I jumped at the chance to tell Jerusalem's story. I have always been interested in those places where the membrane between the seen and the unseen is thin -- where human beings feel able to touch the eternal. Jerusalem... like Benares, Mecca, Vatican City... is one of those places.
Jerusalem is also contested terrain. The visions held tightly by Jews, Muslims, and Christians are not entirely mutually exclusive. But they are pretty close. The wider fight over Israel and the Palestinian lands is never far away when you are walking the streets of Jerusalem. In the distance, you can see the wall of separation built by the Israeli government to keep large Arab settlements separate from Jewish residential areas. When the Old City fills to bursting with a crush of humanity on Friday afternoon, as Arabs linger after their prayers and Jews do their last shopping before Sabbath, the two peoples look through each other like a pane of glass. Here they are, cheek by jowl, keeping interaction to a minimum as they try to negotiate a way to share this little piece of planet earth that means so much to them both.
It's that importance that makes today's struggle for Jerusalem such a high-stakes game. So many Israeli leaders declare at every opportunity that the city is its eternal capital and will never be divided again. In decades of negotiations Palestinians assure anyone who will listen that East Jerusalem, part of Jordan until the Six Day War, must be part of their new state.
During a ride through Jerusalem my driver Moshe pointed to the crowded Arab ghetto of Silwan and said, "See all those people over there? They hate me. They all want to kill me." Minutes later we passed through one of the neighborhoods near the Old City now inhabited almost exclusively by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and as we waited at a red light, Moshe added, "These people hate me too! I don't know if they want to kill me, but they hate me." A secular Israeli like Moshe saw the fight as something that was no longer in his hands, an argument now left to the extremists, even though he had seen action as an Israeli soldier in Syria and Egypt.
There is a tendency here to dismiss the opinions from the outside world as naïve or uninformed. Only people standing in the blast furnace, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, can understand what the situation in Israel is really like, and really comprehend the true nature of the speaker's enemy. Outsider that I am, I am also a pretty good listener. It doesn't take a degree in Near Eastern history to listen to the laundry list of demands from both sides and know that neither side can get what it wants. The only relief in this otherwise gloomy situation is to hear so many from both sides recognize the fact that the future of each involves the other. Without giving much ground, both Israelis and Palestinians recognize that whatever finally happens to create some kind of durable, longitudinal settlement means each side has to do business with the other side.
That's not the story we set out to tell. "Jerusalem: Center of the World" is really about the thousands of years that set the table for the current standoff... the Jerusalem of Abraham, David, Herod, Jesus, Pontius Pilate, Muhammad and Saladin. Across the world in the coming weeks Jews and Christians will remember events in and around the city, the streets where Jesus spent his last hours before his execution, Jews will recall the yearning for Zion that led them out of Egypt and across Sinai toward Mount Moriah, the rocky outcropping where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac and where Solomon built his glorious temple.
I had not been in Jerusalem in decades, and was surprised to see how much more excavation has been done, how much more hidden history had been brought to the light of day. Even for those who aren't religious, the events that took place here are part of the Western inheritance, the underpinning of a common culture that shapes lives across the globe.
Abraham's unquestioning willingness to do as God asks...
David the shepherd boy's rise to become a king, and a great builder...
Jesus' arrival in the city, riding a donkey...
The Jewish uprising against Rome and its brutal suppression...
Muhammad's night ride and a glimpse of heaven...
The struggle between Muslim defenders and Crusader knights... At the base of the Western Wall, revered by Jews as the remnants of their last great temple, men and women pray. Their communication with God brings them to a state not quite earthly, bodies in motion, eyes closed in concentration. Just a few hundred feet away, above their heads and inside the Muslim compound atop the Temple Mount, thousands of heads rise and fall in unison.
The visitor, the pilgrim, the penitent can easily find a place along the cool stone walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and open the senses. It is easy to be transported by icons reflecting the flicker of candlelight, a whiff of incense, the chants caroming through the cavernous church, and the quiet, constant hum of whispered prayers.
The interruptions from the call to prayer from dozens of mosques large and small could give my producers and sound recordist fits. After struggling with a particularly difficult part of the narrative on the Via Dolorosa, I was close to nailing it. The merciless midday sun of Jerusalem created blinding sight-lines and harsh shadows, making this a tough passage for our cameraman. After several blown takes, I had finally hit my marks, and was about to finish a chunk of the story in a fluid and conversational way when the proclamation, "Allahu Akbar!" "God is Great!" came rolling out of loudspeakers across the city. Infuriating... and also kind of cool. It's a beautiful sound.
Whether you're trying to tell today's news, or the stories of centuries past, Jerusalem can be a tough town.
"Jerusalem: Center of the World," airs Wednesday, April 1 at 9 pm ET/PT on PBS (check local listings). The film's host, Ray Suarez, is national correspondent for PBS' "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer"