Monday, June 13, 2005


There is an exhaustingly long line of cars awaiting to pass the last checkpoint into Jerusalem. After traveling through the erstwhile desert, now irrigated and blooming, owing the determined efforts of the kibbutzim to coax the land of Canaan to produce milk and honey once more, the starkness of Jerusalem is marked. The stark limestone walls of the Old City seem to recede inwards to themselves, seeking to enclose their weariness and their problems within, while at the same time angrily defying the immensity of the totally blue sky above.
We put up at an immense sandstone castle replete with turrents and gargoyles, a remnant of the Crusader occupation. Now the castle is a hostel run for pilgrims by the Catholic Church. It has been a long drive along the desolate Negev desert route, skirting the absoluteness of the Dead Sea with the Jordanian border always to our right and some of us are rather ebullient. Immediately, the slender black-cloaked figure of the Catholic archbishop glides from its lair behind one of the immense Crusader pillars and suddenly hisses before us: "Be quiet!" and then in a softer tone, narrowing his serpentine eyes even further "Where are you from?" We tell the good prelate that we are Orthodox pilgrims from Australia and entreat him to pray for us. "Ah, Greek Orthodox," he hisses, withdrawing his scaly hand from mine. "Pray for you, I don't think so."
The good prelate's hesitation does not stop him from welcoming pilgrims of all persuasions to enjoy the hospitality of the castle. Nor does his forbidding slithering around the grounds perturb the most august Orthodox archbishops of Bostra, Timotheos and of Captioliada, Hesychios from taking it in turns to sit with the Orthodox pilgrims in the hotel lobby, gauge public opinion, share gossip and start a few rumours. No other place in the world can remind the Australian traveler so much of his own seat of democracy, Parliament House in Canberra.
We walk through the bleached and unexpressive Jaffa Gate, the entrance to the Christian quarter of the Old City. Passing by the Greek Catholic Cathedral, we sit at an Arab coffee shop, sip aniseed flavoured Greek coffee and watch corpulent Orthodox pilgrims from Greece and Cyprus push past the immense and crumbling tower of David, haggling and bargaining for petty cigarette lighters and handkerchiefs that they would never dream of purchasing back home. They are invariably dressed in multi-coloured shirts whose gaudiness scream their western origin and tracksuit bottoms that are at least one size too small, causing their not insignificant paunches and posteriors to groan in perpetual struggle for freedom. They beg, cajole, swear and shout, gesticulating wildly to their friends. In the end, the bargain is made and both sides smile at the triumph of the free market, while the Greek purchaser exclaims: "Πω, πω γυφτιά." "You know Greeks and Arabs are exactly the same," the coffee shop owner exclaims, in broken Greek, "except that we Arabs are much more polite." He offers us another coffee on the house and he talks to us about the poor impression that pilgrims have made on him. "The Greeks are loud and rude, especially at Easter. They strut around as if they own the place. Now we have the Russians. They are quiet and pious. You see them praying silently and waiting to venerate the tomb of Christ without pushing of shoving, for hours. Actually," he continues, turning his inquisitive eye to the well-turned buttocks of a young Greek tourist, "I don't trust the Russians. At least you Greeks are like us, we understand each other. But when the Russians take over the Patriarchate, I don't know.." It is impossible to spend five minutes within the walls of the Old City and not be caught within the ever-tightening net of intrigue and rumour-mongering. "After all, that is why their president Putin is here for Easter no?" the shop-owner offers, "the Israelis will give the Patriarchate to the Russians after what has happened and then no more Arab Jerusalem. Until now the Greeks have kept the city Arab because we are one people, Greek Orthodox."
As we get up to walk away, we are approached by a burly, heavily bearded man in an open shirt. In a polarised world where everything and everyone is categorized and has their proper place, it is quite difficult to classify him. "Hello," he says and scratches his ever disappearing beneath the folds of his overhanging stomach, crotch. This seems to have formed the catalyst for some kind of chemical reaction within his brain that caused him to fire off an innumerable amount of questions: "Where are you from? Where are you going? How long have you been here? Do you know that man in the coffee-shop? What were you talking about? Did he ask you to do something for him? Who told you to visit this shop?" It finally dawns on us that this is either an extremely incompetent incognito member of the Israeli police or one who is about to retire and can afford being sloppy. "Look mate," I advance, in broad Australian, "we aren't gonna answer any more questions until you do up your zipper."
We move on past the infinite narrow streets, crowded with stalls selling anything from incense to drums, to t-shirts reading "Free Palestine." The Israeli police presence in asphyxiating, a reminder that this most holy of places is also one of the most volatile. They glare unsmilingly at tourists and vendors alike. It is this area that ex-Patriarch Eirenaios was said to have leased almost perpetually to Jewish investors. The Arabs, already an increasingly oppressed minority within the bounds of the Old City, are up in arms. They view their half of Old Jerusalem, that is the half that was taken from Jordan by the Israelis in the 1967 War as the capital of a future Palestinian State. Now they are slowly being pushed out through the absence of employment, restrictions on building in the Old City and the tantalizingly high prices Jewish investors are willing to pay for a foothold within the Christian quarter. Passing through Bethlehem a few days later and seeing both the Great Concrete Wall of Shame enclosing its hapless Palestinian inhabitants within, the importance of every single centimetre of land to them becomes harshly obvious. Graffiti written on the walls of this imprisoned community reads: 'Welcome to the New Auschwitz.'
