Highs and Lows – Day Eight, Tuesday 21st May

Mount Hermon, still snow capped

Mount Hermon, still snow capped

Or, perhaps, a better title would be “Ancient and Modern”.  We began our tour today with a drive to Mount Bental in the Golan Heights.  This was a strategic point in the 1967 and 1973 wars.  It was controlled by Syria until the latter war and was eventually taken over by Israel in 1983.  The mountain itself is one of a chain of extinct volcanoes, and lies just to the south of Mount Hermon which on the day of our visit was still snow covered.

At the summit of Mount Bental there are the remains of the military installations built by the IDF, and a number of steel sheet cut-outs still give the impression of soldiers  observing Syria and ready to man the defences.  It was a little disconcerting to realize that at this spot we were closer to Damascus than to Jerusalem!

A poppy in the 'lines' at Mount Bental

A poppy in the ‘lines’ at Mount Bental

There is a UN buffer zone between Israel and Syria at this point, and we saw a UN car travelling along the road down in the valley.  One incongruity is that at the summit there is a cafe called Kofi Anan, literally ‘Clouds Coffee’, but recalling the name of a former Secretary General of the UN.

Banias - one of the sources of the Jordan river

Banias – one of the sources of the Jordan river

From here we moved on to a place now called Banias which is the biblical Caesarea Philippi and one of the sources of the River Jordan.  Banias, also known as Panias, is the place where Jesus challenged his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16,13-20) and when Simon  bar-Jonah boldly answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” was renamed Peter, the Rock, upon which Christ would build his church.

It was a significant place and time in Jesus’ ministry, because Panias was a major shrine to the god Pan, and Jesus is therefore emphasizing his Divine nature. (There’s a good few sermons in that text as well!)

After some time to explore we gathered together for a short time of

Renewing Baptismal vows

Renewing Baptismal vows

worship and had the opportunity to renew our own baptismal vows, and being symbolically washed in Jordan water.  It was, as you might expect, a very moving moment, and we were a very thoughtful group as we went off to lunch  at the Kibbutz HaGoshrim.  This is a place with an interesting history, and has now developed into light industry and tourism rather than agriculture: this may be because it is situated in one of the national parks, and indeed the area is very beautiful.

After our very satisfying lunch we moved on to the HaHula Nature Reserve <http://tinyurl.com/o5fz9sd>.  Originally a huge marshland the area was drained in the 1950’s to create more arable land.  However, it was soon realized that there were some unique species in the area and about 4,000 acres was returned to wetland.  It was, in fact, the first nature reserve in Israel, and has become an important habitat for over-wintering birds.

Some of the wildlife at HaHula

Some of the wildlife at HaHula

Much in evidence were muskrats, huge catfish and turtles, but there were not many varieties of bird observable on the afternoon we were there.  We heard plenty though, hidden in the high grasses bordering the 2km walk.

Although the day did not have the intensity of those we had experienced in Jerusalem, there was much to think about.  And this was reinforced when we got back to our hotel and heard that shortly after our visit to the Golan Heights the Syrians had attacked and destroyed an Israeli car not far from where we had been.  The Syrian claim was that it was a military vehicle violating Syrian territory.

Panias was first settled before the third century BC, in the spread of Greek culture that followed the death of Alexander the Great, and like most of this region has been fought over intermittently ever since.  In our Church of England liturgy we pray, especially on Good Friday, “for those who would still make Jerusalem a battleground”.  That is, I think, a prayer that we should pray every day, for the whole Holy Land.

Guarding the Golan Heights

Guarding the Golan Heights


Moving On to Galilee – Day Seven, Monday 20th May

Today was another early start as we needed to be packed, rooms cleared, breakfasted and on the coach by 7.30am for our move to Galilee and the next phase of our pilgrimage.    Of course we are not going directly to Galilee. Our first stop is at the village of Abu Ghosh, which is one of three possible sites of Emmaus, where the resurrected Jesus revealed himself to two downcast disciples (Luke 24, 13-33).

