THE HOLY CITY

With FATHER ANDREW

FATHER ANDREW returns after a couple of month’s absence from TheBAY. He’s been sorely missed and we are delighted to welcome him back. Here he starts his account of a recent visit to the Holy Land

A pilgrim’s diary: 1.

THE HOLY CITY

The idea of ‘Pilgrimage’ is one that we readily associate with certain world faiths – as perhaps most obviously in the case of the Islamic Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca which all Muslims are expected to undertake at least once in their lifetime. No such expectation is rigorously applied to Christians: yet, for many Christians, going ‘on pilgrimage’ is a powerful spiritual experience. There are, of course, many places that have become sites of pilgrimage down through the centuries: but most would agree that the Holy Land remains the spiritual destination par excellence for the followers of Jesus Christ today, just as it has been since at least the fourth century, when the idea of pilgrimage first began to be well-established within the psyche of the Church.

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Why go on a pilgrimage? As Chaucer would undoubtedly tell us, there are as many motives as there are pilgrims: yet three particular reasons spring to mind.

Firstly, there’s the conviction that we are visiting a place of spiritual encounter: a place where the veil between earth and heaven seems particularly thin. TS Eliot summed this up well in his poem ‘Little Gidding’ when he wrote:

‘You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid.’

Secondly, there is that knowledge that we are, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of great men and great women. Any historical site – not necessarily religious – can, in that sense, be a place of pilgrimage. I well remember as a student on my first holiday abroad walking along the steps of the Parthenon in Athens, and imagining myself walking where once Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, Thucydides and the other ‘greats’ of Greek antiquity had once trod. Travelling in the footsteps of the saints has a clear meaning for Christians – seeing the same view across Iona that Columba once saw, visiting the Lindisfarne that was home to Aidan, and so forth. Above all, following in the path of Christ – to cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat, for example, as the Gospels record that Jesus did on many occasions – will always have a special, unique resonance for Christians.

Thirdly, there is the expectation – and the hope – that we will come back from a pilgrimage somewhat changed. Whether through the things we see, the experiences we have or the people with whom we travel – the widespread assumption, rightly or wrongly, is that that journey will impact upon the pilgrim in a profound and transformative manner. Of course, such expectations may sometimes be misplaced – there are disappointed pilgrims is much the same way that there are other disappointed travellers and tourists – and yet the anticipation is still commonplace.

So, it was with great excitement and anticipation that I joined forty-four other pilgrims – mostly from Swansea and Gower – on a journey to the Holy Land in May this year. Some of my fellow-pilgrims had been to the Holy Land previously (in some cases three or four times before), a clear witness to the impact that it has for some – but for many others, like myself, it was a first visit.

Our pilgrimage was to last for ten days, and was to take in many of the most famous and memorable locations in the Holy Land, including Bethlehem and Bethany, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, Masada and the Judean Desert, and, of course, Jerusalem itself. But our pilgrimage leaders, Fr Mark Griffiths and Fr Nigel Doyle, were determined that our pilgrimage should not just be about visiting sacred sites, however hallowed by Church history and tradition. More important that the dead stones of church buildings and archaeological heritage sites, however splendid, were the ‘living stones’ of Christ’s Church in the Holy Land today – the brothers and sisters of our faith that we would be meeting, whose hospitality we would receive, and whose stories we would hear.

To be a Christian in the Middle East, the place which was the cradle of our faith, is no easy task today. Everywhere one looks – in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria – Christians are going through the most terrible privations. Churches are targeted by arsonists and bombers, homes are destroyed, entire communities are being uprooted, and those who cannot, or will not flee, face imprisonment, torture and even martyrdom. The outlook for Christians in the Middle East is worse now than it has been for centuries.

And the Palestinian Christians of the Holy Land are not isolated from or immune to this brutalising, dehumanising trend. To be treated as a second-class citizen in the land of your birth, to face all manner of petty injustice, and to know the precarious existence of a small minority – in a land where little more than 1% of the population is now Christian, where a century ago it was perhaps 10% – these are the realities that we witnessed at first-hand during our pilgrimage. Some of what we saw was truly shocking, and profoundly disturbing – and not at all what we would expect to see in a country that proclaims itself to be the only democracy in the Middle East, one built on the same Western liberal values that we cherish. My encounter with the ‘living stones’ of the Christian Church in the Holy Land certainly left a deep impression: so, in that sense, I can certainly avow that I came back from the pilgrimage somewhat different to how I went.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…time to begin, at the beginning.

The initial focus for our Pilgrimage was the city sacred to three faiths, the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is a contradiction. Here we have a city sacred to three faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The name Jerusalem is commonly translated as ‘City/Abode of Peace’ (the Hebrew shalom and Arabic salam, part of the root of the city name, both meaning ‘peace’). The usual name for the city in Arabic is al-Quds, meaning ‘the holy sanctuary.’ Yet despite these names, invoking peace, holiness and wholeness, Jerusalem has been completely destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured (or recaptured) 44 times over the course of its long history. In short, Jerusalem has been fought over more than any other place on the planet. The peace of Jerusalem has always been in short supply: small wonder that Jesus weeps for the fate of Jerusalem: ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’ (Luke 19.42). Would we find peace in the Holy City on our Pilgrimage?

