The Holiest Cat In The World

The Dome of The Rock is one of the most dangerous places in the world. At least it felt that way as I slowly walked alone up the quiet, empty courtyard stairs leading towards it. The entire area, called the Temple Mount, is the holiest place in the world, and for millennia civilizations have fought horrible wars to capture it. The dome itself covers the stone where Jews, Christians and Muslims believe Abraham was challenged by God to sacrifice his son Isaac – a moment that gave birth to all three faiths and perhaps monotheism itself.

At 7:30am I was let in, and walked through heavy security. Then up a long wooden walkway, a walkway that rises over the Western Wall, and past a half-dozen Israeli soldiers. It was hard not to notice how they looked me over, and the heavy automatic rifles they casually held in their arms. When Israeli Prime Minister Sharon walked in this very place it outraged Palestinians so intensely that it began the 2nd Intifada in 2000, a conflict resulting in the deaths of more than 4000 people.

After the history I’d read about this place, the wars, the violence, and the current Israeli-Arab tension centered here, I was surprised at how quiet it was. The courtyard was huge, the size of 25 football fields, and serene. If you didn’t know what it was you’d assume it was simply a lovely courtyard built by ancient royalty, designed to be enjoyed by all citizens and peoples. How could such a pretty place be the cause of so much unrest?

But knowing the history I was genuinely afraid of going to a forbidden area, or making an accidentally offensive gesture (strict Muslim policies like covering shoulders and no kissing or touching are enforced), and causing an international incident, something I very much did not want to do. But as I stood there trying to look like I knew what I was doing, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the Dome of the Rock. It is a masterpiece of grand architecture and after years of reading about it, there it was. Whatever fears I had were slowly outweighed by the magnetic pull of its blend of curves and angles.

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Carefully walking up the steps to the dome, I stopped periodically to look back. In the distance were circles of older Muslim men, sitting on plastic chairs under trees, praying quietly together. They seemed not to care at all about my presence, so I slowly pressed on. Soon the dome was just 50 yards away and I wondered: Is it ok to touch it? Can I get close to it? I looked for signs, plaques, symbols, something to tell me what the rules were but there was nothing here. So I kept walking, but in a roundabout way, hoping the ridiculous hope that it made my intentions less obvious to anyone watching me from a distance, if in fact anyone was.

Soon I was almost on the other side, in the morning shadow of the dome. I thought this would be a safer place to get a closer look. But to my surprise there was already someone there: four young Arab children were playing soccer, using one of the doorways of the Dome as their goal. What was this? I wondered. How could a place so sensitive and sacred be used by children just to have fun? I was too confused and lost in my own fears to laugh, but it was funny. Had I made up all of this tension in my mind? Or maybe Arabs were simply granted more leeway here since it was a place they’d controlled or over 1000 years? I didn’t know, and there was no one to ask.

Braver now, I wandered back to the front and walked towards the main doors. I looked around again, and having yet to earn anyone’s attention, reached forward and touched it with my hand. I expected something, a noise, a scream, the sound of guards running towards me with their rifles pointed, but there was nothing. Just me, the silence, and the cool stone of a building 1500 years old under my fingers.

I stood back to take a picture and made my best discovery of the morning. An orange cat strolled by, from where he came I don’t know, and wandered into my shot. He was barely interested in me, the Dome, God or anything. He simply wanted to go to his favorite spot in the sun and I happened to be near it.

This cat, this little creature with a brain less than half the size of any man or woman that has fought over this mountain or traveled around the world to pray here, better understood the idea of inner peace and calm than all of us combined. For the cat everything about this place that was so powerful in our histories was irrelevant, as were the fears, worries and concerns about violating it’s sanctity. If the cat could speak, he’d say “This is just a place. There is plenty of room for everyone. Now find your own spot up here and leave me alone.” There were no rules for cats here, despite how many there were for people and somehow I felt I had something to learn from this.

I watched him for a time, now half asleep in a semi-circle of feline zen, warming in the sun, a sun that has no concept of blasphemy, and felt relieved. I laughed at myself and the tense morning I’d perhaps invented all on my own. For the first time that day I was in the presence of something truly peaceful and without judgment of me or anything at all.

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Photos by Itay Cohen

God’s Dysfunctional Children

Today I visited the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Israel. It’s where Abraham, a man celebrated by Muslims, Christians and Jews, is believed to be buried (as well as other notables from the early family of the bible). After the 1994 massacre the tomb was divided in half. From the Israeli side of the tomb, you can only enter the areas in blue. From the Palestinian side, you can only enter the areas in yellow. The excellent Hebron tour I took allowed access from both sides, with an Israeli guide for one half and a Palestinian guide for the other.

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One thread running through the bible, a line of thinking shared by both my friend Bryan Zug and the tour guide I had for half of the tour, is that the story of humanity is really about sibling strife. We get lost in the drama about humanity and god, but if you focus on the sibling stories, Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael, The Prodigal Son, you discover a different lesson, another way to see what the stories may be trying to tell us. Many books of the bible, or any chapter of the history of Jerusalem, reveals a litany of brothers, sisters and family working against each other.

I was hoping that visiting the Cave of Patriarchs, the site built to remember the one person that unifies all three faiths, would fill me with a sense of connection. But as I entered each site of the now divided building I couldn’t help but think perhaps there was a lesson here we were all working very hard not to learn.

The cenotaph for Abraham is a beautifully ornate green stonework, but it’s hidden behind iron spars. And if you look carefully through the gaps you can see the window on the other side, where the faithful of another faith can honor the same heritage, looking through their own set of protective glass and steel bars.

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