Inside the Benedictine Chapel at Abu Ghosh

Now a small town, Abu Ghosh has, apparently, the earliest traces of human habitation in Israel, and a fascinating history.  Traditionally it has been identified with Anathoth, birthplace of the prophet Jeremiah and as the place where the Ark of the Covenant remained for twenty years in the house of Abinadab, until King David brought it up to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6, 1-19).  We visited the Benedictine monastery there, which has a beautiful chapel.

Our next stop was quite a surprise!  I think the picture says it all!

Yes, it is Elvis!

Yes, it is Elvis!

We made a slight detour on our way to our next scheduled destination, and came to a filling station with a cafe entirely devoted to Elvis Presley.  The statue in the picture is one of many Elvis memorabilia which includes pictures covering every wall.  If you buy a drink it is served in an Elvis mug that you get to keep.

Part of the old harbour, now largely destroyed

After our brief refreshment stop (I didn’t get an Elvis mug; I got an ice-cream instead. Personally I’ve always been more a Roy Orbison fan!) we went on to our next destination which was the seaside own of Caesarea Maritima – not to be confused with Caesarea Philippi which is tomorrow’s visit.  Now a national park, Caesarea Maritima was built by Herod the Great and for some time was the  capital of the Province of Judea under Roman rule.  It was a grandiose building project which included a massive harbour, and a hippodrome, as well as an arena.

After a video introduction to the site, and a tour of some of the ruins we went to lunch in one of the many restaurants in the central area and then picked up our coach again for a trip to Nazareth.

Part of modern Nazareth

Part of modern Nazareth

Nazareth is now a sizeable town, and growing.  The Basilica of the Annunciation is a huge building built in 1969 over the remains of a Crusader church, which in turn was built over the remains of a Byzantine chapel over the cave where traditionally Mary lived and was visited by the Archangel Gabriel (Luke 1, 26-38).  The Greek Orthodox tradition, however, has it that the Visitation occurred when Mary was at a spring nearby, and they have built a church at that site.

Basilica of the Annunciation

On the walls of the courtyard surrounding the Basilica there are murals, some mosaics, of the interpretation of the Annuciation by various countries, some forty or fifty of them, and it was a necessary reminder – if one was still needed – that our  image of the Holy Family is not automatically shared by the rest of the world.  Some of the murals were exquisitely beautiful; others were full of colour and liveliness.  It was fascinating!

Welsh interpretation of the Annunciation

Welsh interpretation of the Annunciation

Equally fascinating were the bronze doors of the Basilica, which showed scenes from the life of Jesus.

From here we went to the Church of St Joseph, where we were disappointed to find that access to the lower part, the traditional site of Joseph’s workshop, was not accessible as new archaeological investigations and restorations were taking place.

Finally, it was back on the coach to our new hotel at Tiberias, the Ron Beach Hotel <http://tinyurl.com/ktroo3h> on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, passing by as we went the village of Cana.

Pentecost! – Day Six, Sunday 19th May

Today Yvonne and I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and with a few others from our group went back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for its 5.00 am opening.  It was just before dawn and the streets of the Old City were quiet.  A few street cleaners were out,

Old City, Jerusalem: dawn

Old City, Jerusalem: dawn

and one or two stallholders/shopkeepers were beginning to open up.  When we got to the Holy Sepulchre there were a few others there already, but certainly not like the crush there would be in a few hours time. Nevertheless we still had to queue for a few minutes to gain entrance to the Sepulchre itself, mainly because there is only room for three or four at a time.  The Franciscan monks wanted everybody to hurry along because they wanted to get things ready for their early Mass.  Once again I was struck by the paradox that in these places deemed especially holy it is virtually impossible to have time to sit, think and meditate.

Fortunately the Latin Chapel of the Calvary was quiet and had space for those who wanted to meditate, and a few of us spent some time in here, watching, thinking, contemplating.   A little way away, alongside the small Coptic Chapel that stands at the end of the Chapel of the Sepulchre, a robed Syrian Coptic priest and a man in plain clothes alternately intoned the Liturgy.  It was a vocal ballet, and although we did not understand the words it was haunting.

