Another glorious morning with the sun shining down and some high cloud but little sign of autumn. We left at 8am and travelled to the Mount of Olives where we began the Palm Sunday journey, first descending into the Kidron Valley by way of the churches of the (French Carmelite) Pater Noster, Dominus Flevit and All Nations. The environs of this church include the Garden of Gethsemane and, although it was very full, it was strangely possible to find – at the enclosed rock of the Agony, a space to pray and for a few moments it seemed as if one was alone in spite of the hundreds of people around.
Basaam guides very well and gave a very full description of the history of this city from a vantage point in a Jewish cemetery overlooking the eastern side of the city. From here we continued down (visiting Dominus Flevit and All Nations as we descended) into the Kidron Valley where we passed the Tomb of the Virgin. The Orthodox tradition is that it was here that the Virgin Mary died and was taken by angels into heaven (a belief shared by Muslims who, when the Caliph Hakim was destroying churches in 1091 spared this place because of their veneration for this site.
We began our climb into the city passing through S. Stephen’s Gate (known as the Gate of Miriam by Muslims) and stopping at S. Anne’s Church (whose acoustics are world famous and where we sang the Salve Regina) and the Pool of Bethesda. In the church we visited the Grotto of the Virgin, where we prayed, then onto the Chapel of the Flagellation where Basaam talked about the city using the model displayed there. After that it was onto lunch at the Convent of the Sisters of Sion (Ecce Homo) and Mass in their wonderful chapel with the dramatic arch - part of the Antonia Fortress – enclosing the sanctuary. We sang again and found the acoustics were almost as good as in S. Anne. After Mass we returned to the Chapel of the Flagellation as the actual First Station is n the Islamic school opposite. Basaam explained that to avoid being pestered by shopkeepers we should pray as we went so we prayed the Jesus Prayer throughout right up to Calvary. I think this may have been the first time some of us had prayed in such a public way but no one took any notice of us and did, indeed, respect our devotion.
Holy Sepulchre was not as crowded as I had expected and we were able to venerate Calvary although there were long queue’s to enter the Holy Sepulchre so I suggested we make our veneration using the chapel of the Copts at the rear as it provides an access point to the marble of the Tomb inside the Sepulchre.
I realise that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a shock for many pilgrims as it doesn’t quite conform to our English sense of decorum. At the time when we visited (app. 4pm) it was noisy, pushy, hot and sweaty with people from every nation jockeying for position. And if, for some, that meant pushing in – so be it. But, as Basaam pointed out, it is not the building that matters for, as Christ said, the true Temple of God was his body. So it matters not that the place seems chaotic (it is actually carefully organised to maintain the ‘Status Quo’ and prevent real chaos) what matters is that one is present where Christ died and rose again.
So, after our long Via Dolorosa we sat down for coffee and then wandered through he lanes of the Old City back to the Hotel where the evening was rounded off by the ‘Sultan’s Feast’ and those wonderful dancing boys!
FRIDAY, 12TH NOVEMBER - The Jordan Valley
Then back to Jericho noting the water-mark of the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1911 (?), now many metres above the Dead Sea where we had lunch in a Palestinian restaurant. I ha d a sense that the difference between what was offered there and what we had experienced in the (Jewish) Galilee was beginning to be noted. After lunch we drove to see the Tree of Zaccheus, now enclosed in a building site paid for by the Russians as they develop a new church and museum (?), the Monastery of Quarantine and the ancient walls of Jericho, excavated by the redoubtable English archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyon.
Finally we drove down back to the Dead Sea so that people could bathe in its waters. And what a tale that was! I was moved by the way people who had a fear of water found they did not drown. A small but significant move.
All that happened as the sun set and after 45mins we set off for Jerusalem. The expectation built up about our arrival was dashed by the reality of living in Arab East Jerusalem. Dirty, noisy and crammed with people (hwy isn’t it as pleasant as the Galilee run by the Israeli’s?). So we disembarked in the run-down East Jerusalem Bus Station (ah, how many buses have I caught from there!). But the ‘Golden Walls Hotel’ proved an oasis of beauty in the apparent squalor of the city. So après-dejuener enabled me to answer questions focussing on the situation here until we all retired to bed …