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Jerusalem: The Stations of the Cross

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image001 “JUZ? You wanna juz now?” asked the shopkeeper with a knowing smile. Outside the Hashimi Hotel across the narrow street was a small cafe that squeezed oranges. I had discovered that it also juiced carrots. Fresh, sweet carrot juice had become my staple.

Carrot juice, which is full of beta-carotene, is a natural anti-oxidant – something that I needed to boost my immune system. The pollen, pollution and dust of a dry Mediterranean summer were beginning to clog my sinuses. A nagging post-nasal drip was fast inflaming the back of my throat.

Having naturally medicated myself, I felt much better. If one does not stray too much into the fatty zones of international fast food, the digestive system – the source of most ailments – adapts happily to locally grown foods, which help to cleanse the body of its phlegmatic humours.

I must say I enjoyed olives, or spooning chopped tomato, mint and cucumber salad onto my plate, or dipping coarse bread into olive oil and humus. The very thought of falafel, flame-grilled kebabs, kubbi, stuffed brinjal and schwarma did make the mouth water. But on this morning, Mediterranean cuisine was not on my ‘menu’. And lest it be said otherwise, I eat to live – I do not live to eat!

The Hashimi was close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was my intention to follow the route of the Christian pilgrimage. And although it was not a Friday, the day when the Franciscan monks would lead their weekly ceremonial procession, I was going to follow the Via Dolorosa from its beginnings near the Lion’s Gate to its climactic end, Christ’s empty tomb in the Holy Sepulchre.

Its stations defined by faith, The Via Dolorosa – literally the ‘Way of Sadness’ – is a route that marks fourteen Stations of the Cross, all which commemorate sacred incidents believed to have befallen Jesus on his way to Cavalry. The Hashimi is near to the Seventh Station, and so I retraced my steps back to the First Station.

Jerusalem was empty. A youthful figure sliding out of the shadows near the Lion’s Gate was mightily peeved when I said I did not want his services for 25 US dollars. I had a pamphlet and Bradt’s Palestine with me – and really – I was hardly going to get lost along the Via Dolorosa, the most famous thoroughfare in the Old City.

Station One, which marks where Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus, is said to have occurred where the school of ‘Umar now stands. It is about 300 metres west of the Lion’s Gate, and the crucifixion pageants usually started from within its courtyard, once the moat-encircled Roman fortress of Antonia.

The school was closed (my luck) and so I wandered past Station One, where Jesus picked up the cross, to the chapels of Condemnation and Flagellation. In Pontius Pilate’s era, they would have been part of the Antonia fortress.

These chapels stood partially over an old Roman pavement, the lithostratos. The Chapel of Flagellation, a 20th century building built over the ruins of another mediaeval structure, had been designed by the famous Italian architect, Antonio Barluzzi.

The Roman pavement, the lithostratos, ran west under the Via Dolorosa and reappeared again in the basement of the Ecce Homo convent. This now sub-terranean thoroughfare, which dated back to Hadrian in the 2nd century CE, provided interesting evidence of Roman street life.

On a previous visit I had seen these ancient stones, their striations cut for wagon wheels and the markings of games clearly marked on their weathered surface. Down in the Ecce Homo basement I could almost hear the urban din of Roman times – a cart laden with hay clip-clopping past children quietly playing hop-scotch, and off-duty soldiers throwing knuckle-bones in a boisterous circle.

I passed under the Ecce Homo arch, a place where Pontius Pilate had said ‘ecce homo’, as Jesus had passed by. However this arch, also built by Hadrian, was more a symbolic juncture than a historical site where a Roman governor had uttered that there was Jesus.

The Via Dolorosa made a sharp turn to the left. I stopped at the Third Station. A grey wrought-iron gate, centred with a small mediaeval cross, was the foreground to a white wall relief showing Jesus falling under the cross. This was the Polish chapel. A few metres on, a carving of Mary comforting her son topped a door that led into a tiny Armenian church.

Inside this building was an interesting 5th century mosaic, on which there were a pair of footprints in stone. These were said to be the Virgin Mary’s. But why super-impose an outline of a pair of sandals upon them? It was like adding glasses to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or giving the statue of David a pair of y-fronts.

The road took another sharp turn uphill, this time to my right. Here was
Station Five, the spot where Roman soldiers had been forced by Simon of Cyrene to help the now weakening Jesus carry his cross. An old doorway, with ‘Simon Cyrenao Crux Imponitur’ carved on its lintel, faced me. Also fixed in the wall was a left palm-print, said to have been made by Jesus when he leant to support himself.

