The week leading up to Easter was a difficult week; an unexpected death meant the tragic loss of an old friend leaving me and many people in my circle grieving. Although I had been looking forward to this trip for quite some time, I felt strange departing in the mist of all the sadness. As I boarded the plane in JFK, all I could think about was how the world had lost a beautiful soul and I should be there to say goodbye. Yet, traveling to the holy land, a place where varying religions and people exist side by side, where Jesus is said to have risen from the dead, and Mohammed to have ascended to heaven; a place of deeply felt passion and unwavering faith, a place where people from all over the world wish each other peace with a simple greeting and smile seemed like the perfect way to say goodbye and honor my friend.
Arriving in the airport after sundown on a Friday night during the Shabbat and Passover meant there were few options to transport people either to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. After much confusion, we split a taxi with Adam; an Israeli who lives in Philly, and Priscila; a Chilean Jew who was visiting the city for a month. Both expressed suprise when we sheepishly admitted we were only visitng for 36 hours; a sentiment I shared, but was determined to make the most of it.
The taxi dropped us off at the Damascus Gate, and we immediately stopped in our tracks, staring in awe at the ancient walls of the old city. Knowing we did not have much time and with the goal of trying to experience Easter in Jerusalem, I booked a hotel in the Muslim quarter of the old city; a few steps from the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall. As we entered further into the narrow cobblestoned streets of the old city, few shops were still open and the only glimpse of life we saw were shopkeepers sweeping the garbage mounds left near their stores. We quickly found the Hashimi Hotel; dropped our bags and headed out to find a bite to eat. With so many restauarants closed, we were advised by Muhammad, the hotel manager, that we would have to exit the city gates. Just inside the Damascus gate however, we came across a cute cafe serving food and coffee. We sat in the atmospheric, glass walled room and ordered a plate of Kubbe, hummus with meat and pine nuts, and sabouk. A family run cafe, we were entertained by a young boy who served us drinks and shared his pet parrot with us.
After dinner we headed towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; a place we would frequent often in the short time we were visiting. Following the sound of drums, we entered through the archway into a small courtyard where there were hundreds of people from all over the world celebrating, or rather, commemorating the death of Christ. The holiest site in all of Christianity, the church is said to be built on the site where Jesus was crucified as well as the resurrected tomb. Whereas Protestants believe that the Garden Tomb, located just outside the city walls is the actual spot of the tomb, the Holy Sepulchre church has been traditionally considered the actual spot since 400 AD. Shared control of the church belongs to multiple sects of Christianity including Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox to name a few. Arriving too late for the Good Friday Mass, we were able to witness the ceremonious closing of the church, shortly after a nun handed me a small piece of cloth with “Christs’ Frankincense” on it. I thanked her and placed the small cloth in a safe place in my bag, moved by this small gesture of kindness and faith.
Only a few minutes away from church sits the Western Wall (also known as the whaling wall or the Kotel); the most important site in Judaism. The Wall is the last standing remnant of the Second Temple, built over 2000 years ago by Herod the Great. As it was Friday night and the Shabbat, there were few people visiting the wall and it seemed as if we had the whole complex to ourselves. More than the number one holy site for Judaism, people from all religions are encouraged to write prayers on small white slips of paper and slip them into the wall. As our time visiting the wall coincided with the services being held at home for my friend, this seemed like a poignant way to give thanks for her friendship and wish peace upon her family.
After leaving the area surrounding the Western Wall, and a failed attempt to enter the Temple of the Mount; the site of the Dome of the Rock; the second most important site in Islam, we decided to head back through the dark covered streets of the Muslim quarter towards our hotel. Along the way, as we tried to find our street we came across the Via Dolorosa and one of the stations of the cross. The sudden realization that I was walking in the footsteps of Jesus took my breath away, especially because it had seemed as if the whole city had emptied out and we were walking this path alone. The 5th station of the cross, located at the corner of El Wad Street shown below, is marked by a small Franciscan church and a stone bearing what is said to be the handprint of Jesus.
The following morning, Holy Saturday, we woke up at 5 am and made our way back to the Holy Sepulchre so that we would be there in time for a 730 Easter Vigil Mass. The church is a 5 minute walk from the hotel, but we thought it might be diffiuclt to get in, we arrived early. When we exited our hotel into the Muslim Souk, we walked towards the church, joining pilgrims from all over the world along the way. We made our way into the church upon which the first thing you see is the slab where Jesus’ body was presented to Mary and prepared for burial. At 530 in the morning, there was a small ceremony taking place at the small orthodox temple within the church marking the spot of Jesus’ tomb. We did not yet know it, but the ceremony was marking the closing of the tomb which had been open at 5am for visitation.
