Dome of the Rock
This Islamic shrine, part of the al-Aqsa complex, is the oldest Islamic building in the world, and one of the most holy sites in Islam outside of Saudi Arabia. I had seen pictures of it adorning the walls in the houses of many Muslim families that I have met whilst on this trip, although to the majority of them, they will never be able to visit it. For me, the blue tiles & intricate calligraphy brought back memories of the mosques of Esfahan in Iran, my first real experience of a Muslim country.
Israeli police patrol inside the site, and it is only accessible to non-Muslims for an hour a day. Access is via the same complex as the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s most important sites. If you are Muslim, access is limited by other means. Most citizens of Arab countries would not be able to visit it due to the travel restrictions surrounding Israel. If you fall into the category of a Palestinian holding Israeli ID, then you can live in, or travel to, Jerusalem (and therefore access the al-Aqsa complex). However, Israeli police do sometimes limit access to the site; just the other day, the Old City itself was closed to Palestinians. Israelis and tourists were allowed to enter.
For Palestinians holding Palestinian ID, things get a little more complicated. Access to Jerusalem from the West Bank involves crossing a checkpoint, due to the existence of the (illegal) separation wall. To cross this checkpoint, one must have the right papers. Authorisation to travel to Jerusalem is often granted for Fridays only — the holy day for Muslims. For males to obtain this authorisation, they must be 55 years old.
And once authorisation has been gained, there is the issue of actually traveling there. On a Friday, the queues at the checkpoints surrounding Jerusalem are horrendous, as people try to reach their place of prayer. Qalandia—the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem—in particular, is a very unpleasant experience. People often queue for hours, in a very hot, pushy, humiliating environment.