Dispatch 6:


Layers of Time


The Pools of Bethesda

In Thus Was Adonis Murdered—by one of my favorite novelists, the late Sarah Caudwell—the disorganized and disheveled character of Julia Larwood is vacationing in Venice. She soon discovers that there's no point in looking in your guidebook for something interesting and then trying to find it, because you'll never find it. The thing to do, Julia learns, is to find out where you are, then look for something in your guidebook that says this spot is interesting.

This is a strategy I have learned to adopt in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Like Venice, the Old City seems to have been designed for the specific purpose of confounding outsiders. The streets wind and twist, stop abruptly, change names, turn into staircases, go over rooftops, or turn out not to exist at all.

On more than one occasion, I've walked for ten minutes... only to discover I'm right back where I started, because streets that appeared to be intersections were actually loop-the-loops. (I use the word "street" loosely here. What looks like a street on the map may be no wider in the Old City than a hallway in your house.)

Also, by some peculiar alchemy, no matter where I'm trying to go in the Old City, I inevitably wind up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Well, this was okay during the two Christian holy weeks in April when, every time I was in the Old City, it was because I was covering events in and around the Holy Sepulcher. But having been to the church many times by now (sometimes for hours at a time), I could cheerfully skip it from now on. However, as soon as I start trying to find something in the Old City, the next thing you know, there I am once again, back at the Holy Sepulcher and wondering how this happened.

So, to follow the wise advice of Caudwell's character, here's what's interesting about the place where I keep winding up by accident.


Church of the Holy Selpucher

The Crusader-built Church of the Holy Sepulcher is constructed on what millions of worshippers believe is the site of Christ's death and resurrection. And it's occupied by five Christian sects (Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Copts) who hate each other so much that physical fights and mayhem break out from time to time. Indeed, I saw priests fist-fighting several times inside the church during Holy Week. For centuries, a Muslim family has held the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, often cited as Christianity's holiest site, because no one can trust any given Christian sect not to lock the others out of the church.

If that sounds a little paranoid, well, go talk to the Ethiopian priests. They were the sixth sect that occupied some of the jealously-guarded real estate inside this massive rabbit-warren of a church. But their documentation got destroyed in a fire two centuries ago. So the other five sects kicked them out of the church because they could no longer prove they belonged there—despite their sect having been in the Holy Land since the 4th century A.D. Consequently, they've been living on the roof of the church since 1808. Yes, the roof.

And you thought politics was brutal?

Near the Holy Sepulcher (and conveniently on the way to Papa Andrea's, a rooftop eatery with good falafel) is the Church of the Redeemer. Built in the 19th century (over the ruins of something that was built over the ruins of something that was built over the ruins of something), it's a mere infant by the standards of this neighborhood. Its airy, austere interior gives it away as a Protestant church (Lutheran) in this Old World terrain. Its very tall bell tower provides sturdy pilgrims with some of the best views of Jerusalem, as well as an excellent aerobic workout. The climb, however, should not be undertaken by anyone who suffers from mild claustrophobia—as I discovered only after it was too late to turn back.


The Old City, as you probably know, is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian. A hilltop city which gets cool at night even in summer, Jerusalem has been inhabited for more than 3,000 years. According to the Bible, King David took it from the Jebusites. Since then, everybody's been taking it from everybody else, and Jerusalem has been perpetually conquered, sacked and destroyed, rebuilt, and reconquered. The last conquest of Jerusalem was in 1967, and things have been tense here since then, with semi-regular flare-ups of terrible violence. The Holy City a.k.a. the City of Peace has long been one of the most fought-over and bloody cities in the history of the human race.


Outside the Jaffa Gate

The current walls of Jerusalem, which mostly date to the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, have eight gates—only seven of which you can pass through: the Jaffa Gate (which used to lead all the way to the seaport of Jaffa), the New Gate (opened in 1887), the immense Damascus Gate, Herod's Gate, the Lion's Gate (a.k.a. St. Stephen's Gate and the start of the Via Dolorosa), the Dung Gate (garbage and waste were removed through this gate in ancient times), and Zion Gate. The eighth gate, the Golden Gate, has been sealed for more than a thousand years. (Some) Jews believe the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through this gate. (I guess if you're the Messiah, getting through the Golden Gate isn't that big a challenge.)


So, on another occasion, having somehow missed my turn-off, I find myself near the Lion's Gate, which is nowhere near where I was trying to go (St. James Cathedral in the Armenian quarter, completely the other side of the city). So I pull out my guidebook to see what's interesting about where I'm standing.

This is how I wind up visiting the "birthplace of Mary," which I happen to be standing right next to. Inside an unprepossessing building and down a long, steep, dark, curving flight of stone stairs, there's an underground crypt with worn mosaics on the floor and a makeshift shrine to the Virgin, consisting of candles, Eastern icons, and sparkly cloths.

I find it improbable that anyone knows where the mother of Jesus was born, but logic suggests it was in the Galilee where tradition says she was a young woman; most people 2,000 years ago lived and died where they were born. But the kind, soft-spoken, Arab Christian lady who is caretaker of the Virgin's birthplace clearly believes Mary was born there, and Jerusalem isn't the sort of place where you argue with the faithful.

(Christians—mostly Arab, but also from many other nations—were 51% of Jerusalem's population in 1922. Today they're about 1.6% of the city's population. In the land where Christianity began, as well as in the wider region where it first spread, there may be no Christians left by the end of this century. For more about the fate of Middle Eastern Christians, try William Dalrymple's fascinating From the Holy Mountain.)

Past Mary's shrine, even further down another long, steep, curving flight of damp stone stairs, to a place where the world is very old, there's a grotto hollowed out of the stony earth. Damp and odorous with time, there's little light and even less air here. This is the "birthplace of Saint Anne," supposedly the mother of Mary.