Back to the hotel for breakfast.  Today there are no organised tours and the only fixed item on the programme is a lunch at  St George’s Anglican Cathedral.  But today is Pentecost, fifty days after Easter

St George's Cathedral' Jerusalem

St George’s Cathedral’ Jerusalem

and the day celebrated by Christians as the day the Holy Spirit was sent to the Apostles. Full story in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 2.  The Holy Spirit was manifested in wind (ruach in Hebrew, also translated as ‘breath’ and the same word used in Genesis for God’s Spirit sent to calm primeval chaos) and in fire.  The effect on the Apostles was to send them out in the street to tell the world what had happened.  And although Jerusalem was full of travellers from all over the known world, each person heard their words in his own language.  Well, there are plenty of sermons in this passage – and I have preached a few of them myself! – but the effect of that first Christian Pentecost was demonstrated to us when we went to St George’s Cathedral for the morning service!

St George's - interiorParishes from all over Israel and Palestine had travelled for this service, except for two which had not been able to obtain the necessary permits to travel.  Some of them had travelled over two and a half hours to be there.  Normally this particular service is the English language version, but today it was Arabic and English.  It was surreal and a bit disconcerting to hear standard English hymn tunes being sung with both Arabic and English words.  The readings were firstly read in Arabic and then in English and the Bishop in Jerusalem, Bishop Suheil Dawani <http://tinyurl.com/ook59o6> preached in both Arabic and English.  From comments afterwards it was clear that most of us who participated in the service at some time or another felt connected, not only with our own home churches but with the Church throughout the world.  It was a very special occasion for us, made more so by the lunch afterwards. The Diocese had laid on lunch for all those attending: simple chicken, salad, rice, etc, but the welcome and hospitality was warm and friendly.  Some of our number got to sit with members of the parishes and talk to them about their daily lives.  There was live music – a group which, it turned out, was led by the Dean of the Cathedral, Hosan Naoum, <http://tinyurl.com/pxlmbfz> and we were very touched when he announced a special song for the travellers from Ely.  This was followed by another song, the old Pete Seeger classic We shall overcome.  Somehow the fact that it was Pentecost gave it a new dimension.

After lunch we were free to explore at will.  Some went to the Old City to walk the walls, some went to the Temple Mount, some went back to the Holy Sepulchre.  Yvonne and I decided to go back to the Cathedral and have a closer look at some of the things we had glimpsed in the morning.

Going back to Thursday afternoon, as we had been walking the Via

Christ is taken down from the Cross: one of the Stations at St George's

Christ is taken down from the Cross: one of the Stations at St George’s

Dolorosa and afterwards walking back to the hotel, we passed several shops selling Armenian pottery and tiles, and in St George’s they have a beautiful but simple set of the Stations of the Cross in Armenian ware.

We were glad to be able to spend some quiet time there and just take in the atmosphere and the tranquillity of the place after the ‘high’ of the morning.  Oh, and did I mention that the English hymn tunes in the morning were played by an agnostic, exiled Russian Jewess? No?  Somehow it seemed just right for the welcoming hospitality that St George’s offers.

Pause for Reflection

Firstly apologies for the hiatus – a batch of Real Life intervened!

Our first days in Jerusalem were a whirlwind of impressions, sights, information and people, with very little time to process what we had seen and heard.  This is, in one sense inevitable in a place which has had such a long and at times bitter history.  It is a place which has been fought over from antiquity, with invaders from – amongst others – Rome, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, the Crusaders, down to 1967 and the aftermath of continuing conflict today.

Close up of bullet holes in the Lion Gate from 1967

Close up of bullet holes in the Lion Gate from 1967

It would be both naive and presumptuous to make judgements and draw conclusions about today’s circumstances after just a few days in the place, taking in the atmosphere and looking at the local English language editions of the newspapers, and glimpsing the tv programmes, but certain impressions stand out and need to be considered.

One essential is to discount much of what is reported in the Western  press.  Sadly much of the reporting, particularly but not exclusively in the tabloid section, is ill-informed and comes from a particular viewpoint.  Getting an unbiased viewpoint is extremely difficult, and so I stress that these following comments come from what I have experienced in our first five days.

