Journey of the modern magi

Paul Vallely retraces the steps of the Three Wise Men through Syria, Jordan and finally to Bethlehem - through a world in which many things have remained unchanged despite centuries of political turmoil

The darkness crept swiftly down upon the wreckage of the castle Saladin, built in the 12th century to protect the ancient oasis of Palmyra from the predations of the infidel Crusaders. It was a storybook castle of towers and turrets on top of a jagged hill overlooking the extensive ruins of the first-century city whose ruined colonnades were laid out in clear lines below.

The water has flowed there, the only water source for hundreds of miles in the heart of the Syrian desert, for at least 4,000 years, keeping Palymra for millennia at the crossroads of the caravan trade. No one knows whether the Three Wise Men of Christian legend existed. No one can be sure where they began their search for the child whose birth was to usher in a new era. But one thing is certain, whatever their starting point, they would have passed through Palmyra. A journey to retrace their steps - on which I was accompanied by two other modern magi, Bishop Rowan Williams, the former Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and Professor Heather Couper, an astronomer - passed through a land in which many things remain unnervingly the same.

It is still a region of turmoil and political tension; it is still dominated by imperial powers of one kind or another. In those days control had recently passed from Alexander the Great in the east to the west of Imperial Rome. It is a polarity that remains today, with an Israel which looks to the west and a Palestine which looks east to Mecca. Outside the Saracen castle, even before the sky was completely dark, a single star appeared. There are dozens of theories about the Star of Bethlehem: it may have been a super-nova or a comet. But it is most likely to have been created by a conjunction of Jupiter with another planet, Saturn.

A triple conjunction took place in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces in the year 6BC (the year in which historians now think Christ was born). The Magi had the planet that represented the ruler of the world (Jupiter) conjoined with the star of Palestine (Saturn, which was also the star of justice) in the constellation of the Jews (Pisces). To a Parthian magus it would have signalled that a ruler of the world's last days was about to be born among the Hebrews in Palestine.

The Magi brought gifts suitable for a temporal monarch - gold, a symbol of wealth; frankincense, a sign of authority; and myrrh, an embalming spice, which spoke of sorrow. They are symbols which still speak of life in the Middle East today.

A week's camel ride from Palmyra lies Damascus, the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. Its ancient spice market, a blur of bright colours, exotic smells and hard bargaining, had frankincense in plenty. It was appropriate, for the capital is one of the region's centres of power. In the days of the Magi it was an important province of the Roman Empire. Today it is the most formidable of Israel's neighbours.

In the coffee houses and fountained courtyards of Damascus, the talk was of Israel. For public consumption the rhetoric was uncompromising: "The Golan Heights are ours. There can be no compromise. The Israelis must withdraw."

In private, however, it was all more nuanced. The Foreign Minister, I was told, had recently briefed army officers and Ba'ath party officials about the potential benefits of peace. The Quote for the Day carried by the state-controlled newspaper frequently now constitutes a message for peace. Only days after we left the city it was announced that negotiations between Syria and Israel are to recommence in the new year.

In Amman, one of Jordan's Christian leaders, Fr Moussa Adeli, an Arab by birth and a Melchite priest of the Latin rite, issued an invitation to dine. He was preoccupied with a journey of a different kind - that of the unending stream to his door of Iraqis who have crossed the border in search of help. Christian and Muslim alike, they are not just poor but malnourished and made desperate by the economic collapse of their country under United Nations sanctions following the Gulf War.

"Huge numbers of ordinary people are going hungry, many are starving, many more are ill - deprived of medicine as well as food," he said. He gives them food, where he can, and organises relief operations into parts of the country that can easily be reached from Amman.

Fr Moussa is a Christian and no friend of Saddam Hussein, but he was vehement in his advocacy of the need for a change in policy by the UN, to lift the sanctions.

"In Iraq, people are losing part of their humanity," he said. The picture he painted was one that, in other circumstances, would be the subject of dramatic coverage by the world's television companies. "If you want to know what hell is like," concluded Fr Moussa with devastating simplicity, "go to Iraq."

In Jordan, we had found myrrh, real sorrow. The source of that sorrow, Iraq, was off the Wise Man trail. We were in search of the third gift, gold. So we headed for Jerusalem, the centre in which all the important political and religious influences of the region meet.

