Jerusalem is held dear by the world’s major religions. And even though most people are not particularly familiar with the city’s ancient history there is a general agreement that the Western Wall and the Temple Mount are important sacred sites for both Jews and Muslims.
So, UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) contentious decision to remove all references of Jewish ties to the holiest site in the world for the Jewish people will, in effect ignore 2,000 years of Jewish history while maintaining Islam’s claim to them.
It’s a bizarre move by an institution whose awards I have routinely woven into travel articles as a sure sign that a site had particular cultural importance and could explain why thanks to their narrative. But now, I wonder how reliable their awards are.
The resolution, proposed by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan, and adopted recently at the committee stage, used only Muslim names for the holy sites of Jerusalem’s Old City referring to it only as al-Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary in Arabic).
You might ask, as Shakespeare did, what is in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, wouldn’t it?
I remember visiting as a child taking in as much of the golden limestone vastness of the Western Wall as my little eyes would let me. I even joined others who stood in front of the wall swaying in intensely private prayer beneath their shawls. I fantasised that they may be asking for better health, find the love of a soul mate or wishing for some dream to come true.
I even left a written prayer in a nook in the wall – a tradition that continues today. I have visited several times since, walking a pilgrim’s walk across the plaza to reach the wall, sometimes witnessing Barmitzvah celebrations. To me it will always be the Western Wall – Hakotel Hama’aravi in Hebrew – the only remaining wall of the Herodian Jewish Temple which unites a spiritual past with the present.
My Muslim friends know the wall in a different way. To them this is al-Buraq plaza. It is holy because on the other side of the wall is where Prophet Muhammad tied the Buraq, the winged steed that facilitated his Night Journey, a 766-mile journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, which included a trip to heaven and a return to Mecca by morning.
Each name invokes its own precious provenance. Words matter, history matters and this is why names matter too.
Regardless of what UNESCO was hoping to achieve it does nothing to change anything on the ground and visitors, whoever they are and from wherever they hail, can enjoy the city and learn about its history in its entirety.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation has launched three new interactive experiences showcasing the 2,000 year old history.
Virtual reality technology and guided tours will immerse you completely into the wall’s history and you get to see what the original temple mount would have looked like in ancient Jerusalem. It shows why the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 1,000 BC, rebuilt and then destroyed again by the Romans in 516 B.C. and explains why the Dome of Rock shrine was built in 691 AD on the same site.
This is bolstered by a 50-minute, interactive multi-media journey that follows the historical events leading to the destruction of Temple Mount and the construction of the Dome of Rock.
And finally there’s a behind-the-scenes look at the history of the Western Wall and a tour of the Core Excavation site revealing unique archaeological findings from several periods of Jerusalem’s 3,000 years of existence.
It seems, that the only way you can uncover the history and culture of the holy sites in East Jerusalem is to go there. Go visit, say shalom to the locals – Arabs, Jews and Christians – drink in the spiritual essence of this magnificent city and my guess is that you will return home somehow changed – inshallah.
Read also: Jerusalem – A wholly holy land