I’m unsure whether I should go, considering what happened last week, so I decide to ask the receptionist in my Tel Aviv hotel.

“Nowhere in the world is truly safe,” she tells me. “You can go outside and cross the street right now and be blown up. There’s nothing you can do about it.” I can’t decide whether to admire her stoicism or pity her cynicism.

Jerusalem is a combination of many things. The old city is tiny (barely a kilometer wide, less than a third of the size of Inis Oírr) but it contains the holiest sites on Earth for Christians and Jews, and the third most holy for Muslims. These three sites are within a stone’s throw of each other: a couple of minutes from the Wailing Wall is the street through which Jesus dragged the cross, and behind it is the rock from which Muhammad ascended to Heaven. They are right next to each other, yet somehow there is no sign of tension. In fact, Jerusalem seems a microcosmic model of how different religions might coexist in harmony. Maybe it’s the calm eye of a stormy relationship. In any case, I am only here to observe.

To get to the Wailing Wall you have to pass through metal detectors manned by serious-looking Israelis. There is no security in the church which marks the spot where Christ was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead, but it is full of robed priests telling what you can’t do based on whether you’re Orthodox Christian or Roman Catholic. As non-Muslims we weren’t allowed into the Muslim quarter. Each was telling, I thought. Commerce fills in the tiny gaps between the holy sites, a warren of souks and markets.

For the duration of your time in Jerusalem it seems to make sense to just go along with everyone’s beliefs. There’s no need to qualify any historical claim or address any of the seemingly contradictory statements. Christ rose here, Muhammad ascended over there. Okay.

Everything has been built, sacked, rebuilt, and preserved, heaping layers of history. Near the entrance to the main Christian site is a smaller church, the Church of Saint Helena (she being of Constantinople and mother to Roman Emperor Constantine). Beneath that is a cistern, an underground manmade well, and a swarthy monk convinced us to squeeze down a stone stairway to get to it. It is said to be where Helena found the first fragments of the True Cross, and then the water from this cistern was used to build the main church above us.

Down in the near-dark of Helena’s cave two people stood at the edge of the water. One of them had a sheepskin draped over his bare shoulders. They were singing, and the noise echoed wonderfully off the rock and water. It sounded mournful and hymnal, in an Eastern-sounding minor scale and with wailing Thom Yorke harmonies. I don’t know what they were singing was about, but sometimes it’s fine not to understand or feel part of something, but instead to just observe.

This is my souvenir from Jerusalem, a recording of two people singing in a cistern under the city [MP3, 2 mins].

Photos on Flickr.

— 04 Apr 2011