The month of December holds a special meaning for our family. Twenty years ago, we landed at Toronto airport on a snowy, wintry, freezing December night. Alone, scared and cold, we were welcomed by the warmth of Christmas cheer so this time of the year is very poignant. This year December heralds Eid, Hanukkah and Christmas so we wanted to do something special to celebrate 2 decades of living in this multi-faith mosaic we call home.

For many years, especially after having performed the Haj we had a passionate desire to visit Jerusalem. For me, it became all the more urgent because in my interfaith work, I used to speak about Judaism, Christianity and Islam being from the same source and that despite our differences and challenges, we are the children of Abraham. That is for believers of course.

As well, I believe that when we ask, God answers so all of sudden there was a window of opportunity to visit Jerusalem. We were thrilled but there was no time to prepare in detail. I shot off quick emails to all my Jewish friends and each one came back with ideas, suggestions and contacts. (BTW this trip was a personal and spiritual journey funded by us with no political agenda other than to refresh and revive our weary souls!).

We decided that a visit to the Holy Land must be shared with those who have similar dreams. So we invited our dear friends Jim Evans, a United Church Minister and his wife Karen to come along and  I can say in retrospect, that their presence made this trip far richer than we expected.

There was caution and concern. People who had traveled previously told us that there is a lot of security and red tape and we must be prepared to wait at the airport for hours. Well, when one goes on a spiritual journey, doors open in amazing ways. We took a direct flight to Tel Aviv and were out of the airport in less than 10 minutes! Tel Aviv is a vibrant, bustling metropolis on the shores of the Mediterranean, full of international tourists and beautiful hotels.

In Tel Aviv we were met by our companion and guide for the visit – Sam an Orthodox Jew from Montreal. Our friends stopped of at Caesarea, while we went to Haifa where the University had invited us to come for a visit to the only Jewish Arab Center there. It was inspiring to see Jewish and Arab students working, walking, talking, sharing and eating side by side. Dr. Faisal Azaiza, who heads the JAC welcomed us and showed us the campus. He shared with us the various programs to try and build peace and have conflict resolution between the two communities. I was particularly impressed by the program on Women’s Empowerment and noted that the library housed more books on Islam and Women, than anywhere I’ve seen so far. The University addresses issues beyond the fluff stuff i.e. models for co-existence, conflict resolution, economic disparity, bilingualism and more grass roots concerns like social interaction.

Physically Haifa is a beautiful city with the largest Baha’i Temple perched on a hill with hanging gardens. We were recommended to stay at the Haddad guesthouse on the main street and it turned out that the owner’s cousin works in Air Canada! We stayed overnight enjoying the food in outdoor café’s – the coffee was an aroma I’ve never tasted before and the Mediterranean cuisine yumlicious.

Spiritually, many important events in the life of the Prophet Elijah (9th century BC) are said to have happened in a revered cave in Haifa. The cave is sacred to Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Druze, all of whom venerate the prophet Elijah. There was a mosque here until 1948. Tradition also has it that the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph and Jesus) found shelter in this cave for a night on their return from Egypt. We were also told that Prophet Elijah ascended to the skies from this cave.  It was interesting to note that all three traditions have faith in some form of ascension and all of them took place in the Holy Land.

When God created beauty, he created 10 parts of it and gave 9 to Jerusalem. He created knowledge and did the same and the same thing when He created suffering. Ancient Hebrew saying.

From Haifa we took a bus to Jerusalem because there is such beauty on the way. I could see small villages dotted with minarets, olive groves and gardens of fruit. Traveling towards Jerusalem was a moving experience because we felt we were going back in time to experience moments of miracles, sacrifice and tolerance (something we seem to have forgotten today), and our first view of the old city was heartwarming. Our friends had fortuitously arranged for our stay at a Scottish Church guest house overlooking the walled city. From our room we could see the Dome of the Rock and it was an incredible synergy. We understood why the city of Jerusalem is known in Arabic as Al-Quds or Baitul-Maqadis (“The Noble, Sacred Place”). Jerusalem is perhaps the only city in the world that is considered historically and spiritually significant to all three monotheistic faiths.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism. According to the Bible, the Talmud, and other sources of Jewish tradition, several important events in the history of Judaism took place on the Temple Mount. Here God gathered the earth from which he formed Adam. Here Adam, Cain, Abel and Noah offered sacrifices to God. Here Abraham passed God’s test by showing his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. Here Jacob dreamt about angels ascending and descending a ladder while sleeping on a stone (the stone in the Dome of the Rock is believed to be the very stone). Here King Solomon built the Temple in 950 BC, which stood for 410 years until King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it in 586 BC. Here the Second Temple was built after the Babylonian Exile, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.  During Maimonides’ residence in Jerusalem, a synagogue stood on the Temple Mount alongside other structures and Maimonides prayed there.