The first impression is that of hospitality.  It is more of a genuine welcome than the usual approach of tourist places  to relieve the visitor of as much cash as possible and then move on to the next group.  Yes, some of the street vendors can be quite pushy, and you need to be prepared to pay if you want to photograph a camel, but I stand by my comment.  At the Bethlehem Co-operative there was a painstaking introduction to what was available and the ethos behind the work.  There were refreshments and there was absolutely no pressure to buy anything.  You could talk to the stallholders who were quite happy to show and talk about their wares, and were courteous if we didn’t want a particular item.

Friday’s visit to Yad Vashem was a stark reminder, if one were needed, of why Israel

Wall of Remembrance, Warsaw Ghetto Square Yad Vashem

Wall of Remembrance, Warsaw Ghetto Square, Yad Vashem

collectively says “never again”.  It is a place of infinite pain but it is also a place of division.  There is no mention of the other groups who were slaughtered on an industrial scale by the Nazis.  Every recruit to the Israeli Defence Force is taken to Yad Vashem as part of their initial training – we saw some whilst we were there – and I cannot help but wonder whether the story told there leads to some of the problems at the checkpoints when these no longer recruits are deployed to guard the  borders.  Does the enormity of the history there mean that even friends are regarded with suspicion, just in case?

The other side of the coin we saw on the day after our arrival.  Some Palestinians reckon 15th May as Nakba Day, the Day of Catastrophe, which commemorates the  time in 1948 when Israel became an independent state after some 700,000 Palestinians had been expelled or fled, and many villages depopulated and destroyed.  A short way down the road from our hotel there was a gathering dispersed by the Israeli Police and military with tear gas, water cannon and a cavalry charge of some youths who came running down the road in front of us.  No more than eight Palestinian men under the age of 50 are allowed to gather in one place in Jerusalem, a prohibition which does not apply to Orthodox Jewish men: the following day there was a procession of forty or so walking down the road with a police escort to clear the traffic.

But it is important to remember that neither Israeli nor Palestinian society is a homogenous grouping.  Even  in Jerusalem there are tensions between Orthodox Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Jews.  The ultra-Orthodox pay no taxes, nor do they serve in the Army, and whilst we were there a debate was being held in the Knesset as to whether they, together with others like the Christians, should be required to serve.  The motion was defeated – for now.

As we passed the Knesset building (which I was intrigued to learn was built on land leased from the Christian Church in the form of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate) we reflected on the nature of the Knesset (or ‘Great Assembly’) which has 120 members elected by proportional representation from a party list.  It is a method almost guaranteed to require coalition government, since it is unlikely that any single party will amass 61 seats to provide a majority.  It is widely recognised that this means that progress on any matter is likely to be slow, or blocked by a minority party.  Again there is divison between those who see this system as needing reform and those who are content with matters as they are.

All in all, we have quickly learned that Israel is a complex society, and one which is, rightly, determined to survive even if there is a forthcoming clash between the secular and the various forms of Orthodoxy.

But one has to wonder sadly how a nation which suffered the horrors of the Holocaust could now inflict such suffering and humiliation upon its nearest neighbour.

The Lowest and Saltiest Point on Earth – Day Five Saturday 18th May

The Judean desert on the road to Qumran

The Judean desert on the road to Qumran

During the Second World War when he was serving in the Western Desert my late father bathed in the Dead Sea.  Today, some 70 years later, I shall have the chance to replicate that and see for myself what he described.  But first we have two exciting sites to visit – Qumran and Masada.

