My next flight was for the one of the trips of my life so far, one of the most awaited one and one of the most I have always wished for, the travel to Jerusalem; The Mosque Aqsa.
I was getting the feeling of my destination when I was waiting in the line to board the plane. As soon as the plane landed on the Tel Aviv airport, people going back home started clapping as soon as the wheels touch the ground. The clap was the sign of their nationalism and pride.
Israel is a place with very tight security all over and you can see it and feel it as soon as you step out of the plane. Security officials at the end of the tunnel and then immediately the passport control. I was respectfully asked to wait in a designated area for an interview before they can give me on arrival visa and allow entry to the country. I was guided to wait in a small waiting room with a coffee and a wending machine in the room; and the coffee was good. I waited for about 5 minutes before a junior (I assume only) immigration officer took me with her for interview. She accompanied me back to the waiting area and asked me to wait for the next interview. About10-15 minutes of wait a young man, probably the senior (I assume only) immigration officer took me with him for interview. The interview was related to my personal life, purpose of travel, my work etc… After about an hour long interview I was asked to wait in the waiting area. After a cup of green tea, the immigration officer walked into the room with a smile and my passport; handed me over the passport and said, “Enjoy your stay.” The people all over the airport are friendly, smiling and helpful. I could feel that people welcome tourists with open hearts.
The weather was warm outside. I went to the taxi section and boarded a minivan taxi called Sherut to go to Jerusalem (the cheapest mode of commute from the airport). The travel is about 1.5 hours due to dropping off passengers in on the way.
What a sight it was when I saw the golden dome of Al Quds when we entered the city, Jerusalem. The city with history dated back to more than 5000 years. The place considered holy to the three major Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Being an emotional person I was already getting the influence of the rich history and thousands of years old airs I was inhaling.
After about 1.5 hours and at 1:00 AM in the morning, the driver stopped about 5 minutes’ walk away from the Jerusalem old city. I must tell you some background of the location and geography otherwise I will not be doing the justice with this piece of writing.
The oldest part of Jerusalem was settled in the 4th Millennium BCE. The walls were built around Jerusalem under the rule of Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan who build Blue Mosque, restored Dome of Rock (Al Quds) and restored Kaaba. Today those walls and doors still exist and define the Jerusalem Old City. The Jerusalem Old city is a world heritage since 1981 and is on the list of world heritage in danger.
The Old city is divided in 4 quarters – The Muslim Quarter, Jewish Quarter, Christian Quarter and Armenian Quarter. The Muslim and Jewish Quarter share the walls offal Aqsa Mosque compound.
I started walking down the street on a slightly curved road and after about 5 minutes’ walk, I was standing just outside the Damascus gate. I stood there for few minutes assembling all my emotions and prepared myself to share a piece of 5000 years old history.
I entered through the gate, the narrow streets (cars cannot enter the old city because streets are too narrow), closely build multi storey rock buildings took me back into time. After about 15 minutes’ walk, passing through 3 check posts I was in front of my hostel. I went straight to bed for a well needed sleep.
I woke up early in the morning, got ready for my tour to the Dead Sea. Had breakfast, stood outside the hostel and realised that my hostel was sharing the wall of the Al Aqsa compound, I was the neighbour to the first Qibla, the door to the Aqsa Mosque compound and my hostels were only literally 2 seconds walk away, I was extremely happy and rushed to enter the Mosque but I was stopped at the check post and I was asked if I were a Muslim (only Muslims are allowed to enter the Mosque), they asked me to recite some Quran before the allowed me to enter the Mosque. As soon as I entered, ALLAH HU Akbar, how can I forget the sight of the Mosque and the Al Quds (Dome of rock) my panoramic eye sight captured. I was mesmerised and I stood still for few seconds before going further inside. I only toured the outer area of the compound, didn’t enter the Mosque and left for my Dead Sea tour (later I regretted it).
Security outside the Mosque compound is in control of Israeli police and special police whereas the security inside the Mosque is in control by Jordanian authorities. The Mosque is opened during the prayer hours. Five time Adhan and prayer is offered in the Mosque. Technically the Mosque is closed for 2 hours between Duhar and Asar prayers and then closes down after Isha prayers.
I was picked up from outside the old city by the tour operator and left for the Dead Sea. About 1.5 hours’ drive we were at the Dead Sea; the lowest point of the Earth. No sign of life in the area, no birds, no waves in the water. I floated in the water, the water is so salty and concentrated that you can feel the salt on your body while you are in the water. No swimming is allowed and only floating is allowed. It is recommended to have a mud mask of the shore mud and wash it in the water as it is extremely good for skin. I did the same, took mud mask and floated in the water. The scenery was so beautiful but it was constantly reminding of the people of the Prophet Lut; who are buried in the bottom of the Dead see and I could only recite ASTAGHFAR throughout my visit to the Dead Sea. Dead Sea is technically a river, one bank touches Israel while the other touches Jordon
On our way back we were taken to Ahava factory, which makes cosmetics and skin products from Dead Sea mineral (very expensive). By the time I reached back to my hotel it was already after Isha prayer and the Al Aqsa Mosque was closed.
