Finding Holiness in the Holy Land

Special travel essay from our Oct. 21 issue.

When I was planning my trip, I got caught up in majestic images of Israel — Jerusalem’s impressively steep hills; Nazareth’s enormous Basilica of the Annunciation; the gnarled, 2,000-year-old olive trees still miraculously growing in the Garden of Gethsemane; and the blessed Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

I didn’t envision a man atop the Mount of the Beatitudes shilling bottles of "Cana wedding wine." Or helicopters constantly buzzing overhead.

And so, two days into my trip to the Holy Land, instead of being on a prayerful path, I found myself increasingly irritated and dismayed by the commercialization of the holy sites and the often irreverent behavior of other tourists. I was in the north, in Galilee. Surely once I got to Jerusalem, things would be different.


The Old City: Day 1

I’d set aside two days to explore Jerusalem’s Old City, which actually stands just outside the area where the Jews lived in Jesus’ day. Its formidable walls — which many tourists assume were around when Jesus was alive — were built 500 years ago by the famous Ottoman ruler Suleiman.

The Old City encompasses the spot where Jesus died on the cross and was buried; in his day, it would have been the countryside. Today, it’s a bustling city, and its Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim quarters shelter some of the holiest sites for the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.

I entered through the main Jaffa Gate. Knots of people were scurrying in all directions, and there was an electricity in the air. How could there not be? The golden Dome of the Rock — a shrine placed at the spot where Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad was taken up to heaven — blazed in the morning sun. Nearby, the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, rose toward the sky. Initially a simple retaining wall Herod built outside the Second Temple, it became over time the spot where Jewish people mourned the Second Temple’s destruction in the year 70.

And zigzagging through the Old City’s opposite end is the Via Dolorosa, a path representing the route Jesus took as he carried the cross to Golgotha. The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which marks the spot where Jesus was crucified and died, then buried and resurrected.

Approaching the Western Wall, I saw a panhandler. Shocked, I left and wound my way through the Jewish Quarter, passing numerous armed patrols. Why were there so many soldiers? An Arab youth walked toward me, waved his arms in front of my face in a dramatic flourish, and said, "I will kill you!" before walking on. Unsettled, I moved on.

In the Christian Quarter, a man scurried down a side street, and then emptied a baggie of what appeared to be urine into the sewer.

Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a woman posed for a camera, giggling as she pretended to be crucified on a wooden cross set against its exterior. Inside the church, after waiting an hour to see Jesus’ tomb, the priest in charge barked at me to hurry up when it was finally my turn to step inside.

What in the world was going on? Nothing seemed sacred. I wanted to sit down and cry.


The Old City: Day 2

The next morning, despite my negative experience, I felt a strong urge to return.

The minute I walked through the Jaffa Gate, the heavens opened up, and it began to pour.

It was January — winter — and, within minutes, I was soaked and freezing. My fingers stiffened, and I could barely keep a grip on my camera or my bag.

Turning into the Muslim Quarter, I spied two armed guards huddled in a corner, warming their hands over a small space heater. Seeing me shaking with cold, they waved me over to join them around the heater’s red-hot coils.

As my fingers thawed, a Bible passage popped into my head: "It was cold, so the servants and guards had built a charcoal fire and were standing around it, warming themselves. So Peter went over and stood with them, warming himself" (John 18:18).

Why was I expecting a subdued place full of people reverently winding their way to and from shrines? Jerusalem’s entire history is one of conflict, including in the Bible.

What I was experiencing was a modern-day version of what Jesus lived. Wasn’t that actually more meaningful?

My mindset changed, I now noticed all of the respectful tourists, the helpful residents who guided me through the confusing streets and the kind shopkeepers — like Fadi Hamedian, a proud Armenian Christian, who ushered me into his shop and out of the rain.

Handing me a cup of hot tea, he observed, "Some visitors see the guards with their guns and think it’s dangerous. It’s not, but they’re afraid to stop in the shops, have a drink of tea and talk to us.

"I hope one day God will make something happen to help us all out."

Undoubtedly, a 2,000-year-old prayer.

Melanie Radzicki McManus writes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.


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