The pilgrim, after saying some prayers, prostrated himself on the Stone of Anointing, removed a small plastic bag from his coat, emptied its contents and rubbed them on the stone.
The old city of Jerusalem is most interesting. I first visited it in 1968 when a friend of mine guided me over the wasteland that had been, until recently, no-mans land. She said, “If I would have come here 9 months ago, someone would have shot at me.” The vicissitudes of war always amaze me. The city is divided into 4 main sections: the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Armenian Quarter. Three major religions converge and are always jockeying for space. This causes tension, which sometimes explodes into violence.
When tensions are running high you can usually sense it by the body language of the residents. Once when visiting my sister who lives in Israel, the three of us, my wife Rita, my sister Joy (I know, Roy and Joy) and myself decided to spend a day in the old city. Our first stop was St Andrews Church. It is a Scottish Protestant and Presbyterian Church not far from the Jaffa Gate. The inside is rather stark and somewhat austere. It was built after World War One, and during the British mandate in Palestine, serviced the rather large Scottish population stationed there. Although I am an atheist, I appreciate the tranquility of sanctuaries like these. From there we wandered through some back streets into the Jewish Quarter towards the Wailing Wall. It was the eve of a Jewish festival and the streets were humming with shoppers doing last minute errands. We also noticed an abundance of police and soldiers on alert so, instead of going to the wall, which was mobbed because of the festival, we decided to visit “HaKotel HaKatan” (the little wall). This is a part of the Wailing Wall that is not contiguous with the main plaza. It is just as holy as the main wall but hardly anyone knows of it. Walking down Barquq Street, the Muslim vendors, usually welcoming and gracious, were sullen and distant. The little wall is in an alley off the main drag and is quite quiet. While we were standing there a Muslim woman exited her house. She was carrying a bag full of garbage. As she approached us she emptied the bag at our feet and without a word walked past.
After this welcome, we decided to go for lunch and my sister took us to a nearby Arab restaurant that she liked. Upon entering this usually friendly eatery, no one greeted us and after 15 or 20 minutes of being ignored, we stood up to leave. Only then did the owner approach us an asked us to stay. We didn’t. In this atmosphere we decided that going to another Arab restaurant was pointless and my sister said, “I know a place”. She led us to Via Dolorosa (the street where Jesus is said to have carried the cross after his condemnation by Pilate) and into the Austrian Hospice. The hospice was built over 150 years ago exclusively for Austrian pilgrims but now it welcomes everyone. It is built in the style of Vienna’s Ringstrasse Palaces. After the chaos of the streets below, the hospice was wonderfully serene. We went upstairs to the restaurant, built in the style of a Vienna coffee house and sat in the shade of a cedar tree in the café’s outside garden. There we ordered Wiener schnitzel and Austrian beer, followed by Sachertorte. This incongruous meal was served to us, with grace, by nuns.
About 1 kilometer north of the Damascus Gate, just off Derech Shichem (Nablus Road) in East Jerusalem is the American Colony Hotel. Initially built by a Pasha for his 4 wives, it was purchased by a group of American Christians who sought a simpler life in Jerusalem. They attracted other US pilgrims and the group was subsequently called, “The Americans”. In 1902 Baron Ustinov, grandfather of the actor Peter Ustinov, decided that the Turkish inns in Jerusalem were sub-par and asked “the Americans” if he could house his visitors in their enclave. Before long, the American Colony Hotel became the ‘go-to’ lodging for western visitors. My wife and I make a point of visiting the hotel every time we came to Jerusalem. We once stayed there before 6-day trip on command cars through the Sinai desert (The subject of a future tale).
The courtyard of the hotel is straight out of Arabian nights. Songbirds live in tall mulberry trees that shade the entire area. There is a pentagon shaped central fountain that’s filled with goldfish. Circling the courtyard is a balcony leading to the guest rooms. It is a colorful and calming place. Every Saturday they serve a fabulous brunch, which features lots of seafood. Eating there, in the early seventies, when we lived in Israel, was a real and rare treat. It is certainly one of the most romantic hotels I have ever visited. It is the sort of place you would expect to see Lawrence of Arabia walking around in his caftan. (Apparently he actually stayed there.) Over the last century the hotel has been a meeting place for dignitaries, spies and politicians. As the hotel is in Arab East Jerusalem, not many Israelis venture there. Recently we had lunch in the courtyard and were again once again calmed by the serenity of the place. As we sat there eating lunch and drinking wine, my thoughts went back to a prior visit in the late seventies when, sitting at the table next to us, talking quietly with friends, was Peter O’Toole.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is said to contain two of the holiest sights in Christendom, Calvary, the site of the crucifixion, and the tomb where Jesus was buried and (if you are a believer) resurrected. The Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian Orthodox churches jointly own it. Some smaller and less powerful orthodox communities, Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian, also have rights to certain areas but their places of worship are adjacent, not in the church itself. To add to this mélange, for the past 800 years, two Muslim families have had the sole rights to hold the key that opens and closes the church.
Each of the owners have jurisdiction over distinct areas and sometimes when too many people attend Catholic mass, the spillover causes fights to breakout. This rivalry is a microcosm of Jerusalem itself, except that this conflict is solely amongst Christians. Considering this conglomeration and the size of the crowds, it’s amazing that anyone actually sees anything.
I prefer to visit holy places very early in the morning before the onslaught of tourists and pilgrims. One morning around 7 a.m. we decided to visit the church. The old city, at that hour is very quiet. With the exception of food shops, most stores are not yet open and women doing their daily food shopping seem to be in the majority. There is no small irony in the fact that we noticed that the Muslim women, the orthodox Jewish women and the nuns, all dress in a similar fashion. With everything covered up save the face and hands, it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart.
We entered the church from the Souk el-Dabbagha, one of the streets with vendors that sell religious trinkets. The Church was very quiet as we wandered through the various sections. We saw the Silver disc where the cross had stood and the Edicule where Jesus was buried. We wandered around and ended up in a gallery overlooking the “Stone of Anointing”. Even though this stone is only around 200 years old, many people nonetheless believe it was the stone that Jesus was laid upon when his body was prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea. This is where we encountered the pilgrim, who, after saying some prayers, and prostrating himself on the Stone, removed a small plastic bag from his coat, emptied its contents and rubbed them on the stone. The bag contained a rosary and a crucifix. After saying a prayer, he carefully put them back in the bag and returned them. He then took out another bag and did the same. He did this twenty or thirty times. What struck me was his devotion to the task. He could have easily taken out all the bags, put them on the stone and said one prayer but he was obviously tasked with doing each one individually and did it with reverence and sincerity. Even I, an unbeliever, was touched.