Throngs of tourists and others dressed in assorted religious garb meander purposefully, though a bit tentatively, through the streets of Jerusalem making already busy, tiny and ancient walkways that much more impassable. They look up at the old street signs and down at their maps, listen to their walking tours and squint back up at the signs written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, trying to determine if they are in the right place and heading in the right direction.
This parade takes place every Friday afternoon, but this particular Friday is Good Friday, in Jerusalem, one of the holiest cities in the world. The throngs are massive, and they are walking the Stations of the Cross or the Via Dolorosa, the path thought to be the one taken by Jesus on the way to the crucifixion.
The operative phrase is “thought to be,” because no one knows for sure. In fact, a majority of the “holy” places in Israel are “traditional” locations rather than the actual places, because there is no way to know with certainty where the places are located.
However, there is one site known to be authentic without a doubt because it has been documented not just in the “oral tradition,” the way in which most other “holy” locations have been designated, but in writing throughout time. Built by Herod the Great in 20 BCE, with ongoing work that continued after the of his death in 4 BCE, The Wailing Wall is the sole remainder of the retaining wall of the Temple. Also known as the Western Wall, Ha Kotel, it was documented during the Roman period, the Middle Ages, and onward.
As the only surviving remnant of the Holy Temple, this holy place brings religious and not-so-religious, alike, to one of the few places known to be authentic. To be as close as possible to the Holy of Holies, the innermost Sanctuary which contained the Ark of the Covenant, is for some, the journey of a lifetime. To not only see the Wall, but also touch the Wall, and perhaps leave a note in one of its thousands of years old cracks is an act beyond comparison.
Behind this holy wall lies the Al Aksa Mosque, one of the most sacred sites in Islam. Built on top of the Temple Mount and having been rebuilt many times over and in multiple sizes, for more than 1000 years (Islam only began at the beginning of the 7th century) it was also used as a church by the Crusaders, and many controversies exist. Muslims believe this is the location from whence Muhammad flew to heaven on a creature called Al-Buraq al-Sharif, a mythological steed from the heavens that transported Prophets. Once again, this is a traditional attribution and location rather than authentic.
Masada, the great fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, also built by Herod, is revered for the events surrounding the Roman siege of the mountain against Jewish rebels ensconced in the fortress in 74 ACE. It may not be one of the holiest sites, in the most literal sense of the word, but it has taken on a religious significance of its own, bringing it near to the level of holiness, and is considered one of the true “holy” sites in Israel.
Looking out over the desert and the Dead Sea, and with the Romans rapidly approaching up the siege ramp, the Jewish rebels decided that, rather than be killed or taken as slaves by the Romans they would commit mass suicide by their own free will. This brave decision has brought the site a level of reverence near to holy.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs, another authentic and holy site, the second holiest site in Judaism, is located in Hebron and it can be difficult to gain access. Built for the most part by Herod in the First Century BCE, with additions made centuries later by the Crusaders, it is revered as the burial site of the Jewish Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their wives, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah.
Surprisingly, since Abraham is also revered in Islam, Muslims consider it a holy site, as well.
Other Jewish holy sites exist throughout Israel including those that are now more difficult to reach such as the Tomb of Rachel (also a wife of Jacob), located in Bethlehem, and also revered by Christians and Muslims. Although it has not been proven to be the authentic burial site, it is believed to be the most likely, and she is honored as the most powerful matriarch and “intercessor” for the people of Israel.
No longer easily reachable is Mount Sinai, a mountain at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula where according to the Book of Exodus, God spoke to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. One of the most visited sites by dedicated tourists and others before the peninsula’s return to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty brokered by Jimmy Carter between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, it now lies within Egypt making it much harder to reach and more precarious to visit.
One might say that the holiest site in Israel is the land of Israel, itself. Partitioned by the U.N. in 1947 in an area surrounded by Arab countries and overseen as a British Colonial Mandate, it was declared a State by David Ben-Gurion in 1948 (and was recognized as a nation by Pres. Harry Truman on the same day), at which time it was invaded by five surrounding Arab countries, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
The tiny, brand new nation fought back with the Haganah, an underground paramilitary force, and arms they had covertly acquired abroad which were immediately brought into the country once the mandate was lifted. The War of Independence ultimately provided what the Jewish people had longed for so long, a home for the Jewish people.
As a travel destination, Israel is welcoming to people of all religions and cultures. As a nation to which one can immigrate (make “aliyah”) Israel has welcomed immigrants from a myriad of countries such as Russia, Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, Ethiopia, Eastern Europe, North and South American, and more, even welcoming the Vietnamese “Boat People” in the late 1970’s.
By that action alone, Israel, in its entirety, may be considered the holiest site of all.