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On a Mount of Olives

August 3, 2017

‘They are twisted, they kneel to pray, and they raise their arms, members tyrannized by movement, all elbows and knees. The bent roots suck the golden oil from the heart of the earth for the lamps of the saints and the salad of the poor.'

- Stratis Myrivillis



The Old City of Jerusalem is over 3,000 years old. The walls and ramparts that line it were built in Byzantine times. At the crossroads of three continents, four cultures, three monotheistic religions, the city straddles two nations and ideologies at war for nearly seventy years.


Market Street runs from North to South. Decumano from East to West. The Northwest Quarter is Christian; Jesus Christ lived and died here. His tomb, it is said, is in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christianity. Millions of Christians from around the world bring their faith and prayers here each year.


Southwest, the tiny Armenian Quarter has a distinctly Eastern Christian flair. And a cathedral, monastery, museum and the Tower of David. The latter is mentioned in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures, and overlooks old and new city, mountains, desert, and the Dead Sea.


From there, Southeast, the Jewish Quarter and the city’s earliest known water source. Relics dating back to the First Temple era, and the Kotel: the Western Wall. The edifice was part of the Holy Temple, which hosted the Holy of Holies. The most sacred site in Judaism; this is where the world was born.


On the other side of that wall, Northeast, is the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. In it is the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad traveled here from Mecca and, a few steps away, from the foundation stone in the Dome of Rock ascended to heaven.


Divides run deep between the Quarters and the millennia-old faiths that call them home. They run deeper still in the minds that inhabit them, fueled by rhetoric and memory. But in this space, a city whose size is smaller than a kilometer squared, landmarks crisscross the lines man built; church, temple, mosque stand side by side.


And beyond the city’s walls, past the ravine and brook, above the dust, to the East, is a mount of olive trees.


The Olea Europaea is one of the oldest cultivated trees in the world. It was domesticated in the Eastern Mediterranean 6 to 8,000 years ago. Today it defines the Levantine landscape, its climate, culture, and faith. Its silver leaves coat the mountains of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon.


Mild winters, temperate summers, and a gentle sea breeze. Olives, cured and preserved for the year. Olive oil drizzled on bread and thyme. The Greeks believed the fruit came from Athena, goddess of wisdom. The Egyptians, that Isis, mother of the Universe, taught them to extract its oil. Across myths, legends, and literature, the olive tree appears, symbolizing sacredness, peace, fertility, youth, prosperity.


The bible contains over 140 references to olives and olive oil. From the Old Testament, the Torah:


‘The Lord called thy name, a green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit.’ (11:16)


In the Qur’an, the Sura of the Light:


‘God is the light of the heavens and earth… lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the East or West, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it...’ (24:35)


Christians and Jews believe God sent a dove to Noah carrying an olive branch, and that on that same Mount of Olives, Jesus spent the last night of his life. Muslim pilgrims coming to Mecca for the Hajj are offered olive oil. And in all three religions it is said that in Paradise grow olive trees.


They already do, much closer, today, to the East of a 3,000-year-old city. Proud silver trees growing quietly above the people and clouds.


Judaism is 4,000; Christianity, more than 2,000; and Islam nearly 1,500 years old. But the trees were here before. They are. They will outlive it all.


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