I was in Jerusalem over New Year, the first time I’d visited the city.
The overwhelming impression is of people being in competition. At the most obvious level, there’s a division between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem, between Jews and Palestinians, competing claims for land, for religious sites, for heritage. I was expecting that.
However, I wasn’t expecting there to be such blatant competition between the various branches of Christianity. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been allocated to so many different branches of Christianity – all claiming it as their own – that it’s become a series of chapels and shrines, rather than a single church. The Greek Orthodox church has an area up to a red marble slab; the Catholic church has the area beyond that. The Armenian church has the basement crypt and cistern, but that’s far more desirable religious real estate than you might think – it’s close to the rock, the place where the “true cross” is said to have been discovered, and it’s the site of the original church.
There’s an uneasy truce between the different branches of Christianity. The Ethiopian Coptic monks were thrown out of their quarters one day and so built new ones on the roof. YouTube has footage of fights that have broken out to settle points of precedence. It’s all a competition – for who leads, who follows; who lights candles, who watches.
My experience is that this extends to the street. In London, the streets are crowded but there’s an unspoken acknowledgement that everyone will dodge out of the way in what looks, at times, to be a highly-choreographed dance. In Jerusalem, think a highly-evolved game of chicken. Whether walking on the pavements or driving down the streets, it’s a competition – a power game – to see who will move first.
In a market, I stood to one side to let an elderly man through. He pushed past and other people swarmed into the gap I’d created. In shops and at a pharmacy, the response was No before I’d asked a question – until I stood up for myself.
At the end of the first day, I said to the guide who’d shown me round that everyone seemed to be competing to hold onto what they have. He said that I was right about the competition, but people aren’t competing to hold onto what they have; they’re competing to take it all. They want everything. That’s the beauty and the tragedy of Jerusalem.