JERUSALEM -- "David, do you know what the rules are here?"
"You've never been on the Mount before?"
"David: No praying. No ululating. No rending your clothes."
The cop, a strange mix of friendly, cagy, and worried, stared at me at the checkpoint on the walkway leading up to the Temple Mount, on a bright, mild spring morning.
"You know, David, that this is a sensitive place?"
"O.K., David. If you have any trouble, there are policemen every few meters. You'll see them."
Yes, it was my first visit to the Temple Mount, despite having lived in the Jerusalem area a long time. Though the Israeli authorities reopened the Mount to non-Muslims a few months ago, I can't say why the curiosity took hold of me just now. Maybe it was the thought that, after a few years of it being forbidden, I was now being "allowed" to visit it, as if it were a favor.
IT WAS A VISIT to the Mount by another Jew, then-Member of Knesset Ariel Sharon, on September 28, 2000, that was said at the time to have sparked a wave of rioting and murder then euphemistically called (still sometimes today) the second intifada. Indeed, the situation on the Mount got so volatile that soon after Sharon's visit the Israeli government declared it off limits to non-Muslims, a ban that it lifted partially and gingerly only last September.
Now, as the broad plaza stretched before me, I was struck by the peacefulness of the place, under the sweet blue of early spring. Tall cypresses cast dollops of shade along the pavement. In the background was the Mount of Olives, dense and mazelike with white gravestones. Knots of policemen and border policemen glanced at me -- mostly Sephardic Jews and Druze, swarthy guys with an indelible stamp of the Middle East about them, both affable and hardboiled.
"Do you feel this place to be holy," an inner cop asked me, "because you really feel that way, or because tradition tells you that you're supposed to?" I don't know. "Do you believe in holy places, or isn't this just an elevation, with a nice air of serenity to it, where ancient people might have thought God dwelled?" I don't know.
Now, what were some of these landmarks around here?
To my right, the Al-Aksa Mosque, an immense structure fronted by colonnades that was completed around 705 C.E., some seventy years after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land.
To my left, the even vaster Dome of the Rock, built around the same time, its gold crown towering giddily skyward.
Religiocultural imperialism: something not in evidence in America, with its relatively short, simple history of democratic Christians sweeping westward; but seen and felt here, two huge, alien structures gazing at me on "my" Mount. Here, the First Temple was built by King Solomon a millennium and a half before the Muslim takeover of the city. Here, Israeli troops triumphed in the Six Day War amid cries of "The Temple Mount is in our hands!"
NOW, IN THE CALM morning, you could see the cops and guns; but the greater sense was of peace, of light pouring down from the blue, even huger dome overhead-indiscriminate light falling on Muslim and Jew, Arab and Israeli, on the knot of South Korean Christians listening to an explanation under a cypress, even on the stray cats that seemed to have adopted the exalted place as their home.
All it would have taken to break the calm, maybe start a riot, was me praying. Because of that possibility -- that a Jew, or Christian, might pray here or otherwise express himself religiously -- there was a need for an armed presence, stringent rules, careful interrogations at the checkpoint. As it happens, praying in public isn't my thing; but never before was I in a situation where doing it could mean getting arrested, setting off a tinderbox, or both.
I stayed there only a little while, but long enough to realize that it was all there, all I needed to know on earth: the sun that streamed down with equal generosity on everyone and everything, the peace that embraced the whole creation; the presence of people, scions of different religions, who were ready to share the place, who didn't mind the notion of others praying there and thought there was enough room for all; and the presence, imposing and threatening, of a different religion that hasn't yet made that turning, that -- ironically -- enforces its grip over the spot via the borrowed guns of the state that's supposed to be the sovereign.
I knew, in a way I never had before, that all that's needed is that turning -- you pray to your God, I'll pray to mine, maybe it's the same God anyway, why fight over it -- for civilization to emerge from barbarism, for a decent life instead of fury and blood.