Click to follow
The Independent Online
Fire and frenzy in the chapel

The most appealing ceremony in Jerusalem over Easter is the ceremony of the Holy Fire, when the Greek Orthodox patriarch and the Armenian bishop enter the Holy Sepulchre itself to receive fire from heaven. As many as 20,000 pilgrims - including ageing but aggressive Greek ladies armed with folding metal stools and Egyptian Copts in long white robes - crowd into the church to see the ceremony. The fire is handed out through a hole in the wall of the chapel over the Holy Sepulchre and the church blazes with light as each pilgrim lights a bundle of 33 candles.

The ceremony, first mentioned in the ninth century, is one of the oldest in Jerusalem. Robert Curzon, the English traveller, was in Jerusalem for Easter in 1834, and described how "the people in their frenzy put the bunches of lighted tapers to their faces, hands and breasts to purify themselves from their sins". It is all a little tamer today, but before the Bolshevik revolution a ship waited in Jaffa to take the sacred fire to Russia.

The number of people who crowd into the church makes attendance somewhat nerve-racking. Last year I watched from the safety of the Armenian gallery. When Robert Curzon attended 150 years ago there was a panic among the pilgrims, exacerbated by the guards of the Egyptian viceroy, Ibrahim Pasha, who thought they were under attack. Curzon, who just escaped with his life, wrote: "I saw full 400 unhappy people, dead and living, heaped promiscuously one upon the other, in some places about five feet high."

Riot squad charges marching scouts

The Jerusalem riot squad was quick to set the tone for the Easter festivities. Latin Christians traditionally mark Palm Sunday with a march, led by boy and girl scouts in red and navy blue berets, into the Old City. Israeli checkpoints around Jerusalem kept numbers down to about 500 this year, instead of the usual 4,000, by stopping scouts entering Jerusalem from nearby Christian villages.

As the marchers, waving palm fronds, walked beside the Ottoman walls, they began to spill off the pavement into the main road. The riot squad knows what to do in a situation like this. Before the proud parents of the scouts, they charged the procession, waving their batons and sending small girls, who had been peaceably banging large drums, scurrying for safety.

In defence of the Jerusalem police, it could be said that the ethnic or religious persuasion of peaceable marchers, voters or protesters makes no difference to them. Recently, they were in action against Ethiopian Jews who were protesting because it had just been revealed that their contributions to the blood bank had been routinely thrown away for fear of Aids.

With other journalists I stood on top of some concrete tubs, used for growing flowers, for a better view. Unfortunately, this was exactly where the Ethiopians broke through. They were still peaceful until a policeman standing beside me squirted them with tear gas. Part of this went straight into my face. By the time I came to, 20 minutes later, Jerusalem's finest had provoked one of the city's nastier riots.

Cross words over a gold medallion

The menace and the charm of Jerusalem is that it is full of people who detest each other but are compelled, for the moment, to live together. The main division is between Israeli and Palestinian, but every religious and ethnic group watches its rivals with the deepest suspicion. When the municipality circulated a draft design of a gold medallion to celebrate the capture of the city by King David 3,000 years ago, it got a hostile response from the ultra-orthodox Jews. They pointed out that among the religious monuments shown on the medal was the Russian Church on the Mount of Olives, with crosses topping its onion domes. They demanded these be removed immediately. The municipality compromised by removing four of the crosses and shrinking a fifth so that it is barely distinguishable.

Restaurants rebel at kosher crackdowns

In the ultra-orthodox districts of Jerusalem like Mea She'arim, where local people wear fur hats and the dress of 18th century Poland, there have been cauldrons full of scalding water in the streets in the days before Passover. This makes it easier to carry out the ritual cleaning of all cooking vessels under kosher rules. People clean out their cars to remove any crumbs of unleavened bread and avoid beer and other drinks made with yeast.

Passover is a moment of deep concern for Jerusalem restaurateurs. Rabbinical inspectors who issue kosher certificates - essential for most restaurants in West Jerusalem - are particularly tough on those who have left any cooking implement uncleansed. Last year one restaurant was ordered to close for two days by rabbinical decree when inspectors found a spoon that had not been properly cleaned.

None of this goes down well with the restaurants, who say the fees charged by the inspectors eat into their small profits. One owner complained that last year he was even ordered to remove Christmas trees from outside his restaurant on the grounds that they were unkosher. He demanded that the inspectors show him rabbinical authority for their ruling. Nevertheless, a surprising number of international brands now carry kosher certificates, including even the saki served in the Sakura, Jerusalem's best Japanese restaurant.

The last time they found Christ's tomb ...

The supposed discovery by the BBC and Sunday Times of the tomb of Jesus, Joseph and Mary has a precedent in the famed Edwardian thriller When It Was Dark, which General Montgomery once described as among the most important books he had ever read. The plot of the book revolves around the discovery of the tomb of Christ, cleverly faked by a corrupt academic, with a damning dedication by Joseph of Arimathea saying that he had buried Jesus.

The results of the discovery are uniformly disastrous. Anarchy breaks out. Women are commonly assaulted. Churches are vandalised. The day is only saved by a clean-limbed young curate who persuades the wicked don to confess to the forgery.

The strident nationalism of the book leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, but it is revealing about Edwardian values when it concludes its litany of disasters consequent to the discovery that Christianity is a fraud by noting, in awed tones, that "Consols fell to 63".

Patrick Cockburn