalem, that has been described as the center of the world?
It is a question that haunts not only Natsheh and Abu Sway, or the other Arabs, Jews, or Christians I meet. It is a question that haunts the conscience of the world, I am told by a Hebrew University lecturer.
The Jerusalem academic world is in the foreground of efforts to bridge the deep Arab-Israeli divide, on both a personal and intellectual level. The virtual online library (www.jerusalem-library.org) created by the Hebrew and Al Quds Universities is a living testament to the determination of men of goodwill to contribute and share, and to acknowledge the fact that they are destined to live together on this land.
Some of the leading Palestinian intellectuals I encountered (among them Sari Nuseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University, anthropologist Ali Qleibo, historian Mohamad Al Alami, and librarian Haifa Al Khalidi), were actually recommended to me, and highly spoken of, by Israelis.
One Palestinian scholar, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me that peace between Arabs and Israelis can only be achieved when Israel has attained acceptance among the Arabs.
“It’s the best security they’ll ever have,” he insists.
“Peace is certainly possible between our two people,” an Israeli thinker adds. “But it will require difficult compromises from both sides.”
For Haifa Al Khalidi, a former teacher at St George’s Boys school, peace cannot come too soon. The library she has inherited at the 13th century Mameluke building at Bab Al Silsilah (the Gate of the Chain) houses some of the Islamic world’s most precious manuscripts, including several Ottoman firmans (decrees). The oldest dates back 1,000 years.
The Al Khalidis began collecting the works in earnest some three centuries ago, but the present library was set up only in 1900.
Haifa shows me some of her precious charges, and I can only gaze in wonder at the inimitable Arabic calligraphy, and in horror at the network of tiny tunnels dug over the years by the larva of bookworm beetles in some of the pages.
The forlorn expression on Haifa’s face betrays the pain and frustration she feels at this sacrilege, but the underlying steel in her eyes is ample evidence that the bug stops here.