In the beginning, around 5,000 years ago, there was a small village in a valley. Today I sit for hours on the Mount of Olives and look across this valley, the Valley of Kidron, at Jerusalem. Every time the light changes, so does the mood. I imagine Jesus arriving from Bethany to the Mount of Olives, looking down at the city, and contemplating his fate. As I wander the back streets—and, incidentally, I have always felt safe in Jerusalem—I try to imagine Jesus’s last, painful walk through the city. The Via Dolorosa, with its 14 stations and its souvenir shops, is not the actual Way of the Cross. Discovering where Jesus might really have walked is a challenge. (My favorite stop is a tiny restaurant at the fifth station where my old friend Abu Shukry, serves the finest hummus—crushed chickpeas—that I have eaten anywhere.)
It is the Old City that I love most. For all the modern building at the edges, its 215 acres (87 hectares) have much of the intimacy of a village still. I am happiest just walking it, about 15 minutes from end to end (the hundreds of passageways could stretch that to days). I love to come and go through a different gate every time I enter the city. The Damascus Gate, leading directly into the Muslim Quarter, is a funnel of energy (the call to prayer comes five times a day). I delight in Al-Haram Al-Sharif and the Dome of the Rock—it is from here that the Prophet Muhammad is said to have made a famous night journey to heaven, rising from the rock itself.
For millions, Jerusalem is the soul of the universe. You can feel it with every step you take. Egyptians, Babylonians, Jews, Persians, Greeks, Syrians, Armenians, Turks, European crusaders, British, Jordanians, today’s Israeli rulers—all have left their marks.
There is layer upon layer of conquest in the stones. A crusader church steeple stands on a Roman building with a Muslim minaret atop that. And here they argue still about events that occurred 4,000 years ago. You can stop in any café and enter a discussion about one of three conquests or reconquests that seem as if they happened only yesterday.
Most of our ideas about morality and law and God can be traced to Jerusalem. At the Western Wall, Jews believe they are at the holiest spot on Earth. It is a powerful experience to imagine what it was like to be here 2,000 years ago when the Jews chafed under Roman occupation. Now it’s sad to hear Christian Palestinians who believe they are being diminished and even forced from their city. It’s equally sad to consider that enlightened Muslims are given no credit for their historic tolerance. I used to think that all the angst in Jerusalem might serve to enlighten us—and add to our tolerance. But we seem to have made so little progress. Still, it’s the history, stupid, I tell myself. It’s what makes Jerusalem a living place.
So breathe deeply. You can smell the history. The allure of spices is everywhere: the aroma of warm Arabic bread seeping from a bakery, the delicate scent of pastry, the whiff of Armenian pizza, someone drying chamomile for tea.
Take time for tea—or coffee. The journey through Jerusalem goes on and on and on.
The late PETER JENNINGS (1938-2005) was the anchor of ABC's World News Tonight from 1983 until his death of complications from lung cancer. He was an expert on Middle East issues, having established ABC's Middle East Bureau in 1968.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
Show us your best photos of nature, cities, and people from your travels around the world.