Walking the streets of Old Jerusalem can be tricky.
The one-kilometer wide city is divided into four unequal quarters - Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. The city is a maze of alleys, and it is difficult for a visitor to keep his bearings even with a map, according to WikiTravel.
But the ancient city also is marked with signs that could cause a traveler to become distressed even if he or she is on the right path. The signs are not the kind associated with naming streets or pointing the way to historic sights. Instead, they are religious symbols that dominate the neighborhoods.
(Courtesy photo) The Damascus Gate is one of the entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem.
Don Braxton, a professor of religious studies at Juniata College, Huntingdon, is conducting a three- to five-year study to determine people's reactions to those signs in an effort to prevent religiously motivated violence. He made an initial research pilgrimage to the Holy Land in October along with Juniata senior Caleb Gwinn of Tyrone to map out a route for the study.
Old Jerusalem is a city of intense religious competition occurring among the three Abrahamic faiths in a confined geographical space, Braxton said.
Christians, Jews and Muslims have strong ties to the city. For Christians, it is where Jesus was crucified; for Jews, it has been a national center since ancient times; and for Muslims, it is the third most holy site in Islam.
If people's reactions seem to be stronger to religious symbols in a certain area, the study could pinpoint areas more susceptible to religiously motivated violence and measures could be taken to avert it, he said.
Braxton told how the information can be helpful by explaining that a previous unrelated study helps police in America prepare for crime in hot weather.
Braxton said the study indicated that violent crime goes up in New York City when the temperature is between 90 degrees and 105 degrees but drops off after 105 degrees. He said the study can be applied to any city in the United States and alerts the police to prepare for aggression when the temperature rises.
In Jerusalem, the quarters within the city are highly segregated, which tends to lead to conflicts.
The quarters have symbols that identify them. In the Christian area, it is crosses and iconography; in the Jewish area, it is Stars of David and Israeli flags; and in the Muslim area, it is minarets and crescent moons.
Others symbols can be seen in the appearance of the people, such as the vestments of the Greek and Russian Orthodox Christian clerics, the side curls and wide-brimmed black hats of the Orthodox Jews and turbans and hajabs (veils), worn by Muslims.
"[The symbols] are a way of saying 'watch out, you are entering a Jewish [or a Christian or Muslim] quarters. You need to respect our ways.'" Braxton said.
A person of a different faith may feel uncomfortable in another religion's quarters, but it also can be a source of comfort.
"If a Jew sees Jewish symbols, he can feel safe, that his people will protect him," Braxton said.
An example of an area where different religions clash is at the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre.
Across the street from the Christian holy site is a mosque. The sacred spot becomes quite noisy when Muslims are called to prayer over loudspeakers attached to the minarets, and Christians play church bells at the same time.
"They try to drown each other out," Braxton said. "It's almost a surreal landscape. It's like a childish family squabble.
"There is a very heavy military presence there to keep them from fighting."
Gwinn, a biology major and pre-med student who took pictures and logged notes of interest at intersections along the proposed route, encountered some minor hostilities.
He said a man yelled at him when he was taking pictures where the Christian and Muslim quarters meet, and in the Muslim quarters, children would run up to him and push him back, telling him the road was closed.
"But for the most part, I didn't feel threatened in any quarter," Gwinn said.
His information was converted into a computer-generated map and Braxton did a walk-through of the route with a camera mounted on his head.
Braxton said 400 (100 Jews, 100 Christians, 100 Muslims and 100 secular) university students in Israel will travel the route during the testing planned from 2012-14. They will wear a camera that will show what they are seeing and reactions will be measured by a galvanic skin response.
Each test will take about a month, and the proposal is under consideration by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. The initial setup was funded by a $20,000 grant from the Air Force lab.
He said the military is interested in the test because American military personnel are met with distrust by the indigenous people in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"What is it that offends them, that causes them to distrust us, that makes them feel less secure?" he asked.
In turn, he said the anxiety level also goes up in American soldiers who have never been around Muslims before.
"What trips it?" he asked.
He said the tests could help people to build systems of trust.