Jerusalem: A Path to Gethsemane
"On a mountain that happened to be the closest to Heaven of all the mountains of the Earth, he landed - so close that, when Adam's feet were planted at its summit, his head poked into the Garden out of which he had been cast."
That quote is from Kanan Makiya's The Rock, and is based on a Jewish mystical source called the Zohar. It purports to describe humanity's first arrival in Jerusalem, specifically the sacred rock beneath the Muslim Dome of the Rock on Mt. Moriah, generally called Temple Mount. The place hasn't changed much, except that Adam's descendants have now built stuff all over the place and scurry around fighting over it. If you keep your eyes open, though, you can still see paradise.
Right now I live in a downtown apartment high above the pedestrian mall centered on Ben Yehuda Street, which in Madison terms is a lot like State Street only with a more refined than collegiate atmosphere. When the sherut (minibus) from the airport first dropped me off, though, it was close to midnight outside a row of rundown East Jerusalem budget hostels just outside the Old City. The respectable middle-class couple I was riding with took one long bleak look at it and then wished me luck without much confidence. I claimed my luggage, paid the driver, and headed in to a place where the walls were covered with Korean soccer banners, calls for peace in the Middle East, and posters of Moustafa Barghouti's Palestinian National Initiative.
My room was predictably sparse, but the crowd of semi-permanent residents most hostels seem to attract was interesting, the sort of people you might expect to find in a budget hostel in Jerusalem. They were dominated by a group of South Korean missionaries, one of whom had been there for most of the past year and a half. He cooked. He didn't just cook in the hostel, though - he spent his time in Jerusalem preparing and giving food to poor pilgrims. A backpacker asked the hostel owner what his story was; the owner said it was his mission, and that it was a good idea to give him some shekels before leaving. Another was a 30-something American who was drifting between Israel and Egypt before taking up a volunteer post in an orphanage. He'd spent time in prison for armed robbery after being tried as an adult even though he was a minor, then got a college degree, but found he couldn't get a job with his record. Eventually he gave up and decided to pursue a different sort of life out in the broader world. He'd never been that religious, but had begun attending services with the Koreans. Things like that happen in Jerusalem.
Now, though, I'm up in West Jerusalem. The hostel crowd up here is reportedly pretty right-wing anti-Arab, which probably explains why they're paying more to be here. The neighborhood, however, is pretty mixed, especially in terms of national origin, and sitting out watching the street you see people from all over, with tourists sampling the nightlife after a hard day of being holy down in the Old City.
I've only made a couple of forays down there myself. The first was at the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when I went down to the Western Wall to watch the festivities. After passing through a security gate, you emerge onto a wide open plaza filled with curiosity seekers and Jews. A short fence separates this plaza from an enclosed area next to the wall, but non-Jews are allowed to enter that area as long as they don the proper headgear. I didn't see any reason to, and stayed by the fence as the area below, already set with tables covered with white tablecloths, Hebrew prayerbooks, and white lawn chairs stacked around began to fill, first with the Hasidim, all decked out in black hats and coats with the two locks of long hair and stringy tails across the bottom of their white shirts, and then with more conservative Jews, mostly wearing white. A number of people clustered near the wall, which for a long time was believed to be the last remnant of the Second Temple, the restraining wall around Temple Mount. It was divided into a large section for men, with a smaller one for women, but everyone close was praying at this place where they believed the Spirit of God remained eternally. I can't separate what might have been particular to Rosh Hashanah as opposed to the standard greeting of the Sabbath, but there were several groups doing their own services, and a group of yeshiva students singing at dancing to welcome the coming of the sacred time into their mundane lives. Muslims were actually about to do the same thing with the onset of Ramadan, but the spirit of the events was perhaps better seen in the way the blowing of shofars clashed with the call to prayer which cut through the air as the sunset.
