I’ve written a couple of pieces about my work in Jerusalem over the weekend, so I hope readers won’t feel it’s self-indulgent if I talk a bit about the city.
I was raised in a Christian family where the stories of the New Testament were woven into the day-to-day fabric of life. So you can perhaps imagine my astonishment to find familiar names from childhood and Sunday School — like Beersheba, for example — suddenly transmogrified into turn-offs from the motorway. Uncanny.
And then there are sites of almost mythic significance that suddenly become real places that you can go to on a tourist bus. We went up to the Mount of Olives. It was smaller and steeper and closer to Jerusalem than I’d imagined, but I stood there looking across the valley to the old city of Jerusalem, quite possibly standing where Jesus himself might have stood two thousand years ago. He, of course, would have been looking at the Jewish Temple, now replaced by the golden dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The effect is perhaps diminished by tatty concrete shops with metal grilles and even graffiti, yet the mythic quality remains. From the Mount, we could also see the Garden of Gethsemane, with its quota of tourist buses alongside. Apparently “Gethsemane” means oil-press — entirely appropriate for its location at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
One point struck me forcibly as we visited more ancient sites. Places sacred to the three main religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are thrust promiscuously together. Any thought of dividing the place up between them has to be abandoned. In one building we found a Jewish ground floor — the reputed tomb of King David. On the first floor above it was the reputed room of the Last Supper (although clearly it cannot be authentic — the architecture post-dates the Last Supper by a thousand years, and it was probably built by the Crusaders). Subsequently turned into a mosque, it has some fine Arabic calligraphy. And towering above the two-storey building is an Islamic minaret, forming part of the same structure.
We walked along the Via Dolorosa past the Stations of the Cross. Much of it is steep, narrow alley-ways, crowded with tourists and local people, and lined with small shops selling sweetmeats and T-shirts and tourist tat. At the end we reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — an amazing rabbit-warren of a place, that has grown like Topsy as each strand of the Christian tradition has sought to add its own chapel on the holy site. We entered the tiny grotto traditionally believed to the the place where Jesus’ body was laid. And given the age, and the style, and the location, it’s just possible — only possible — that it might be genuine. If so, however, there was scarcely space for the Angels to sit in it — they certainly could not have spread their wings.
Beneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, all that remains of the old Jewish temple is the Western Wall, sometimes known as the Wailing Wall, where the Jews pray, and regret the passing of their Temple. They customarily write prayers and supplications on pieces of paper and thrust them into the interstices of the stonework. These are collected twice a week, and stored respectfully.
I understand that non-Jewish visitors are welcome to visit the Wall, and pray, and leave their own prayers, but I considered it inappropriate to do so, and stood back. Afterwards, I wondered what I might have written if I had decided to leave a prayer. I suspect that I could not have done better than to leave a couple of quatrains from Omar the Tentmaker:
Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with predestination round enmesh me,
And impute my fall to sin?
Oh Thou, who Man of baser earth didst make,
And who with Eden didst devise the snake,
For all the sin wherewith the face of man is blackened,
Man’s forgiveness give — and take!