Jerusalem is not called the Holy City for nothing.

There is no escaping religion here. It is in the people, politics, buildings, graffiti and soil. The Jews, Muslims and Christians all lay claim to the city and are bound to it.

Every year many thousands of pilgrims defy security concerns to come to Jerusalem. Like the city’s crazy traffic, tour around for just a few moments and suddenly the stories of the Bible leap out right in front of you.

The hawkers do a fine trade in the Old City maze. Want to buy a crown of thorns? How about a glow in the dark crucifix?

Even if you went off into some sort of dark Jerusalem cave to get away from it all, the chances are that a celebrated saint did that before you.

When a rare media tour of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock came up during my visit I could not say no.

The ancient site in the Old City is the most sacred, holiest place for Jews, the third most important place for Muslims and, currently, a no go zone for tourists.

It is an explosive place of prayer. Jews passionately want to worship there, but they are not allowed to enter.

The Palestinian Second Intifada began here on September 28th 2000 when Ariel Sharon provocatively entered the al-Aqsa Mosque with more than 1000 security guards.

The tour had been organised by a Jewish lobby group using a Muslim guide inside the gates. The idea was that the outside world would get both vantage points on the holy site and its significance.

More than a dozen journalists took part including correspondents from the US, Denmark and Italy.

We were hurried around the site while Muslims prayed and sat in the warm day unhindered by the Israeli security which blankets the rest of the city.

Slow moving or, in my case, slow photographing journos, were chastened by a man barking; “Come journalists! Come on!”

Some of the different views of the Jewish and Muslim guides could not be contained, although the arguments were somewhat subdued and delivered with a smile in front of the international audience.

The contention was expected, but perhaps not inside the mosque. The tour was a rare opportunity to experience what is the oldest Islamic building in the world and the site of great religious and social turmoil.

At various times, the place has been shot at, burnt down, damaged in quakes, rebuilt, burnt again and threatened with larger scale explosives.

The inside of the silver domed al-Aqsa Mosque on the south-east side of the Temple Mount is beautiful.

The stained glass windows scatter glorious light on the worshippers, although the mosque was very quiet while we shuffled through.

Muslims believe that Muhammad was transported from Mecca to al-Aqsa during the Night Journey.

There he led other prophets in prayer, leapt to heaven and spoke to God.

The mosque has survived a lot over the centuries including a 1969 assault by an Australian Christian.

Denis Michael Rohan started a fire, he says, to hasten the second coming of Jesus. He was found to be criminally insane.

The dome’s gold coloured interior only just survived the fire.

It is painted with 14th-century-era decorations including lines from the Koran.

Here’s the dome seen kaleidoscopically (if that is a word) through the central chandelier.

The mosque fits about five thousand worshippers, but it regularly overflows at Friday prayers with thousands more people praying in the courtyard.

There are reminders in this prominent cabinet of the 2000 Sharon visit which sparked the Second Intifada.

They are the shells of the ammunition used when Israeli police stormed the compound. They are under lock and key.

We were then ushered to the bright shining 1321 year old Dome of the Rock.

The shrine is impossible to miss in Jerusalem as it is covered in millions of dollars worth of Saudi Arabian and Jordanian gold.

As you get closer you see the enormous dome sits on a octagonal building covered in 400 year old blue-themed Islamic tiles.

Contentiously, it was built on the site of the Second Jewish Temple which had been destroyed by the Romans. Some Jews want the Dome moved to Mecca make way for a Third Temple.

The dome’s interior is undergoing a revamp due to shooting.

The Muslim guide was not specific on when it happened, but bullets must have hit the beautiful mosaics.

Scaffolding obscured many of the views, but Koranic lines painted in the time of Saladin could be clearly seen.

The dome is built over the Foundation Stone.. a place which has been described as a dangerous piece of real estate.

Muslims believe the rock is the spot where Muhammad rose to Heaven to talk to God, Jews view it as the spiritual junction of Heaven and Earth.. and geographically it is the highest natural point in Old Jerusalem.

All on the tour gathered ’round to hear about the Dome of the Rock.

The guide says a single hair from Muhammad is somewhere in the building.

As we asked questioned and listened, worshippers came in and out. Some were a little disturbed by our presence.

Soon enough it was time to go.

We were shuffled out of the Dome of the Rock with the guides still disputing minor points while questions ricocheted in our heads.

Outside ABC Middle East Correspondent Anne Barker and I soaked up the atmosphere while the last questions were answered and bullet holes were revealed in the side of the ancient building.

Muslim women relaxed in the sun and children played on the wide open concrete space.

We had to choose the right gate to leave the Dome of the Rock.. and then we were back in real world Jerusalem.

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  1. Bron #
    April 9, 2012

    Wow. This is amazing. I’m fascinated by the history of these religious places and I envy you for having been able to go there!

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