The following essay is the story of my attempt to discern, record and define the Light of Place within the Old City walls of Jerusalem. The Old City’s signature light is a mixture of light gathered from various
photonic sources: atmospheric, as defined by latitude
and modified by the city’s shifting interplays of desert
and Mediterranean air; primordial, as defined by light
in the stepped limestone terrain outside the walls;
threshold, as articulated at its boundary walls and
gates, and anthropogenic, as defined by 4000 years of
human habitation within those walls.
But Jerusalem is, for all three world monotheisms, a
holy city, one where light and dark are not just measures
of illuminance but powerful religious metaphors. So
hovering over the city, and in particular its Judeo-Islamic-Roman Temple Mount, is celestial light, a
source that is variously understood and manipulated
to ‘reveal’ how a willing believer can and should relate
to his/her system of belief.
As to atmospheric light, Jerusalem stands at the
intersection of a Mediterranean climate to the west
and a desert climate to the east. Ask Jewish and Arab
residents of Jerusalem where their light comes from
and, in a city where violent opinion delineates issues as
consequential as hummus, the immediate, unequivocal
and surprisingly uncontested response is: desert.
For the Arabs this may simply point to the historical
and incarnate impact of their ancient environmental
heritage. When the Prophet encounters Jesus during
his Jerusalem night journey, both heads are engulfed
in saintly flames of desert fire. For the Jews it points
to their foundation narrative, where they wandered
in it for 40 years in the hope that the desert light would
burn away the painful memory of their prolonged
enslavement in Egypt.
As a photonic reality, desert light in the city is morning
light. The portal of the Jewish desert tabernacle had, by
biblical law, to face it. This assured that when its doors
opened, it welcomed not just the warmth and comfort
of the rising sun but also offered a daily message of
hope and renewal.
Jerusalem’s morning light exhibits none of the
refractive solar compression one observes as the sun
rises over water. Instead it appears a perfect white gold
circle at the centre of a radiating red/yellow gold field.
This iconic golden circle is not just a local photonic
signature but one that has been exported on to
white/yellow/red gold mosaic surfaces in sanctuaries
throughout Christendom. The next time you inspect
a gold-haloed Byzantine image of Christ’s head recall
that you are witnessing the sun rise in Jerusalem.
Far left and left: as a photonic
reality, desert light in the city
is morning light while, by
contrast, the white light of
the noonday sun is intense,
relentless and inescapable
Opposite: Gate of Beit El Yeshiva.
A uniform blue/grey light
dominates the city’s streets