The Holy Land is an area roughly located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that also includes the Eastern Bank of the Jordan River. Historically, it is synonymous with both the Land of Israel (Jerusalem) and Palestine and the Lebanese Republic, the Syrian Arab Republic and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is considered holy by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Part of the significance of the land stems from the religious significance of Jerusalem, the holiest city to Judaism, the historical region of Jesus’ ministry, and the Isra and Mi’raj event in Islam and Mount Nebo, where Moses presumably died. The perceived holiness of the land to Christianity was part of the motivation for the Crusades, as European Christians sought to win the Holy Land back from the Muslim Seljuk Turks. The Turks had taken over the Holyland after defeating the Muslim Arabs, who had, in turn, conquered the area from the Christian Byzantine Empire.
Many sites in the Holy Land have long been pilgrimage destinations for adherents of the Abrahamic religions, including Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Bahá’ís. Pilgrims visit the Holy Land to touch and see physical manifestations of their faith, confirm their beliefs in the holy context with collective excitation and connect personally to the Holy Land.
Holy to four faiths
The concept of a holy land became of great significance to both early Judaism and early Christianity. However, the expression “holy land” occurs only once in the Hebrew Bible (Zechariah 2:12), twice in the deuterocanonical books (Wisdom 12:3 and 2 Maccabees 1:7), and not once in the New Testament.
What made the land holy? According to biblical scholar and archaeologist Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, this occurred for the Jews when the Ark of the Covenant was carried into the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem and “the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:10). From Egypt to Syria, it was also the place where the patriarchs and prophets lived and were buried.
For Christians, the Holy Land is where Jesus lived, proclaimed his Gospel, performed miracles, was crucified and rose from the dead. From early times, the followers of Jesus venerated places associated with him, foremost among them the cave at Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre.
For Muslims, veneration of Jerusalem as a holy place goes back to Muhammad, who prayed facing Jerusalem before he was inspired to turn toward Mecca. He called Jerusalem “the Holy City”. Muslims believe Muhammad visited the rock of the Temple Mount during his night journey on the winged steed al-Burak in 620.
Followers of another monotheistic religion, the Bahá’í faith, have their holiest site in Haifa, Israel. The golden-domed Shrine of the Bab is set on a hillside of terraced gardens.