Church of the Holy Sepulchre/Tomb of David/Last Supper/Western Wall

As each day passed it became routine for us to start out early, as  our two guides Bindu & Shehadi urged us to do so, after an early breakfast, usually by 6 or 6:30 in the morning. On this day in particular, we had a full itinerary starting with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As we combed our way through the old city of Jerusalem, with Shehadi explaining about the various quarters in the path of the Via Dolorosa (the way of suffering) where Jesus walked carrying the cross to the site of his crucifixion. One remembers that this is the holiest of the holy for Christians, the very reason that Christianity came about. We walked through the Old City via narrow lanes, shops lined up on both sides the bulk of them were with religious memorabilia, but there were a few with spices and one in particular specialized in olives of various varieties, it was a reminder how much olives were part of the food that people who live in these countries consumed. If memory serves me right, we started at the Armenian quarter, moved through the Jewish quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in the Christian quarter and yet is governed by the Palestinian authority, at least there was a sign to indicate that . Each of the stations of the cross are numbered and one comes across the various times when in Christ’s path to the crucifixion, he fell – there is a church of flagellation, the name evokes the suffering that Jesus had to endure and is venerated by Christianity. We finally reached the courtyard leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the lines have started to form, so we are right at the back, little did we realize this was going to be a very long wait, in fact when reviewing some of the photos taken it appears to be that we started waiting at the courtyard around 9am and by the time we reached the Rock of the Calvary, the spot where Christ’s tomb is believed to be, encased in glass the sanctum sanctorum of Christianity, it was 2pm.

The crowds were a mix from all parts of the world. The Royal Omania group was one of less ethnically diverse groups in that all of us were not only Indians, but Malayalees. While standing in the long lines we were almost in competition with a group from Myanmar who were trying to get ahead of us,  but some of our group would have none of that! There was no holy sanctity in the pushing and jostling that occurred for 2 hours with what seemed everyone’s focus of trying to reach the tomb. What we could observe during this long wait was that the church was constructed in what seemed like multiple levels,  ornate with hanging brass lamps, paintings depicting the various periods of the passion and suffering of Christ. The ceilings were covered with paintings, beautifully maintained. By the time we were out of the church it was well after 2pm, and as we strolled along the last quarter, which later on explained by Shehadi as the Jewish quarter, and the City of David restored in the recent past. At this point our focus was to  have lunch. Again, we were taken to the same restaurant near the Wall separating Israel from Palestine. There was graffitti and many posters, painted on the famous West Bank Barricade, of personal stories of trials and short summaries of the Palestinian suffering because of the separation.

After lunch, which was not anything special yet good enough to keep us going till dinner time – we later came to understand that some of the group were not satisfied with the food that was being served to us, especially further on during our trip. We were then bussed to the Tomb of David and Mount Zion where the “upper” Room of the Last Supper, one of the most revered events in Christ’s life, immortalized by the Da Vinci painting. One of the interesting sights in the Tomb of David was how Orthodox Jews used the place to read their scriptures, Torah or Pentateuch. It is remarkable how the Jews we saw were so immersed in their prayers and reading that despite the interruptions of scores of tourist groups they continued without a second glance at us. I had some reservation about taking pictures and felt that permission was needed to take pictures, which one of them in his orthodox Jewish garments, the long black robe, bowler hat and flowing beard gave me and so without much ado I did and they went about their business.

The next stop was the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple of Jerusalem and so one of the most holy places for all those who follow Judaism. It was well into the evening, the lights were on but this did not detract from the experience of visiting the Wailing Wall . It was quite an experience since as soon as we entered the vicinity of the Wall, our group was split with men on one side and women on the other with a partition so that they were not able to see each other. I later on understood why this stricture is imposed. We, the men were told to pick up a yamaka or yarmulke, as a mark of respect and reverence anyone who wants to pray at the Wall is required to wear this Jewish cap. Again, there were scores of devotees orthodox Jewish men wearing bowler hats with long black coats and black pants, holding the wall and praying by swaying their heads occasionally touching, almost bumping their heads on the wall while reading off their religious texts, probably the Torah or chanting their prayers. The scene encapsulated an image with this historic and sacred monument.

An interesting conversation with one of these orthodox Jews that gave me an insight about why this practice of swaying their heads and chanting is so much in vogue for the devotees. The answer I got to this question, was revealing of the piety and fervency of those of the faith. This Jewish man I spoke explained that the reason for swaying forwards and backwards is simply a question of focus. The motion encourages one to be able to wipe out all worldly thoughts of family, work or any such diversion from one’s mind, and to quote him be “one with Yahweh”. He asked me as to where I had come from and when I mentioned the tour of the Holy Land, he  looked at me with a critical eye and said that unlike a lot of the tourists who stand afar and mock the devotees who pray in their quaint manner, he sensed that my questions were out of genuine curiosity, and that there was no belittling of their faith. If memory serves me right, Avaran was his name, who then continued to ask me where were the other places in Israel that we had visited, and I listed some of the places. His response was revealing again as to where the divide between Judaism & Christianity as he characterized Jesus as a “bad Jew”. According to Avaran who may well have been a rabbi, though he made no claim to being one, no person has ever been born as yet who is the son of God, since Yahweh is unique and as those familiar with Judaism know, the birth of Mashiah is yet to occur! My only response to this was to say that a bad Jew is not necessarily a bad human being, and left it at that seeing that this might be a touchy subject with him.

It was night time and we were ready to go to our hotel accommodation for the night. On the way Shehadi the guide got a call that the hotel which was supposed to accommodate all 48 of us was full and at least 4 rooms would need to be found elsewhere. Bindu was on it immediately making a few phone calls. Shyni & I were one of the 4 couples who were selected to be housed elsewhere and we came to realize that it  would be in Ramallah well within the Palestinian Authority territory, in other words, Palestine. After dropping off 40 of the group, we started an hour journey, there was some checking of our papers all handled by Bindu. We were on our way to Ramallah to the Crown Suites hotel. It had been a long day and evening and was looking forward to dinner and a good night’s sleep. The hotel accommodation and the food was good, and we had a good night’s sleep.

Way of the Cross Station III – Armenian quarter

Station V of XIV of the Via Dolorosa

In the courtyard of the Church of The Holy Sepulchre

Long hours of waiting at the Church of Holy Sepulchre

One of the many facades of the interior of the church.

Praying at the spot that Christ was laid to nail him to the cross.

The Western Wall – remnant of the Temple of Jerusalem.

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