On the Road to Jerusalem
Updated: Feb 16, 2020
The two most dramatic approaches to a city that I know are those of Venice and Jerusalem. Venice is approached across a flat expanse of blue. There is a sense of the horizontal, of levelness, even in the winter when the sea is grey and choppy. And the city itself is flat, thin, a slither of stone floating on the water, rose-coloured, and, from a distance, of almost sacred beauty (close up, of a decidedly earthly beauty). The flatness, the mild tones of blue and rose, the soft lapping of the water and the hum of the boat engine, bestow an overwhelming sense of calm.
Jerusalem is anything but calm. Approaching from the west one goes up and up, and round, even today when the once narrow road is widened to a highway it curves, twists through the pine forest, through tunnels, into the dark and out, round the rounded hills. And the city always appears suddenly, unexpected. One takes a bend in the road and it is there, at the very top, rolling over the crests of the rolling hills like waves of stone, white, pink, gold, glaring, flashing, stretched across to the east where it ends as suddenly as it appeared, where the world falls away, this time in a sort of panic, into an abyss, down to desolation and the Dead Sea.
The first time I saw Jerusalem was on a beautiful, clear day in the early summer of 1969. Driving up from the desert, the bus I was on climbed the eastern side of the Mount of Olives, crested the mountain and came down the road, passing an expanse of stones and thorns and tombs... And there it was, spread across the hills, every bit as splendid as I had imagined; the sun flashing off the gold and silver domes, the tawny stone buildings piled up against each other, the line of ancient crenelated wall, the towers, the dark cypress trees, the deep blue above, the distant noise of traffic, the chiming of bells and the other sounds of a city, a living city. And to make our arrival perfect, the bus's radio played the still-fresh anthem, composed shortly before the drama of a two-year-old summer - Jerusalem the Golden.
In later years before Jerusalem became my home, I would drive up from the west. I always had a sense, not so much of going up as of being raised up. Medieval travellers experienced that, and yet many of those who left a written account hardly make mention of their approach to the city, commencing their descriptions at the entry into the city gate, and give no record of the emotions they experienced on their approach. Others do describe the journey, but only in a matter-of-fact fashion. Seawulf, an Anglo Saxon pilgrim who took the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem in 1102 gives an entirely negative account, describing only the hardships and dangers of traveling, which was certainly the situation at the very beginning of Crusader rule: "We went up from Joppe to the city of Jerusalem, a journey of two days, along a mountainous road, rocky, and very dangerous.... On that road not only the poor and the weak, but even the rich and strong, are in danger." Another early pilgrim, the Abbot Daniel of Kiev, wrote in his account, c. 1106, of how he came via Jaffa and Lydda to "a high mountain bearing the name of Armathem. On this mountain the tomb of the holy prophet Samuel is found..." And then, as he approaches the city he gives us a hint of his emotions and more particularly of those of other Christian travellers: "About a verst (1.067 km) in front of Jerusalem there is a flatish mountain, upon reaching which every traveller dismounts, and, making the sign of the cross, adores the Holy Resurrection in sight of the city. Every Christian is filled with an immense joy at sight of the holy city of Jerusalem, and tears are shed by the faithful... and thus, full of this deep joy, the journey to Jerusalem is continued on foot."
In 1210 when the city was under Ayyubid rule the French rabbi, Samuel Ben Samson came on pilgrimage, and his reaction was that of the typical medieval Jewish pilgrim: "We arrived in Jerusalem by the western end of the city, rending our garments on beholding it, as it has been ordained we should do. It was a bitter moment of tenderest emotion, and we wept bitterly..." Expressing the loss of Jewish Jerusalem eleven centuries earlier would appear to have been obligatory, but was certainly genuine. However, such sentiments are not found in every Jewish account. The well-known twelfth century traveller, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, was entirely matter-of-fact: "From there (Magna Mahomeria, al-Bira in modern Ramallah) it is three parasangs to Jerusalem, which is a small city, fortified by walls."
Wilbrand of Oldenburg, a canon from Hildersheim in Germany who travelled east in 1211-12 did not hold back in describing his emotions: "The next day, which I count without doubt the happiest of all my happy days, we ascended the mountains of Jerusalem. They are very high, stony and rugged... we saw many destroyed and desolate villages and monasteries...And so, as the sun was rising, that much longed-for Jerusalem appeared before our eyes. So struck were we at that point with joy and admiration that we even imagined that we were seeing the celestial Jerusalem." And later in the century, Burchard of Mount Zion (1274-85), a Dominican priest from Germany who wrote one of the most popular pilgrimage accounts of the Middle Ages had, like me, his first vision of the Holy City coming up from the east via Bethany: "As one leaves Bethany one does not at first see Jerusalem because the Mount of Olives is in the way; but first one goes up a rise in the ground and then one sees part of the beloved city and Mount Sion. O God, how many devout tears have been shed in that place... But let us put all that aside and come to Jerusalem as quickly as possible. So one goes down the mountain and again the beloved city is hidden from sight..."
1. Lord Bishop of Cifton, trans., Saewulf, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 4, London, 1896, p. 9.
2. Charles W. Wilson, trans., Pilgrimage of the Russian Abbot Daniel, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 4, London, 1895, p. 10.
3. Elkan Nathan Adler, ed., Jewish Travellers, "Itinerary of Rabbi Samuel Ben Samson in 1210", p. 103.
4. Marcus Nathan Adler, trans., The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, New York, 1907, p. 22.
5. Denys Pringle, ed. and trans. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, 1187-1291, Farnham and Burlington, 2012, p. 87.
6. Ibid., p. 287.