I visited the most holy city in the world this summer. I was travelling to Israel with my American friend and we ended up spending six nights in Jerusalem. It’s a city that millions of people around the world would love to visit, particularly those who believe in some kind of higher power. If you’re Jewish, Muslim or Christian, there’s some specific sights relating to your particular brand of crazy – the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, among other things.
I’m an atheist. I have never, and will never, believe in any form of religion. I’m more likely to become a woman and change my name from Chirpy to Chirpetta than dedicate even a minute of my life to prayer. I mean, let’s say the average prayer session is 25 minutes long and the purpose of that prayer is to find some comfort in a harsh world. On the other hand, I could grab myself a beer and watch an episode of Peep Show in the same time. They say watching TV is mindless and unproductive, but in theory I could learn how to write jokes or how to plot a story from watching TV, what the hell has prayer ever actually done for anyone?
Going to Jerusalem was wasted on me, particularly when you consider the millions of other people who would love to go for religious or spiritual reasons, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the place. I loved it, in fact. I could appreciate the above building for what it is – a pretty, decorative, colourful place of worship – but it was the experience of being there that I appreciated the most.
See that wall right there in the middle? Apparently it deserves to be capitalised, to be made into a Wall. The Western or Wailing Wall, to be precise. People stick little notes in between the cracks of the stone and stand there bobbing their heads back and forth. One devout Jewish chap did particularly enthusiastic bobbing and it was hard to stifle a laugh. If you’re using religion for personal salvation, terrific — it won’t work but you’re free to try it out like a curious child with a new toy. Just don’t start involving other people like the Westboro Baptist Church.
This photo was taken from the roof of a hostel my friend and I stayed at in the Old City of Jerusalem. The roof wasn’t just a viewpoint, its main purpose was to provide discount beds. They’d crammed about 20 sleeping mats into a small space so that you’d head to bed late at night only to find someone else’s drunken wayward arm had already flopped its way onto your mat already.
While waking up at 5 a.m. with church bells and calls to prayer might piss off your average “let’s spend this entire trip drunk because there’s no way we can do that at home!” hostel-goer, I loved it. And sure, as the picture below of a bunch of tourists crammed into a tight space proves, visiting Jerusalem isn’t quite as magical as it could be, but there isn’t a landmark or a place in the world that wouldn’t be improved by only letting one person see it at a time. Imagine if you could go to the top of the Eiffel Tower alone, or walk across the Golden Gate Bridge with your travel companion while it’s closed to traffic and to other pedestrians. Other people’s grumbles and gripes and their poor personal hygiene are nowhere around…that’d be amazing, wouldn’t it?
It’s often the case that I travel somewhere, see the sights, do the stuff, buy the key rings and think to myself, “Well this is nice and everything but I’m a little underwhelmed.” Then I’ll come home, wait a few months and start realising that I miss the place. I’ve forgotten about the heat, the crushing crowds, the somewhat disappointing religious sites, and the damnably annoying sound of my 93rd call to prayer. I start to want to go back, wondering why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have done before, and before you know it you’ve planned another trip somewhere and that familiar excitement returns. A strange cycle familiar, I think, to any frequent traveller.
I’d recommend everyone visit Jerusalem, religious or not. If you’re religious, there’s a lot for you to see and, err, pray about? I have no idea how you people go about ‘doing religion’. For fellow atheists, there’s a lot to mock and stifle sniggers at and loads of interesting history and culture to discover.