advertisement

Jerusalem today is a busy place. A state-of-the-art light-rail system is under construction, running from points all over the Judean Hills right down the middle of central Jerusalem's main thoroughfare, Jaffa Road. New construction is going on everywhere, bringing new industry, new highways, and, in the next few years, a whole new hotel scene. Since 1967, a constant stream of new civic delights -- museums, festivals, concerts, and performance programs -- has turned an austere outpost in the Judean hills into a lively, Mediterranean city with cafes, pubs, and restaurants packed to the brim with activity. The newly created pedestrian streets of the downtown center are flooded with strollers and, especially in summer, you'll find a nightly air of festive celebration.

A walled city is always a small town at heart, and for the past century, even as Jerusalem expanded beyond its walls and across the surrounding hills, it remained in spirit a small town: inward looking, personal, intensely involved in its local gossip and also with its thundering history. Now, for good or for ill, Jerusalem stands on the verge of becoming a true metropolis rather than the small city of exotic neighborhoods and religious communities the world has known since the 1920s. What Jerusalem is turning out to be like in the 21st century is a point of international interest and concern. For 3,000 years, through splendor and desolation, the earthly Jerusalem has always been a place that mirrored its extraordinary legend. Is this New Jerusalem able to maintain its mystique with a major highway system routed just 9m (30 ft.) from the walls of the Old City, so that visitors have to climb a pedestrian overpass in order to enter the Jaffa Gate? Or with many of the eccentric, small-scale 19th-century neighborhoods of the New City, and their quaint networks of pedestrian streets, courtyards, and Ottoman-era mansions (underappreciated in a town with Herodian, Byzantine, and Omayyid treasures to preserve) slated to be demolished and replaced with office blocks? A new wave of 30 skyscrapers is planned for the previously low-rise center of West Jerusalem, and the city has already seen the arrival of such worldly establishments as Pizza Hut, McDonald's, and Toys "R" Us. At what point will Jerusalem begin to seem like anywhere else?

The city is at a crossroads politically and socially as well as physically. Will it ever in some way be a shared capital for Palestinians and Israelis? Will the religious Jewish community become the demographic and ruling majority in West Jerusalem and, if so, what will happen to the museums, parks, entertainment, and cultural institutions created by the city's secular community over the past 30 years? Should developers be allowed a free hand to Manhattanize Jerusalem, or should limits be placed on the future growth of the city?

Jerusalem has been a holy city for 3,000 years, far eclipsing the length of time that any other place has borne such a title. It is also a holy city for all three great religions of the Western world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Optimists believe that city planners and real estate developers will find a way to turn a mysterious walled holy city into a fast-paced holy megalopolis. For now, in many ways, the city walks a tightrope between its legend and the rapidly encroaching world of the 21st century.

Saints & Warriors: Caliph Omar & Saladin

Islamic forces have conquered Jerusalem twice: in A.D. 638, and again in 1187, when it was recaptured after 88 years of Crusader rule. Both times, the warriors who won Jerusalem were among the most extraordinary men Islamic civilization has ever produced. In each case, Jerusalem was captured without resort to a final military onslaught, and in each case, although these leaders stayed only briefly in Jerusalem, their association with the city came to be regarded as the crowning triumphs of their lives.

Omar ibn el Khattab (d. 644), the second successor to the Prophet Muhammad, was a warrior of great saintliness who eschewed all luxuries and dressed in a simple rough-spun cloak. According to legend, when the Byzantine ambassador came to Medina to seek an audience with Caliph Omar, he was directed to a hill outside the city. There he found only a man alone, asleep on the ground under a palm tree, using his dusty sandals for a pillow. When the ambassador was told that this was the caliph, he responded, "Great Omar, you are truly a ruler of peace and justice unequaled to be able to go unprotected among your people in such a way."

Accepting the peaceful submission of Jerusalem from the Byzantine patriarch Sophronius in A.D. 638, Omar declined an invitation to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for fear that in future times, any place in which he had prayed would be turned into a mosque. According to tradition, the tolerant and visionary Omar permitted Jews to reside in Jerusalem again; initiated the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a garbage dump for 300 years; and ordered the transformation of Jerusalem into an Islamic as well as a Jewish and Christian holy city. Omar's redemption of the Temple Mount as a holy place eventually led to the building of the Dome of the Rock, a lasting monument to his brief, radiant encounter with Jerusalem.

Saladin (1137-93), of Kurdish origin, was the sultan of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and the most romantically heroic of all Islamic generals. Saladin's moral leadership and passion, rather than overwhelming tactical advantage, brought his disparate forces to victory over the Crusaders at the Horns of Hittin, near Tiberias, on July 4, 1187. Three months later, Jerusalem surrendered under Saladin's siege. In contrast to the massacre of Muslims and Jews that had accompanied the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, Saladin's victory was marked by chivalry and compassion. Native Christians were allowed to remain in the city; those of Crusader origin were offered safe passage with their goods out of the country via Akko on payment of a ransom of 10 dinars each. As Saladin and his brother watched the wealthy, including the Crusader patriarch and his retinue, depart with treasure-laden wagons, leaving thousands of unransomed poor to be sold into slavery, they announced a donation to ransom 7,000 poor Christians, thus shaming the patriarch into matching their generosity. In one of the many historical coincidences fraught with meaning to Jerusalemites, Saladin conquered the city on October 2, 1187, the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad's miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, and his ascension from the Temple Mount to the heavens. The selfless Saladin, in the great tradition of early Islamic leaders such as Omar ibn el Khattab, lived without personal wealth or luxury, and died without even enough money to pay for his grave.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.