“Geia sou ti kaneis? Emena me lene (Hi, how are you? My name is) Rashed Al-Zorba.” And with that, an older man who hails from Jericho city, greeted me in Greek at a hotel, in Shepherd’s Fields, the birthplace of Jesus, just outside of Bethlehem.
Thanks to a very large Christian population and a high number of tourists and pilgrims, Bethlehem is seemingly spared the craziness and heart break of the unnecessary occupation, but we will get back to this, for this is not an article about the Israel/Palestine issue or the need for a viable, peaceful two state solution where Jews, Muslims and Christians can live together as friends and in peace. It is of course the Holy Land and it has history and a strong Greek connection, which is the essence of what I am writing. This is where my story begins, as I had studied Palestine and Israel as a student and had always wanted to visit.
Mr Al- Zorba was your typical Greek, or rather a typical Palestinian. Friendly, intuitive, engaging and welcoming, he could sense that I was going to have a unique experience during my stay. As the hotel manager at Golden Resort, he had picked my surname as being Greek when I made a reservation. He explained, “my family history goes back many years (centuries) in Palestine, we are from Greek heritage. As you can see with the Greek flag we fly at the front, I am proud of my heritage.” In addition to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, he went on to tell me that a few hundred metres away there is a Greek church and compound.
True to his word, I detached myself from the comfortable hotel and the swimming pool and made my way through private property. Yes, I was that excited to visit the church, I simply didn’t pay attention to his instructions and somehow managed to become lost in private gardens. Most people obliged and allowed me to climb fences with a smile. Some even asked why I was stupid, I think, but seemingly hid it behind a good-natured laugh. It did help that I would constantly explain I am Greek, just in case they had the wrong idea about who I was. I am of course neither a Palestinian nor an Israeli.
My need to tell people I was Greek stemmed from the following. As you enter West Bank from the ‘Arabic end’ of Jerusalem (not the entrance closest to Bethlehem), about 10 minutes by car, you are confronted by a big sign with what appeared to be bullet holes, if memory serves me correct. The sign explains a warning for Israeli citizens to go back now as it’s ‘Dangerous To Your Lives And Against Israeli Law’.
This was the wrong entrance to find Bethlehem, more or less a good way to enter for Ramallah. On booking.com, the automated messages for local accommodation paints a picture that is different to the everyday reality. A visit will bring a sense of sadness as you realise how the infrastructure is tattered, not enough public cleansing services and people struggling for work. My heart bled from what I came across. I can only imagine what the under siege Gaza must experience.
The Holy Land and all of the rulers and stakeholders can and must do better or the bitterness and hatred will continue for decades more, all people of all religions must reach out to each other.
Again, I digress a wee bit. My mobile phone signal shut down as I passed what appeared to be a check point, and soon I realised how lost I was. I pulled up next to a small auto bus and asked for directions to Bethlehem. I could have sworn a few people laughed, probably out of the knowledge I had entered the wrong way. Fortunately, the bus driver gave directions in perfect… Arabic!
I drove further and could not find a signpost to direct me. God probably wasn’t keen to help. Again the auto bus came my way and I tried to ask the same question. Within a few seconds, three men jumped into my car without permission. Oh crap. They were from the bus. Possible carjacking in progress, I thought to myself. Of course, they too spoke perfect Arabic, with very little English. One of the men knew some broken English and explained that they were originally from Gaza, they simply wanted to work. He mentioned something about Bethlehem and motioned for me to swap as a passenger. Explaining that I was Greek led to an animated discussion. With broken English, they explained what I had already experienced with others – that Jerusalem has a Greek quarter and that many in Palestine are Greek.
The many is likely to be hundreds, however, it is estimated that 10 per cent of the five million Palestinian people are Greek Orthodox. This is partially attributed to the Greek-speaking Byzantines who controlled the Holy Land for centuries, and of course the long line of Greeks from the days of Alexander the Great and Seleucus’ conquests, as well as Greek merchants under the Ottoman yoke.
The men of course did their best to speak to me, in Arabic. They bought me soft drinks and offered cigarettes, which I did not refuse. Then, my rental began to break down. Hopping slowly along to a small run down town with the knowledge that I would now be useless, I was quickly abandoned with hugs and kisses on the cheeks.
I managed to get to the next town. Here the car broke down completely. Fortunately, I was a source of interest to the locals who gave me a phone to use, bread, water and company for several hours until the car company sent me a replacement vehicle from Jerusalem. A lawyer spoke to me at length about what they go through, how little control they have over their destiny. If only peace could replace bitterness as quickly as my rental was replaced. How does every cultural group in the Holy Land find time to dislike each other when they could heed the words of God and love each other? Again, not a question that can be answered by my article.
Jerusalem, which lies at the heart of the Holy Land, is one of the most incredible cities in history, from its establishment by King David in Biblical times to the present day. It is one of the most sought after cities in the world, having been ruled by Jews, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Crusaders, Arabs, Ottomans, the British, Jordanians… And of course the Greeks.
Jerusalem has been taken on at least 44 occasions, which tells you that violence is part of the history.
