One obvious characteristic of the city of Jerusalem are its walls ... both ancient and modern. Although built of stone, the walls of the Holy City speak eloquently of its rich past, its present, troubled circumstances, and its clouded future.
The Old City Walls
The walls you can see today around Jerusalem's old city were built by the Turkish sultan Suleiman the "Magnificent" during the years 1536-1541.
During this period the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith of power. In Jerusalem, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in peace, and it was possible to find synagogues, churches and mosques in the same neighborhood. The ideal of a holy city, open freely to people of all faiths, which now seems to be a distant ideal, was then a reality.
Still, it should be remembered that the Ottoman Empire was established by conquest and that Jerusalem has been fought over by peoples of the world for centuries. Canaanites and Egyptians, Syrians and Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, Turks and Arabs, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all been caught up, at one time or another, in fighting over possession and control of the city.
The Western Wall
The first great temple of Judaism was constructed on this site by King Solomon in the 10th Century BCE. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and later reconstructed and rededicated in 515 BCE as the Second Temple. This, too was destroyed, in this case by the Romans in 70 CE. Each of the great temples stood for about 400 years and became the focal point for Jewish worship during that time.
According to some sources, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, only a part of an outer court-yard "western wall" remained standing. Some texts indicate that the Roman Emperor, Titus, left this portion of the Temple Mount as a bitter reminder to the Jews that Rome had vanquished their nation. The Jews, however, attributed this to a promise made by God that some part of the holy Temple would be left standing as a sign of God's unbroken bond with the Jewish people, and as an indication that the temple would one day be rebuilt.
The latest wall to be constructed in and around Jerusalem is the security wall, approved by the Israeli government in a series of decision beginning in 2002. While it is referred to frequently as a "fence," and in fact is a fence along much of the border between Israel and the West Bank, in more urban areas, and particularly Jerusalem, the security barrier is very clearly a wall. A very high wall.
The rationale for the construction of the wall is, of course, "security." And since its construction the number of suicide attacks has declined ... sharply. Still, the route of the wall appears to have been determined by political as well as security considerations. Much of the wall in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem was constructed on Palestinian land. In east Jerusalem, for example, several Palestinian villages are literally cut in two; some Palestinians find it difficult or impossible to travel to schools, hospitals, or place of employment.
As a result, in addition to its function as part and parcel of Israel's security apparatus, it has become a focal point for Palestinian resentment. It is also functions as billboard on which the people confined by its presence, express their resentment and rage.
Clearly, both Jews and Palestinians would join in the prayer that conditions in the region may one day allow this wall to come tumbling down. Whether the presence of the wall brings that day closer ... or pushes it into the more distant future, remains to be seen. In the meantime, it is a stark reminder that the most dangerous and destructive characteristics of human nature are all too blatantly on view in the midst of what a majority of the world's people regard as the most holy of cities.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.