I recently spent a few days in the Holy Land. Two months earlier, I had visited Greece with my family and had witnessed first hand the misery of refugees who were clogging the main arterials of Lesvos. The experience was enough to make one lose faith in humanity. Unexpectedly, the Holy Land experience was spiritually uplifting. I say unexpectedly as I was expecting a ‘fake’, tourist-driven experience like so many others I have had elsewhere. It was anything but fake.
On my first day I visited a number of the Christian holy sites of Jerusalem with Gil, my personal Jewish guide. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem ‘owns’ the majority of the sites that Christians come to visit here. In fact, the Patriarchate owns more than half of the Old City of Jerusalem. Until last month the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, leased its land from the Patriarchate. The majority of Arab Christians in Israel and Palestine also belong to this Church, the hierarchy of which is ethnically Greek.
The world’s most holy site to all Christians is the Church of the Anastasis, or the Holy Sepulchre. It contains the Tomb of Christ and Golgotha.
It is jointly administered by the Greeks, Roman Catholics and Armenians but we have the lion’s share of the church and only our Patriarchal flag flies above it. In fact, the flags of Greece, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and occasionally Cyprus, are to be seen everywhere in Jerusalem.
I visited a number of Orthodox churches including Panagia’s Tomb, St Stephen’s church (the first martyr) as well as Gethsemane and the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. From this latter vantage point one can take in the city’s breathtaking beauty. In the Old City itself, I walked the dark, stone, alley-like streets which were barely wide enough for carts to pass. The smell of spices and perspiration intertwined.
There was a long line to enter the Tomb of Christ where I would have waited an hour, but because I was Greek Gil persuaded me to jump the queue and introduce myself in Greek to the priest guarding the Tomb. I protested and said it was inappropriate. He reminded me we were not in Australia. The friendly priest immediately let me in. Clearly Greeks have priority here. Opposite the Tomb, under another immense dome, is the grand Greek Orthodox katholikon (the main cathedral church of Jerusalem).
Pilgrims, visibly moved by the significance of where we stood, surrounded me.
On my second day, I visited northern Israel with Yossi, another knowledgeable Jewish guide. This is the area of the Annunciation and Christ’s younger years in Nazareth. I visited Cana – the site of His first miracle – and the Sea of Galilee, where most of His miracles and teachings occurred. There are three claimed sites of Christ’s baptism (with the Orthodox one most likely to be the historically accurate one, according to Yossi). Orthodox churches and monasteries abound. A picture-perfect view of the Church of The Twelve Apostles, considered one of the most beautiful in the region, was to be had from The Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount.
Yossi, despite his Jewish faith, had a phenomenal understanding of Christianity and a detailed knowledge of both Testaments. He had been part of a university group which had mapped out the physical path Jesus walked based on the Scriptures.
Pilgrims can walk this long path today. He showed me some little-known parts and linked for me Hebrew, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine histories.
We ate St Peter’s fish and Middle Eastern mezedes at Tiberius, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The restaurant’s owner, a Tunisian Jew, sat with us and told me his story. The food was delicious – like being at a Greek restaurant. The background music sounded Greek. Yossi mentioned that Glykeria and Dalaras are popular in Israel.
The following day I set off with this rather anxiety-provoking arrangement of an Arab taxi driver from Jerusalem taking me to a checkpoint for a Palestinian guide from the West Bank (the latter are not allowed to cross into Israel) to pick me up so I could visit Bethlehem.
When I arrived, the guide negotiated to take me to Hebron as well, saying it would be an opportunity not to be missed and would be safe, and then to the Judean desert to visit two of the many Greek monasteries, before visiting Bethlehem (where I had only intended to go). The idea of seeing these desert monasteries was too tempting to refuse.
Hebron was frightening.
I felt unsafe in this predominantly Muslim city with an enclave of religious Jewish settlers living in a walled compound. My guide said he always listened to the news the night before to make sure it was safe to bring tourists like me there. I thought to myself, what if we WERE the news? He also said his friends in Hebron would have alerted him if there was a problem. He told me all of this as we arrived.
There I visited the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives in the Ibrahimi Mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs). Originally built by Herod, it was then altered by the Byzantine Greeks and subsequently added to by the Crusaders. The Arabs eventually converted it into a mosque. It is now three-quarters mosque and one-quarter synagogue! There are two separate armed entry points. I faced a barrage of questions despite being with my Palestinian guide at the mosque entry. No questions were asked of me upon entering the synagogue … presumably because I looked like a Jewish pilgrim. I was sent alone to the synagogue as my guide could not even approach the entry point because it would be considered provocative.