After the temple was closed, we explored the church a bit and followed some pilgrims up a small stone staircase to a Greek Orthodox temple located upstatirs that marks the spot of Jesus’ crucifixtion. There are two altars here, one Catholic and one Greek Orthodox. We walked through both, and stopped at the altar where you can put your hand through a small hole and touch the rock of the Cavalry; there the crucifixion is said to have occurred. After we explore some more, we made our way back towards the altar near Jesus tomb and found a spot along the side where we could stand for the Easter Vigil Mass. Surrounded by French, Spanish, Eastern Europeans, etc. none of whom seemed to know what was happening next, we watched as a combination of Orthodox priests, Franciscan Friars, and church guards to name a few frantically moved hoards of people left then right, and tried to clear a path of the mass to begin. At around 730, coming from a small chapel located towards the back of the church, a seemingly never ending parade of priests, friars, and others began the processions towards the altar of the tomb to begin mass.
Throughout the mass there were numerous liturgies read, in multiple languages including French, english, spanish, and Latin. The mass went on for 3 and 1/2 hours, lasting until 11am when the tomb of Jesus was opened again for public visitation. It was a very moving experience to celebrate the Easter Vigil with such a diverse group of devout people from all over the world, particularly the Italian nun next to us who directed us when to light our candles, when to blow them out, and who held my hand in prayer during the Our Father. At the end of the Mass, everyone cheered for the fact that Jesus would be resurrected soon, his tomb would be open, and that after standing for almost 4 hours, everyone could now relax.
A mixture of different Christian faiths running the show, there seemed to be “mass” confusion among visitors and patriarchs alike as to what was to come next. With a bunch of people rushing to get on line, we followed the masses pushing and shoving their way towards the chapel of the tomb. Once the church guards blocked us in like bearded sheep or Times Square goers on New Years Eve, we realized that they were preparing to open the chapel so that pilgrims could visit the tomb of Jesus for this special occassion. Knowing that the tomb would also be open at 5am on Easter Sunday, we decided to sneak out of the line and come back the following day.
Exhausted from traveling the day before and waking at 5am, we wandered around the old city with no real plan, finding ourselves again at the Western Wall. After a cup of pretty terrible Arabic coffee, we decided to throw in the towel and head back to the hotel for a few hours to nap and recharge until late afternooon when we ventured out to visit the Mount of Olives, first stopping off for some Palestinian food.
As we made our way through the Souk, we found ourselves in the Armenian quarter of the old city, walking through a section of shops that specialized in jewelry. When we politely declined the offer of one man, he kindly accepted our unwillingness to “just look in the shop”, but instead asked where we were from. Upon our response that we were from “the States”, he expressed excitement and asked if we could write down the word “Clearance” for him on a piece of paper so he could adverstise it in his shop. Half not convinced of his need for this word (as he was clearly well-versed in English), we sheepishly followed him back into the store and Michelle wrote the word on a tiny piece of paper for him. He then wanted to reward her with a “gift” which consisted of one pearl earring that seemed to be taking him 30 minutes to string together. Fully aware this was his way of enticing us to buy his hand-made jewelry, we didn’t mind and happily engaged in conversation with him where we found out that his dad had come to Jerusalem after the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century. Looking for gifts for people anyways, we happily bought a few items before we set off a few steps up the road where we found a restuarant tucked into a vaulted cellars, serving orthodox and Palestinian food, and perhaps most importantly, wine!
Setting out for the Mount of Olives after, we exited the old city and began to walk up to the long hill towards the site of the Church of Nations, sitting at the bottom of the hill. Located just a short walk outside the walled city, the Mount of Olives holds much significance for Christianity, as well as providing panoramic views of Jerusalem. One of the first sites we came across was the Church of Assumption, aka the tomb of Mary. Unfortunately, the church and tomb were closed by the time we arrived. As we approached an intersection a few steps away, we heard the sound of drums and bagpipes from up in the hill, with a bunch of Eastern Europeans waiting enthusiastically at the corner for the Palm Sunday Procession to arrive. Although it was Easter Sunday for the Catholic Church and other sects of Christianity, for the Orthodox churches, it was Palm Sunday, and so there were multiple ceremonies, processions, and rituals taking place throughout the city. The Orthodox procession was commemorating Jesus coming down from teh mountain, looking out and weeping for the destruction of Jerusalem before his crucifixion. In addition to multiple holy sites for Christianity, which are scattered throughout the hill, the site is also home to an ancient Jewish Cemetery.