For Christians, it is the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection  The Temple Mount is believed to contain the “pinnacle of the Temple” from which Satan tempted Jesus to jump to prove his status as the Messiah (near Al Aqsa Mosque). The courtyard by the mosques provides an excellent view of surrounding Christian sites, including the Dome of the Ascension (marking the site from which where Jesus ascended into heaven) and the church of Dominus Flevit (commemorating the spot where Jesus wept as he saw a vision of Jerusalem in ruins).
For Muslims it is important because Muhammad originally established Jerusalem as the qibla (direction of prayer) before changing it to Mecca. As well Islam respects Abraham, David and Solomon as prophets, and regards the Temple as one of the earliest and most noteworthy places of worship of God. Verse 17:1 of the Qur’an speaks of the Prophet’s night journey to the “farthest Mosque” (al-masjid al-Aqsa). This is traditionally interpreted to be the site at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on which the mosque of that name now stands.

Jim and Karen had already toured the area and since it was close to sunset, they suggested we could go to the masjid to pray. They took us directly to the Chain gate where we could go to Masjid al Aqsa.  Our path took us by the Western Wall and it was amazing that what we had seen only on TV, was now a reality. It was in the courtyard here that we saw observant Jews hurrying to pray at the wall, religious Muslim going to the masjid and practicing Christians going to see their sacred spaces – each one careful not to step on each others toes. It was incredible to note that Catholic, Jewish and Muslim women all covered themselves and it was completely natural. The diversity was interesting and insightful.

The first sight of Dome of the Rock and Masjid al Aqsa was like a dream come true. Sohail had been literally dreaming of praying at Al-Aqsa for many months now and here we were with our souls melted in the form of tears rolling down our faces unashamedly as we stood in humility and awe in front of our first Qibla. Inside the Dome we touched the Rock which is as big as a room. Steps leading to a room under the Rock, took us to a tiny chamber where it’s believed that Prophet Mohammad prayed with other Prophets including Abraham. The entire room is soaked in fragrance and we wanted to just sit there and reflect on this miracle of God.
Fact that our Christian friends guided us to our places of worship is no surprise and suddenly my visions of seeing crosses for the past two years, became a reality. We were meant to come here with our Christian Brother and sister and feel the connection.

A young lad attached himself to us as a guide and took us to the key spots at the Haram es Shariff where there were schools, libraries, the spot where Buraq was tethered and fountains. I think what hit me most was how little we know of our history but of course as with all history, there are many versions. Here is what we understood.

Dome of the Rock (Qubbat as-Sakhrah) can be seen from all over Jerusalem. It is the crowning glory of the Haram es-Sharif (“Noble Sanctuary”), or Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock is not a mosque, but a Muslim shrine. Like the Ka’ba in Mecca, it is built over a sacred stone. This stone is believed to be the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven during his Night Journey to heaven. The Dome of the Rock is the oldest Islamic monument that stands today and certainly one of the most beautiful. It also boasts the oldest surviving mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca) in the world. By the 11th century, several legends had developed concerning the Dome of the Rock and its sacred stone, including the following:

They say that on the night of his Ascension into Heaven the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, prayed first at the Dome of the Rock, laying his hand upon the Rock. As he went out, the Rock, to do him honor, rose up, but he laid his hand on it to keep it in its place and firmly fixed it there. But by reason of this rising up, it is even to this present day partly detached from the ground beneath.

In the Middle Ages, Christians and Muslims both believed the dome to be the biblical Temple of Solomon. The Knights Templar made their headquarters there during the Crusades and later patterned their churches after its design.

