The A-Z of Israel
On 22 January, Israelis will go to the polls. The world watches – but how much do we really know about the country that calls itself “the sole bastion of democracy” in the Middle East?
A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
J is for Jerusalem
Ethiopian Christians celebrate the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photograph: Getty Images
While Israelis and Palestinians alike aspire to make Jerusalem their modern centre (Israel claims it as its “undivided capital”, though this is not internationally recognised), it has been a centre of religions for thousands of years. Here, Simon Sebag Monte fiore describes morning in the Old City: At 4.30am, Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites of Israel, begins his daily ritual of prayer, reading the Torah. He walks through the Jewish Quarter to the Wall, which never closes, its colossal layers of Herodian ashlar stones glowing in the darkness. Jews pray there all day and all night.
The rabbi, 42 years old and descended from Russian immigrants who arrived in Jerusa - lem seven generations ago, proceeds down through the Jewish Quarter, whether it is cold or hot, raining or snowing, until he sees Herod the Great’s Wall before him.
High above Herod’s stones are the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque on what Jews call the Mountain of the House of God, but “there is room for all of us”, says the rabbi. He is in charge of keeping the Wall clean: the cracks between the stones are filled with notes written by worshippers. When he reaches the Wall, the sun is rising and there are already about 700 Jews praying there. He may nod but there is no talking as he wraps the tefillin around his arm. He recites the morning prayer, the shacharit, which finishes: “God bless the nation with peace.” Only then does he greet his friends properly.
Shortly before 4am, just as Rabbi Rabino - witz is rising, a pebble skims across the window of Wajeeh Yacoub al-Nuseibeh in Sheikh Jarrah. When he opens his door, Aded al- Judeh, aged 80, hands Nuseibeh a heavy, medieval 12-inch key. Nuseibeh, now 60, sets off briskly through the Damascus Gate down to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Nuseibeh, who has been the custodian of the Holy Sepulchre for more than 25 years, knocks on the towering ancient doors. Inside the church, the sextons of the Greeks, Latins and Armenians have already negotiated who is to open the doors that day. The priests of the three reigning sects have spent the night in prayer and jovial companionship. Only one Copt is allowed to stay the night but he prays alone in ancient Coptic Egyptian.
As the gate opens, the Ethiopians in their rooftop monastery and St Michael’s Chapel, its entrance just to the right of the main portal, start to chant in Amharic, their services so long that they lean on shepherds’ crooks. Now the sexton opens a small hatch in the right-hand door and hands through a ladder. Nuseibeh takes the ladder and leans it against the left-hand door. He unlocks the lower lock of the right door with his giant key before climbing the ladder and unlocking the top one. When he has climbed down, the priests swing open the immense door before they open the left leaf themselves. Inside, Nusei - beh greets the priests: “Peace!”
At the same time as the Rabbi of the Wall is waking up and Custodian Nuseibeh hears the pebble on the window announcing the delivery of the Sepulchre key, Adeb al-Ansari, 42 years old and a father-of-five, is coming out of his house in the Muslim Quarter. He passes through the checkpoint of blue-clad Israeli police, often Druze or Galilean Arabs charged with keeping out Jews, to enter the Haram al-Sharif. Ansari greets the Haram security and begins to open the four main gates of the Dome of the Rock and the ten gates of al-Aqsa. This takes an hour.
Meanwhile, Naji Qazzaz is leaving the house on Bab al-Hadid Street that his family has owned for 225 years to walk the few yards up the steps through the Iron Gate and on to the Haram. He proceeds directly into al- Aqsa, where he enters a small room equipped with a microphone and bottles of mineral water. Qazzaz sits and stretches, then breathes and gargles. He checks that the microphone is on and when the clock on the wall shows it is time, he starts to chant the adhan that reverberates across the Old City.
It is now one hour before dawn. The sun is rising over Jerusalem, its rays making the light Herodian stones of the Wall almost snowy – just as Josephus described it 2,000 years ago – and then catching the glorious gold of the Dome of the Rock that glints back at the sun. The divine esplanade where heaven and earth meet, where God meets man, is still in a realm beyond human cartography. Only the rays of the sun can do it and finally the light falls on the most exquisite and mysterious edifice in Jerusalem. Bathing and glowing in the sunlight, it earns its auric name. But the Golden Gate remains locked, until the coming of the Last Days.
Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of “Jerusalem: the Biography” (Phoenix, £9.99)