Buckle up, kids! Today was one wild ride through 8 religions in one square kilometer (less than 0.4 square miles for those patriots who don't do metric measurements). And who says there isn't peace in the Middle East?
The jet lag is starting to wear off, but 6:30 am still comes mighty early. I don't know who told me this was a vacation, but they were clearly mistaken. After our customary Middle Eastern breakfast of breads, eggs, fruit, and the ever-present veggies and hummus, our guide Iyad laid the groundwork for the quagmire that is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - also known as the Church of the Resurrection.
Two thousand years of wars, natural disasters, and religious in-fighting have produced the absolute weirdest church I have ever seen in my life. Dubbed the "holiest site in Christendom," it is, in a word, confusing. The church houses, according to traditions dating back to the fourth century, two of the holiest sites to the Christian religions: the site where Jesus Christ was crucified at the place known as Calgary or Golgotha, and Jesus's empty tomb where he was resurrected three days after his death, and is located in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.
Six religious sects lay claim to random pieces of the overall structure: the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolics, the Roman Catholics, the Egyptian Coptics, the Syrian Orthodox, and the Ethiopian Tewahedo. We Anglicans were a bit late to the game here in Jerusalem, not establishing our first church here until 1849, leaving us well out of the running for even a burning candle in the Holy Sepulchre's complex.
Let me paint you a picture of how ludacris this space sharing can get. As you walk into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there are two large windows on the front facade. Looking at the right window, there is a small, five-rung wooden ladder perched on a narrow ledge, leaning against the window. There are many stories about why the ladder is there, none of them entirely relevant to its current situation. The six religious sects with claims to the property negotiated a Status Quo agreement that was memorialized by the British in 1929, stating that the current state of property claims within the Church would remain as-is. The ledge belongs to the Greek Orhtodox; the window to the Armenian Apostolics. Under the terms of the Status Quo agreement, the ladder can never be moved, as it would require one sect to alter the physical condition of another sect's property. What? Anyways, it is called the "Immovable Ladder" and is kind of a local celebrity around here.
We worked up quite an appetite while trying to unravel the many mysteries in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we stopped in to the Lutheran Guest House for a hot meal. I thought I was going to be losing some weight during this trip, but that certainly won't be happening. The highlight of the meal was Malabi, a beloved Israeli milk pudding, served warm with rose water, cinnamon, and nutmeg - delicious!
After lunch, we walked a short distance to St. Mark's, a Syrian church that still speaks Aramaic, the same language that Jesus spoke, in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. Sister Justinia, a nun at the church, sang to us in Aramaic and explained miracles that happened in front of the church's famous icon, supposedly painted by St. Luke. The trip to St. Marks ended by descending into what could have possible been the Upper Room where Jesus and the Disciples had the Last Supper. (Yes, I know it is counter intuitive to go down to an Upper Room - but as our other guide Ranya says, to go back in time here, you have to go down!)
We ended our day with a trip to the Cathedral of St. James, an Armenian church in the Armenian Quarter for vespers. The church was beautifully ornate and was filled with the chanting of the Armenian monks, incense, and parishioners and tourists alike.
Tomorrow morning, we leave out for Galilee for the next three days - we will be venturing up to Nazareth and the Jordan River. Stay tuned!
LM and NMK