By Bread Alone Jerusalem - Crossroad of Symbols

Varda Polak-Sahm | Photographs

Text | Ulrich W. Sahm

Rafael Publishers




Mankind thinks in symbols. When looking at an icon, the movement of a hand or a tool is sufficient to identify a person, a place or a biblical story. Culture, education and symbols influence our perceptions. We formulate our thinking in pictures.

Such a symbol is Jerusalem. Some think of the heavenly Jerusalem, others are reminded of the death and resurrection of Christ. Yet others think of Solomon's Temple or the Night Journey of the Prophet Mohammed.

An infinite multitude of meanings has been associated with Jerusalem, its name and history. Similarly our most common food, bread, is not merely a combination of flour, salt and water. Bread was invented by chance in Egypt some 6000 years ago. The three monotheistic religions relate to its spiritual meaning. Bread and Jerusalem became essential concepts in different cultures and religions. They have also become cornerstones of Western culture.

The spiritual meaning of bread has fascinated the photographer Varda Polak-Sahm of Jerusalem for more than ten years. Time and time again she has found new motifs and added them to her collection. The title of her exhibition "By Bread Alone" is an inversion of the biblical verse "Man does not live by bread alone."

The 22 pictures were first exhibited at Tel Aviv's Eretz Israel Museum. This exhibition was sponsored by a bakery on the border between the first Jewish city of Tel Aviv and the biblical township of Jaffa, where Arab and Jewish apprentices bake together. The picture "Six of Twelve Apprentices at a Bakery in Jaffa" was taken there.

The exhibition was later shown at the "Brotmuseum" in Ulm, Germany, and at the "Pädagogisch-Kulturelles Centrum ehemalige Synagoge Freudental e.V." near Stuttgart. In February 1998, "By Bread Alone" was the first exhibition by an Israeli photographer at the Vatican. It went on to be shown at Catholic universities throughout Italy, and in the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Bursa.

Varda Polak-Sahm has followed in the footsteps of her Jewish-Sephardic ancestors, who lived in peace side by side with their Christian and Muslim neighbors. Her family has roots in Jerusalem for many generations. As a result, she manages to transcend the ethnic, religious and nationalistic ghettos, which are a reality in today's Holy City. She feels just as much at home among Muslims as among the ancient Christian communities.

One day, Varda Polak-Sahm noticed that the golden Dome of the Rock - Jerusalem's main landmark - was shrouded in scaffolding. Jordan's King Hussein wanted to restore the Dome's former glamour. The monarch financed this extensive work out of his own pocket, something that Varda Polak-Sahm took as a sign of peace: "A proud Arab covers his beloved with gold to possess her." Knowing this, she took up the idea of documenting how King Hussein made peace with Israel.

For many months, she regularly clambered up the scaffolding around the seventh-century Dome of the Rock. The outcome of this project was a "Peace Album" with 24 pictures, bound in dark brown leather. Israel's late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin presented the album to King Hussein at their first official meeting in Washington, DC, on July 25, 1994. Symbolically, the Israeli premier thus handed over Islam's holy sites in Jerusalem to the Hashemite monarch for safekeeping.

The Dome of the Rock is one of the most perfect and beautiful buildings in the world. It stands above a site holy to the three monotheistic religions: the place where God dwelled on earth. In a way, therefore, every building that has been erected here since King Solomon's Temple is "The House of God".

According to the Bible, King David bought a threshing floor on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. It was his intention to build the Temple of God, but only his son Solomon could fulfill this wish.

Many biblical stories and legends refer to this place. The rock was the exit gate of Paradise when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. At the End of Days, the rock under today's Golden Dome will be the entrance to Paradise. God used the rock as a "plug" to hold back the Flood. Abraham intended to sacrifice his son Isaac on this rock. Jacob used it as a pillow when he dreamt about the ladder to heaven. Under King Solomon, God made his "home" on Mount Moriah.

East of the Temple Mount is the Mount of Olives, with its 3000 year-old cemetery. These tombs inspired the prophet Ezekiel to herald the resurrection of the dry bones at the End of Days. It was here that Jesus was active, and here his life came to an end. As a 12 year-old, he preached at the Temple. And here the Sanhedrin, the priestly High Court, judged him before he was handed over to Pontius Pilatus.

In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed the Temple. They pillaged the Ark of the Covenant and the ritual Temple accessories. The House of God was razed to the ground. At the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount ramparts was the "House of the Trumpeter." It was here that the arrival of the Messiah was to be announced, and that the Devil tried Jesus. On the Herodian pavement below this corner, archeologists found a stone with the Hebrew inscription "House of the Trumpeter."

In 687 AD, Khalif Abdel Malik ibn Marwan employed Christian craftsmen to build the Muslim "Dome of the Rock", which stands there until this day. He modeled the structure after the Byzantine Church of the Holy Sepulcher over the empty tomb of Christ. The octagons of the Dome over the Holy Rock and the Holy Sepulcher have identical measurements. The Royal Dome in Aachen, Germany, was also built according to the same plans.

To this very day, peace on earth or Doomsday can easily be swayed by events on this Mount of God. Extremist Jews and Christians threaten to destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount. They want to rebuild Solomon's Temple in order to hasten the coming of the "Redemption". Moslems threaten Israel with a Holy War if "El-Aqsa" is damaged.

Only a few people have literally "climbed onto God's rooftop." With her camera, Varda Polak-Sahm observed the "eyes of Jerusalem," the many windows overlooking this landmark. She watched experts from Ireland working at a temporary "gold factory" on the Temple Mount while gilding the Dome. During their breaks, she photographed pious Muslims at prayer and girls being taught the Koran. "Non-believers" are not permitted onto the Haram esh-Sharif ("The Noble Sanctuary") during Muslim prayers. At these times, while Muslims were on their own, undisturbed by tourists, Varda Polak-Sahm took her best shots - in spite of her being a woman, a Jew and an Israeli.

The Christians declared the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem their most important Holy Places. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher houses on and under its roofs almost half of the stations of the Via Dolorosa. Under the crumbling rock on which the crosses of Jesus and the two thieves stood is the grave of Adam, the first man.

The exit gate of Paradise and the tomb of Adam at the foot of the rock of Golgotha connect the Temple Mount with the Holy Sepulcher. The three monotheistic religions have attached great symbolic meaning to the city of Jerusalem. All our beliefs in hell and heaven have their sources in this unique city.

Photographer Varda Polak-Sahm followed the trail of the spiritual secrets of Jerusalem. In the Holy City she discovered a mysterious coexistence of death and resurrection, paradise and the devil's work, eternity and deterioration, dispute and peace. Jerusalem will remain a contradictory mystery.

These photographs of the spiritual meaning of bread, of the religious and universal symbols of Jerusalem, as well as Polak-Sahm's documentation of peace at the Holiest of Holies can be seen as a clue to the heavenly Jerusalem.

Ulrich W. Sahm