Mugged by God: adventures with pilgrims

Christians have been going to Jerusalem since the Middle Ages. Today's pilgrims find it hard not to take sides.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The urge to be a pilgrim is older than Christianity. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians made long journeys to visit oracles and temples; the sun-worshippers of Latin America had their sacred sites. Britons saw Stonehenge as an earthly focus for a power beyond human experience and understanding. Some still do, and tussle with the police for the privilege of standing among the stones at summer solstice each year.

The rest of us may associate the word pilgrim with Chaucer, Bunyan or that plodding old hymn about being valiant that we sang in school assembly, but the instinct for pilgrimage remains strong. Most of the millions who shuffle through Graceland every year to see where Elvis lived and died are tourists who leave untouched, and go in search of Tennessee's less morbid distractions, but some are genuine pilgrims who believe there is personal or even spiritual benefit to be had by visiting that modern shrine. There were pilgrims among those who laid flowers for Diana, or who bought a ticket to be near her final resting place at Althorp.

Pilgrims are found in all the major faiths, partly because when you grow up under the influence of a religion that started long ago in a distant land, the urge to make a physical connection with it can be powerful. There are thousands of holy places, but only one may claim to be the epicentre of pilgrimage, where the faithful of Christianity, Judaism and Islam go to pray at sacred sites within a few hundred yards of each other: Jerusalem.

Last week, during Ramadan, pilgrims jammed the streets around the gleaming golden Dome of the Rock, the third holy place in Islam after Mecca and Medina. Inside, under the dome, a young Muslim girl, her head shrouded in black, stood facing east. We were almost cheek to cheek, but I might as well have been invisible. Her features were sharpened by daytime fasting, and her eyes were fierce - she was awed by this holy place, feeding on the spectacle. Close by was an elderly lady in white, perhaps her grandmother, making rapid movements with her hands as she mumbled prayers, eyes half closed. The black tights stretched across her arthritic toes were laddered. The official hour for prayer was approaching, and soon all non-believers would be asked to leave; but for the moment, white Europeans and Americans shuffled behind each other, single file through the masses, shoeless and mild.

For once, the tour parties were quiet and respectful, overpowered by the intensity of the atmosphere. The flat white rock behind a wooden balustrade had been sacred for so long and to so many: it was said to be the place where Abraham, the father of Judaism and Islam, brought his son to be sacrificed; where the Holy of Holies stood in Solomon's temple; where the curtain was torn in two on the day of crucifixion; and where Muhammad ascended to heaven. A poster on the wall, below ornate gilded decoration, showed a green Islamic banner with its pole spearing the national flags of Britain and America.

Outside, under a cloudless sky, we walked down to the ancient limestone of the Western Wall, below the Dome. The most holy place in Judaism was formerly known as the Wailing Wall, the last remaining fragment of the second temple otherwise destroyed in AD70. Men in black hats, long black coats and matching beards rocked and beat time with their feet as they recited the psalms. Younger men in prayer shawls passed Torah scrolls around in bar-mitzvah ceremonies, while their women watched and took photos from outside the enclosure. One teenager with a phylactery tied to his forehead wore Israeli army combat gear. His tallith shawl only half covered an automatic rifle.

Beyond, over the rooftops of the walled city, was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Christ's crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The traditional site of the empty tomb, most sacred space of Christianity, is enclosed within a basilica whose every last inch was precisely divided between the jealous clergy of six denominations. Most of their congregations fled years ago. Just before dawn I had watched a Coptic priest in a black skullcap stand in that echoing church, chanting his liturgy to no one but God. Now that the sun was high the place would be tight with tourists, pilgrims and their guides.

Jerusalem seemed busy, but soon it will be suffocating. Estimates vary, but up to 13 million people are expected to visit the state of Israel over the next two years. The end of the millennium (and the world, according to some fundamentalist Christians) is drawing people to the sacred places. Rumours are already flying: some say there will not be enough hotel beds, staff or time to take care of everyone; others suggest that nowhere near that many people have booked, and that the Israeli government - plagued by economic problems and its often violent territorial dispute with the Palestinians - is pulling out all the stops to attract wealthy visitors. Many will be American Evangelicals, who support the Zionist cause.

Not all will be welcome. While we were there, the authorities deported the Concerned Christians, a cult from Colorado accused of plotting bloodshed. Their leader had predicted he would die on the streets of Jerusalem, and rise again three days later. Perhaps he was suffering from what psychiatrists in the city call Jerusalem Syndrome - the belief that you are a Biblical character, like the student found wandering in the desert dressed in strange rags, who thought he was John the Baptist. Other visitors will want to hasten the Second Coming by blowing up the Dome of the Rock so that the temple can be restored in fulfilment of Biblical prophecy.

"Fanaticism is a greater danger to the Christian presence in the Holy Land than Muslims or Jews," the Bishop of Jerusalem told me. The Right Rev Riah Abu El-Assal represents many of the 160,000 Christians in the Holy Land, most of whom are Arabs. His community is diminishing fast, and at present rates of decline will vanish completely within 40 years. "Millennium fanatics harm the cause, because outsiders see them as being the same as us. Then again, many of those who pour into this country on pilgrimage have nothing to do with the Church here."