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After our arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, we travelled to the Golden Walls hotel in Jerusalem, where we were to stay for the next six nights. This friendly Palestinian-owned hotel is situated near the Damascus Gate, one of the seven principal entry-points into the Old City of Jerusalem (there is an eighth gate that is permanently closed – about which I will write later). In its current form, the Damascus Gate was built in 1537 during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, perhaps the greatest of the Ottoman sultans. However, the remains of a gate dating back to the time of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century have been found and excavated. The Crusaders called it St Stephen’s Gate (emphasising its close proximity to the traditional site of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr).

The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters, dating back to medieval times: the Jewish quarter, the Muslim quarter, the Christian quarter and the Armenian quarter. On our first full day in Jerusalem, we went on a breath-taking whistle-stop tour of the four quarters.

We entered the Old City through the Zion Gate, which still bears the bullet-marks from the fierce battle for Jerusalem fought during the Six Day War in 1967. This brought us into the south-western Armenian quarter – the smallest of the four districts. The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the fourth century, when Armenia became one of the first nations to adopt Christianity, after which Armenian monks began to settle in the Holy City. The population of the Armenian quarter today is around 2,000 – perhaps a tenth of what it was in the early twentieth century. Whilst visiting the Armenian quarter, we spotted banners commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, which resulted in the deaths of perhaps one and a half million Armenians in 1915 – the first great massacre of civilians in the 20th century, and an atrocity that the Turkish government still refuses to properly acknowledge.  

From the Armenian district we then made our way into the Jewish quarter, in the south-eastern part of the Old City. This has a similar population to that of the Armenian quarter, i.e. about 2,000, almost all of them Jews. In the years immediately after the 1967 War, some 6,000 Arabs were evicted from the Jewish quarter, and told they could not return because the area had special historical significance to the Jewish people.

The Jewish quarter is home to many important synagogues, including the Hurva synagogue, Jerusalem’s main Ashkenazic place of worship. The synagogue has been destroyed several times over the course of its history, hence its name (‘Hurva’ meaning ‘ruin’ in Hebrew), and the current building was only completed and dedicated in 2010. The Jewish quarter is also, of course, home to the Western Wall (sometimes also known as the Wailing Wall) – the last remnant of the Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans towards the end of the first century. The Western Wall remains the most sacred place for Jews, and the ultimate focus for prayer.

In 1863, the British priest and travel writer Revd James W Lee visited the Holy Land, and made the following observation on visiting the Western Wall: ‘On Friday afternoon…the writer visited this sacred spot. Here he found between one and two hundred Jews of both sexes and of all ages, standing or sitting, and bowing as they read, chanted and recited, moving themselves backward and forward, the tears rolling down many a face; they kissed the walls and wrote sentences in Hebrew upon them…the lamentation which is most commonly used is from Psalm 79.1 “O God, the heathen are come into Thy inheritance; Thy holy temple have they defiled.” There is very little difference between the description given by Lee, and the reality of worship at the Wall today.

One difference, however, is that the custom of placing one’s prayers on slips of paper, and posting them in the nooks and crannies between the stones of the Wall, has long since replaced the practice of writing ones petitions on the Wall itself. It was, for me, a very moving and solemn moment to be able to write my prayer, and to post it into one of the cracks. Apparently, one million such ‘prayer notes’ are posted each year (and a number of organisations now offer the opportunity to email such notes!).

Lee (and other 19th century observers) also noted that there was no apparent separation between the sexes in terms of their worship at the wall. This has certainly not been the case over the last century; and although both men and women can pray at the Wall, there is a very strict segregation between the two sexes, and women have had to fight very hard to get anything remotely resembling fair and equal treatment. Another interesting case, in January of this year, was that of a transgender Jewish woman who was denied access to the Wall, first by the women’s section and then by the men’s section.

Looming above the Western Wall, of course, is the most famous and visible landmark of the Old City today – the golden Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred mosques in the Islamic world. The Dome of the Rock is located at the centre of a platform known as the Temple Mount, the onetime site of the Second Jewish Temple. Muslims believe the Temple Mount also marks the site of the Night Journey, a miraculous journey supposedly undertaken by the prophet Muhammed between Mecca and Jerusalem, and thence into the heavenly realms, riding on Al-Buraq, a magical steed not unlike Pegasus, the fabled winged horse of Greek mythology.

Some fundamentalist Jews believe that the Temple must be restored before the still-awaited Messiah can come. This so-called ‘Third Temple’ would, of course, need to be built on the Temple Mount – the site of the previous Temples. Of course, such a venture could not be undertaken without first demolishing the Dome of the Rock! Thankfully, there seems little prospect at present of such an appalling act being seriously contemplated.

At the heart of the Dome of the Rock lies the Foundation Stone: a location of immense significance to all three Abrahamic faiths. For Muslims, it marks the spot from which Muhammed undertook his miraculous ascent to heaven. For Jews, it marks the location of the Holy of Holies: the inner sanctum of the Second Temple, which only the High Priest could enter, and then but once a year. For Christians, it marks the place where, according to Scripture, the Temple curtain was torn asunder at the moment of Jesus’ death, signifying that in that moment the barrier between humanity and God was irrevocably broken down.   

For Christians, though, the Temple Mount is of far less significance than the sites in Jerusalem associated with the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus: and it is to these that I will turn in the next instalment of my Pilgrimage Diary…

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