Benjamin of Tudela's First Letter from Jerusalem, c. 1165
Four parasangs from Nablus is situated MOUNT GILBOA, which Christians call Monto Jelbon. This is the site where Saul and his sons battled against the Philistines, and lost. The country is very barren hereabouts.
Five parasangs further is the valley of AJALON, called by the Christians Val de Luna, because this is where the moon shone when Joshua caused the sun to stand still.
One parasang to GRAN DAVID, formerly the large city of Gib'on. It contains no Jewish inhabitants. From here Jerusalem is just three parasangs distant-a half day's journey!
JERUSALEM is small and strongly fortified by three walls, an ancient and beautiful fortress. "Beautiful in situation," says the psalm, "the joy of the whole earth!" Verily, for it contains a numerous population composed of Jacobites (Syrian Christians), Armenians, Greeks, Georgians, Franks, and in fact of peoples of all tongues. Two hundred Jews dwell in one corner of the city, under the Tower of David. This is the city of David, the hill city chosen by King David as his capital. This is the city to which Ezra the scribe returned from Babylonian exile, with his Levites and priests, to teach Torah and to reestablish Jewish worship, customs, and morality. In so doing, he intensified the idea of Jerusalem as spiritual capital for the Jews, however dispersed they might be. The generations of the historian Josephus and the writers of Mishnah considered Jerusalem the center of the world. For a thousand years and more, Jews have offered this city homage in prayers and poems. Jews build their synagogues to face Jerusalem; yet today Jerusalem has no proper synagogue.
In Oria I copied a poem by R. Amittai ben Shefatia, written three centuries ago but sadly apposite now:
To see each city stand in haughty state,
And God's own city to the low grave razed,
Yet all the time we look to Thee and wait.
Mohammedans consider Abraham the father of their religion because he submitted to God in agreeing to sacrifice his son Isaac: "Moslem" means "submitted." They believe it was here in Jerusalem that God tested Abra¬ham's devotion, specifically on the rock of Moriah (the mount where Solo¬mon would build the Temple). They believe that, millennia later, it was from this rock of Moriah that Mohammed ascended into Heaven, he and his horse al-Burak being escorted by the angel Gabriel up a ladder of light; and that by this means Mohammed came into the presence of God, who instructed him as to the way his followers should worship Him. Some years after Mohammed's death, the khalif Abd al-Malik had a huge temple built at Moriah, which temple the Moslems named the Dome of the Rock. Omar ben al-Khatab erected a large and handsome cupola over it and allowed nobody to introduce any image or painting into this place, set aside for prayers only. The Moslems venerate Jerusalem, but they do not consider it a sacred city as they do Mecca and Medina in Arabia. Moslems at prayer turn toward Mecca, as Jews turn toward Jerusalem. Moslems living at a distance do not yearn for Jerusalem, as Jews always did and do.
Jerusalem under the Moslems remained a small town, while the Jews in Exile looked toward Babylon for leadership. But Jerusalem was never far from the Jew's mind and heart-do we not pray daily, "If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. . . “-and many many Jews like me have wanted to see the Holy City for themselves.
In biblical times it was incumbent on Jews who lived in this land to visit Jerusalem at the three festival seasons each year and to celebrate the festivities at the Temple. Ever since, in remembrance of the Temple and of those days, Jews exhort: "Next year in Jerusalem!" Little distinction being made between the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in Jewish reverence, Jerusalem is often referred to as beth ha-Miqdash, Hebrew for "the Temple." (Even the Arabs call the city al-Muqaddas, and, from the same root, al-QudS.)
Some Jews in every generation have come to Jerusalem to trace the routes of the celebrants of long ago and to worship at the Temple site. They come because of the holiness of the land, encouraged by dicta such as that of R. Johanan: "He who walks four cubits in Israel is assured of a place in the world to come." Can you imagine setting foot in the Holy Land without visiting the Holy City? Still, the Torah's prescription to go up to Jerusalem was a communal law having to do with the land, and as such it does not apply to Jews in the Exile.
Think of the similarity of the Hebrew word hogeg (literally, a celebrant) and the Arabic word hajji (for one who makes a hajj, or visit to sanctuaries). Every Moslem, wherever he lives, is duty bound to make hajj to Mecca if he is able to do so; but a Jew living in the Exile has no obligation to visit Jerusalem, however able to do so he may be. In this matter we Jews are more like the Christians who visit Santiago or Rome or Jerusalem, not because their religion requires them to do so but because they have a religious urge or a simple wish to see the holy places. Maybe Christians and Moslems took their idea of pilgrimage (as they took so many ideas) from the Jews.
When Jerusalem was under Moslem rule, most of the Jewish visitors came from lands nearby, namely from Egypt, from Syria and the Grecian empire, from Persia. Their favorite month of sojourn was Tishri, including as it does Rosh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, and Succot. Now that the Frankish rulers again allow Jews to reside here and to visit, Jews come from as far away as Russia. The great number of Christian Franks coming here to live and to visit has brought about numerous publications of itineraria, which tell sojourners about this land and direct them to its important religious sites. But we Jews had a few such books before the Franks: I've seen a Guide to Jerusalem written two hundred years ago.