Qumran is just over 40 kilometres from Jerusalem,and we drive through the Judean wilderness down the Jordan Valley.  It was in caves near this settlement that the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1946-56.  There has been much controversy about both the Scrolls and the settlement at Qumran as the archaological finds there have suggested that the site has been used at some time as a Roman garrison, a Hasmodean fortress, the home of a Jewish sect a Roman villa or a pottery factory.  The modern Visitors Centre there prefers the theory of a refuge for a Jewish Sect, most often identified as the Essenes, and the site is interpreted to support that theory.  Modern scholarship, however, is less didactic.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of some 972 texts, are important because they

Cave overlooking Qumran

Cave overlooking Qumran

include the earliest known manuscripts of books later included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible, as well as some important extra-biblical material and documents detailing the rules of various religious communities.  Sadly – but perhaps understandably – none of this material has been retained at the site, and a lot of imagination is needed to relate the remains there with a living community.  Nevertheless I was very glad to visit there and to contemplate what it must have been like to have lived there.  Coins discovered at the site range in date from about 130 BCE to about 68 CE, and at one time it must have been quite an important settlement.

The fortress of Masada is about 97 kilometres further on, and by the time we got there it was hot!  We were advised to ensure that we carried water particularly for this part of the trip which was very good advice.  The approaches to the hill top at Masada pose quite a difficult climb, but fortunately a cable car system was built in 1998.  This makes the journey in 3 minutes and takes us from -273 metres below sea level to 33 metres above in that time.

Masada is again one of those places with much “tradition”, some of which has been

One of the Roman camps at the foot of Masada

One of the Roman camps at the foot of Masada

confirmed by archaeology and some debunked.  The place was first fortified by Herod the Great between 37-31 BCE as a place of refuge in case of a revolt against him in Jerusalem.  He later built two palaces there.  In 66 CE a Roman garrison was stationed there which was overcome by a group of Jewish rebels who then installed themselves in the place under the command of a man named Eleazar ben Ya’ir.

When the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE a number of Jewish refugees joined the community there which eventually comprised some 960 men, women and children. In 73 CE the Roman governor of Judaea, Lucius Flavius Silva, led the Roman  Tenth Legion, augmented by auxiliary units and Jewish prisoners of war in a siege of Masada, during which they constructed a huge ramp up the the fortified wall.  Even today the sites of eleven Roman camps can be seen from the top of the mountain.  The Romans dragged a huge battering ram up the ramp and, despite the defenders reinforcing the walls, the Roman army eventually broke through.

What they found was “a citadel of death”.  The story goes that each man killed his wife and children, and then drew lots for ten men to kill the rest.  These ten again drew lots and one man was deputed to kill the rest and then commit suicide.   However, the only account of Masada comes from a man called Flavius Josephus, a Jew born in Jerusalem, captured as a slave by the Romans, subsequently freed who became a historian of the Roman campaign – and he was not present at Masada!  Traditionally he was told the story by two women who, with five children, had hidden in a cistern and heard what was going on.  They related verbatim the speech that Eleazar ben Ya’ir made the night before the Roman’s final assault to convince the rebels that mass suicide was the only answer.  He said that they would destroy all their stores so that the Romans could not benefit, except for the food to show that they had not been starved out but had killed themselves voluntarily.  It was a very moving speech, and I had the privilege of reading it at the site of the synagogue there.

From Masada we went to a hotel at a place called Ein Bokek where we had lunch and afterwards the opportunity  to float in the Dead Sea.  And yes, it is impossible to sink; the water is incredibly warm, but it is wise not to stay in too long because of the strong chemical content of the water and the strength of the sun. (This is, after all, the traditional area where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt!). A good shower afterwards is essential, and following that I had a swim in the hotel pool before it was time to dry off and start the homeward journey.

“Zacchaeus’ sycamore” at Jericho

On the way back we had an orientation  tour of Jericho and a short stop at another souvenir shop. On the way out we stopped by a tree which could have been the one Zacchaeus climbed in order to see Jesus ( Luke 19 1-11) if only it had been older than the probable 800 years that it was!

Leaving Jericho after a short while we turned off the main road – a modern bypass – onto the old road between Jerusalem and Jericho.  It was on this road that Jesus placed the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10 29-37), but nowadays it has a tarmac covering.  We stopped at a place called Wadi Qelt, which has a synagogue reputed to be the oldest in the world.  There is also a unique variety of flora and fauna, which is why parts of it have now been designated as a nature reserve.  There are traces of settlements throughout the valley, and there is an active Greek Orthodox monastery, the Monastery of St George of Kobiza, which was founded in the sixth century by monks who believed that it was the place where Elijah was fed by ravens (I  KIngs 17 5-6).  Many also believe that it is the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ referred to in Psalm 23, not only because it is dark along its length but because through the ages it has been a place for robbers.

