JERUSALEM — Palm fronds and wooden crosses clutched in their hands, throngs of Christians have spent Holy Week retracing the last steps Jesus took before his death and resurrection in the ancient Old City of Jerusalem, while hundreds of thousands of Jews have made their own pilgrimages for the eight-day holiday of Passover.
The reverence and joy are palpable as pilgrims walk along the Via Delarosa and Jews pray en masse at the Western Wall, but so too are the crowds, noise and traffic disruptions.
Throughout the week, pilgrims passed below the windows of the Old City’s Jews, Muslims and Christians, who grudgingly coexist in the best of times. Adding to the cacophony were the many church bells that pealed against the backdrop of the Muslim call to prayer broadcast from loudspeakers five times a day, as well as the amplified Jewish prayers of the twice yearly priestly blessing.
Thousands of Israeli police are on hand to keep order, but have cordoned off some streets to Old City residents and store owners.
Situated on the border between east and west Jerusalem, the Old City, which both Israelis and the Palestinians insist is part of their respective capitals, is home to the Western Wall, Temple Mount, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Al Aqsa Mosque, and to roughly 40,000 residents living in four quarters — Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian — each with its own unique character.
Although the close quarters (the Old City is just 0.35 square miles), religious turf battles and crowds sometimes lead to tensions, most residents say it is a privilege to live in the heart of the holy city. The good, they say, outweighs the hassles.
“On the negative side the police have erected security barriers every 10 meters (33 feet) during the holidays, making it difficult for us the residents, as well as pilgrims, to navigate,” said Bassem Barakat, a Muslim whose family owns an antiquities shop in the Christian Quarter.
“But there is also the special atmosphere, the special flavor and feeling of people of different faiths living together. You can’t help but experience the different holidays, which come every year according to the seasons. Here, you don’t just know it’s Easter or Passover or Id. You feel them,” Barakat said of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays.
Saleh Abu-Amir, a Muslim who owns a minimarket in the Christian Quarter, said the police’s crowd control measures prevent visitors from shopping on his street, near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
“I understand there are some bad people who want to do bad things, but the police make it too hard for the rest of us,” he asserted. “Celebrating the holidays is so special here, but it’s hard to appreciate them when you can’t make a living.”
Police Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said officials must set up road blocks “to ensure that the more than 40 Christian delegations” that take part in Easter week ceremonies “reach them on time.” He said such preparations take place every year.
Seated in his family’s art gallery in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Udi Merioz, a Jew who moved to the quarter as a child, said the inconveniences don’t bother him, at least not much.
“For 2,000 years Jews were denied the opportunity to live in our homeland. I’ve had the good fortune my grandparents didn’t have, to live in Jerusalem. “
Watching her children play on a jungle gym, Chana Levy, a resident of the Jewish Quarter, said the noise doesn’t bother her.
“The children make too much noise to hear what’s going on outside my apartment, and I have double-glazed windows. We live close to the Kotel and the spirituality makes it all worthwhile,” she said, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall.
Up the street, Merioz said the disruptions aren’t restricted to Jerusalem.
“New York shuts down when the United Nations is in session. Japan has tsunamis. Here we have pilgrims. They’re our way of life.”
Christian clergymen hold candles during the Easter Sunday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by many to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 20, 2014.(Photo: Sebastian Scheiner, AP)