In medieval Western European maps of the world, Jerusalem is depicted as lying at the center of everything, the “navel of the universe.” If medieval cartographers were rather foggy about the distant edges of their world, their sense was exactly correct when it came to the central placement of Jerusalem. When we say that a certain city contains “the world,” we usually have in mind a supposedly “cosmopolitan” place like New York City or London. But in many ways it is the small, tightly compressed city of Jerusalem, up out of the way in the Judean Hills, that deserves more than other places to be called the “meeting place” of the world, whether in the medieval or early modern past or today.
In Jerusalem, the world in all its complexity and wonder and terror crams in alongside stones that are themselves crammed together at the crest of a precarious valley, seeking God and much else beside. To say that Christians, Jews, and Muslims are jumbled together into this holy (and sometimes decidedly, aggressively un-holy) space is quite cliché, but like many clichés it contains truth. More accurately, Jerusalem herself jumbles into visitors and inhabitants alike, and the lines between Jew, Muslim, and Christian—terms we casually toss off but which themselves contain multitudes when considered in real depth—get blurry and sometimes bloody. The feet of pilgrims sink the stones of her streets a little lower, together, year after year after year.
It is not only people in the present who meet and overlap and clash here. If one looks and listens, the traces and lingering lives of pilgrims past can be discerned in the very fabric of the city and its surroundings. Look long enough, and one’s own self starts to tangle up with the selves of others; stories cross and re-cross, and the past remains beautifully and agonizingly present. In this series of reflections of my time in and around Jerusalem, into which I have mingled the stories and recollections and traces of past pilgrims, I hope to convey some of this entanglement, this complexity and confusion, this overlapping of present and past lives, of pilgrims come and gone from the center of the world, finding God and finding one another, if not always in that order.
I have broken my reflections into three sections, each centered on a particular location in or near the Old City of Jerusalem, each dominated—but hardly determined—by the presence of one of the “three faiths” of the city. I begin with a story that mostly has to do with Islam, set within the narrow and history-heavy streets of the Old City.
My day in the Holy City had not gone as planned. Sojourning in Jerusalem as both a historian and as an Eastern Orthodox pilgrim to the Holy Places—roles not always easily or meaningfully disentangled—I had set out in the morning in the first capacity. I made my way down through the Muslim Quarter to its southern edge, where it suddenly and incongruously gives way to the Jewish Quarter. The transition is marked by the abrupt disappearance of the scruffy medieval and early modern structures of the other quarters, replaced by brand new (for Jerusalem at least) constructions, all postdating the 1967 war. It is also marked by security devices, from cameras eyeing the streets to squads of soldiers who most of the time look rather bored (one worries when they do not look bored).
My goal that morning was a small Palestinian library housed in a late medieval structure, which was fronted at one end by a cluster of Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint. I had corresponded with someone at the library and had been told it would be open; it was not, so I decided to try the library office which was detached from the library proper. It was down the street on the other side of the checkpoint, which required me to argue with the soldiers about the existence of said office and my desire to walk the 10 or 15 feet to it. After denying that it was there, one of the soldiers finally looked to where I was pointing, saw the sign, agreed that yes it did exist, and let me through. I buzzed and buzzed, but concluding that there was no one there either, I gave up.
More than a little exasperated, I walked back through the checkpoint muttering to myself, and made my way back uphill with no particular destination in mind. I passed by a street that I had explored before, for along its winding length lay the tomb of a 14th-century Sufi saint named Shaykh al-Qiramī. I had hoped to visit this tomb myself, as saints of all sorts fall with my professional and personal purview. In this case I had been stymied: the mosque in which the shaykh lay had been locked and did not appear to be used much anymore.
As is often the case with urban saints’ shrines in much of the Islamic world, the tomb chamber had a large iron-grilled window facing the street, allowing the passerby to stop briefly and commune with the holy man on the other side, perhaps reciting the Fātiḥa (the opening sura of the Qur’ān) and partaking of some of the baraka, the grace or holy “stuff” of the saint, in the process, before continuing on. Peeking through this window previously I had surmised—correctly, as it would turn out—that this “friend of God,” as the saints are commonly known in Islamic traditions, had seen better days. His cenotaph (which marks the saint’s actual remains, interred below) was faded and ragged, and the chamber, it seemed, had devolved into a junk-room.
I knew where this particular Muslim saint lay because I had read the accounts of a 17th-century Syrian shaykh, ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, who wrote beautifully textured and often lyrical accounts of his many travels within the Ottoman Empire: travels in which he spent nights in the tents of nomads, listened joyfully to the organ music of the Franciscans of Bethlehem, hiked the slopes of Mount Lebanon, drank coffee in enormous quantities, and visited many living and departed “friends of God.”
On one of his stays in the Holy City, ‘Abd al-Ghanī and his companions walked up this very street, stopping at the grill of al-Qiramī’s tomb-chamber and praying the Fātiḥa. The custodian of the shrine—a descendant of the saint, in fact—came out into the street and invited ‘Abd al-Ghanī and his friends inside. They entered the little complex, known as a zawīya (literally “a corner,” but in Sufi usage a structure devoted to shaykhs and their followers, often with a shrine as a prominent feature). Inside, they drank coffee together and enjoyed the scent of Indian incense wafting up while the zawīya’s custodian, one Shaykh Muḥammad, told them stories of his saintly ancestor. After drinking their coffee and hearing more stories of the saint, Shaykh Muḥammad led them to a further treasure of the zawīya: a lovely courtyard garden, in which they spent a pleasant hour before bidding the zawīya and its hospitable custodian farewell, with a promise to visit again one day.
