Site of the crucifixion

Site of the crucifixion, now within Holy Sepulcher church.

This entry in the Expat Almanac features a slightly different cast of characters: I am traveling in Israel with one of my college roommates, Judy Jewell, and 37 motley folks. We are on a tour in a bright purple bus that we can see from anywhere. We are in Israel, and on our way to Jordan.

For now, our first stop: Jerusalem. Despite all the quibbling you read about, Old Town Jerusalem is divided into quarters: Christian, Jewish, Arab, and Armenian. The powerful centerpiece of the Christian quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, first built in the mid-320’s by Helena, the mother of the first Emperor Constantine. The church caps the hill of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified.

The church is somewhat peaceably maintained by five different Christian communities: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox and Armenian. Each “room” of the church is owned by a different sect. One representative of each forms a procession each afternoon, wearing varied liturgical costumes and flinging incense here and there.

We climbed some narrow, worn, steep stairs to get to the site of the crucifixion, now gilded and lit by Middle Eastern lamps hanging in a row. No fence; no glass wall. People were kneeling, crawling, and gawking. Back downstairs at the anointing stone, where the body was washed, people are crouched around the stone, kissing it, touching it, praying fervently. The original stone was touched to death: it has been replaced by another marble slab.

Kissing the anointing stone

Kissing the anointing stone.

And finally, we herd downstairs again to Christ’s tomb. (I say “herd” because we are not moving freely. We are surrounded on all sides by fervent tourists pushing and sweating.) Here, a further subdivision of visitors is waiting two to three hours in line to pass through the stone and gold structure that shelters Christ’s tomb.

The Holy Sepulcher

The Holy Sepulcher. Skylight in roof facilitates Ascension.

A few chapels later and we are outdoors, doing the Stations of the Cross backwards. (The stations represent moments in Jesus’ ascent to Golgotha, carrying his cross on his shoulder.) The route is a narrow uphill passageway, now lined with souvenir shops, the station numbers in Roman numerals tacked onto the stone walls. Some are more elaborate than others. Some are nearly invisible.

Zohar tells us that over two thousand years, much of what-happened-where is still a matter of speculation, but we’re pretty sure about the sepulchre and the way of the cross. For those of us brought up Christians in the New World, the New Testament stories all happened so long ago and far away that they seem more like fantasies. But here it is engraved in stone.

In fact, all of Jerusalem looks like the illustrations in our childhood Bible storybooks: hills and buildings of beige and pale green. Even newer buildings are made of the local off-white limestone, and by law must conform to the boxy square-windowed design of the Old Town. The reasoning was that Jerusalem is special; to build sleek modern buildings would make it look like everywhere else.

David's Citadel

Within the walls of David’s Citadel. Jerusalem is often interrupted by ruins. Nobody knows how deep they go.

There is a state of mind called Jerusalem Syndrome that occasionally hits visitors: perfectly sane people suddenly start wearing bedsheets and spouting Bible verses. (Honest! Google it.) The proximity of these old stones, unprotected, unforbidden, their keepers unafraid of litigation, inspires people to let out their spiritual side

To be overtly religious in Jerusalem is to be accepted and embraced.

Judy and I were brought up Catholic in the Northeast of the U.S.—not a territory given to speaking in tongues, wailing in prayer, or kissing stones. Still we respect and almost envy the fervor we see. In any case, to be literally in touch with the land that saw events that changed history is a privilege. Who could leave here untouched?