After this short detour it was back in time for dinner.

Wadi Qelt & St George's Monastery

Wadi Qelt & St George’s Monastery

Unsettling Contrasts – Day Four Friday 17th May

Today was one for disturbing our equilibrium, a day of unashamed emotions.  At its core is a paradox which is very hard – some might say impossible – to resolve.

As we settle in the coach and Ali moves us smoothly away we begin, as we have begun every day, with Bishop Stephen leading us in prayer.  We are on a pilgrimage, not a holiday, and that is important to keep in our minds today.

Our first visit is to the Yad Vashem Memorial to the Holocaust, a 45 acre site in West Jerusalem.  It is too large for us to tour the whole site in the time we have available so we have to be selective about what we can accomplish on this visit.  As we

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem

Korczak Memorial

move around the site we see a mixture of individual memorials and gardens.  There is the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations  and the Hall of Remembrance; there is Warsaw Ghetto Square and Janusz Korczak Square, and much more.  Our path takes us to the Children’s Memorial.  One million children died in the Shoah and their memorial is a large hall where the blackness is only relieved by a million points of candlelight.  It is a hall of mirrors because all the light comes from just one candle, reflected and re-reflected until the hall resembles the sky on a clear, starry moonless night.  As we walk through the maze, barely able to see where we are going, first a male voice then a female recites the names of the children who were killed, their place of origin and their age: four years, one year, two years; Paris, Warsaw, Poznan.  It is incredibly moving and I am physically unable to take a photograph of the interior.  As we exit the building some of our group are visibly weeping.

Moving on from the Children’s Memorial we come to the place commemorating Janusz Korczak, a Polish doctor and orphanage director who, rather than abandon his charges and seek the safety which was offered to him, went with the children into Treblinka concentration camp where, it is believed, he met his death because nothing was ever heard of him again.

We were rather a subdued group as we climbed back on the coach for our next visit to Bethlehem.  This entailed going through the security wall which now surrounds Bethlehem.  Several times we were told that it is like living in an open prison.

Our first port of call was the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour.  This is a place of caves where shelter could be had for both flocks and shepherds, and provided the perfect visual aid for Jesus’ comment about him being the door to the sheepfold.  We then moved to a craft co-operative where the hospitality included coffee and soft drinks.  The main products on display were olive wood, but there was also jewellery, silverware, vestments, clothing and ceramics.  Some of the items were of exquisite beauty, some less so.  Sadly we were the only coach party booked in that day, where there would normally be at least three.  It appears that many of the Israeli guides tell their groups that it is “too dangerous” to visit Bethlehem, and consequently the shops there lose much of their trade.

Lunch was taken at the Shepherds’ Tent Restaurant.  Although obviously of a modern construction it was again a visual aid because the Tent of Meeting that God told Moses to build would have been erected in much the same way.  Refreshed by our lunch, and having recovered from the morning’s emotions we moved to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, where after much queuing we were able to go down into the Grotto of the Nativity where the traditional birthplace of Christ is marked with a star.

Star marking the traditional birthplace of Christ

Star marking the traditional birthplace of Christ

Here I had the privilege of reading the Nativity story to the group.

In the places enclosed by the Church there are the Caves of St Jerome where “traditionally” Jerome stayed when he was translating the Bible into Latin, but somehow I am unconvinced!

Our final visit of the day was to the Al Shurooq School for the Blind in the part of Bethlehem known as Beit Jala <http://tinyurl.com/k9odapr>.  Although most of the children had gone home for the weekend there were still a few there who could not go home because their parents could not easily obtain passes.  One was a young girl who told us of her hopes for the future.  Our equilibrium was once again upset when she recited, in clear English and with a deep understanding of the rhythm of the text, Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’.

The school does important work, not just for the support it gives to blind children whilst there but the ongoing support when they go back into the community, and for the production of Braille books and materials.  Our day had given us much to think about as we travelled back to Jerusalem.

