It is a strange feeling to be in a place like Jerusalem, where the very streets seem to be paved in stories. Each cobble, each sweeping arch, each building of sacred importance – all are ancient manifestations of a bigger narrative that is so aptly told through the corporeal aspect of the city. Upon arriving, one is abuzz with curiosity and expectation. “The Holy Land” evokes a vast, mystical sense of the continuity of time, of civilizations gone by, and of the traces left behind by generations of people who, just like you, have thought and lived, and dreamed and strived. Even if you’re not religious, there is something about this place that resonates with what is inside.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm or a great song. Rilke, The Seeker
Stepping into the Muslim Quarter of the Old City is like stepping through a time warp. As soon as you cross through the ancient doors of the Damascus Gate, you feel your life slipping into something that belongs in the past. You find yourself in the shadowy cove of a city within a city, transported to another world. A moment before you were a modern person on a tramway surrounded by men in suits, gliding past the New City with its clean streets and feats of architecture, and then there you are – a long-skirted woman on a cobbled street, staring through ancient doorways, winding your way through alleys, past stone walls, and bustling markets. The high walls cast their shadows across the narrow alleyways, creating a sense of being shut off from the outside world. Strange smells that you cannot identify assail you. The people appear so different from oneself, streaming in procession as they return home from mosque.
There is one presence, however, that joltingly reminds you that this is not some idyllic scene from the past. If you peer closely up above, you realise that there are not just electricity wires crisscrossing the walls, but security cameras too. On just about every street corner, soldiers stand menacingly with bullet proof vests and rifles in their hands – stonily staring at the tourists and shoppers going about their business. They stand in groups behind metal rails, and you wonder whether they are protecting the people or themselves.
Passing into the Jewish Quarter too, is a peculiar transition. Again one switches between worlds. You simply step under an arch in an alleyway and find that the niqabs and hijabs have given way to tall black hats, side locks and skull caps. Here is a completely different society with its own story, a society that barely interacts with the other. They are sworn enemies – and yet, truly, their lives are physically separated by only a thin stone wall and the line of a shadow in a cobbled alley.
And, inevitably, one ends up at the holy sites. With a thick sense of anticipation borne of belief, one expects waves of awestruck wonder every time one approaches a new site; the place where Jesus died, or where Mary was born, or the ruins of the “original” Jewish temple.
The reality, in my case, is that you become acutely aware of hoards of pilgrims and tourists all flocking for a glimpse of what they believe will be accelerated access to the divine. People prostrate themselves before rocks and cracks in the wall said to be remnants of the crucifixion; orthodox women in headscarves kneel before and kiss the pictures of saints; selfies are taken in shards of light falling from above; candles are lit; babies are anointed with oil; one man takes out packets of merchandise from his rucksack and spreads them over the rock of crucifixion, no doubt to be sold as “holy prayer beads” somewhere across the world. In fact, in many shops in the Old City, the very dust which covers the souvenirs is said to have the added benefit of being “holy dust”.
As someone who has grown up in church yet with no particular religious denomination, I was fascinated by how people responded to these places of such importance. I had the privilege of spending the night in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a massive church which now stands on the site of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. Here one can meander through ancient halls which contain what is said to be the tomb of Christ, the split stone which once covered his grave, and the rock upon which the cross was placed. To be here at night, especially, was not only a relief from the multitudes of pilgrims and tourists during the day, but also a deeply humbling experience. Every night without fail when the clock strikes twelve, a service is held in the Catholic sanctuary and the halls of the church are filled with Gregorian chant. Even a Buddhist monk or Muslim imam would feel some sense of awe for the mystery of the place, and as a visitor you feel profoundly honoured to be privy to the inner life of perhaps the most sacred place of the Christian religion.
Perhaps the best way to capture this experience, is the way that writers for centuries have best brought forward their thoughts – through poetry.
Above and Below
There was a time when I was young; when I yearned to be a dancer,
And then today, in the dead of night
I stood in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
Where candles glowed and incense burned
and the air was cool with the breath of my Lord.
Above me the devout were chanting
Around me hymns and low moans arose in prayer
Their sonorous voices soared out from their hearts
And sliced through the silence with the worship of God.
Every chamber was swollen with the haunting sound
Of men singing praises in a burial ground
Deep and low, heart-felt and clear
Their conviction assured them that the Spirit was near.
There were but few of us inside that church
Golgotha gave way to the place of rebirth
I listened intently, but could not understand
These celestial sounds emanating from man.
So I slipped from the group, finding solace below
Deep in the tomb where few would go
Down deep-delved steps in the bowels of the church
To the place where once death yielded birth.
Surrounded by silence and darkness and cold
A deep rocky cavern carved in the ground
Hidden, static – not emitting a sound
I was suddenly struck with a child-like delight
That I was here and alone, in the basin of night.
What might one do, alone and below
With all time and all space ceasing to flow?
In a burst of – something – perhaps mirth,
I found myself leaping with a twirl of my skirt.
All it took was a spring and a twist
To fill me with mischievous, scandalous, bliss
I did not kneel, bow, or kiss
But like a heaven-bound child,
spun round and round
Dizzy and laughing
Until even the ground
Had hardly a hope of holding me down.
I danced in my socks before the alter of God
Not awash with solemnity, reverence or awe
But simply that I was alone and I could;
Spinning and twirling and jumping and yearning
I sung praises with my skirts and hummed hymns with my scarf
I kissed in my dizziness and bowed in my heart
And then I stopped.
There was an urge –
To do a headstand
Right there in the church.
Oh the thrill, the excitement, the mischievous hilarity!
While men above me chanted and sung
Reading ancient scripts before the Holy One
I stood below, right on my head
Toes in the air
Allowing the blood to rush to my hair.
Now thinking back, I can’t help but wonder
Whether God minds, and does He ponder
That while some bow, chant and pray
Others show love in a quite different way.
Now, as my time in Jerusalem comes to an end, the evening air is filled with a blending of wails calling the faithful to prayer and praising Allah – the long held notes of one imam enriched by the intermittent deep utterances of another. Their sonorous moans are interspersed with the chimes of dancing church bells in the distance, the full bloom of a piano melody floating out of a window nearby, and the universal sound of children playing soccer on the street outside. The wails disappear into the ether, until only a lone imam makes the final call. He, too, allows his words to fall into the silence, only to be picked up again by the birds in the trees who take up the theme of evening praise.
You sit, you listen, you drink in, and you simply allow and receive as your mind is filled with the many voices of God. Beneath this all is an underlying hum – the quiet breathing of Jerusalem.