Dec 2013 Journal
Letter from Israel
Harmony in the Old City of Jerusalem hopefully not just another mirage
Although I wasn’t in Jerusalem for Jerusalem Day this year, having been called away to fulfil grandparental duties, it was very much in my thoughts. I still have a very clear memory of those six days in June, just 46 years ago, when I was only dimly able to perceive the historic events that were happening all around me. This was partly because my knowledge of Hebrew at the time was minimal and also because I was cut off from the wider world due to the bombardment of Jerusalem by enemy forces and the battle that was being waged for control of the city.
In the first few years of my stay in Jerusalem, between 1964 and 1967, the Old City was inaccessible to Israelis. I remember being taken to high points in West Jerusalem, such as the YMCA tower, to peer out towards the crowded buildings beyond no man’s land which seemed to hover in the still afternoon air like a mirage, so near and yet so unattainable.
During those six days of fighting in 1967 the information coming over the radio waves was intermittent and incomplete and what little Hebrew I knew caused me to confuse terms such as Sha’ar Shekhem (one of the gates around the Old City of Jerusalem) and Sharm El Sheikh (the southernmost point of the Sinai Peninsula). Later on my error was pointed out to me and geographical reality began to impinge on my consciousness.
Soon after the ‘liberation’ of the Old City, I walked along dusty paths to the Western Wall before the area in front of it had been paved and was mightily unimpressed by it despite its historic significance. Since then I have visited the Old City on various occasions, taken tourists to its colourful markets, attended the swearing-in ceremonies of my children’s and grandchildren’s military service, and even occasionally searched there for suitable gifts to take on trips abroad.
But to my shame, my knowledge of Christian Jerusalem was limited. The city, both in reality and as a concept, figures very prominently in that religion, which, when all is said and done, has a pretty extensive following worldwide. Whatever the reason for my ignorance, in recent years I began to feel that this was a lacuna in my education. Having grown up in a Christian country and attended a grammar school where from the outset we diligently read The Pilgrim’s Progress, Lamb’s essay A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig, and similar high-minded texts, and where the Christian ethos predominated, I wasn’t a complete stranger to the tenets of that religion.
Actually one can learn a lot about Christianity from listening to Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St Matthew Passion. But for more serious students, I recommend watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which really is based on thorough research!
When the Israel Museum offered its volunteers the chance to participate in a ‘mini-course’ on Christianity in Jerusalem, I seized the moment. It consisted of an introductory lecture and three extensive tours of churches and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. At last I have visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, first built by Constantine in the fourth century CE and since then embellished and rebuilt by various hands, leading to today’s tense status quo between various Christian sects. I have walked along the Via Dolorosa, learned about the Italian architect Berlucci, who designed many of Jerusalem’s churches in the nineteenth century, when the European powers vied for hegemony over holy sites in the city, and trudged up the steep hill on which stands the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu, commemorating Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed in fulfilment of Jesus’s prophecy.
Walking through the narrow streets of the Old City, one is constantly obliged to manoeuvre one’s way through groups of pilgrims who have come from all four corners of the Earth to pay homage at the sites which they regard as sacred. It is a sobering experience to hear the different languages, observe the different clothing and customs, and note their reverence for the city that was sacred to the Jews long before the Christian religion came into being. It is also exhilarating to observe the harmony which prevails between the various groups, as well as between the Jews, Arabs and Christians who rub elbows along those narrow streets. Hopefully, this is not just another mirage.