Tuesday, February 21, 2006


"I have plucked the finest flowers of the unmown meadow and worked them into a row which I now offer to you", wrote John Moschos, as he began his tales of the holy men of seventh-century Palestine and Egypt in about 587 AD. Moschos was one of the last itinerant pilgrims to traverse a Near East that was still predominantly Christian. His book, 'The Spiritual Meadow' is not only a compendious exposition of Christian ethics but most importantly, an invaluable, closely written snapshot of the perpetually morphing and shifting Near East.
Undeniably, Near East has exercised a fascination for all Greeks. Pythagoras was said to have roamed around Egypt and Babylonia, while not a few Greek armies, notably those of Alexander and the Hellenistic Kings entrenched themselves in the region for centuries. It is therefore not surprising that traditionally Greeks referred to the region as 'our East,' «η καθ’ ημάς Ανατολή» for it is as inextricably linked to our people's history as the Greek mainland. It helps of course that this connection was further entrenched by the region's passing into the sway of the Christian Byzantine Empire, whereupon both Egypt and Palestine, owing to their harsh and rugged terrain, gave rise to monasticism, the Coptic and Syriac fathers of the desert being the direct spiritual ancestors of all Orthodox monks today and despite the trials and tribulations of heresy, infighting, the Arab invasion, the current paranoid and claustrophobic conditions in which Christians must live in the Near East, and the behaviour of some its hierarchs, this region is still considered one of the greatest supports and pillars of Orthodoxy. Indeed, in the case of Egypt, it houses one of the fast growing Orthodox churches in the world.
Despite the loss of the region to invading Arab armies, the Greeks, through religion and commerce (items that go hand in hand not only in our world but the Levantine domains that we so seamlessly fit into) have always maintained close links with the Near East. Indeed, Egypt housed a Greek community comparable in size to our own and far greater in influence, importance and cultural attainment right up until the nationalism ensuing from the Suez War, caused their expulsion. Palestine too boasted a significant Greek community, though this has now largely been denuded. Interestingly enough, most of those that were caused to leave their homes in these lands made their way to Australia, so memories and longings for the Near East are part of the underlying nostalgic substructure of our community.
Much as Muslims must make a pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, at least once in their lives, so too do Christians feel the necessity of viewing the lands where the greatest events of the Bible took place. A pilgrim to the Holy Land, especially one that immerses himself in the Jordan River, is invariably and imitation of Islamic terminology, knows as a Hatzi and every year significant numbers of members of the Greek community trundle themselves off to the Holy Land, in search of solace and inspiration.
Enter Spiros Caras, of Caras Tours, all round good guy, super-hatzi and protector of pilgrims. With his trademark European stylish attire and his never ceasing smooth banter, his job, for the past twenty years or so, has been to cajole, coax, muster and perambulate pilgrims around the Holy Land, with an enthusiasm that, if one considers the high temperatures coupled with the mature ages and often short tempers of his flock, is positively saintly.
I had the inordinate privilege of accompanying Spiros to the Holy Land last year, witnessing this remarkable Aussie explorer in Gucci first hand. I was soon disabused of any preconceptions that I may have had, both about my fellow pilgrims and my tour guide, for Spiros Caras is no ordinary guide concerning himself simply with logistics. He is a philosopher, friend, and fierce intellectual adversary, able to give his charges enough latitude to make the annual pilgrimage to Egypt and Jerusalem a true voyage of discovery, spiritually as well as corporeally. Most importantly, his infectious enthusiasm and love for the region permits him to break down the barriers between fellow travelers, whether these be social, political or age based, uniting everyone with a zeal for the unknown and a sense of awe.
There were only two of us 'youngsters' accompanying the pilgrimage last year, though generally there is a good intergenerational mix and rather than finding ourselves in a 'retirement village' as friends speculated prior to our departure, what we found was that despite anyone's best efforts, the very atmosphere of the region, one's hushed reverence and awe in treading within places so ancient or so holy, immediately and imperceptibly caused every one of us to meld together, the crucible of Spiros' enthusiasm and care, coupled with sights so breathtaking as the pyramids, or so emotionally energizing as the Tomb of Christ, burning away all unnecessary divides.
I will never forget some of the cryptic conversations I shared with Spiros while climbing Mt Sinai, the contents of which had all the poetry and wisdom of the Holy Fathers. I don’t believe I have ever bared my soul so easily to anyone before that anabasis. Nor will I ever be able to understand how he could so dexterously channel the emotions of his pilgrims depending on their attitudes: pious and grave to some, humourous and rouguish to others but underlying everything else, a deep sense of humility and a yearning to transcend the corporeal and softly touch the spiritual.
With ever-flexible Spiros assuming the form of an indulgent guardian taking his charges on excursion, we were able to 'develop' the set itinerary further and explore the backstreets of Cairo, the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. I will never forget how, while on the road from Jericho and an exhausting hike up the cliff to Sarantaporos monastery, I expressed an interest in the monastery of St Chrysostomos. "Let's go," Spiros remarked, without batting an eyelid. "If you want to go there, let's go." Now that's what I call a tour guide. No useless facts, no hurried explanations or restricted viewing. Of primary importance for Spiros is that his fellow pilgrims get exactly what they want out of the tour:
"There is plenty to see. We visit Cairo, the monastery of St Catherine's at Mt Sinai, cross the Negev desert into Israel, skirt the Dead Sea, spend Easter in Jerusalem, visit Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jericho, the Jordan River and even take a trip to the north, to Lake Tiberias where Jesus walked on water. Not bad for thirteen days. At the end of the day, there is something for everyone."
"Well what's in it for you?" I want to ask him. And then I see him, walking stick in hand, traipsing through the streets of Jerusalem, pointing out key items of interest, rescuing one lady from the clutches of a persistent street vendor, all the while saying: "Isn't this wonderful? Isn't this absolutely fantastic? This is brilliant! Where do you want to go next? Oh my God, this is unbelievable!" and I desist. For with Spiros, we see not only the holiest of sites. We track the decline but also the tenacity of Hellenism in the old neighbourhoods of Cairo and marvel at how culturally indistinguishable we are to an open-hearted Palestinan spice vendor. All those who would assume the role of John Moschos have a hidden agenda, though it is invariably benign and the blossoms of their meadow never lose their scent. In Spiros' case, the connection with Moschos is all the more poignant as it is in his days that the diminution of the Christian population of the Near East that began in Moschos' time, is entering its final chapter.
It was on the West Bank, outside Bethlehem, while perusing the walls of shame erected by the Israeli government to keep out the Palestinians, that revelation came: "This place is never static," he told me. "It always changes but its primary significance remains. You feel things here that you could never feel in sleepy Melbourne, or in Greece. It is like all these dormant emotions well up inside you and then, once you get here, they escape through every pore possible. I have to come here every year and I have to share these experiences with others. I will never forget how during the intifada, we had to cancel one of the tours because things were out of hand, I was crushed." His face lights up. "Come and see where Jesus was born. And after that, let's have a drink. Isn't this something? Isn’t this absolutely fabulous?"
A few months after our return, I pass by Lonsdale Street, and enter a familiar shop. There ensconced between Greek objects d'art and various other kitsch items is a much dejected and deflated Spiros Caras. "This is no life," he spits out in pure Hellenistic fashion. "When are we going to Jerusalem again?"
Caras Tours are located at 189 Lonsdale St Tel. 9663 3844.
First published in NKEE on 20 February 2006