Jerusalem At the Time of Jesus

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This would have been his path. According to the Gospels, it was in the area of Bethany and Bethphage that Jesus would have stayed each evening of the Passover holiday-on the far slope of the Mount of Olives, where his followers Mary and Martha lived and where he raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. During the festival it was a tradition and a necessity for pilgrims to spend the night on the outlying hills. Each morning Jesus would have set out again, over the top of the mount and then down its western slope to the great holy city below.

Today verses from the Koran waft from a dozen open windows in the town of Bethany. Islam regards Jesus as a great prophet, and Bethany's mostly Muslim residents are proud of its 2,000-year-old tradition. Just a few yards down a steep road from the tomb believed to have been Lazarus' is al Ozir Mosque, named for him in Arabic; a few yards up is a Greek Orthodox church honoring Mary and Martha. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, would have walked up this hill, a local woman explains, and turned right at the top toward Bethphage.

Next would have come a hike along the hill's crest, which would have led him to a place now occupied by a hotel called the Seven Arches. The view here is stunning. Directly below is an ancient necropolis-an immense graveyard dating back long before Jesus that could cause anyone, not just a religious rebel with a price on his head, to consider his mortality. The ground falls off sharply, dotted with stands of pine and, yes, silvery green olive trees. Jesus-or his donkey-would have picked his way from here down into the Kidron Valley. On the other side, then as now, a great tan wall-the grandiose platform for a place of worship-would have reared up before him. He would have passed through what was known as the Beautiful Gate and entered Jerusalem.

Across from the Seven Arches, five or six colored hens pick for corn, and a herd of sheep grazes among scarlet anemones. Hiba Gaith, an 11-year-old Palestinian girl who lives nearby, is singing a song she and her friends learned at school. She wears jeans, and her long ponytail is done up with a brown butterfly clip. "The sound of the stone/ The blood of usurpers/ The hearts are bleeding in fury/ They carry stones in their small hands/ And challenge the aggressors," she sings. "The martyr Mohammed/ Seen by millions/ Taking refuge in the bosom of his father/ Dying by damned bullets/ His blood is splashing in the sky." The song, by Egyptian pop artist Walid Tawfiq, is about Mohammed al-Durra, the 12-year-old whom the world witnessed dying in his father's arms in cross fire last October during the early stages of the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflagration. The tune, says Hiba, "is implanted in my heart."

Seven-year-old Mahmoud Zomored zooms by on his red-and-black tricycle. He pauses to peer down at the city below. What does he see there? "I see war." Why? "The Arabs throw stones at Jews, and Jews kill Arabs." Does he throw stones? "No. I do not want to die."

It is impossible today to hear the word Jerusalem without thinking about the violence that is again bedeviling the Holy Land. The Palestinians do more than throw stones; and the Israelis are entitled to their own odes to lost children. Like 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass, the daughter of Jewish settlers in the mostly Palestinian city of Hebron, who died last month when a sniper put a bullet, apparently intentionally, through her head. Last week, one-year-old Ariel Yered was critically wounded in a Palestinian mortar attack on the Atzmona settlement in the Gaza Strip. Almost 400 Palestinians and 65 Israelis have died since last fall, when peace negotiations imploded over the question of Jerusalem's status.

The current agony is not atypical of the locale's holy, bloody history. Over the centuries, each of the West's great faiths has coveted the city; each alternately has controlled it, and each has constructed around it a separate sacred history. As the myths have collided, the result has been a play of extremes: physical splendor alternating with utter destruction; moments of pious exultation oscillating with the grossest carnage. Or sometimes carnage and exultation at once. "Men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins," wrote an 11th century Crusader fresh from a massacre of Muslims on the Temple Mount. He added, "Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God."

The years from A.D. 1 to A.D. 33 happened to be a high point for the holy city. It was, says Eric Meyers, professor of Judaic studies at Duke University, "a great, great metropolitan area" and home to the lavishly restored Jewish Temple, a world-renowned wonder. It was prosperous and cosmopolitan. And it was also, unknowingly, the cradle for something else, a way of believing, of seeing, that would change the West and the rest of history. It is worth revisiting Jerusalem during this period not so much in celebration as in curiosity-to know the metropolis that shaped Jesus' last ministry and so wove itself into his great story, and to note, cautiously, the ways in which its vexations foreshadow those of Jerusalem today.

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