The Christian Bazaar

Damascus Gate, a short walk from our hotel, is the most heavily used portal into the Old City. We plunged in at mid-morning.


Although you can break off the main artery and explore a quiet, unmarked "ascent"…

…in order to make progress in your sightseeing, you must rub shoulders with multitudes and at the same time hold off the merchants who beseech you from both sides of the narrow street. This is Christian Quarter Road, basically an extended souk (market). Almost all of the Old City is closed to cars and trucks.


Jerusalem has known two intense periods of Christian hegemony: the Byzantine period (from the 4th to 7th centuries) and the Crusader period (in the 12th century). Here is a model of the Byzantine city, with its blank and expectant Temple Mount, expectant because Jesus promised that when he came back, he would rebuild the (not yet ruined) Temple in just three days. So the Mount was left empty. Literal-minded Christians are still with us today.


Be that as it may, our goal was to see as many of the holy places of Christianity as possible.


The modest courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre Church. Some call this the most important site in Christianity. The Sepulchre Church is actually a conglomerate of rivals, all of them — the Greek, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox; the Roman Catholics, Copts, and Ethiopian Christians — seeking to preside over the burial place of Jesus.


The Rotunda of the Sepulchre Church, with altars on top of altars. After the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, his mother, Helena, swooped into Jerusalem. She "rediscovered" most of the important sites that are mentioned in the New Testament. Today both Golgotha and Christ's Tomb are rather miraculously ensconced within this one grand building.


The Catholic altar at Golgotha.


A Greek Orthodox priest mans the entrance to Christ's Tomb. At the top of the picture you see part of the line of waiting pilgrims. They are speaking foreign tongues. When your turn comes, you duck inside (no photos allowed), touch the cracked slab where his body was said to be laid, wrestle briefly with your thoughts and emotions, and are whisked out again.


Another view of the Sepulchre Church courtyard.


I haven't mentioned that feral cats abound in Jerusalem. This one is in the garden of St. Anne's Church.


The interior of St. Anne's Church, a Romanesque structure from the Crusader era, which has been renovated. The acoustics of the stone vaulting are fabulous, and probably are world-renowned, because two different pilgrim choirs gave impromptu performances while we were inside.


Pagan baths and Byzantine grottos have been unearthed at the site of St. Anne's. The oldest stuff in Jerusalem is overtopped everywhere by the less-old. Paradoxically, the newest structures, being most complete, create the strongest religious impressions.


The traditional location of the Garden of Gesthemane is at the base of the Mount of Olives. Those are olive trees in the foreground. At upper right is the walled-off Golden Gate, discussed earlier.


Now the view is reversed. From the Old City you look across to the Mount of Olives. The Basilica of the Agony, a 20th-century church having a long pedigree, is at lower left. The artwork both inside and out emphasizes Christ's painful contemplation of his fate and his betrayal by Judas. The Church of St. Mary Magdalene, center, is Russian Orthodox. We missed the visiting hours there.


Detail at the Basilica of the Agony.


The Garden Tomb, just north of the Old City. In the 19th century a British general argued that this old quarry was the actual site of Golgotha, which meant that the Golgotha (a.k.a. Calvary or the Crucifixion site) that was proclaimed at the Holy Sepulchre Church was the wrong one. Golgotha means Place of the Skull, and as anyone can see, the eyes and nose of a skull are apparent in the rock. Though experts demur, the Garden Tomb draws reverent crowds.


The point is — who's to say? Is this really the Apostle Peter's Prison? Who knew that St. Peter was even in prison? This place isn't listed in the guidebook. I'm tired of the guidebook anyway. After a long hot day covering the sites, your credulity may be strained.


The wrought iron gate at St. James's Cathedral, in the Armenian Quarter. The interior of the church — high and dark, devoid of pews, full of Oriental rugs — was open only in snatches. On our last day we came at 3 p.m. and discovered a service. It featured two dozen young seminarians chanting classical Armenian and lots of incense. No pictures were permitted, nor was there to be any untoward crossing of the legs during the mass.


Courtyard of St. James's Cathedral.


Orthodox Christians in the Armenian Quarter.


St. Mark's Church (Syrian Orthodox) has the feeling of a boutique church. It was small and soothing. The icons were pleasingly arranged. The priest had a long, gray beard and a wise, kind face.

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