Setting out to complete one’s bucket list has become a noble and established spiritual tradition. It’s a libertine pilgrimage outward, eventually redirected inward, marked by self-discovery, thrill and maturity. I’ve been lucky. My bucket list is starting to look like Tattersall cloth. Sure, certain experiences elude me still, either by choice or circumstance. I’m neither married nor irresponsible, so anything involving children will have to wait. I have never experienced firsthand the raucous Valhala decadence of a Led Zeppelin concert. But I still have a few stories and anecdotes to tell and enthrall with at dinner parties.
I’ve been to the old stone houses where my grandparents were born and to the countries they were summarily expelled from. I’ve run alongside bulls in Spain with Hemingway’s ghost and a belly full of anisette. Pyramids, Necropoles, waterfalls, and deserts; I’ve seen and snapped my share. I’ve eaten a meal prepared by Eric Ripert and managed to navigate the aisle at my best friend’s wedding. I fell in love with a blonde in Brazil and a Malbec in Argentina. Hell, I’ve even been to Hogwarts. But while each experience made for a great story, they all left something to be desired.
“Jerusalem is antiquated yet sentient, existent while supernatural. Historical, eternal and new and ever-changing all in the same time and space. Jerusalem is unlimited. At first gaze, it is a shock to the senses.”
Only one place managed to completely transform me by widening my perspective of the world I live in. One spell-bounding place which “inclined [me] toward the big questions and the luminous parts of us which exist beyond our personalities,” as George Saunders would have us all do. That place, ironically, is first referenced by the Bible as The Place. We know it by its more common, earthly name: Jerusalem.
In both the metaphoric and geographical senses, Jerusalem is at the center of the world. Though she sits right there before you, seemingly urbane, she projects an ethereal feel. Jerusalem is antiquated yet sentient, existent while supernatural. Historical, eternal and new and ever-changing all in the same time and space. Jerusalem is unlimited. At first gaze, it is a shock to the senses.
I remember my first view of the city from atop Mount Scopus quite vividly, overlooking the Holy Basin, taking in the same view that Pompeii, Vespasian, Titus, and Trajan took in as they all prepared to sack the city in the years they ascended the ranks of the Roman elite 2000 years ago. The deep green ravines all converge on the Temple Mount, and I imagined hordes of Roman soldiers screaming down the hills toward Herod’s temple to lay claim on the greatest prize Rome would ever know. My watch suggested that I had been gazing out over the holy city for only a few minutes, but I knew that to be impossible as my mind had just traversed millennia.
Because of what Jerusalem has seen and survived, the city can just as easily have you mourn her as celebrate her. There is one thing which can never be obscured in Jerusalem, however: your sense of absolute bewilderment in what we call “the grand scheme of it all.” When you are standing on a platform of 2000 year old Herodian stone and step onto a modern light rail, all the while breathing in the same air that filled the lungs of towering historical figures like King David, Jesus, Alexander the Great, Richard the Lionheart, and Salah al-Din, or Mark Twain, Churchill and Paul McCartney in our own time, you can’t help consider your place in the world and the unique moment in history you occupy.
History awaits you at every turn. There is not a street corner that has not borne witness to antiquity. At the heart of Jerusalem lies the Old City, still guarded by the imposing walls erected by the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Great. I remember walking around them for the first time, trying to learn their secrets. I thought that they were the walls built by the Romans, or the Maccabees, or the Crusaders, and tried to imagine the fervent political climate that deemed such defenses to the city necessary. Who built them? Who did they repel? As you continue on toward the main entrance to the Old City at the Jaffa Gate, a new underground tunnel for cars to navigate around the perched city has been built, and all along the road, ancient columns and stone foundations have been exposed, once again recreating the scenes from long forgotten eras in your mind.
“When you are standing on a platform of 2000 year old Herodian stone and step onto a modern light rail…you can’t help consider your place in the world and the unique moment in history you occupy.”
If the historical sites force you to contemplate your time in the world, the religious sites will have you contemplating the meaning in it. The irony for me as a Jew, to have lazily walked past the Church of the Sepulchre about a hundred times in order to shortcut my way to my favorite falafel stand nearby, all the while never appreciating that there are hundreds of thousands of aspiring pilgrims who would jump at the opportunity to take that same stroll down the via Dolorosa. It forces you to take stock of all different religious sensitivities around us, which we are usually not aware of until something rouses us out of our apathy. And of course the Temple Mount, the holiest site to Jews, and the third holiest site to Muslims, in the world. Since its destruction in the year 70, there has been a rabbinic interdiction for Jews to walk this sacred plateau, but the sense of history and photographic opportunity for me were too much to pass up, and each time I ascend up there, I fail to appreciate that most of my co-religionists will never get to walk up there in their lifetimes. I fail to appreciate that as I reach the glimmering golden Dome of the Rock, I am walking where only one man, the High Priest, was allowed to walk one day a year on the Day of Atonement. It’s a quixotic thought, I know, but for those brief moments, it’s almost like history can be lived through us vicariously, for all those who have not had the same opportunities.
They say that young men do not make good mercenaries, that we need a cause to fight for, that it takes a seasoned general to show us the way. It’s a metaphor that translates beautifully to this golden city. It takes a city with the kind of battle scars only Jerusalem can boast to show us the causes in life that are worth our youthful dedication and zeal. In other words, if you come to know this city, you will one day come to know yourself.
Next Year in Jerusalem.
Words and photos by Yaniv Salama