The manifestation of the Orthodox presence in Jerusalem is in inverse proportion to the power it wields and the controversies that it has recently sparked. It is only the invariable picture or relief of St George on the faceless limestone buildings, particularly loved by the Palestinians as a 'native' of the area that demurely denotes the existence of an Orthodox family within. These buildings can be deceiving. Miniscule doors in the façade open the way to a labyrinth of dirty, time-blackened laneways, leading either to more sagging Christian houses or out of the way places of pilgrimage housing a small church. These are invariably always indicated by the plethora of Palestinian children playing ball directly outside them.
Similarly, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the last of the four ancient Patriarchates of Orthodoxy, is unassumingly hidden beyond a thick, yellowing wall, a welcoming Greek flag and the red and white flag of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre. Within it lies the Church of St Constantine and Helen, a typical example of the tasteless depravity that ensured upon the marriage of the solemn Byzantine art, with gaudy and tarty Baroque. Upon its roof one can easily look down into the square of the Holy Sepulchre below and indeed, a narrow stairway links that most holiest of Christian shrines with the Patriarchate, allowing the Patriarch of Jerusalem easy access without having to suffer the adoring mobs or lately, those howling for his blood. The Patriarchate houses a vast array of Byzantine and Ottoman manuscripts as well as other historically important artifacts but there are too many people, so little time to request an inspection of them and the few guards and monks that are around are increasingly frustrated at the pulsating, relentless antics of the mob, who push, chatter and scream as they try to jostle for a good position. The Patriarch will conduct a service here in three hours time. Extricating oneself from between the imposing bosoms of two Cypriot ladies sporting mustaches that George Donikian would surely envy, is exhausting and we try to make away along the narrow cobbled paths, ignoring the entreaties of the Arab vendors to buy more souvenirs. (Indeed it is a great testament to our enterprising way of life that Greek-Australian pilgrims will stop and peruse and haggle at every single souvenir stall no matter how inane or tasteless the goods proffered actually are.)
Unwittingly, though we later ascribe it to Providence, we traverse the entire Via Dolorosa, the route taken by Jesus as he bore his cross to Golgotha. It is hard to imagine the layout of the city in those times, though each station of the cross is marked with a marker, a suitable shrine and a tourist stall. What is not hard to imagine however, is the hatred and emotion of the crowd for this seems to have been passed on through the ages, as we discover when we are turned away at the door of a shrine held by the Greek Catholic Church, while Catholic pilgrims are admitted. Our enthusiasm unabated, we venture unwittingly into the Islamic quarter, only to be turned back by a Falasha Israeli policeman who asks: "Are you guys crazy? Do you want to be killed?"
Finally we make it to the Holy Sepulchre, the multi-faith church built over the spot where the Crucifixion and Resurrection took place. We want to pray at the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb of Christ before nightfall, yet this proves impossible. Once inside, we push past the hordes of Russian pilgrims, slowly making their way to the shrine in a dreamlike trance and join the critical mass of Greek pilgrims pushing and heaving their way in. Suddenly, a piercing shriek cuts their air like a damascene scimitar. On tiptoes, we see an aged Greek monk, his face purple and twisted with rage grabbing hapless pilgrims as they try to enter the tomb and push them into the crowd. As dozens of old ladies topple like ten-pins and the Russians look on in wonder, the monk shrills: "Get back! Get back! I will tell you when to come in! I will tell you. You idiots, what are you doing there?" As he sends another ten elderly Orthodox ten-pins sprawling into the crowd, he marches to a doorway cut into the recess of the rotunda encircling the tomb. The doorway, as opposed to the wall next to it, which belongs to the Armenians, belongs to the Greek Orthodox. An elderly Coptic couple, dressed in the peasant robes of the fellahin are resting there. The monk lurches forward and wrenches them from their seats. "Go away!" he screams, ignoring the entreaties of the Coptic monk who tugs at his robe, trying to explain. Having finally consented to having the terrified couple dragged away by the equally terrified Coptic monk ,the Greek monk, consumed with the fire of his mission to protect at all costs the tomb from the heretics and non-Greek power lusters, turns, views the steady stream of people entering the tomb behind his back and screaming "Nooooooo!!!" launches himself into their midst once more…
Silently, we make our way along the Jaffa Gate, back to the bastion of hospitality which awaits us. As we trace the fragmented limestone walls of the city, three Orthodox Jewish teenagers are engaged in pushing a young Arab boy against the wall, smiling sarcastically. They stop as soon as soon as they see a Greek priest approach and the boy spying his chance, hides under his robes and they walk away.
That night, as the multitude of pilgrims prepares itself for Holy Week, pushing and shoving along the streets in the face of the sarcastic, sun-glassed (even ant night) stare of the Israeli police, I sit in a lonely Armenian restaurant entitled Yerevan, sip hibiscus tea while listening to countless stories of the Armenian genocide and wonder why everyone searches here for a God they have long forgotten.
First published in NKEE on 13 June 2005