The paradoxical tale of two cities

The paradoxical tale of two cities

Despite the palpable unease, history, biblical stories, fables, prophets and gods come alive around the ancient cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, writes Stanley Carvalho

The silver 14-pointed star on the marble floor inside the Church of Nativity is the site of the birth of Jesus Christ. PHOTO BY AUTHOR

Considered by many as the holiest places on the planet, the ancient cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem sit cheek-by-jowl on a hilly terrain, separated by a heavily-fortified security wall. It is a sad irony that life goes on amidst daily struggles and conflicts between Christians, Muslims and Jews here. Paradoxically enough, pilgrims find it hard to imbibe the spiritual experience amidst the unease prevailing there.

Jerusalem is blessed with natural beauty. Rolling hills and valleys with pretty houses perched attractively with plenty of greenery that include the ubiquitous olive trees as well as pines, firs, cypresses and others. Somehow, even the sky is a beautiful blue all the time.

The Stations of the Cross ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified and buried following his last walk along the Via Dolorosa. This church is in the Christian quarter that is part of the old city which also houses within its mighty two-mile-long wall the Armenian, Jewish and Muslim quarters.

Strolling through the Christian quarter is a fascinating experience. This is an old world with narrow passages, uneven cobbled pathways with numerous small houses, shops, people, stray cats and an atmosphere that can be described as dense and tense within a fence! Life roars on as traders try to lure buyers and children walk briskly to school even as security men stand at vantage points with Kalashnikovs and AK 47s. The old market here is vibrant and colourful with all kinds of aromas emanating from spices to dry fruits to freshly-baked Arabic bread to vegetables.

The moment you pass through the huge doors of the old but rock-solid Church of Holy Sepulchre built by Emperor Constantine I in A.D. 336, you realise within the dimly-lit yet stunningly splendid interiors that this is the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. Worshippers take turns to bow and prayer, first at the stone of the Unction and then at Jesus’s tomb. Oddly, there are chapels within the church where Masses are held for different sects — Christians, Greek Orthodox, Armenians etc. We were fortunate to attend Mass inside the church.

I move to a corner to drink in the splendour of its interiors — the many altars, alcoves, arches, naves, balustrades, secret passageways, the murals depicting biblical scenes and yes, stained walls with soot from antique oil lamps.

A vantage point, little away from the church, offers some great views of the city including three popular monuments. On one side is the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Muslim quarter and on the other side is the Wailing Wall. We were content with clicking photographs of the Dome and the Mosque as non-Muslims are not allowed entry.

The Wall

A short walk down the sloped and winding path and down a few steps you land near the Western Wall, better known as the Wailing Wall, the only relic of the original Jewish temple built by King Solomon and the ultimate destination for Jewish pilgrims. Being Sabbath Day, there were many Jews, most conspicuous being the orthodox Jews with their top hats and distinct side locks. There was much singing, praying and dancing as some stuck their petitions written on bits of paper into the crevices of the Wall.

Our next stop was nearby Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. It may be the biblical little town but it is a bustling place today, thanks to millions of tourists who descend there through the year. We headed straight to the Church of Nativity, believed to be built on the spot where Jesus was born.

Built by Emperor Justinian over the cave venerated as Jesus’ birthplace and dedicated in AD 339, the church has seen innumerable transformations since.

We walk past the Manger Square to enter one of the oldest continuous operating churches in the world. The entrance is a small rectangular opening called the Door of Humility. One has to duck down to go through it.

Inside, one cannot miss the 44 limestone columns along the sides and the mosaics above the columns with feature-rich designs of birds, flowers and vine patterns.

The Star

The piece de resistance of this church is the Grotto of the Nativity entered by a flight of steps down by the main altar to the cave or the site of Christ’s birth. Strikingly visible is the silver star on the marble floor, marking the very spot where Jesus was born. “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary,” a sign in Latin says. Tourists take turns to kneel and pray briefly. 

For many of us, this visit was an emotional and memorable experience. As we walked out, our guide voiced a revelation. “This church is still divided into three sections — the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian and Roman Catholic and this balance of control or sharing has been the status quo for centuries.” Moreover, each of these celebrate Christmas on different dates — the Catholics on December 25, the Greek Orthodox on January 7 and the Armenians on January 19.

We were familiar with divisions and conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians but even within the holy of holy church?

One couldn’t help but wonder, when will they pick up branches from the many olive trees and extend it to one another and say shalom, salam or peace!