The tranquil and imposing mosque had Greek inscriptions on the walls. In the synagogue there was a cacophonous combination of horns blowing and chanting of prayers while worshippers swayed rhythmically and ritualistically. There were many armed soldiers inside the synagogue. I felt unsafe knowing this was where tensions turn into conflict. I later read this was the site of a massacre of Muslim pilgrims in 1994 by an Israeli soldier. Fortunately my ignorance of recent history had allowed me to agree to my guide’s proposal to visit.
My understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has forever been coloured.
My West Bank highlight was the Nativity Cathedral in Bethlehem, the world’s oldest Christian church. Persian invaders in the seventh century spared this church because of an icon of the Three Magi in Persian dress. Its imposing structure has basically been the same since Constantine built it, with various additions made with successive invaders. The main church and the Nativity Cave below it are Greek Orthodox, with Roman Catholic and Armenian chapels in the same building.
Back in the ‘safety’ of Jerusalem that afternoon. I enjoyed the heavenly Middle Eastern flavours of my outdoor dinner with plenty of feta and olive oil. The elegant neighbourhood I stayed in, just outside the Old City walls, consisted of a mixture of European and Mediterranean faces with occasional African faces on the streets. Such a fascinating mix of Orthodox Jews in their garb as well as secularly-dressed people was in contrast to the Old City, where one sees Arabs with headscarves and ghoutras, all manner of Jews and a mix of Christian clergymen. A young red-haired man wearing a kippah approached me and said ‘Shalom’ and continued to speak in Hebrew.
I said “I can’t speak Hebrew”.
“So English is better, yes? Do you want to help the Nation?” he asked.
My inside thought was “yes, I want to help but this is not my nation …”.
My thoughts turned to Lesvos and the misery I had witnessed there.
I revisited the Church of the Anastasis at dawn and at dusk. At these times the church was devoid of noisy tourists and hauntingly mystical in the dim light. I also revisited the Wailing Wall while further exploring the Jewish quarter. I was stopped at the entry security checkpoint as I was carrying two hand-made ceremonial Bedouin ‘daggers’ in my bag which I had purchased that morning for my son and nephew and forgotten about. Needless to say I was asked for my passport, and the daggers and all my possessions were taken away (icons, holy oil, holy water and the candles I had lit in the Holy Sepulchre). I was told to come back to collect them all once I was finished at the Wailing Wall. I wondered which of all the objects they thought was most dangerous.
Through a second lot of security I climbed the plateau within the Old Town to visit the Dome of the Rock – the famous golden-domed mosque on the purported site of the ascension of Mohammed to Paradise – on the site of the original Jewish Temple. There is a sign and a rabbi there to warn ignorant Jews of the grave sin they will commit if they ascend the Temple Mount.
The building complex was spectacular. I was allowed limited time as a non-Muslim to visit and the interior of the main mosque was out of bounds to me. Also, fortunately for the Muslim holy area here, my Christian holy items remained in the hands of the armed Israeli security staff and did not ‘defile’ the Muslim holy space. I also wondered how this place must have appeared before the Temple was last destroyed. Apparently, it was three times the height of the Dome of the Rock which now stands in its place. There was no sign of anything Jewish here despite the city now being in Israeli hands. I exited through the chaotic Muslim quarter and felt conspicuously out of place.
What a city and what a country. I was impressed with the visible and palpable connection to Hellenism. The presence of the Orthodox Patriarchate cannot be understated. The modern Greek presence is overt. Scratching the surface and understanding the history of the region brings to light the various periods of Hellenic influence – antiquity; the Hellenistic period with the kingdoms that ruled here following Alexander the Great’s conquests; the Roman era (in these parts the Roman Empire was Greek speaking and Hellenic in its outlook); the indisputably Greek Byzantine era (a plethora of buildings remain from this period); and the subsequent influence of the ancient and Christian Greek culture on the ensuing Muslim empires – all point to this as one of the common ongoing threads in the intricate history of this Holy Land.
Put simply, western civilisation’s basis in the combination of the Greco-Roman and the Judaeo-Christian worlds can be perfectly appreciated here. It is living history.
It is one place we all must visit, experience and make a pilgrimage to at least once in our lifetimes. I hope to revisit the Holy Land with my family. Anyone with a Greek heritage will feel proud of the influence of our civilisation and culture on the whole modern world and anyone with a Christian faith will feel spiritually renewed. There is a part of the Church of the Anastasis which is the omphalos – the presumed navel, or centre, of the world. I have no doubt that one can properly appreciate humanity’s complex story at this very place.