Descending into these ancient shrines, these revered lairs hidden deep in the city's belly, makes me think about the late Edward Whittemore, who wrote several magic-realism novels set in Jerusalem, including Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker. In Whittemore's Jerusalem, beneath the shop of the kindly demented Haj Harun in the Old City, each layer of time is still actively inhabited by the nations who built and destroyed Jerusalem again and again over the centuries.

Shuffling down into these deep places on uneven stairs carved into the bedrock, you feel you're taking a stairway through time, descending to a temporal place as well as a physical one, traveling to the memory of a moment that passed 2,000 years ago.


Next door is the Church of Saint Anne. (I'd be curious to learn which revelation of this neighborhood as Anne's birthplace came first, the massive cathedral or the underground grotto.)

A large, well-preserved, 12th-century church, St. Anne's is famous for its acoustics. Since I'm all alone in here, I go ahead sing a few bars—and, wow, do I sound good! Those Crusaders made some fine acoustics here! But you wouldn't want those guys in your city. The slaughter of the first Crusade to Jerusalem, in 1099, almost defies description. They killed nearly every man, woman, and child here of every race or religion. Accounts of the time talk about wading knee deep through fresh blood in the streets. One of the challenges facing the conquerors after taking the Holy City was to repopulate it, since so few inhabitants were left alive.


Church of St. Anne

Saladin, who recaptured the city from the "Franks" in 1187, turned this church into a madras rather than sacking it. So maybe he liked the acoustics, too. These days, the "White Fathers," a French order of priests best known for their work in Africa, run the place.

Right behind the church are the Pools of Bethesda, leading down through more layers of time. Originally built a few centuries B.C. to supply water to the Temple, the place is mentioned in the New Testament when Jesus heals a man here; the waters were believed in Roman times to have curative powers, so there were indeed people with infirmities gathered here then. The Romans built an elaborate cistern and aqueduct here, because they were always doing that, they just couldn't help themselves; and then later on, the Byzantines and then the Crusaders built churches here, because ditto.

Now the place is a big and very deep archaeological site, with the eons laid out in a giant jigsaw of stone, grass, crumbling walls, and shadowed crevices. Parts of it look as deep as the underground grotto-shrine just down the street from here. So I cheerfully scramble all over the ruins (you're allowed to), since this is one of my very favorite activities.

Further up the road, thirsty from my exertions, I pause to share a cup of mint tea with my friend Michel, a Palestinian art-and-antiques dealer with a large and elegant shop on the Via Dolorosa. We met when he helped me out on one of the crazier days during Holy Week, when I got trapped among police barricades and couldn't get to the Holy Sepulcher to cover the Holy Fire story. Following his advice, I went through the back streets of the neighborhood, around the crowds, to come out on the other side of the church... only, it turned out, to find myself trapped by more police barricades. (An attempt at crowd control. I got bounced off the stone walls by the cops a couple of times that day, rudely manhandled by some priests, then nearly set on fire by the faithful. I dare dashing war correspondents to come here and cover religion.)


Then, exiting the Old City via the Damascus Gate, I walk up the Nablus Road in East Jerusalem to see the Holy Sepulcher's chief competitor, the Garden of the Tomb.

The Holy Sepulcher was "identified" as the site of Christ's death and resurrection by Queen Helena, the Christian dowager empress of Rome, more than 300 years after it happened. Most of the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa (which street did not exist in Christ's time) were "identified" even later, in the Crusader era.

The rock Gordon identified as Golgotha
Then in the late 19th century, General Charles George Gordon a.k.a. Gordon of Khartoum, a British Protestant, found a rock-cut tomb near a hill that was (sort of) shaped like a skull, just outside the Old City. According to the New Testament, Christ was crucified on Golgotha, "the place of the skull," which was outside the city walls, then placed in a nearby tomb. So Gordon "identified" this place as the site of the crucifixion.

(To clarify for anyone who is confused by now: Historically, no one knows where Christ was sentenced and crucified, other than "Jerusalem." There are various educated guesses about where his sentencing occurred, but they are only guesses. And once you get past the sentencing, the guesswork gets even vaguer. While a fair bit is known about Roman-ruled Jerusalem, the Gospels don't provide good directions to the locations of Christ's final hours, and so they remain a mystery.)

Anyhow, rather than change the location of their long-established church with the Ethiopian priests living on the roof, the Catholics and the various Orthodox sects ignored General Gordon's discovery. But at Gordon's new site, Anglicans established a lovely garden (they were English, they couldn't help themselves), and it is now a Protestant place of worship—particularly popular with American Baptists, if the groups I encountered there are a typical example of the pilgrims who pray at the garden.

In fact, archaeologists believe the rock-cut tomb here is from the 5th century A.D., at least four hundred years after Christ's time. (Also a century after Queen Helena's time.) Nonetheless, the Garden of the Tomb is a tranquil place—which cannot easily be said of the Holy Sepulcher—and many Westerners find it more conducive to prayer and meditation than that famous and much bickered-over Crusader church inside the city walls.

And, once again, I'm right back where I started: at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. How does this keep happening?

(One more clarification for the confused: If the Gospels say that Golgotha was outside the city walls, you're wondering how the Holy Sepulcher, in the heart of the Old City, could be the place, right? Well, the walls have changed dramatically over the eons. In fact, the original Jerusalem, King David's city, isn't even inside the city walls anymore; it's now outside the Dung Gate. Anyhow, although there are challenges to the theory, many archaeologists think the physical evidence of archaeological digs in the Christian Quarter strongly suggests that the site of the Holy Sepulcher was outside the walls in Christ's era.)

Until next time,

May 7, 2006