The Way of the Cross Part 2 – Day 3 Thursday 16th May, afternoon.

After lunch and the celebration of the Eucharist we partially retraced our steps to begin the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross.  Essentially this is a devotional exercise rather than an exact tracing of the exact events of 2,000 years ago, if only because so many of the sites are “traditional”.  Recent archaeological explorations in certain areas of the Old City  suggest that at the time of Jesus the street level was perhaps as much as three metres below today’s level so Jesus almost certainly did not ‘tread on these very stones’.  But we have to be careful!  The street plan would have been much the same, and in a place which has recycled materials for centuries our scepticism has to be tempered with a certain amount of humility.  So, as we trace the traditional route that the condemned – including Jesus – took through the streets to the execution ground and we listen to  the relevant extracts from the Gospel accounts we can be caught up in, not  re-enactment exactly, but prayerful contemplation of the deeper meaning of the event.

Gambling game scratched in stone floor

We began our journey at the Al Omariya School where First Station is situated, and where we read from Matthew’s Gospel of Pilate handing over Jesus to be crucified, to pacify the baying mob.  Our extract from the Gospel stops before the account of the soldiers mocking him by making a crown of thorns, putting a purple robe on him and hailing him as King of the Jews.  I have always thought this to be a gratuitous extra torment by the soldiers, but our guide suggested a different view, which has been suggested by research.  Apparently the Roman troops had a gambling game which could be played two ways.  Either the winner would be elected ‘king’ for the day and would not have to carry out any of the fatigues, or he would be elected ‘king’ but be responsible for all the menial tasks and would be the butt of the squad.  The discovery of such a ‘board’ in a paving slab has led to the suggestion that the squad to whom Jesus was delivered played the game so that Jesus ‘lost’ and was therefore mocked.  An interesting idea, which  sheds a different light on the event.

As we moved between the Stations in procession we sang, and it was bizarre to see that

Walking between Stations

Walking between Stations

nobody took the slightest bit of notice!  Of course in that area what we were doing was commonplace: the Franciscan community makes the walk every Friday carrying a cross, and most days there will be at least two groups making the walk, but even so it was bizarre!  One of the unexpected discoveries was how much of the route is uphill.  At times it was quite difficult to walk and continue singing, which gave some insight as to how exhausting it must have been to carry a  heavy cross after a night of suffering and being beaten.

Just as the Stations are “traditional” so some of the events that they commemorate do not appear in Scripture – Veronica for example – but Luke’s Gospel tells of his encounter with the women of Jerusalem, weeping and wailing.  And here again was a new thought which I had not considered before.  It has been suggested that those women were professional mourners, hired to weep and wail but who had no emotional or personal connection with the person being mourned.  Hence Jesus’ words to them: ‘don’t weep for me, weep for yourselves and your children’, are a warning of the troubles to come.

The culmination of the Via Dolorosa is at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and this was crowded with several hundred people.  It was impossible for us to move to the four Stations within the building, so we completed them close to the 11th Station, the Latin Calvary.  After this we had time to look at various chapels and places within the building, but the queue to get into the Sepulchre itself was so long that it would have taken at least an hour to get through.

The site of the Holy Sepulchre

The site of the Holy Sepulchre

It may come as a surprise, but my strongest emotion in this Church was that of anger!  Yes the place is full of the devout and, indeed, full of prayer, but it is also the site of so much conflict between the competing religious groups who control various parts of the complex.  The main groups are the Eastern Orthodox, the Armenia Apostolic and the Roman Catholic Churches.  Of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the major group is the Greek Orthodox.  No work, not even a rearrangement, can be carried out in the common areas without the agreement of all the parties.  Thus you can see in my photo steel bracing erected in 1947 under the British Mandate because the marble cladding of the Sepulchre is becoming detached and there has so far been no agreement about its repair.  Each community is jealous of its rights, and it is not unknown for fights to break out between the various Orthodox communities,and between the Orthodox and the Franciscans over some perceived slights.  So yes, I felt anger – and sadness and detachment,  and not at all ‘holy’.