Next morning I found out that the Al Aqsa Mosque is closed, first time since 1967 Arab-Israel War. A heart break for me. I could hear my heart broken – this was day I reserved only for the Mosque in my itinerary. Due to a major conflict the Mosque was closed down, helicopters flying over the old city and non-residents of the Muslim quarters were not allowed to enter the Muslim Quarter and every entry near to the Mosque had couple of check posts to stop people from entering the Muslim Quarter and eventually inside the Mosque.
I was feeling the unluckiest person on the planet; imagine I travelled so far to visit the Al Aqsa mosque and the something happened that has never happened in last 47 years. I felt like ALLAH was not happy with me, and I realised that I went against the Hadith that not to go near the places where Divine Punishment was given to the people. I went to the Dead see to take lesson from the past to improve myself personally but I forgot that my intentions were far below to what Prophet Muhammad (s) told us. I felt sinful, I regretted and started repenting. In those moments of repentance, I felt Allah inspired me to tour the old city.
I started to tour the old city myself that day. Explored the Muslim quarter and entered into the Christian quarter. The first 2 places to visit were the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Omar Mosque
Church of Holy Sepulchre is very sacred for Christians, some of the main highlights of the Church are:
Piece of rock, as per Christian belief that Prophet Isa died on that rock
Grave of Prophet Isa, as per Christian belief, Prohet Isa’s body was taken by angels from that room
Possible grave of Prophet Adam. As per the local believe that Prophet Noah brought the remains of Prophet Adam before the great storm and buried him there after the storm.
The Church of Holy Sepulchre closes down in night and is re-opened before the dawn breaks. Interestingly the keys to the lock of the church are in the custody of a Muslim family for centuries, the same family who was given the custody of the church to look after at the time Ottoman capture.
Mosque Omar is exactly opposite to the main entrance of the Church of Holy Sepulchre. This Mosque is strictly open for prayers only. When Hazrat Omar conquered the Jerusalem city and was taken to the church of holy Sepulchre, the time of Duhar prayr started. Hazrat Omer denied to pray inside the church besides being offered by the custodian; advising that he didn’t want any conflict in future between Muslims and Christians over the place. He threw the stone from the gate of the church and prayed on the sport where the stone landed. This Mosque was later build on that place.
Next stop was Khanqah Salahuddin Ayyubi. This room, tucked away in the Muslim quarter, neighbour to the church of Holy Sepulchre is where the great Muslim general Salahuddin Ayyubi stayed when he wanted seclusion and carry out voluntarily (Nafil) worship. The pillars still exist next to which Salahuddin Ayyubi sat and pray. The place is a Mosque and inside a house which is now occupied by a Muslim family. The place is maintained on donations from the visitors.
Via Dolorosa is the main street passing through Christian and Muslim Quarters. This street is believed to be the path Prophet Isa walked, carrying his cross on the way to his crucifixion. It is marked today by 9 stations with further 5 stations inside the church of holy Sepulchre. Few main highlights of the street are:
Church of holy Sepulchre
Chapel of Simon of Cyrene
A small chapel where the metal crown of thorns is preserved which is believed to be placed on the head of Prophet Isa during his crucifixion.
Birth place of Hazrat Maryam
Birth place of Hazrat Maryam, the room is secluded and a church is built over the place. This is Church of St.Anne located near the Lion’s gate in the Muslim Quarter.
Ruins of the Jerusalem city and place near where Prophet Isa killed a man
The ruins are just outside the church above the birth place of Hazrat Maryam
Via Dolorosa runs through Muslim Quarter and ends at the Lion’s gate where there is a hundreds of year’s old Muslim graveyard. There rest in peace, Hazrat Shaddad Bin Aus who have narrated several ahadiths directly from the Prophet Muhammad (s).
Mount of Olives is further down the road, about 15 minutes’ walk outside the old city. The bottom of this mount are 2 tombs significant for Muslims and a place mark:
Tomb of Hazrat Maryam
A Church is built around the place
Grave of Al Sheikh Abdul Rehman Mojeer Uddin Alhanbli (grandson of the great caliph Hazrat Omar)
Next to the tomb of Hazrat Maryam under a prominent shade above the Jew cemetery
Maqam of Hazrat Salman Farsi – this place is on the Mount of Olives that marks where once he stayed
On my way back to enter the old city, I was not allowed to enter the old city because of some conflict that took a night before. But a senior office allowed me to enter when I advised that I am a tourist and staying inside the old city itself.
Next, Part 3 Jerusalem II in AMUST issue # 112, March 2015.