Perhaps the most repeated observation about Jerusalem is that it’s a sacred city for the three monotheistic faiths of the west, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Hundreds of tour guides tell it to the busloads of tourists brought to the city each day. Journalists who have to file stories from and about Jerusalem will use this description in their leads.
But what does that observation really mean? What does it mean to call a place, a city sacred?
Of course, this immediately refers to sites and buildings which contain and make concrete the sacred or the holy. In Jerusalem, there are literally hundreds of these containers, some better known than others.
One can immediately think of the Western Wall for the Jews, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Garden Tomb for Christians, or the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque for Islam.
These containers are only the hardware of a sacred place. A more fundamental question is what are the dynamics or the software that make a place holy?
In each case the containers “mark” the breakthrough of the divine and transcendent world into the mundane, immanent world of humans.
This is the rock where God ordered Abraham to bind his son Isaac for sacrifice, and where later David and Solomon would build the central ritual structure of Judaism, the twice-destroyed temple that many Jews dream will be rebuilt in a messianic future when the dead are revived.
These are the streets and stones touched by Jesus, the son of God, the place where the central ritual of Christianity was revealed, which identified bread and wine with the sacrificial body and blood of the savior, and the place where the End Times will be orchestrated.
This is the place where God brought his Prophet Muhammad in a miraculous night journey.
From the very same rock, chosen by God, Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, Jesus was crucified and Muhammad ascended into paradise to receive the order of daily prayer for Islam. It’s also where the Day of Judgment will begin, where the righteous and the wicked will receive their rewards and punishments.
A sacred place pivots the heavenly world and the human world; it’s the meeting point between the two.
This means, of course, human behavior must be more disciplined and guarded than if one where just visiting another place like Los Angeles or Miami.
Rituals are required to maintain the presence of the sacred. Pilgrims and residents dress differently and speak differently, and often become nervous, tense and even violent when they think others are not behaving appropriately.
Time in sacred places is heavier than in other places. The present is soaked with the past and the future.
Memory is both individual (my mother and father owned a bakery there on that corner) and collective or national (my people began here) and is present in every action and in every encounter.
Your existential history is here, who you really are, and every event of consequence happened in this place.
In a place like Jerusalem, religion is politics and politics is religion. These human activities are seamlessly bound together.
Holy cities are not just divided by religion and politics, but, as the distinguished Israeli urbanist and former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti noted, are polarized by religion and politics.
The sacredness of places like Jerusalem is never static. It always is changing, another layer of meaning and symbolism is built on those before, and others will be built in the future.