The exterior mosaics that once adorned the Dome of the Rock suffered from exposure to Jerusalem winters. They were repaired in the Mamluk period, and then completely replaced with tiles by Sulieman the Magnificent in 1545. At the same time, he created the parapet wall with its intricate inscription by filling up the thirteen small arches that originally topped each facade. The windows of the Dome of the Rock date from this period as well. The tiling was completely replaced in the last major restoration in 1956-62.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque (Arabic Masjid Al-Aqsa, “Distant Mosque” – is part of the complex of religious buildings known as the Haram esh-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) to Muslims and the Temple Mount to Jews, and is the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. The first Al-Aqsa Mosque was constructed of wood by the Umayyads in 710 AD, only a few decades after the Dome of the Rock. The structure has been rebuilt at least five times; it was entirely destroyed at least once by earthquakes. The last major rebuild was in 1035. When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, Al-Aqsa became the headquarters of the Templars. Their legacy remains in the three central bays of the main facade. In the mid-14th century the Mamelukes added an extra two on either side, resulting in the seven bays that stand today.

Currently, the Temple Mount / Haram Es Sharif is governed by the Waqf, the Supreme Muslim Religious Council. The site has been under Muslim control since the Muslim reconquest of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century.

Needless to say, we visited the Harem ash Shariif as often as we could during our stay in Al-Quds but more importantly, we were able to visit other holy sites with Jim and Karen who became our spiritual guides because they had done extensive homework and had books of history which we learnt from. Our biggest surprise and delight was that every step we took showed us the incredible bonds that link us together with our brothers and sisters in creation.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been an important pilgrimage destination since the 4th century, and it remains the holiest Christian site in the world. It stands on a site that is believed to house the tomb and burial slab where Jesus’ body was placed before his resurrection.

In my interfaith dialogue, there is a story I tell my audience about when Jerusalem was conquered by Muslims. Omar came to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is a revered Christian site and it was time to pray. The patriarch offered the church but Omar said no. If he prayed there, Muslims might one day build a mosque so he went and prayed across the street. Today there is a Mosque of Omar in that spot across the street.

We went with Jim and Karen inside the church where you can feel the agony of Mary as she stood on the stairs and watched her son’s body being anointed on a slab. The walls of the sanctuary tell the heartrending story and I could sense the sadness. It’s powerful and moving and everywhere we went, there was light – even in the darkness.  We lit candles for all the people we know who would be there but could not – yet. Then we went across the street to the masjid and prayed there with Jim and Karen. The realization that we are connected is very strong for those who can sense the fragile ties that bind us together.

We were told that fierce disputes, lasting centuries, between Christian creeds over ownership of the church were largely resolved by an Ottoman decree issued in 1852. Still in force and known as the Status Quo, it divides custody among Armenians, Greeks, Copts, Roman Catholics, Ethiopians and Syrians. Some areas are administered communally. Every day, the church is unlocked by a Muslim keyholder acting as a “neutral” intermediary. This ceremonial task has been performed by a member of the same family for several generations and Jim and Karen woke up at 4am to witness this ceremony.

We walked to the Mount of Olives which has many sacred sites. To add to our amazement, the place where Jesus is believed to have ascended to the heavens is inside a mosque. The Chapel of the Ascension on Mount of Olives is a Christian and Muslim holy site that is believed to mark the place where Jesus ascended into heaven. The small round church/mosque contains a stone imprinted with the footprints of Jesus. Outside the Chapel is an unmarked tomb believed by many to be the grave of Rabia al-Adawiyya, the first Sufi saint of Islam. We were blessed and honored to offer a prayer there.

The Garden of Gethsemane is at the foot of the Mount of Olives, within the walled grounds of the Church of all Nations (also known as the Church of the Agony). It’s a peaceful garden among a grove of ancient olive trees, looking back at the eastern wall of the City of Jerusalem. A modern Franciscan church marks the spot where Jesus wept over his vision of the future destruction of Jerusalem. There are 12 Olive trees and a stone statue of Jesus weeping which would turn the hardest heart to tears. The number 12 – as in 12 disciples and the belief in 12 Imams is not a co-incidence.  In addition, Caliph Umar prayed at Gethsemane in 638.

We then visited the Church of Mary Magdalene which has stunning gold domes, Church of John the Baptist and the Convent of the Pater Noster where it is believed Jesus taught The Lords Prayer. This is a serene green sanctuary where the Lords prayer is listed in 60 languages on huge tiled walls. Having learnt The Lords Prayer in convent school and being a fervent supporter of it in Canada, I was moved by the spot. We also prayed at The Tombs of the Prophets which is a site on the Mount of Olives that a medieval Jewish tradition identifies as the tombs of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, who lived in the 6th-5th centuries BC. Both Jews and Christians venerate the site as the tombs of these prophets of the last three books of the Old Testament.
From Mount of Olives  we saw the Gate of Mercy, the Gate of Gold, the Gate of Eternal Life, Sha’ar Harahamim. This appears in the legends of all three religions. An early Jewish tradition holds that it is through that gate that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem. According to Christian tradition, Jesus made his last entry to Jerusalem through the Mercy Gate. The Muslims refer to it as the Gate of Mercy and believe it to be the gate referred to in the Koran, through which the just will pass on the Day of Judgment.

