Three major religions vie for room in eternal city
by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff
You can take religion out of Jerusalem, but you cannot take Jerusalem out of religion. Even the name of the city, at least according to some scholars, derives from that of a god, the Semitic deity Shalim.
Of all the people in the world, the Roman Emperor Hadrian knew best that dividing everyday life from faith in Jerusalem was doomed to failure. In 130 CE, he announced his plans to rebuild the city, which had been in ruins since the bloody conflict between Romans and Jews resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE. At the beginning, the Jews were happy with the emperor's plans. Their holiest city, where kings David and Solomon ruled and the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments was kept in the wondrous First and Second temples, was about to be resurrected from the ashes. However, Hadrian's plans soon gave rise to conflict. In spite of his respect for the Jews, the emperor wanted to turn the sacred site of the Second Temple into a shrine to another god, Jupiter Capitolinus. In addition, circumcision was to be banned as "barbaric mutilation" and the name of the city was to be changed to Aelia Capitolina.
In 132 CE, the Jews felt it was all too much and they joined the Bar Kokhba revolt. It lasted for four years and ended with victory for the Romans. Jews – including those who had adopted Christianity – were banned from entering Aelia Capitolina. The only exception was on Tisha B'Av, the day in the year when the destruction of the First and the Second temples and the Egyptian calamities were commemorated.
Hadrian wanted to turn religion-dominated Jerusalem into an ordinary city, where religion would be more of a ritual and less an ideal for which one would readily die. He got it wrong. The ban on Jews entering the city was indeed in force until the 7th Century, and the Second Temple never rose again, but the city never stopped being the focal point of Judaism. The Temple's Western Wall, the only remaining piece of the holy structure, became a substitute for the lost shrine and is still the holiest place on earth for Jews; a reason for pilgrimage and a site for prayer.
Meanwhile, with the ban against Jews still in force, another religion transformed Jerusalem into a major place of pilgrimage. This was Christianity, established by the followers of a certain Jew named Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God. Jesus was sentenced to death, crucified and buried in Jerusalem where, according to the Gospels, he rose from the dead. In 326-328, while on a pilgrimage in Palestine, Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine I, identified a location in Jerusalem as the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried. She built a church there and soon the Church of the Holy Sepulchre began attracting pilgrims. Throughout the centuries, and despite being destroyed and reconstructed several times, the church became the core of a net of monasteries and churches spreading all over Jerusalem on sites supposedly connected with events of Jesus's lifе.
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