Thankfully, none of the tour party I was with seemed to believe he was the Messiah, or expected the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to bring morning coffee. They were ordinary Anglican clergy (and four bishops), who just wanted to see the holy sites, meet a few local believers, and return a year later with their own groups from home. They were part of Pilgrim 2000, a project which intends to take 2,000 British Christians to the Holy Land next year while raising pounds 500,000 for welfare projects. The organiser, McCabe Travel, will spice the usual itinerary with visits to the West Bank and Gaza to meet indigenous Christians, the "living stones". In practice, that means Palestinians. By the end of our week together my instinctively conservative companions had become politicised, transformed into passionate supporters of the Palestinian cause. They had discovered that it was impossible to be a pilgrim in the Holy Land without taking sides.

If you're going to carry a cross through the crowded streets of Old Jerusalem in imitation of Christ, it ought to be so heavy that it hurts. A local photographer had lent one to our little party while he took pictures and we inched along the Via Dolorosa, but it was embarrassingly light. At the fifth station, on a street corner, where Simon of Cyrene was supposed to have been coerced into helping Jesus carry the cross, I looked up and saw T-shirts for sale. One bore a picture of a jet fighter like those used in the Gulf. "America don't worry," it said, "Israel is behind you." The vendor was an Arab.

What was I doing carrying a cross anyway? Through years as a teenage Charismatic, a sceptic, then a hopeful half-believer, I had stayed away from the Holy Land, thinking it would be too tacky and dangerous. Now that I had come - not, initially, as a pilgrim but as an observer - I found that it was both those things, but also affecting, at surprising moments: the sunlight playing on water and stone at the Pool of Bethesda, the desolation of the Judaean wilderness, the quiet of the Sea of Galilee when the engine of our boat was cut.

The landscape which seemed so alien at first was actually familiar, by proxy, as the source of so much imagery in Western literature and thought, the inspiration for all kinds of art, from icons through pre-Raphaelite paintings to post-Christian movies like The Last Temptation of Christ. I had packed the soundtrack to the latter with my Walkman, as a secret defence against piety. The Anglicans had their own way of breaking the spell: as we floated on the calm sea, enveloped by beauty and silence, they sang "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind".

"Some of the details may be totally mythical," the Bishop of Bangor told me on the bus that day. He had been asked whether it mattered if the sites we visited were the real, historic ones or only designated - as our guide often suggested - "according to tradition". Sometimes there were several alternatives, all taking visitors and making money. The gospel accounts of Jesus's birth had been written by people who believed in his resurrection and wanted to describe a new Moses, a new David, said the bishop, whose name was Barry Morgan. "That doesn't worry me, particularly. There has always been a subtle interplay in Christianity between the historical core and the interpretation put on it."

What then, I asked him, was the difference between a pilgrim in the Holy Land and a Thomas Hardy enthusiast in Wessex? "That's a difficult question. Let's not mince words, lots of people will have saved up hard to come here because they see it as strengthening their faith. Although they may not believe that the events happened in the exact spot where they are saying their prayers, they do believe that they are in touch with something real here, and that means an enormous amount to them." Like any good Protestant, he felt holy sites meant less than living faith. "If you're leading a tour you've got to try to get people to realise that it's not just a personal ego trip, making them feel good, but ask what difference it makes to the kind of life one leads. That's where I think the Palestinian question comes in."

While some of us were walking the Stations of the Cross, the bishop and others visited a refugee camp in Gaza. "It is perfectly possible to come to this country and not realise the enormous struggle that's going on here now. As a Christian one has to be concerned about that. You can't say, `Well, I say my prayers, I read my Bible, it's not my problem.' That's pure escapism, and religious escapism is the worst kind of idolatry."

The message was given dramatic reinforcement on Sunday morning when we drove to a Christian village on the West Bank to celebrate the Eucharist. A 12-year-old girl sang a song about the innocent lives lost in the Intifada, and the preacher was Desmond Tutu. The former Archbishop of Cape Town was on a private visit to meet Yasser Arafat, members of the Israeli government and his friend Bishop Riah. Short of the Second Coming, no other speaker could have been received with more excitement by that congregation. Tutu looked tired and old, but he electrified the tiny chapel with a sermon that drew a clear if unspoken parallel between the suffering of blacks in his homeland and the Palestinians. "I told my people, `These others might think that you are nothing. They may trample on your dignity with hobnailed boots, but know that God loves you with a love that will not let you go.' " Then he turned to Bishop Riah and said: "Our God. Your God. The same yesterday, today, forever."

The dresses of the angels on the tree outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem were dusty and bedraggled. They had been put up for President Clinton's visit in December. We bent low to pass through the tiny door of the church, built that way centuries ago to stop vandals on horseback, and waited while a service was concluded in the tiny grotto under the altar. This was the cave where Jesus was born - according to tradition. The mournful sound of Armenian liturgy sung by an elderly priest leaked out and upwards to us, with the cold scent of incense. When he had finished, and the grotto had been cleaned, we were allowed in, brushing past thick velvet curtains by the light of 48 lamps. A silver star on the ground marked the place where Christ came into the world. People knelt and prayed. Some prostrated themselves and kissed the star. For all my cynicism, and the strangeness of the Orthodox surroundings, I found this intensely moving. There, on that spot or close by, an event took place which changed and dominated my life, the lives of all the people around me, those in the Middle East and throughout the world. All that joy, all that sorrow, all that compassion and that cruelty, inspired by whatever did or did not happen within a few feet of where we stood. It clarified nothing, but clearly meant something. Like being mugged by God.