My own visit to the saint on this day was in some ways curiously similar to that of ‘Abd al-Ghanī, in other ways strikingly different, reflecting some of the profound changes—not always for the better, I would contend—that the world has undergone in the centuries intervening between our lives.
I stopped by the tomb of the saint once again, but today I saw that the door into the little mosque was open. I looked inside, and upon doing so was invited in by a man standing just within the door. In my rather ridiculous-sounding and halting fuṣḥā Arabic—imagine someone arriving in America from abroad and speaking in King James’ English—I asked if I could have a look at Shaykh al-Qiramī. Sure, the man answered, and joined by a couple of other men from the group gathered within the former zawīya, now mosque, we shuffled into the tomb-chamber. It had indeed turned into a sort of junk-room, with the saint’s cenotaph rising shabbily but defiantly from the midst of the accumulated odds and ends.
My hosts—one of whom, Y., had spent time in America and spoke near-flawless English—were a little amused at the spectacle of a random American coming to visit this neglected saint, but were clearly pleased to be my host nonetheless. Someone fetched a Qur’an and asked if I could read Arabic. Of course, I answered, and turned to the Fātiḥa which I solemnly read aloud. After posing alongside the cenotaph for a photograph (what pilgrimage today is complete without such documentary proof?), Y. led me into the former zawīya’s main room, gave me a seat, and offered tea and bread with honey (alas, no incense graced the space in this more austere day and age).
The little mosque was alive with activity: small circles of men read hadīth, chanted the Qu’ran, discussed theological issues, or simply sat about chatting or quietly reading to themselves. Y. explained that the mosque was being used as a temporary meeting place for an Islamic preaching and teaching community, one whose profile sounded to me broadly Salafī, though without the sorts of militant or even political inclinations Western audiences tend to associate with that term. Quite the contrary, Y. explained that politics rarely did little more than distract from remembrance of God, a sentiment with which I agreed, a feeling daily reinforced by my stay in this crowded land so gripped by political fevers and hatreds.
Mercifully, no one in the old zawīya seemed to have any desire to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, our conversation was on spiritual matters: the difficulty of remaining mindful of and present to God in the modern, distraction-filled world; the truth-claims of Islam and Christianity; the role of the saints in Islam. If we agreed about the first, suffice it to say we did not about the other two, but our discussion remained affable. Neither of us, unsurprisingly, converted the other, though the attempt was respectfully made.
After meeting some more members of the pietist group, I thanked everyone and bade them farewell, but not before being presented with a jar of Palestinian honey—no small gift, since I had been wanting to purchase honey but had balked at the price, given that I would almost certainly not use it all during my stay. Now I had just the right amount! A miracle of the saint, ‘Abd al-Ghanī would have surmised.
I stepped outside, waved goodbye, and immediately encountered another pilgrim. Here my story turns quite strange (in case it was not already). I did not know I was encountering a pilgrim, but rather assumed that the older American man hobbling along the street on crutches accompanied by a younger American man (he was unmistakably American, even without opening his mouth) was lost. I said hello and asked if he needed help finding his way. He did not identify me as an American—I am rarely pegged for an American, a certain point of pride on my part if I am being honest—and instead asked if I was a local. No, American. And so, unsolicited, he began to tell me his story, to which I listened, though a little impatiently.
The streets of Jerusalem are full of stories, and one risks being forever being caught up in them, never to return to wherever home had been before. Such had happened to this American. He was an Evangelical Protestant, of the ambiguous, ever-shifting sort, with refractions of the charismatic and of Messianic Judaism. He had come to Jerusalem as a pilgrim. One day he had ventured into the Garden Tomb (which to him and to many other Protestant pilgrims is the true empty tomb of Christ, as opposed to the Catholic- and Orthodox-dominated Church of the Holy Sepulchre) late in the visiting day, and somehow had been accidentally sealed inside. There, in the darkness of the rock-cut tomb, he had received a visionary word from God: a “new” name of God, which he loudly proclaimed to me but which I have forgotten, other than that it sounded vaguely Hebrew.
He explained at some length the significance of this name and how he had received a mission from God in that moment: a mission to wander the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming the name of God, purified from the accretions of the ages, stark and unadorned like the Garden Tomb. Like another vaguely evangelical pilgrim-turned-near-anchorite I had met in Jerusalem, there was an apocalyptic edge to his message. His vision was part of God’s preparation for the End, the End that would start here and envelop all the cosmos. I politely thanked him for sharing, declined—for the second time that day—the offer of conversion, said goodbye, and walked on.
We all—myself, the evangelical holy man, the medieval Sufi saint, the earnest Salafīs—mutually melted back into the streets of Jerusalem. Our lives become another trace in the endless sacred and contested palimpsest of the Holy City’s stones and streets, coming together and drifting apart, looking for God and sometimes—sometimes—finding Him, though not always in the places we had expected.
Jonathan Parkes Allen is, among other things, a PhD candidate in the history of the Middle East at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he is completing a dissertation on the history of Islamic saints and sainthood in the early modern Ottoman Empire.