After the procession, we hiked up to the Rehav’am Lookout which gave us a magnificent view of the old city. As it was late, we were treated to a rather isolated view of the glowing lights of the old city.
As we made our way back down the hill, we we stopped off at the Basicila of the Agony or Church of All Nations, which was opening for an 8pm mass. The Church was built next to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is said to have been betrayed by Judas and home to a grove of olive trees which are over 2000 years old.
Making our way back to the hotel, as we walked down the hill towards the old city, I looked over and saw that the Church of the Assumption was open, as was Mary’s tomb. We walked down the stairs and were greeted with a smile by one of the tomb caretakers, one of 5 people in the vaulted chapel. I couldn’t believe we were actually visiting the tomb of Mary, with only a handful of people including the tomb keeper and an Orthodox nun. We proceeded to enter the old city through Lions Gate, stumbling upon Station 4 of the Via Dolorosa; a small church which is said to Mary’s birthplace. With a few people drinking coffee in the lobby of an attached apartment, we were unsure if we should enter, but they waved us in with thier hands and said “welcome”. After perusing a small gift stand, we proceeded through an iron gated staircase, down into the basement of this building to a small cave with a marker celebrating the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. Unbelievable!
As we ascended upstairs the lights went off and we heard the lock of the iron gate. We were locked in cave of Mary’s birthplace! Fortunately, we heard laughter from one of the ladies upstairs in the apartment who realized we were still there, and opened it up for us. We communicated that there were still 2 people down below and went on our merry way back to the hotel. On the way we were sucked into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre once again, as there seemed to always be commotion happening. We walked in and saw a line around the Chapel of the Angel waiting to visit Jesus’ tomb, which someone informed us was going to be open all night. As Michelle set off to find out what was going on, I stepped in line and began chatting with a woman from Texas and group of Coptic Christian’s from Egypt. When Michelle came back we decided to wait on line, which was moving somewhat quickly. Standing line for about 30 minutes, we made our way around to the other side of the chapel, with the excited Egyptian women behind us nudging us along whenever the line would move. Michelle pulled out her phone and typed into google translate “Happy Easter’ in Arabic and showed it to them. With excitement and gratitude, one of the older ladies grabbed the phone and passed it around to her friends, with big smiles on their faces. After a few minutes, we were at the entry point into the chapel which holds the tomb. We were ushered in quickly, but allowed time deep inside to pray and contemplate before allowing in the next group. Although there were crowds of people around me most of the time, the solemn moments spent next to the tomb of Jesus was an incredibly moving experience that actually brought tears to my eyes.
The following day we were able to visit the Dome of the Rock, the 3rrd most important Mosque in Islam because it marked the place where Muhammad ascended into heaven. After one more stop at the Western Wall, we headed out of the old city with the intention of ivisiting Jerusalem’s famous market. When we couldn’t figure out which way to walk, we decided instead to try and go see th3e Garden Tomb, the site where Protestants believed Jesus’ tomb exists. When we arrived, we were greet3ed at the door by a small, man speaking perfect English who informed us that the tomb was closed for the day except for the 4 services being held, the last one of which was ending. As we could hear the sound of cheerful singing coming from inside, much of which resembled churches at home- songs being sung in English etc., we were happy to keep our moment with Jesus’ tomb in the Church of Holy Sepulchre and not visit the Garden Tomb.
As the rain began to close in, we exited the mosque and stopped off at a coffee shop adverstiing coffee “better than Starbucks” where the shop owner made us Arabic coffee over a small flame. We then walked some more and as a storm blew in, we stopped off at a small Swarama shop just outside the city walls where we grabbed a delicious lunch of shaved beef stuffed into a pita with salads and hummus, as we ducked under some tented tables out on the street watching the storm blow in.
Celebrating Easter in Jerusalem, a sacred place full of history, ridden with conflicts, the center of three of the world’s biggest religions, was an experience I will never forget and brought me closer to a sense of peace much yearned for after a tumultuous few weeks. On to Jordan!