The next day I went to the Old City again to scope out some of the Christian sites. One main entry is through the Damascus Gate, which opens onto a large square. There's always a squad of Israeli soldiers there, usually held together by their truck, though sometimes one will be chatting amiably with a Palestinian sidewalk peddler or waving his machine gun on some driver who has tried to go the wrong way amidst the constantly shifting pattern of street closures. I decided to go through the less hectic New Gate, however, which cuts through the Christian Quarter where I found the Church of the Holy Sepulchre hidden away on a side street next to the Mosque of Umar.
This site's claims to authenticity are actually pretty good, unlike a lot of other venerated sites you'll run across. The church itself will never be the most glamorous in Christendom - the inside is dark and gloomy, and in some places the paint is peeling and ladders and hoses are lying around. However, there's probably nowhere you'll see a more diverse array of Christians, with everyone from Catholics and Protestants to Eastern Orthodox to Copts with their cross tattoos, Malaharists in their saris, Armenians dressed in black, and any other branch of Christendom you might conceive of. All of these pour through the single main entrance, except for those of the Ethiopean Tewahedo Church, who have a monastery next door and come down through the roof.
Sadly, all these Christian groups do not cooperate amiably, and the church is run according to a division handed down by the Ottoman Empire to stop the territorial squabbling. When you pass through Calvary next to the entrance, you enter through a Catholic zone and leave through an Orthodox one. The rest of the relevant areas are similarly divided, and all have a different flavor, from the cave-like Malahar chapel to the Armenian chapel, which seems more like an office with its comfy chairs and telephone on a side table next to a lamp. The denominations guard their rights jealously. According to wikipedia, in 2002 a Coptic priest moved his chair from its agreed spot into the shade in Ethiopian territory, and 11 were hospitalized as a result the brawl which followed. Still, a sense of spirituality is found about the place, as pilgrims sit in contemplation in the chapel which commemorates St. Helena's purported discovery of the True Cross or weep as they reach through a hole beneath an altar to the cold stones of the place of the Crucifixion.
The Protestants were left out of this, and so have effectively declared that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in the wrong spot, and under Anglican auspices run a site called the Garden Tomb in East Jerusalem. Once you step through the green gate, you might as well be in Bloomsbury, as it lives up to the "garden " name. There are benches everywhere along the shady paths, and periodic plaques arguing for the site's claims. A gift shop sells souvenirs. There's even a small tomb there, and archaeologists have confirmed it was used for burials - in about the 5th century.
What all this has to do with Christ's Passion is unclear, but in any case after taking it in I went down the Jericho road toward the Mount of Olives where a break in traffic finally allowed me to hike over to some of the sites there. These were generally nicer than those in the Old City, though still contested. The area is also shadier, and Lonely Planet warns agains thieves and pickpockets. I skipped the Church of St. Stephen for now, and entered the Tomb of Mary, run by the Eastern Orthodox, with the Malaharists, Copts, and Armenians also having altar rights. The actual tomb site is in a small shrine; the rest of the chapel is adorned with lots of icons and candles.
After that I made my way up the narrow alleyway to the Garden of Gethsemane, which is divided between the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (a communist-era splinter group from the Eastern Orthodox) and the Roman Catholics. The latter have to do all their Mary stuff in the nearby Franciscan-run Church of the Agony, as they were driven out of Mary's tomb. The garden looks like a place where someone might experience agony, filled with gnarled and knotted olive trees, some of which are over 2000 years old, and thus around in the time of Jesus. It's tough to contemplate in peace, though, as for the first time in Jerusalem I had a problem with persistent hustlers trying to usher you into the church and hawkers trying to sell branches allegedly from the garden.
The Scripture passages commemorated around the church and garden involve not only the obedience of waiting to suffer, which in the episode "Passing Through Gethsemane" a Babylon 5 character identified as the spiritual heart of Christianity, but invoke the idea that he was in agony for the sins of Jerusalem and/or the world. Perhaps the latter view has something to it. After all, given the monotheistic world's great spiritual treasures, people mainly fight over them, claiming with pride the shrines of those who served with humility. The most genuinely religious place I've interacted with in my short time here was the run-down yet homey Palm Hostel. The whole rest of the path to Gethsemane I took was fraught with turmoil.