This summer I visited my aunt in Jerusalem and stayed with her in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina. There is so much to this incredible city which is steeped in significance to Christianity and indeed all Abrahamic faiths, that it is difficult to know where to begin in describing the experience of visiting here! Unquestionably it was visiting the old city that was the most significant part of my trip here, and was an experience that I was fortunate to be able to repeat several times. The picture attached shows the view of the old city from the Mount of Olives, with the golden dome of the Rock easily seen, the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall) is behind the trees, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the focus of my visit, is not visible, but is further back towards the horizon. Standing on the mount, you can see the rows and rows of Jewish graves facing the Golden gate, which is a sealed entrance through which the Messiah will emerge according to the prophet Ezekiel, it is also held to be the gate through which Jesus entered the Old City on Palm Sunday. There are seven other gates around the walls of the old city, the mostly widely used is the Jaffa gate for tourists, the other widely used is the Damascus gate, through which a large amount of goods are received to be sold on the Cardo (meaning ‘heart’), which is a large street market that runs through the city through the Christian, Muslim and finally Jewish quarter.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, contains the final five stations of the cross, the entrance is shown in the attached photo. Despite the reams of tourists that arrive here and the noise and crowds, it is impossible not to be moved by the overpowering spirituality of this place. There are many denominations that occupy parts of the Church; the Greek Orthodox Church, which owns the entire land of the Christian quarter and derives income from the shops set up within it, has its main headquarters here, but there are also Armenian, Roman Catholic, Coptic and EthiopianChurches within. Each of these denominations has its own cultural slant on the Christian faith, and being able to freely wander between sections of the Church feels like traveling through the whole of Christendom in such a small area. Of course these differences have been the source of much unrest over the years, however the status quo has established the boundaries of the different denominations and their services and allows for a relatively harmonious co-existence.
Ironically, no Christian denomination has control over the main entrance, as shown in the photo, a Muslim family have possessed the keys to the door since the Sultan Saladin captured the Church in 1192, sealing the exit on the right hand side so he had more control over the church for revenue. There is so much within the Church itself to comment on, so much history and an indescribable feeling that accompanies visiting the actual sites of the crucifixion and resurrection, standing at the points where the Christian faith began, how the events here have shaped civilization and morality for millennia.
Although it is mainly the eastern orthodox churches that are present here, there is a real feel of Christian unity as people come from all around the world, walking the Via Dolorosa to visit the different stations of the cross. As you immediately enter the Church, the anointing stone where the body of Christ was hurriedly tended to due to his death on Friday, just before the start of the Jewish Sabbath. To the right, up a steep staircase is Golgotha, where it is possible to enter a Greek Orthodox alter and touch the spot where the cross was buried into the ground. To the left is the Tomb, which is contained inside the edicle, a small space divided into two inner rooms, the first containing a fragment of the stone that sealed the entrance to the tomb, the second is the tomb itself, where a large piece of medieval marble is contained that objects can be taken to be blessed. These are the principal areas of the Church but there are many more, including the prison of Christ, contained within an Armenian part of the Church, and the Chapel of St Helena, which is on a lower level of the Church, also owned by the Armenians.
Sadly, it is all too apparent how fractured the Holy Land is. There is a great deal of tension between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods which the majority of people on both sides wished did not exist. It is easy to take sides in this argument, but it is plain to see how taking sides just fuels further division. It is only once the walls and checkpoints dividing the communities are relaxed, that there is any chance of peaceful advancement.