Mount Zion: Jerusalem's wild & sacred backyard.

Author:Prince-Gibson, Eetta
 
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LOCATED JUST OUTSIDE JERUSALEM'S OLD CITY WALLS, MOUNT ZION IS HOME TO KING DAVID'S TOMB, THE ROOM OF THE LAST SUPPER AND A FORMER MOSQUE. TODAY, A TANGLE OF NEGLECTFUL ISRAELI AUTHORITIES HAS ALLOWED THE SITE TO BECOME A BEACON FOR ULTRA-NATIONALIST RELIGIOUS JEWS.

A few minutes' walk from the Temple Mount, outside Jerusalem's Old City walls, stands a stone building sacred to all three monotheistic religions. A sarcophagus on its first floor marks where Jewish tradition says King David is buried. On the second floor is the Cenacle--the room where the Last Supper, at which Jesus celebrated the Passover meal and washed the feet of his disciples, is said to have taken place. To Muslims, the entire structure has been holy since the Ottomans added a minaret and converted it into a mosque honoring King David, whom they consider a prophet, in the 16th century.

Here, religious time and space often collide. This past March, Holy Thursday coincided with Purim, the raucous, festive holiday that celebrates the downfall of Haman, the vizier who plotted to annihilate the Jews in Persia. For some Jews, the holiday is an occasion to assert Jewish power. For Christians, Holy Thursday is a time of humble contemplation and ritual. This year, in accordance with custom, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos (custodian) of the Holy Land, the highest-ranking official of the Catholic Church in the Middle East, has come to the Cenacle to wash the feet of 12 young students from the Jerusalem parish.

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The ceremony opens as the kuwwas, traditional guardians of Christian holiness, dressed in red Ottoman fezzes and gold-embroidered crimson vests, swords at their sides, pound their silver staffs on the stone floor to make way for the Custos through the crowd of parents, tourists and pilgrims. Earlier, a group of young Jewish men in their early 20s, with long, curly sidelocks and tom jeans, tried to steal up the stairs to the Cenacle. Heavily deployed, watchful Israeli police chased the men away. "We have to tear down this shikutz" one of the troublemakers said defiantly, using a particularly derogatory Yiddish term for "abomination." "God will help us, King David will help us," muttered another. "This whole mountain--this whole land!--belongs to the Jews. Merry Purim!"

At the height of the ceremony, piercing wails shatter the solemnity. Jewish students have barricaded themselves in a dorm room nearby and are blasting recorded sounds of the shofar through loudspeakers. While the police locate the protesters, break into their hideout and shut off the loudspeakers, a group of men wrapped in prayer shawls, some wearing tefillin, dance and sing as loudly as they can in the courtyard. "Utzu etza v'tufar ... Take counsel and it will be foiled; speak a word and it will not succeed, for God is with us," they chant. A middle-aged woman in modest garb--who comes daily from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim--takes a video, she explains, to document "Christian offenses." "They want to annihilate us, just like they always have, just like they wanted to on Purim," she says.

Police close the doors to the Cenacle so that the ceremony can conclude. When the worshippers file out, passing by the dancing men, some of them clap their hands in rhythm; a few even try to sing along. Noam Sagiv, a Jewish student who has come to observe the Christian ceremony, smiles apologetically at a nun in a dark habit. "We understand," the nun responds. "Lots of people get overwhelmed by their religion. Happy Purim."

Such disruptions are not uncommon in the King David's tomb-Cenacle complex, which is located in the heart of Mount Zion. Tensions may be mild compared to those between Muslims and Jews on the Temple Mount, but this 30-acre tract abutting the walls of the Old City to the west has troubles of its own. They do not involve sovereignty: Unlike the Old City, which was seized by the Jordanians in the 1948 war, the 2,500 foot-high hill is an uncontested part of West Jerusalem. The remains of Israeli defensive trenches from 1948, now overgrown with trees and grass, crisscross the rocky land. At its edge, with a panoramic view of West Jerusalem below, are the twisted iron remnants of the mechanism that operated the cable car used to transport wounded Israeli soldiers away to safety.

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The problem boils down to coexistence. Unlike the Old City, which is divided into separate quarters for Jews, Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians and Armenian Christians, Mount Zion is a jumble of dozens of sites, structures and partially excavated archaeological ruins, each imbued widr religious, historic and nationalistic meaning. Any Muslim residents are long gone; only the minaret, the Ottoman architecture and a cemetery remain to indicate that Muslims controlled Mount Zion for centuries. But the Christian presence is strong, and monks and nuns of all denominations are part of daily life, as are their places of worship. The German Benedictines have their Dormition Abbey; the Italian Franciscans have the Terra Sancta Monastery; the French Assumptionists have the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu; and the Armenians have the St. Saviour church. This last site is believed to be the house of Caiaphas, where Jesus was taken after being arrested, and nearby is a rock cave where Jesus may have been imprisoned. Then there are the dead, laid to rest in Protestant, Greek Orthodox and Armenian cemeteries, the last of which includes a large monument to the victims of the Armenian genocide. Buried in the Catholic cemetery is Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. The Jews have Sambuski Cemetery, a Jewish potter's field on a steep hill to the northeast where some now come to recite the Mourner's Kaddish on the traditional date of the death of Moses.

Today, devout Jews and Christians mingle with tourists and pilgrims as they enter and exit the Old City through the Zion Gate. Some of the newcomers stay on the mountain, joining an ever-evolving cast of eccentrics. Recently, a small group of mostly middle-aged British and American Jewish men began gathering in a low stone building of unknown provenance, self-appointed to study the laws of the Sanhedrin--the ancient biblical court of the Land of Israel--in preparation for the imminent coming of the Messiah, the Son of David. Mount Zion, one of them explains, is the place where they believe the Messiah is most likely to return.

Why Mount Zion was left outside the walls erected by Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century remains a mystery. It could have been because of the presence of the cemeteries, the relative unimportance of its landmarks in the eyes of the builders, the expense, or any number of other reasons. Legend has it that Suleiman was so angered by its exclusion that he had the hands of his two chief engineers cut off; in another telling, he had the men executed. Whatever the reason, the decision created a sort of no-man's-land beyond the massive gate that shares its name.

"This is the backyard of Jerusalem," says Ami Meitav, a Jerusalem official who headed a municipal committee tasked with conducting a survey of the buildings and residents on Mount Zion about a decade ago. But it's a...

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