And "the king answers that a pure heart and strong desire can reach God from anywhere and warns of the perils of the journey."
Our Haver replies: the Land of Israel is the Holy Land because here were given for all peoples the precepts by which to live. This land was chosen by our father Abraham, and this land was apportioned among the ten tribes. This land is "the inheritance of the Lord" and "the gate of Heaven." God promised that wherever we go, he would bring us back here to the Land of Israel. And we all would have been brought back, except that the people did not wish to return-only a small number wished to do so; the rest preferred to stay with their fields and their chattels, albeit as vassals to strange lords.
R. Judah himself, as you know, decided to spend his last years in accord with the ancient precept to "reside in the land of Israel, even among a majority of idolaters, rather than outside of Israel, even among a majority of Jews.
Yet not only in Spain but in several places along the road I traveled, one sees rabbis' graves attended by a number of worshipers, communing (I presume) with the departed rabbi in hopes of being inspired by his knowledge or sanctity. Here, Franks mark many graves of our forefathers distinctively, with a small dome (Hebrew: kipah) or with a clump of trees. Naturally all Jews go to pray at these tombs. Even if they are fewer in number than the Christians, one sees Jews at tombs everywhere: at those of Elijah at Haifa, of Joseph at Nablus, of Rachel at Bethlehem, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their wives at Hebron; and many others. Even the large place of worship called Sepulcher and containing the sepulcher of that man (as the Talmudists designated Jisho the Nazarene) is visited by all pilgrims.
At Jerusalem you also see the stables that were erected by Solomon and which formed part of his house. Immense stones have been employed in this fabric, which we see as a series of caves running from what used to be the Jewish quarter (now it is the Syrian quarter) past the site of the Temple and extending to the southeast.
You see to this day the vestiges of the canal near which the sacrifices were slaughtered in ancient times, and all Jews inscribe their names upon an adjacent wall.
If you leave the city by the gate of Jehoshaphat, you may see the pillar erected on Absalom's place and the sepulcher of King Usia, and the great spring of the Shiloach which runs into the brook Kidron. Upon this spring you see a large building erected in the times of our forefathers. On the western slope of the valley is the spring called Gihon, where Solomon was anointed king; the Gihon is the main source of water for the city. Very little water is found at Jerusalem. The inhabitants generally drink rain-water, which they collect in their houses, in cisterns. Villages near Jerusalem have springs, but the Holy City itself, being at the top of a hill, has none. Water is neatly drained from the city by sewers that the Romans built.
From the valley of Jehoshaphat the traveler immediately ascends the Mount of Olives, as this valley only intervenes between the city and the mount. After the ruins of the Temple, the Mount of Olives is the most important site at Jerusalem. King Solomon built upon this mount. The prophet Zechariah is buried at its foot, in large and ancient burial grounds. Christians consider the mount holy, believing it to be the site of the arrest and crucifixion of Jisho the Nazarene; the Franks recently renovated an octagon-shaped church which the Byzantines built here long ago. After Byzantine rule of Jerusalem came the Arabs, Moslems who banned Jews from the Temple site, whereupon the Jews built a place of worship here on the mount. The entire Jewish community would ascend the Mount of Olives on the seventh day of Succot, Hoshana Rabba, for on that day the chief rabbi would announce the dates of the festivals for the year to come, and he would harangue against the Karaites and their calendar, and sometimes fights would break out between the two groups.
From the mount there is a clear view of the Dead Sea, called in ancient times Lake Asphaltes, with slimy shores due to the bitumenlike soft stone that washes up from under the water. Two parasangs from the sea stands the salt pillar into which Lot's wife was metamorphosed, and although the sheep continually lick it, the pillar grows again and retains its original state. You also have a panorama of the whole valley of the Dead Sea and of the brook of Shittim, even as far as Mount N'bo.
The Valley of Jehoshaphat and the Mount of Olives are to the east of the city. If you go to the southwest, Mount Zion is also near Jerusalem, and upon it stands no building except a place of worship of the Nazarenes. There also are to be found three Jewish cemeteries, where formerly the dead were buried. Some of the sepulchers had stones with inscriptions upon them, but the Christians destroy these monuments and use the stones in building their houses. In earlier times Mount Zion was located within the city walls, but in the last century a new wall was built which left Mount Zion outside.
Across the wall from Mount Zion, not far from it but inside the wall, in the southwest part of the city, stands the eight-sided Tower of David. About ten yards of the base of this building are very ancient, having been constructed by our ancestors. The remaining part was added by the Mohammedans and the city contains no building stronger than the Tower of David, the final redoubt of the Moslems at the Franks' conquest. Now the Franks use it as their administrative center, for military garrison, customs offices, and food stores. The king's palace adjoins the tower, and nearby are the dwellings of Jerusalem's few Jews.