Saturday, May 19, 2007

Holy Sepulchre

Somehow it never happened until now. Today we drove to the old city of Jerusalem and this time, apart from visiting the Western Wall, for the first time in my life, after so many missed opportunities: I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
My old schoolmaster would have been proud of me, maybe hoping my soul is yet to be recovered for Christendom, but no such luck.
Just as the Kotel looks to me like a mere bunch of stones, the church of the HS looks like a dilapidated, anachronistic smudge. If I liked being there, it is only because it spoke to me on whole different level -- nothing religious or even spiritual.

What a weird place it is. A dark, amorphous dungeon, with numerous alleyways and niches and shady parlors on worn flagstones and filled with tourists, gazing pilgrims and the odd priest looking more like a prop from an Indiana Jones film than a proper priest. For example there was this crooked, young looking, skinny priest, with a long black beard and a crocheted black head garment. He had set up shop with a huge host of religious trumpery, almost impossible to make out, for there was so little light in his cramped alcove. He was devoutly praying in the way of a religious Jew from a prayer book with Arab script.
An Armenian priest with black robes and upside down top hat was energetically managing the entries into the Tomb itself, while chewing tobacco, or otherwise jawing and spitting about. Some pilgrims looked distinctly out of place, such as the Russian lady with flashing red outfit befitting a brothel, rather than a Church, or Dutch pedestrians, seated on the stairs in a yogi pose.

This looks nothing like the kind of Christianity I grew up with. Well, I know that, I am prepared for that. Never, when I visit some Christian site in Israel, I find light and sober Calvinist churches. If it looks like anything I once associated with something proper, it is the Roman Catholic stuff you find for example in Nazareth and on Mount Tabor. Over the years I have come to know also a little bit better the Greek style, not just in Israel, also as a result of journeying Greece. However, this looked not even much like that. The odd icon, perhaps, but it was all too dark and dirty. It was Armenian mostly -- with the Armenian script also dominating the walls around the tomb. And I had the strange praying priest pegged as a Syrian.

I am probably not going to be moved either, if it would have been Calvinists running the show, simply because I have strayed from the path too much. Apparently I am not susceptible to the mumbo-jumbo that is attached to Holy Sites. What struck me though and had me fascinated was how thoroughly Un-European this site is. If you think Christianity is a European faith, look at this holiest of holiest of it and you see nothing of it. Well, I suppose the majority of Christians aren't even Europeans, but if so, they are Africans, Asians, South-Americans, but this was not their atmosphere either. This was the atmosphere of where the Church originated: the Middle-East, or more precisely, where the Church as an institution originated: the Eastern Roman Empire. I felt as if I were in Constantinople before 1453 or even before 1099, before the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. That is what fascinated me.