With our guide’s voice safely in my ear, my camera in my hand, and doing my best to fight off the feeling that I’d woken up at 0430 ( which in GMT I had), we arrived at our first church. Pater Noster, on the Mount of Olives, has the Lord’s Prayer tiled on its walls, in most languages you can think of. The photo is of Welsh, but I was unduly delighted to find Sanskrit too. And there were groups of pilgrims… or tourists…. it can be hard to tell the difference, even from the inside.
Our wonderful guide (to be abbreviated to OWG for the rest of this series) gave us a swift geographical overview of where we were, a historical account of the church, and a theological comment. We eventually learned that licensed guides do the equivalent of degrees, and it showed. The amount of information that OWG had at his fingertips (or rather in his brain) was remarkable. Dates, names, sites, relationships, Bible verses all mingled into a coherent whole.
But more mundane matters were attended to beautifully. Faced with a group of 36 people, some things have to be made clear. But there was to be no reference to toilets. Certainly not. OWG had rebranded them. “You see, when you have been, you are relieved, and so you smile” he said. References to “smileys” became so commonplace that a whole new set of conjugations and declensions appeared. “Just going to smile” became entirely normal; “smileys are 10 shekels here” caused frowns…. and somehow it’s a bit of vocabulary which might be hard to leave behind.
The other recurring phrase was “Ready? Let’s go!” and I rather missed it as I made my way out of my house this morning. There was a lot of “Ready? Let’s go!” even on day one.
Pater Noster is quite an enclosed church, with walled courtyards, and I didn’t have very much sense of where I was. That changed with the next stop. Dominus Flevit Chapel (which translates as the Lord wept) is on the side of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City.
It was about now that I felt an air of unreality (possibly not helped by a streaming cold). It seemed more like a film set than a place I was actually in. What the photo doesn’t convey is the beauty of the place. However my inner disreputable Chaucer pilgrim was irreverently tickled by the news that the valley we were looking across translates as “The Valley of the Cheese Makers“. I checked again with OWG later in the week to ensure that I’d heard correctly, and that he wasn’t winding us up. Apparently the cheesecake produced in the valley was sent as gifts to emperors. A side of Jerusalem’s history I wasn’t expecting!
OWG reminded us that the city we were looking at wasn’t how Jesus would have seen it. It was totally destroyed after the Jewish revolt of AD 66, and subsequent groups came and went – the Byzantine Empire, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Empire and (we heard as the week went on) an enormous number of Victorian British Clergy, of the indefatigable Empire variety.
The general air of unreality wasn’t helped by the stunning plants. It was like being in a hot house at Kew, and although the weather was cold enough to be glad of a coat, the flowers were stunning.
OWG gave us lots of Biblical context too – Old Testament as well as new. In Jesus’ time, the Mount of Olives was where poor people lived, trying to scratch a living and gazing at the Holy City. It’s closer to Bethany than the Old City is, and Jesus would have known it well.
The side of the hill (like most of the hills in and around Jerusalem) was ridiculously steep. Combine that with very very well worn slabs, polished by the feet of tourists and pilgrims, and the totter down the hill was like walking on ice. It’s a reminder of how much fitter people are who walk up and down hills a lot – and how hard the lame would find it to keep up.
We visited the “Premier Jewish Cemetery” (not what it’s actually called at all) which now covers a huge swathe of the Mount of Olives. Being buried there assures a happy eternity, and so grave plots cost from 0.5 $M to 1.5 $M depending on location.
We too were heading towards death in a manner of speaking. We arrived at the Garden of Gethsemene – or its approximate site. I’d always pictured a very large windswept hillside, but the Garden itself isn’t big enough to lose someone in for very long. It wouldn’t have taken Judas many seconds to find Jesus. I asked OWG if there was any evidence for the size, and he reckoned no, but that it wasn’t far off right – “remember all the people who lived on this hillside – space was at a premium”. If you go there yourself and find it bigger than you thought (because it would be a big garden by 21st century standards) please don’t blame me. Here Jesus was so hard pressed that he sweated blood; here the disciples couldn’t stay awake even for an hour; here (or somewhere near here) he was betrayed.
It very soon stopped mattering that nearly every site was “somewhere near” or “most likely”. Because so many people had prayed each place we visited had its own validity – we were reminded of words from “Little Gidding” by TS Eliot…
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
I loved the church at Gethsemane. We arrived as another group was celebrating Holy Communion, and sitting for a short while within this rich blue and purple space was glorious. For perhaps the first time I stopped feeling like quite such a disreputable pilgrim. My prayers are valid too… and maybe they added something to the place. The time we spent there was too short.
We were soon on the move again, this time to the house of Caiaphas, the chief priest, and scene of Jesus’ fake trial. There is some archeological evidence for the place, and a church has been built over it, the church of St Peter, Gallicantu. The hillside is so steep that one enters at the top at ground level, gos down two levels, and leaves…at ground level. This is where Peter warmed himself by a fire in the courtyard, and denied knowing Jesus.
I liked the weather vane, and the images inside too. But as we went down, and into the prison cell, there was less to like and the terror of that night was close. Our lovely tour leader (henceforth LTL) had put together readings and poems for each place we visited. Standing huddled in a cell, hearing the account of Jesus’ trial and Peter’s denials…that was powerful and chilling. OWG talked about the need for the correct witnesses and of the Galilean accent Peter had – still discernible in speech today.
As we left, OWG pointed out a rare survival from the time of Jesus – a set of steps which led down from the Old City towards the Mount of Olives. It is plausible that Jesus knew them and used them – the closest I think we came to His footsteps. The Mount of Olives can be seen in the distance, and although the slope doesn’t look very severe in the photo, believe me, it’s steep!
The chilly mood was warmed by the hospitality of St Andrew’s – the Church of Scotland guest-house where we celebrated Holy Communion and had lunch.
“Ready? Let’s go!” and we were off again, this time to Ein Karim, the birthplace of John the Baptist. We had been in four churches by this point, and I found the fifth unexpectedly charming. The others were all very curated and “proper”, whereas St John the Baptist church felt like somewhere that people loved, and made things for, and cared about. It might not be everyone’s cuppa, but the icon alone was worth the journey!
Although there was an entire guest house above the house and church, there was long history which suggests that this probably was the place that St John the Baptist was born. Like every “place” there was enough church stuff to obliterate any remains, even if they had remained in the first place.
Because it is Christmas season until Candlemas, most churches still had their crib scenes in situ, and SJB’s was one of the quirkiest we saw. I felt a lot of effort went into it!
You will be glad to know that the end is nigh – the last place we went to was the Israel Museum (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were off on tour so we didn’t see them) and where there is a large model of the Old City as it was believed to be in Jesus’ time. (Pease don’t berate me about Jesus’ time, it’s been a long day and you know what I mean). The model was actually very helpful in getting the hang of the geography and understanding how places related to one another. For someone like me who likes maps and place, it would have been helpful to see it sooner. But a slow drive through city traffic got us near to our hotel by the walls of the Old City – a few of us digressed into the city itself, and I could feel myself tensing with the unfamiliarity of it all. I was glad to get back to the room, and my journal reads “Wine with dinner, bed by 9.30pm. Cannot express knackeredness”…and, dear reader, if you have made it this far, I expect you can’t either!