JERUSALEM – On Friday morning, as clashes flared up at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, Muslims inside and outside the mosque were fasting for the 14th day of Ramadan.
A few hundred yards away, Jews were burning leavened bread, a traditional ceremony that takes place just before Passover, which officially began on Friday night.
A few minutes to the north, Christians began a procession through the old town, with wooden crosses aloft, following the route they believe Jesus Christ took before his crucifixion.
For the first time since 1991, Passover, Easter and Ramadan were all at once about to intensify the religious synergies and tensions that have defined Jerusalem for millennia.
For some, the overlap embodied the miracle of Jerusalem and the semblance of coexistence between its peoples.
“Jerusalem right now is a symphony of people reaching out to God,” said Barnea Selavan, a rabbi and teacher who had just finished burning his family’s leftover leavened bread.
For others, the convergence highlighted the incompatibilities and inequalities of a city where many Palestinian residents believe they live under occupation. Clashes broke out again on Sunday after Israeli police officers stopped Muslims from entering the Aqsa mosque grounds for several hours so that Jews could pray.
“Jerusalem is like a salad bowl,” said Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor of Islamic thought who had just left the mosque. “You have intact tomatoes and intact cucumbers and intact lettuce leaves. You have no salad.”
And for some Christians whose Easter Friday procession started earlier than usual to avoid harassing Muslims going to the mosque, the convergence of holidays underscored the feeling of being a minority within a minority.
“We’re like mashed potatoes among everyone,” said Serene Bathish, a leader of an Arab-Christian scouts club that helped organize the Easter parade. “We are between two fires.”
Far from seas and great rivers, and high in the mountains, Jerusalem had little strategic significance, military or commercial, for much of its history. Its power and relevance mostly lay in the spiritual grip it had on millions of people, many of whom had never visited it and to whom it had often meant drastically different things.
For Jews, Jerusalem is their ancient capital, the seat of King David and the site of two ancient Jewish temples where they believe God’s presence resided. For Muslims, it was from the same spot that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and upon which they built the grounds of the Aqsa Mosque, the third most sacred site in Islam. For Christians, it is the city where Jesus was crucified and ascended into heaven – where Christianity was born.
The old city was ruled by the Ottomans until 1917, the British until 1948 and Jordan until 1967, when Israel conquered it and later annexed it. Much of the world still considers it occupied, and Palestinians hope it will be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
“Everyone has a Jerusalem in their head,” says Matthew Teller, the author of “Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City.”
“When you get there and you really see it in real life,” he said, “it can never match.”
Thus, on Thursday evening, the eve of the first meeting of the three holidays since 1991, began with an intense traffic jam.
On the narrow road that circles the ancient city, Christians like Mrs. Bathish were on their way to a service next to the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive grove of shriveled trees where, according to lore, Jesus was arrested the night before his crucifixion. And Muslims like Professor Abu Sway made their way to the Aqsa Mosque, where tens of thousands had just broken their fast during Ramadan over a communal iftar or meal.
Around the old city walls, built by the Ottomans who ruled Jerusalem in the 1500s, Muslim families picnicked here and there on the grassy verges. They broke their fast to a soundtrack of car horns, distant chants from the mosque and, later, faint choral melodies coming from the basilica in Gethsemane.
For everyone, traffic was stuck and surrounded this ancient city with a ring of cars and buses, the mystical surrounded by the profane.
Thursday evening was a little quieter in Rabbi Selavan’s apartment in the Jewish quarter of the old town.
He and his wife, Shoshana, symbolically hid bits of their last remaining leavened bread—bought from a rare Arabic kosher bakery in the Old City—around their home, behind chairs and a trash can, and under tables. Then they went looking for the pieces that the other had hidden.
According to Jewish teaching, Jews are not allowed to eat leavened bread during the week of Passover, which celebrates the escape of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The Old Testament says that they escaped so quickly that they had no time to raise their bread.
For Rabbi Shelavan it was extraordinary to celebrate the holiday in the city that the descendants of the Israelites eventually made their capital. In his sitting room he has a small oil lamp that he found during an excavation under his house and which he says was used in Jerusalem during the time of King Solomon, about 3,000 years ago. It is filled with charcoal that he believes comes from the charred remains of the ancient city, after it was destroyed by the Romans around AD 70.
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“I am in a rebuilt – at least partially – Jerusalem,” Rabbi Selavan said. “I’m doing it where it was done.”
Half a mile away, hundreds of Christians in Gethsemane, including Mrs. Bathish, began a procession from the basilica. They sang and carried candles through the traffic jam, the everyday mingling again with the ethereal.
“Stay on the sidewalk!” shouted an organizer in Arabic. “Not on the road!”
The procession passed through a patch of churchland that Israeli authorities had recently planned to repurpose as a national park before falling back amid Christian claims of discrimination. It then passed the Jewish cemetery at the foot of the Mount of Olives, before winding through a valley filled with eccentric ancient monuments – the pyramidal tomb of Zechariah, the conical roof of Absalom – then up to the ancient city walls.
For Mrs. Bathish, it is a privilege to celebrate Easter where it began, and to live a few yards from the place where Christians believe Christ died.
“But actually we can’t enjoy it that much,” she said. There are an estimated 5,000 Christians left in the old city, in addition to around 30,000 Muslims and 5,000 Jews – and they feel wedged between the two.
After government efforts to repurpose church land near Gethsemane falter, church leaders are embroiled in a property dispute with a Jewish settler group over buildings on the other side of the old city.
Fighting these legal challenges and living in a tightly controlled area, while all struggling for cultural recognition, is “extremely exhausting, time-consuming, difficult, chaotic and uncertain,” Ms Bathish said. “We don’t enjoy the whole sense of uniqueness.”
A few hundred yards away, on the promontory where Jews and Christians claim Abraham tried to sacrifice his son Isaac, Professor Abu Sway, the Islamic theologian, was in his element. With his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, he listened to a reading of the Quran.
For Jews, it was on the Temple Mount, the site of a Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans. But for Muslims, this is the complex of the Aqsa Mosque, a 36-acre esplanade that houses the golden Dome of the Rock, a shrine that marks the ascent of the Prophet Muhammad.
An imam had just read part of the Quran about the prophet Musa, who was called Moshe to Jews and Moses to Christians, and was soon to start a chapter on Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem.
Dipping into the moment, “Looks like I’m in love,” said Professor Abu Sway. “When you enter the Aqsa Mosque,” he said, “you feel that you are blessed, that it is something special that not many people have access to.”
But to the professor, that realization was bittersweet.
For Rabbi Selavan, the coincidence of the holidays embodied the shared life of the city and proved the efforts of the Israeli state to preserve freedom of worship. “The thinking person realizes the freedom they have under the Israeli government to serve God in their own way,” the rabbi said.
But for Professor Abu Sway, the convergence was a reminder that many Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are not allowed to enter Jerusalem to worship. And Friday’s violence in the mosque, between Israeli police and Palestinian stone throwers, emphasized not coexistence, but coercion.
“There can be no coexistence,” said Professor Abu Sway, “if you have a profession.”
Myra Noveck reporting contributed.