Was Jerusalem builded here?
Jerusalem, Israel


I’m trying here. Trying to shrug off the 20-year-old cynic in me. The philosopher Alain De Botton’s attitude to religion goes a little something like, “of course there’s no God. But that’s just the start of the conversation, not the end. Just because an idea isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.”

Religion is as inescapable as oxygen here. It’s in the thin boxes of scrolls that adorn every doorway. It’s in the hotel lifts that stop at every floor on Shabat so you don’t have to use technology. It’s woven into the fabric, the ethnicity, the history of every person. It’s among the reverent kids praying at the wall and the cute, young soldiers, M16s laid casually across their laps. To not engage with it is to walk the Louvre blindfolded.  

The Dome of the Rock is the third most holy site in all of Islam after Mecca and Medina. We have to climb up onto a rooftop above the city’s bustling streets to see it; its golden dome set against the olive tree-lined hills. Jeremy tells me that due to a couple of lines in the Bible, many believe this is the very hill that Jesus will appear atop, if and when the second coming rolls around. The hills are dotted with churches of every stripe, vying for a spot close to the action, like campers at the Apple store on the eve of the release of a new iPhone.

But the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was always going to hold the most fascination for me. It’s inevitable that you learn a lot about the difference between Catholics and Protestants in Catholic school. Their priests can get married, ours can’t (again, I have to stress, I don’t believe in any of this stuff), they eschew the gaudiness, the pomp and the ceremony. Meanwhile, we believe that the communion wafer turns into the literal flesh of Christ when it enters our mouths. Obviously, it’s them that’s the idiots.

But most relevant to this place is that the Protestants believe Jesus was crucified at Golgotha. Catholics believe he was crucified right here, the church I’m about to enter, behind the gaggle of sunburnt Germans and the crowd of Italian grandmothers.

“We’re not rational, us humans. We think we are, but we’re actually far from it.”

It’s an ecumenical oddity, this place. Its ownership is hotly contested, which you can understand, I guess. The Catholics, Jews and Armenian Christians all lay claim to it. A couple of hundred years ago, they got together and divided it up. The compromise was called the ‘Status Quo’, which they took very literally and have never agreed on anything since. Jeremy pulls out a reproduction of a 19th-century oil painting depicting the church and points to the second-floor window where a few lines of paint depict a tiny ladder leaning against a window. I follow Jeremy’s finger up to the same window before me now. And behold, the ladder is still there.

He tells me more, but it’s just noise at this point. I don’t need the Stations of the Cross explained to me for the millionth time, I know the story. I just want to get in there.

We’re not rational, us humans. We think we are, but we’re actually far from it. We’re mostly a collection of competing agencies, phobias, suppressed memories and impulses we don’t even understand. So why even try? That’s what I tell myself to justify the weird mix of reverence and nervousness that washes over me. It may be no more than an emotional tattoo stamped on me by the Irish education system, but I still feel it. 

I walk past a group of people prostrating themselves over a slab of stone where Jesus was supposedly stripped. They’re crying, wailing, praying, rubbing their phones on it too, as if to absorb some holiness via Bluetooth.

It’s a cavernous place with a vaulted ceiling. It smells of age and burning candles and sun cream. I climb creaking stairs and join a long line made up of tour groups. This is the queue to meet Jesus. I take my place at the back of the line. My companions nip past and point out nonchalantly that you can actually see what everyone is lining-up for from where they stand, implying there’s no need to queue. This is bizarre to me. I’m at the place where Jesus was crucified so, I’m going to queue. I’m going to do this by the book.

After a few steps, I feel someone tapping at my elbow. It’s one of the Italian grandmothers. I saw her a few minutes ago when she skipped through the door. She has an imploring look on her face and she’s… no, she can’t be… she’s pretending to be disabled. She’s stooping and holding her arm at an odd angle and gesturing back and forth to the arm and to the place in front of me. She’s trying to cut in line. To see Jesus. 

No dice, lady. I try to shut her out, studiously looking at a stained glass window or a cross or something other than her. She tugs hard at my t-shirt. This is insane. I’m not getting into a fight with an old lady at the site of Christ’s death. It’s bad luck.

Thankfully, a priest comes along and intervenes. I don’t speak Italian, but I can tell by his tone he’s having none of her act. With a ‘what-you-gonna-do’ shrug and some florid Italian cursing (to a priest!), she suddenly heals as if by some divine miracle and heads to the back of the line.

A few short moments later, I find myself knelt beneath an altar with a golden Christ before me and a bunch of agitated Christians snapping at my heels. I realise I don’t know what to do, so out of sheer dumb reflex, I bless myself and go back outside to the sun to join my friends. They’ve been waiting a while. “Are you born again?” one says, jokingly. 

I’m not born again. I’m not a believer. I reckon that we are still headed for oblivion. But I’ll say this for Jesus: in an age where movies made just a few short years ago can now feel bizarrely offensive and problematic to our moral sensibilities; when reading a great author means pinching your nose against anachronistic racism and homophobia; Jesus remains beyond reproach. Whatever else that book may say or may be interpreted, the man himself said, “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Love thy neighbour. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” 

I’m not a believer. I never will be. But like I said, just because an idea isn’t true, doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.

Zack travelled to Jerusalem on a day-trip from Tel Aviv with Pomegranate Travel, a leading, full-service, specialist Israel Tour Company based in Tel Aviv and London. They develop creative, tailor-made tours and provide a deep-dive and insider view.

Photography by Martin Perry