Day 13: On the Rooftops of Jerusalem (by Elizabeth Lwanga)
“Hurry, or we’re going to miss the sunset!”
I stepped briefly into a jog to match Katie’s power walk as we entered Jerusalem through the Damascus gate. We were on a mission to catch the sunset over the rooftops of the City of Peace without any idea how to find a rooftop view.
Although a damp evening breeze whistled through the air, the gate still bustled with throngs of people. We cut our way through narrow covered streets decorated in colorful banners, passing streams of people as diverse and beautiful as flowers - Muslim women in hijabs, Orthodox Jewish men in shtreimel’s striding purposefully over stone walkways, Polish Catholic tour groups walking the Via Dolorosa. After searching for twenty minutes without luck, three heavily armed Israeli soldiers directed us to the Jewish quarter through entry posts wrapped in metal detectors.
Teetering piles of steps formed narrow pathways between tall, white-washed homes bearing window baskets decorated with sparse dusky-colored flowers, leading us higher into the hillside and the fading light.
We paused on a railed courtyard overlooking the Western Wall and, beyond, the Dome of the Rock. A teenage couple sat shoulder to shoulder on a bench against one of the houses giggling to themselves. Below, in bright artificial spotlights, members of the Israeli army stood arms distance apart in a large circle. At the middle stood their commander, who repeatedly shouted a directive followed by the collective boom of the soldiers’ responses. Katie and I stood mesmerized by the scene - the contrasting shouts of the Israeli soldiers mingled with the solitary call to prayer echoing off the hillside from the Dome of the Rock.
“I can help?”
We whirled around to find a young Jewish man with pale features, dark hair, and glasses, staring quizzically at us.
“I can help? You looking for somewhere?” he repeated.
My heart beat loudly in my chest. What if this man thought we were nosy tourists trespassing in a private neighborhood? I mean, we sort of were.
“We’re looking for a view of the Dome of the Rock over Jerusalem,” Katie explained with a big smile in an attempt to seem friendly. “Are we in the right place?”
There was a long pause. Then the man turned on his heels and strode for a few paces before turning back to us. With a quick wave of his hand, he motioned for us to follow him. We glanced at each other before hurrying to follow. We were not about to miss this opportunity, whatever it turned out to be.
He led us up winding cobblestone sidewalks, over bridges and walkways that we would have no way of finding ourselves back down. He turned and asked us our names while never slowing his pace.
“I’m Lizzy, and this is Katie,” I responded. He pointed at himself with a smile. ”Yakov.” He asked how many times we’d been to Jerusalem. I replied, “First time.” My friend said, “Six times.”
Our tour group had spent two weeks learning about the history and present state of conflict in Jerusalem between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and knew interpersonal interactions between groups could be a high-stakes enterprise. After pausing a beat to step over a loose stone, Katie asked Yakov if he knew any Muslims. “Yes!” he said with a shrug, as if the
answer were obvious. “Friends! Many friends. Most are very nice.” He half-turned his head. “Only a few bad.”
I smiled to myself.
We reached the back of the neighborhood and climbed onto a long dark roof. The sun had just set bathing the city in red and pink rays. Yakov motioned to a wall of light shining up through the floor. I realized it was a window in the roof that looked down on the bustling fragrant streets we’d been walking in an hour before. Yes, I thought - the city shines from within.
The roof was covered in black pitch and deeply slanted in parts. We walked on for a few more minutes and climbed onto a stone ledge at the roofs peak. Behind us, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer rose in the darkness, powerful and majestic. Ahead, the Dome of the Rock burned a deep gold, almost as if the sun had decided to sprout out of the ground after setting on the horizon.
After a few kind words, our new friend Yakov left us to sigh over the evening sunlight, giving some final directions before departing. After a while, we scurried down a confining staircase past Jewish seminary students and the back doors of private homes. At the bottom, a Muslim woman walking home from evening prayers pointed us in the direction of the Damascus gate, our excursion’s entry point, with a wave and a smile.
It’s said that in the final days, Jerusalem won’t need the sun or moon because God’s presence will be the city’s light. We needed to look no further than the goodwill of strangers helping some lost tourists to see the ways that a divine light already resides within the city’s walls.