Two tours, two Jerusalems

BBC’s Tim Franks has written a fascinating article about taking two very different tours to the same place. His guides showed him the same sights and talked about the same things, but their interpretations were entirely different. It was like they weren’t talking about the same place at all.

That place, of course, is Jerusalem.

Franks went to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. He took tours with Al-Quds University, the only Arab university in Jerusalem, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, run by the Israeli government.

Both took him along the Western Wall, built by King Herod about 2,000 years ago, and through a tunnel dug alongside it. The Jewish tour guide pointed out a mikveh, a room for Jewish ritual cleansing. The Palestinian guide said there was no evidence it was used as such. The Jewish guide said the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall for the anguished prayers of many of the faithful) is one of the walls of the ancient Jewish Temple. The Palestinian guide said there is no evidence for this. The Jewish guide compared this statement to Holocaust denial.

And so it goes, round and round.

Back in my archaeology days I did a field season in Israel and can attest to how quickly history gets turned into a political football. Start talking about archaeology, and sooner or later you’ll start talking religion and politics. Usually sooner. With so many religious sites piled literally on top of one another, there’s bound to be arguments. If you look at the picture of the Western Wall above, you can see the dome for Al-Aksa Mosque right above it, and the Dome of the Rock is just off the picture to the left. Both religions consider this same spot to be sacred.

While we read about this all the time in the news, it’s much more interesting to witness firsthand. So if you are headed to the Holy Land and want to see just how contentious history can be, why not try out both of these tours? Or if this whole thing is just making your head hurt, you can always go to the local Hooters.