At the base of the Mount of Olives is a church said to mark the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Centered around a quarried-out tomb that may well date from the 1st century, the Tomb of the Virgin is venerated by Muslims because, during his Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, the Prophet Muhammad saw a light over Mary’s tomb. Our tears flowed freely and with no hesitation because this is a place where you can feel the blessed presence of a revered mother.

One of the most delightful parts of the visit was walking the cobbled stone streets of the Jewish quarter and seeing some of the most unusual architecture. We stopped for coffee and an authentic bagel and went to the Burnt house. We visited the Wohl Archeological Museum which is extremely educational. Located under a modern Jewish seminary in the Jewish Quarter, the Museum contains remains of Jewish dwellings from the era of Herod the Great (37-4 BC). In the time of Herod, the area of the modern-day Jewish Quarter was was part of a luxurious “Upper City,” occupied primarily by the families of important Jewish Temple priests. Excavations after the 1967 war exposed the remains of several mansions dating to this period. This rediscovered Herodian quarter now lies from 3 to 7 meters below street level, preserved in the Wohl Archaeological Museum. It’s mind boggling how the intricate work has been done so effectively. The Tomb of David is a much-revered site on Mount Zion in Jerusalem that has been variously owned and jealously guarded by Christians, Muslims and Jews throughout its history. Today it is a Jewish holy site.

The Citadel of Jerusalem is better known as the Tower of David. Nowadays the fort is distinguished by its Islamic towers and entrance porch, but the Citadel’s history goes back way before that. The Jewish historian Josephus first called the fortress the “Citadel of King David.” The name “David’s Tower” now refers to the minaret on the South side. To make things confusing the term “David’s Tower” used to be reserved in the past for the north-east tower, whose origin is Herodian.

A visit to Jerusalem is not complete or possible without marketing at the souq. The winding cobbled stone streets of the inner city are a shop-a-holics delight! Jim and I soon discovered that our spouses are serious shoppers but there was only one haggler amongst all of us – Sohail. After the three of us naïve in our Canadian ways had paid the asked-for price more than once, Sohail jumped into the fray with full attention. We stood outside the shop while the bargaining built up for hand carved olive wood pieces. The Arab shopkeepers didn’t know what hit them with this experienced Pakistani shopper who’s just returned from China! Voices got louder and reinforcements were called in. At one point Jim and Karen looked like they were going to run away and asked me if Sohail and the shopkeepers might come to blows! Hah I said – just watch. It’s only just begun. So we sat and were offered tea and juice and we waited. Sohail came out to smoke a cigar for strength but by this time, they were calling each other “brother”. Good sign. Bad sign when we threatened to go to the next shop and discovered that they were all related. I’m used to this but Jim and Karen were wide eyed and a bit concerned until they saw that the bill was down to one fourth the original price.  They never stepped inside a shop the entire trip without the amazing haggler. One souvenir that speaks to my heart is the palm of the hand called “khamsa” which is considered by everyone there to be the protective hand of God supported by an eye to ward off evil.

A friend’s daughter who lives in Bethlehem came to pick us up and took us on a tour of the West Bank and her home.  While we were in the rest of Israel, we saw progress, education and wealth. In Bethlehem we saw knowledge, beauty and pain intertwined in the writings on the wall that divides the two communities. Bethlehem is the birth place of Jesus which is a thing of beauty. There is great knowledge in the history of the cobbled streets and in the minds and hearts of the Palestinian elders sitting on the corner café sipping coffee. One old man has sat there for 20 years sharing his wisdom.  We understood their passionate need for a homeland and at the same time, the desire to be recognized.

We’ve come back from the Holy Land with renewed respect and admiration for both sides, realizing that there is a turbulent history of the past and present here, but also with a sense that there is hope for peace if there is a desire to make it happen.

I have heard that many eons ago Jerusalem was considered to the fountain of wisdom because of the shared knowledge of our three traditions. I hope and pray that we will one day learn to share that knowledge again, and use it for peace with each other.