Israel is a modern, resource-hungry state. Everywhere new buildings were being thrown up as if they had descended overnight upon the land. The desert bloomed.

But at what cost? The water for irrigation, claim the Palestinians, is stolen from them: the Israelis take 80 per cent of the underground water. On the West Bank, 120,000 Jewish settlers take some 60 million cubic metres of water a year, leaving only 137 million cubic metres between the 1.5 million Palestinians; 60 per cent of Israeli land is irrigated, compared with only 6 per cent of Palestinian land. And Palestinians have been prohibited since 1967 from digging new wells.

The Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem is a site of great holiness to Jews; historically, it is one of the few parts of the city that stands from the time of Christ's birth. This was Herod's temple. The Magi must have stood at the place at some time. They were, after all, "invited" by the tyrant to visit him there. It is only a few hundred yards from the great Islamic and Christian shrine, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It was almost dusk; the Sabbath had begun. Our guide, an Arab Christian, was brusquely refused entrance even though below brash tourists wandered the vast courtyard before the huge stones of all that remains of Herodian glory. Then from the distance the sound of singing could be heard. A phalanx of men appeared, their arms round each other's shoulders, all wearing skullcaps and some with fringed prayer shawls. They danced in shuffling little steps across the yard like a rippling centipede. Their singing was stentorian and aggressive.

It was as if, here, religion was some kind of competition, a contest in excess rather than a call to inner development. In places like this there is something about the collective religious experience that seems trivialising, superstitious and oppressive. Indeed, Jerusalem has not changed since Christ's day: here religion is power, the subjugator of individuality, an oppressor. A few days later the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was to die at the hands of a religious extremist. In Jerusalem, religion seems a rock not to be built upon but to be stumbled over, broken upon.

But it has always drawn people as well. Fr Jerome Murphy O'Connor, one of the leading authorities in biblical archaeology at the Ecole Biblique in the city had great doubts about the veracity of the Magi's story. "You're talking about a metaphor but a very powerful metaphor," he said, looking over Jerusalem from the roof of the college. "You might find the modern equivalents of the story in the experiences of refugees in so many different countries - people guided by circumstances over which they have no control."

That is an experience which is more common in our time than ever before - in the past 10 years the number of refugees and displaced people in the world has doubled - there are today some 20 million people without a home. "The Holy Family were forced out of Bethlehem; they first went to Egypt, but even later they couldn't come back to Judaea because the next regime was just as bad," said Fr Jerome. "That's why they eventually ended up in Nazareth, where a new city was being built. That sort of `guidance' resonates in our experience much more than the story of a star."

Not far from Bethlehem is Deisha, a refugee camp for about 2,000 Palestinians. Perhaps that is the place where modern magi should seek a child to be born: not in wealth or power but on the margins of what the world holds to be important.

And so, the next day, we covered the final dozen or so miles of the journey, to Bethlehem. After all the grand history of Palmyra, Damascus and Jerusalem this final destination was a run-down, seemingly seedy little town where life looked very ordinary with shopkeepers setting out their stalls in its narrow streets in front of graffiti-painted walls.

Entering Manger Square, the eye was drawn not to the basilica or even the new tourist shopping centre but to the police station with its lookout tower. Soldiers, casually swinging their arms, wandered around the square, much as members of the occupying Roman army must have done 2,000 years before. Bethlehem was in Arab hands until it was occupied by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967. But things were changing. The Israeli troops were preparing for a withdrawal in the week before Christmas as part of the peace plan to hand over West Bank towns to new Palestinian authorities.

Behind it all stood the basilica, a big building with a tiny door, only 4ft high. We stooped and entered. It was not yet 8am, but inside they were singing already. The Church of the Nativity stands over the cave identified by the second-century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr; it was built by Helena, the mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. In the grotto beneath the altar we crawled on all fours to the spot where the birth is said to have taken place. How could anyone know this, part of me rumbled sceptically. But another part wondered in a different way about the grey slate floor that lies beneath the marble and silver.

But in the end there was nothing there, apart from the residue of the veneration of millions of believers across the ages. Christ was born in a meaner place. He is not here, I thought, and wondered how far it was to the refugee camp at Deisha.

`Modern Magi', produced by Christine Morgan, can be heard on Radio 4 on Saturday 30 December at 11.02am.

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