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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths blow on rams' horns during prayer in Jerusalem. (YONATHAN WEITZMAN/REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths blow on rams' horns during prayer in Jerusalem. (YONATHAN WEITZMAN/REUTERS)

AURAL HISTORY

A holy racket rages on in Jerusalem Add to ...

After the First World War, the struggle over Palestine grew more fierce. In 1929, the ever louder prayer escalated into a pogrom that left hundreds dead or injured. The Waqf, the Muslim administration of Jerusalem's holy sites, sparked outrage by installing a muezzin on top of the Wailing Wall to call Muslims to prayer over the Jews' heads. Then it ordered zikr ceremonies – which have believers spend hours reciting the 99 names of Allah and verses of the Koran – held in the immediate vicinity. The British held an inquiry and forbade the practice, as it was “primarily designed to annoy the Jews,” who in turn were ordered to stop blowing the ram's horn near the wall, as they had done for centuries.

Mr. Elkayam found the challenge irresistible: “The sound of the shofar,” he maintains, “symbolizes the deliverance of the people of Israel.” So on Yom Kippur, his female “accomplice” smuggled a small horn to the wall attached to her thigh and hidden under a long skirt. Once they were in position, the shofar was passed to him through the crowd and, at the sound of its primordial howl, all hell broke loose.

“The police clubbed everyone to disperse us and stop the shofar,” Mr. Elkayam recalls. “My prayer shawl was full of blood.”

He was arrested and, because Jordan conquered the Old City the following year, he went down in history as the last Jew to blow the shofar there until the chief rabbi of Israel's army restored the tradition soon after the recapture of the Wailing Wall in the Six Day War of 1967.

Islam and Judaism are the main combatants, but Christianity also has a stake in the dispute. For centuries under Ottoman rule, Christians were forced “to abstain from building new churches and from ringing church bells,” writes James Finn, the first British consul in Jerusalem (1846-1863).

During his tenure, “the sound of bells would have been unknown” to Jerusalem's inhabitants as it had not been heard there for 700 years, since the Crusades. The museum of the Franciscan Bible school in the Old City contains 13 crusader bells, including one brought from China.

By then the Orthodox Church had adopted the semantron, a long rod fashioned from wood or iron that makes a gong-like noise when struck with a hammer. This simple instrument was introduced in the sixth century, replacing the trumpets that may have reminded early Christians too much of the Jewish shofar. (In the Armenian quarter of the Old City, semantra are still in use, an acoustic reminder of the deep divide between the Orthodox East and Catholic West.)

Upon recapturing Jerusalem in 1187, Sultan Saladin had all the bells removed, and church towers would stay silent for centuries until the Crimean War, when Britain and France used their support of the Ottomans to have the policy rescinded.

This prompted a race among European powers to dominate Jerusalem's air waves, a race clearly won by Germany in 1911 when six oxen pulled the 6,120-kilogram Herrenmeisterglocke (master bell) up the steep slope of the Mount of Olives. It was so heavy that the Germans had to repair the road before it could be brought from the sea. Today, the mighty “master” still reigns supreme from the lofty bell tower of the Church of the Ascension.

Firas Qazaz has no need of big bells in his tower. Twice a day, the 24-year-old scion of an old Jerusalem family makes his way through the bustling Old City to the Haram as-Sharif, where he ascends a minaret to chant the call to prayer. It's perhaps no great surprise that he was chosen to be the youngest of the Al-Aqsa Mosque's four muezzins. “My family is known to have good voices – it has held the post of muezzin for the last 500 years,” he says, barely concealing his pride.

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