Prince William toured sensitive Jerusalem holy sites on Thursday and paid a pilgrimage to the tomb of his great-grandmother on the final day of his historic royal visit to the Middle East.
The Duke of Cambridge’s Jerusalem leg is by far the most charged of his five-day tour of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories — the first official visit of a member of the British royal family — as he ventures into the heart of world religion and regional politics.
The trip has been carefully orchestrated as a non-political event, and the prince has been watchful in his words and actions not to stoke controversy as he met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and toured the region’s various locales. But the Jerusalem sites he visited are central to the century-old conflict and every step he took was closely scrutinized.
Prince William began his visit with a lookout of the Old City from the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem. He then visited the nearby gravesite of his great-grandmother, Princess Alice, who saved Jews in the Holocaust and whose last wishes were to have her remains buried in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene above the Garden of Gethsemane.
The prince stood solemnly by his great-grandmother’s grave, accompanied by a Russian Orthodox clergyman. He was then given several gifts by the clergy, including a bouquet of flowers and a cross. With the homage, William followed in the footsteps of his father Charles, the Prince of Wales, and grandfather Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who had also visited Princess Alice’s grave.
From the church, Prince William was taken to visit a trio of key Muslim, Jewish and Christian sites before departing home to London. Prince William said he was particularly looking forward to the Old City visit, which included stops at the contested holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where tradition holds that Jesus was crucified and buried.
At the Western Wall, he was accompanied by the site’s rabbi and security guards as he approached the wall. Donning a black skullcap, he placed his right hand on the ancient stones and then, following tradition, slipped a note inside its cracks.
He signed the guestbook with the following passage: “May the God of peace bless this region and all the world with peace”.
“Today we experienced a moment of history which will live long in the memory of Jews around the world,” said the Chief Rabbi of Britain Ephraim Mirvis, who accompanied the prince in his visit. “The Western Wall stands at the epicenter of our faith. To see the future monarch come to pay his respects was a remarkable gesture of friendship and a sign of the duke’s regard for the sanctity of Jerusalem.”
Crowds of onlookers followed his every move as the prince made his way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre shortly after.
Israeli politicians were angered that the royal itinerary mentioned the Old City of Jerusalem as being part of “the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” rather than part of Israel’s capital. Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin — who is running for mayor of the city in this year’s elections — called the reference a “distortion” that cannot “change reality.” His fellow hard-line Cabinet minister from the ruling Likud Party, Miri Regev, said it was “impolite” of the prince not to meet Jerusalem’s mayor in the city.
Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it in a move not internationally recognized. Israel considers the city, home to holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims and the emotional epicenter of the conflict, as an inseparable part of its capital. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their future capital.
Britain has deep roots in the region, having governed Palestine from 1920 to 1948 under a League of Nations mandate. But it has since taken a back seat to the United States in matters of mediating war and peace efforts. The royal family has mostly steered clear of politics, and insisted the itinerary was merely reflecting the long-time, traditional vocabulary used by the British government.
The 36-year-old William, second in line to the throne, has already visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and met Israelis from all walks of life, from the beaches and promenades of Tel Aviv to demonstrations of high-tech entrepreneurs to swanky receptions with celebrities and politicians. He also visited a Palestinian refugee camp, where he met with young people and tasted the local cuisine.