Opposite Station Six the wares of a silver shop tumbled on to the pavement in a shiny cascade of censers, decorative coffee pots, devotional candelabras, crucifixes and rosaries. Called the Church of the Holy Face, Station Six belonged to the Greek Catholics.

It marked where St Veronica had wiped Jesus’ face, his features becoming imprinted in the cloth. The problem was that this station reflected the events of a 14th century tradition, but it did not detract from another tasteful Barluzzi chapel in what had been a Crusader monastery.

Station Seven brought me back to my starting point from the Hashimi. It remembered where Jesus had fallen, and another Franciscan chapel marked spot X.

Station Eight was a Greek Orthodox monastery and on its wall was a Latin cross marked with the Greek word ‘nika’. This was where Jesus stopped to console the wailing women of Jerusalem, telling them not to weep for him but for themselves.

I found Station Nine by turning off Suq Kahn el-Zeit and ascending a set of steps to the Coptic Patriarchate, which was actually on the eastern side of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A column marked where Jesus had fallen for the last time.

Retracing my steps, I entered the Suq Khan el-Zeit road again and turned right past the Alexander hospice into the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I had arrived. The last four Stations of the Cross lay inside this basilica that was not a soaring cathedral, but rather a clutter and tumble of mediaeval masonry.

Restored in some places, Christianity’s holiest building was equally a patch-work of pitted lime-stone, moss and weeds. The truth was that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had always been bedeviled by denominational turf wars. The Greek Orthodox, the Franciscans, the Armenians, the Ethiopians, the Copts and the Syrian Orthodox all jostled shoulder-to-shoulder for devotional real estate.

The Ethiopian church, representing an ancient Abyssinian sect, was the one that had lost most of its rights. Its cowled monks now lived on the roof. Just to lift a trowel or to raise scaffolding in this complex, I was told, could spark off a major conflict. A ladder left on a window ledge had remained in the same place since 1852.

Henry Stedtman of the Bradt Travel Guide had written that the visitor to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was always caught between ‘reverence and revulsion’. However, I certainly did not feel revulsion as much as I felt empathy. It reminded me more than anything else of the human frailty of our 15 year-old post-apartheid democracy in South Africa.

As a structure it was just as partly-repaired, yes. As a multi-cultural, multi-racial people we were as noisy, fractious and uneasy as the monks, yes. But in spite of all the tumult, the experience was as intoxicating and energising as it was confusing. And not unlike the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where its gate-keepers had always been a neutral Muslim family, I think that to really understand something so complex, you just had to be a part of it.

I stood in the courtyard on the threshold. This part of the Old City had been a sacred site for over two millennia. As a Christian monument it had stood, despite being destroyed twice, for 1, 600 years. Its history was as old as Second Temple Jerusalem.

Interestingly, when the Byzantine Empire had risen to ascendancy with its new capital, Constantinople, Jerusalem had not been a major metropolis at all. Two centuries after Hadrian had razed the Temple and expelled the Jews, Jerusalem had grown into a quiet Roman provincial town called Aeolia. The governor of the district had resided in his marble palace at the coast in Caesarea.

But the Christians had not forgotten, even if it meant that the Bishopric of Jerusalem had become a backwater. It took Emperor Constantine’s endorsement of the Christian creed in the 4th century, and the conclave of Nicaea in CE 325 shaping its Trinitarian ethos, to revive a sacred interest in Jerusalem.

And whilst Constantine’s interest in Christianity appears to have been tempered by political expediency (he was only baptized on his deathbed) he did take a keen interest in its affairs, and provide generous funding. And whatever his personal or political shortcomings, Constantine’s role in establishing modern Christianity is undoubtedly one of his greatest contributions to history.

The Byzantine Empire’s official sanction of Christianity saw its devotional focus shifting from grottoes, catacombs, caves and private dwellings to official buildings and public spaces. From now on, one of mankind’s greatest civilisations, a civilisation renowned for its engineering and construction skills, would be responsible for church architecture.

The polytheists had their temples and altars, and Christianity needed to have a spiritual centre to where its Bishops and believers could gravitate to contemplate upon resurrection and salvation. Christ’s empty tomb, the epitome of his dramatic life events, was the ideal place. It was left to Constantine’s mother, Helena, to travel to the Holy Land to rediscover Christianity’s sacred locations.

Already aged, but fired up with an energy belying her 80 years, she was destined to become the pioneer of Christian monumental archaeology. Described by the ecclesiastical chronicler Eusibius as an extremely devout lady, her ultimate odyssey was a search for the true cross, the very wood upon which the body and limbs of Christ had been nailed in the Final Passion.


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