Alexandros entered this wonderful city from Mount Scopus in 332 BC ushering in centuries of Hellenistic rule. With the death of Alexander, his General Ptolemy took the city for his own Greek empire, and by 198 BC it was taken by the Hellenic Seleucids from Syria, before coming under Judean control for several decades. This Judean state came about as most Jews had become tired of the Hellenisation of Jerusalem and rebelled with significant effect to take control.
The Romans took the city around 63 BC under Pompey and we can only speculate if Jesus may have been treated differently if the city and the Levant was ruled by the Hellenes. History will show us that Christ was to be cruelly crucified by the Romans, which ultimately has given the region a significant place in theology and history. I visited Jesus’ holding cell in Jerusalem in the Greek Quarter. It was small, underground and dark in what is now a Greek church. To say I was humbled is a mild understatement.
This area by the way is littered with Greek speakers, from the church helpers to the Arabic hustlers on the street. I could not use the “I only speak Greek” excuse to avoid the hustlers, as they would reply in my language.
Constantinople in the 4th century AD until around 637 AD controlled Jerusalem, arguably the holiest city in the known world. Greek became the main language of administration. Over the years, as is the curse of this great city, many other minorities were forced into exile. The Jews on multiple occasions, Palestinian people, Greeks, Assyrians, Franks (westerners) and the list goes on.
In 629 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Heraklius regained the True Cross from the Persians after he defeated them. He was quick to restore the True Cross to Jerusalem.
Such is the esteem that the city is held, many major religions view this as their spiritual home. They are of course Judaism, Islam and Christianity including Greek Orthodox.
In 1054 AD most Christians in the Levant came under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. Over the next two centuries Crusaders came and went, a few were successful, and others easily repulsed.
Jerusalem has enjoyed very little extended stability in its history, and it is destined to remain that way for some time to come as both Israel and Palestine claim it as their capital.
This is a city with over 800,000 people, yet today there are less than 2,000 Greeks there, many living in the Old City. Mr Al Zorba from the hotel had also indicated that the Greek community was small in numbers when we had a coffee at the hotel.
The Old City was walled by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 1500s and was divided into Armenian, Arabic, Jewish, and Greek (there are other Christian representatives and citizens here).
The famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre was completed in 335 AD by Byzantine Greek speakers and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is there. I attended a Greek sermon with hundreds of others. This is a must do experience either for spiritual purposes or just to feel at peace with other pilgrims.
In 1900 outside the Old City, the Patriarch and architect Spyros Houri helped establish the Greek colony, which included a community centre with five buildings that still holds numerous cultural activities including Greek dancing and language lessons.
This area was called the Hellenic Omilos or the Greek colony in Bakaa, in Katamonas. There are 23 Greek Orthodox monasteries and convents located in and around Jerusalem.
In 1922, the Charitable Hellenic Brotherhood was established and two years later the Union of Greek Women. Soon after, the Hellenic Scout Association was formed and there followed the Hellenic Community of Jerusalem and finally Athletic Association of Hercules, and there may be more Hellenic committees. Unfortunately the war of 1948 and then 1967 whereby Jordan lost control of its section of Jerusalem, meant many of the Greeks migrated to Greece and other countries, never to return. The Church owns plenty of property in the city, some that house shops and residents.
When I returned from the West Bank visit, I hired a driver to take me to Tel Aviv with the simple instruction to take me first to the Greek Colony and the community centre. The Greek Colony is now a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. As the navigator could not find the Greek Community Centre, which is located at Joshua Bin Nun Street, the Palestinian driver explained that he would not ask directions for obvious reasons.
When I stepped out of the car wearing my Greece shirt, I could sense a weird look from passers-by, until I spoke in English and was greeted back in warm tones about the centre and the history of the Greek people of the colony. Few Greeks live there now I was told, though the consulate does. The locals were aware of the centre, which I soon found thanks to their help.
My driver took me to Tel Aviv. The drive through the Israeli desert is nice and makes you understand that water will be a huge issue for all people in the Holy Land as it is a dry region. Hopefully, water becomes a common source to work together and not for violence, though I am told Gaza has significant shortages as they remain in a siege after 11 frustrating years – again frustrating for Jews and Muslims as peace seems further away.
As we pulled up to the entrance of the airport, a soldier with a machine gun motioned for us to pull over to a security bay. She asked us where we had come from and why I was in Israel. I explained that I had been to Palestine and now Israel. This triggered the soldier to take my driver for questioning in a small office and the car and my bag was searched. About 10 minutes later, my driver returned.
“Billy, I know you mean well, but do not say Palestine to a soldier again!” It was deflating to hear that. I generally support a two state solution. I just want to wake up one day knowing that everyone is working toward peace, not stupidity.
It is probable that Hellenic history has been there almost unbroken since Alexander the Great. Not a bad achievement when you consider the turbulent history of Jerusalem. With Christmas coming up let’s hope and pray there is peace ahead for all who live there. A remarkable region, and may it one day bring peace to all people who are connected with it, irrespective of religion or race. The energetic and nice Mr Al-Zorba was indeed correct, I certainly did have an interesting stay and a journey that I will always remember.
* Billy Cotsis is the author of ‘From Pyrrhus to Cyprus Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities & a Fiefdom’.