There are places you read about that are so far away and so seemingly magnificent that you assume these places will only ever be just that to you — places you read about once.
If you went back in time to however old I was when I first learned about the Dome of the Rock and told me that I would be standing in front of it in September of my 24th year, I probably would have slapped you in the face.* It’s not that I lacked the interest, it’s just that I never saw any good reason for anyone to let me near something as important as the Dome of the Rock.
The Dome is a shrine located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Although non-Muslims are permitted to enter the premises, they aren’t permitted inside the Dome. My brief time there was split between people-watching and trying to analyze the Dome as though I were sitting in an art history class. Somehow, between all of my art classes, I’m not sure I ever actually studied it.
The whole scene was an extremely quiet one. There weren’t many people wandering around, and those who were present were either silent or speaking in low voices, as though in a library. This was surprising to me, as both the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were extremely loud, crowded, and emotional places, full of tourists taking pictures.
Those sites seemed to completely overwhelm anyone who was deeply religious (and they also seemed to frustrate anyone who couldn’t simultaneously operate a camera and weather a human stampede. Understandably.). The Dome, on the other hand, was open and quiet; there was a certain solemnity, almost to the point of restraint. Maybe it’s a different case if you actually get to go inside.
I still don’t think I fully appreciate how rare it is that I actually visited this site. It still feels like something I’ve only read about — and now, of course, like something I’ve only written about. This is a familiar feeling. Whenever I actually do get to visit all of these places I’ve read about in books, I think I have a hard time accepting the fact that I am actually experiencing them in real life.
I stand in front of the Dome, or the Louvre, or the cafe in Edinburgh where JK Rowling wrote some of the Harry Potter series, and I have to tell myself over and over again, “Ok, this is it, you’re here. No, really, you are. Do something. Take a picture, maybe? At least try to have an intelligent thought about this. At least one intelligent thought.”
Sometimes, it’ll hit me a few minutes after. Sometimes a few months. Some of them haven’t even hit me yet. But at least I know that even if I can’t conjure up one intelligent word about the Dead Sea as I am bathing in it, I will be able to appreciate it at some point down the road, probably when I’m skimming through some book and I come across a picture of it and my heart stops for a second and I realize, “Holy crap — that actually exists, and I have actually seen it.”
*Well no, I wouldn’t have.
**Also: this trip was made possible by the lovely DigIsrael group, although all opinions are, as usual, my cat’s.