Though the route to the Mount of Olives is fairly well marked, the city’s eccentrically arranged streets can lead you a bit astray. There are points that are technically on the Mount of Olives but are not at the top. Luckily, my GPS led me up and up and up through winding streets and an Arab neighborhood or two until I reached a dead end. There, the Seven Arches Hotel faced what was arguably the most magnificent view in town. It was a clean and neat place, but looked like it hadn’t been renovated since the 1970s. I explored the hotel for a bit and discovered there was no café to have coffee in, so I decided to go outside instead to look at the vista just across the street.
This is the spot where I truly saw Jerusalem for the first time. Below me, the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world sprawled out across the landscape, overflowing with rocks left by visitors on headstones. Beyond that were the newer parts of the city. The most magnificent sight visible in the near distance was the Old City.
From the Mount of Olives, I saw Jerusalem’s Old City come alive in all its splendor. I stood there awestruck, and I recall my mouth even hung open for a moment in shock and wonder. That view, that moment that I got to share with my son—I almost didn’t want to breathe for fear everything would evaporate like a mirage.
The most striking thing by far was the Dome of the Rock as it glowed golden in the late afternoon sunlight. The city walls seemed to radiate the heat they’d absorbed throughout the day. The expanse of the entire Old City was visible, with the rest of modern Jerusalem spread out around it in every direction, contrasting its antiquity.
Luckily, I had timed my visit between busloads of tourists. Aside from a man waiting to sell camel rides and photographs nearby, my son and I were alone. In that moment, it seemed like we had Jerusalem all to ourselves, and something very strange happened: I wept.
I was genuinely moved. I had saved this part of my research until after I visited the Mount of Olives myself, so the only thing I knew was the story of Jesus looking at that same view some 2,000 years earlier and lamenting the coming destruction of the city with tears. After being there in person so many years later, that page of history somehow seemed easier to imagine.
To this day, my memory of that afternoon (especially the view) moves me. It inspires me. It fills me with awe and wonder. Most of all, though, it makes me so terribly sad for all those who will never see it for themselves, especially those who refuse to go to the region because of disagreements over current political and ideological struggles.
On top of the Mount of Olives, I had a glimmer of understanding about the eons of struggles Jerusalem has faced, as one conquest after another has swept through and turned it to ashes. It is such a beautiful prize, yet it is still unconquered.
It remains, as I hope it always will, the city I saw that day when I said to myself, “This place belongs to the entire world.”