Easter morning at the Mount of Olives. Easter day at the Dome of the Rock.

Last year, I was at a cave in the heart of Iran for Easter. This year I am in Jerusalem. It does not get much better than this and I know how very lucky and privileged I am. To do justice to the occasion I got up before five to be at the Mount of Olives to observe the sunrise. I found a spot in the Jewish Cemetery across the Old City and sat there for a couple of hours taking pictures, watching the darkness flee from the rays of the sun.

Like a beacon, the gilding of the Dome of the Rock picks up the light and outshines everything else in town. The white sandstone that most of the buildings are made of glow in the early morning sun and hardly a person or a car was out yet. A couple of early risers had gathered for sunrise sermons, but they did not come near the Jewish cemetery – wrong religion, wrong time. But it was there, that I could have my own spiritual moment away from it all. Organized religion is nothing for me. But to sit and to contemplate the richness of the history of this place on this very special day felt just right.

I realized that I had left Maat behind in Egypt and Mary Nisbet behind in Turkey. In Iraq, my Pantheon was drowned out by too many people around me. A new virtual travel mate made no sense. But as I was sitting and contemplating, I felt a deep affinity to Mary Magdalene, the most controversial of the three Marys who this very morning way back when, according to tradition, sought out Jesus’ tomb and found it empty. Mary Magdalene in some sources is described as a repentant sinner, a woman whose seven demons had to be driven out, and a woman who was closest to and most beloved by Christ. I like her for her complexity. And this very moment I liked her for having been here before, two thousand years ago. I think, she would be perfect to travel with me through this holy land.

I also like her because she reminds me of a childhood incident. My father and I were walking through the woods and came across a plant which curled up its leaves at the merest touch. The Latin name for it is “Nole me tangere” or “Don’t touch me”, my father explained; and he told me about Mary Magdalene. I have never forgotten that phrase even though I was hardly older than 6. Nole me tangere were the words, the risen Christ is believed to have said to Mary Magdalene, the first to spot him in the garden. She took him for the gardener until she identified him by hearing those words: Nole me tangere.

And so it is that Mary Magdalene joined my Pantheon.

I hiked along the rim of the Mount of Olives, visited the Garden of Gethsemane, and circled back through the Lion Gate to the Western Wall. Destination: Dome of the Rock. There is only one gate near the Western wall which is the entry point for tourists. The Dome area is only open until 11 AM for outsiders and visitors are no longer allowed inside the mosque or the dome itself. What a shame. I am lucky that 16 years ago, I saw the interior of both. It is the Israeli police that check people’s luggage and patrols the mountain. But it is the Muslims who no longer allow entry into their sanctuaries; I am not quite sure why.

The temple mount area is huge. In the Jewish tradition it is known as Mount Moriah on which the temple stood. In the Islamic tradition it is referred to as Al Haram Ash Sharif. Aside from the Dome of the Rock there is the Al Aqsa Mosque, a madrassa (also the First Station of the Cross or what was believed to be the House of Pontius Pilate) and many small gates, fountains, towers, and buildings whose functions are obscure to me. What was most stunning for me to see was a group of orthodox Jews. It is a very tricky thing for Jews to enter the Temple Mount. It is strictly forbidden according to Jewish law to enter the Holiest of Holy. Since the Dome was built over the former Jewish Temple, the Holiest has to be somewhere. The Jewish group – escorted, by the way, by four armed soldiers who attached themselves to the group as soon as they entered – did not go near the dome but circled the area on its outskirts. I have to assume that visits like this do not happen too often. I was so reminded of our police escorts in Iraq. We drew more attention this way than if we had just walked around by ourselves. But then, orthodox Jews are always recognizable as such just as we always could be picked as foreigners no matter how much we tried to blend in. The likelihood of violence was minimal, but the escort acted as a deterrent; fair enough.

At the Western wall special prayers were under way for the last day of Passover. The Torah was read on various tables set up near the Western Wall and many worshipers had crowded into the immediate area before the wall praying and swaying. By tomorrow night that too, will be over. It was early afternoon, when I decided to head back to the hotel. I had been up and about already for over 9 hours and seen enough for a day.

By the time I wrote it all down, processed the images, and called my relatives for Easter, it was way after midnight… And this is how a very special Easter week in Jerusalem went, where Orthodox Easter, Western Church Easter and Passover had all fallen onto the same week for a unique spiritual frenzy.

Only in Jerusalem!

Good night.

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  1. These days were certainly a”once in a lifetime” experience – to have found Passover and both Western and Orthodox Easter all merged together as you sit and contemplate in the early morning sunrise until you close the day left with unbelievable memories. How interesting for your Dad to have passed on the “do not touch” story – they have that plant at the U of M Botanical gardens. Your pictures are wonderful.

  2. I thought about you on Easter while having dinner with my family and told them how I wondered what you were doing today and how you had spent last Easter in a cave in Iraq.
    I’m glad your Easter vacation was well spent in the Holy Land and you have a wonderful memory : )