Sunday, 23 August 2015

Holy Land: Sacred Pilgrimage: Part V–Hebron

 world-map israel


This week’s post is all about Hebron, one of the most miserable and divided cities in the world. Visiting it was a profoundly moving experience that is still seared into my brain and it is tragic to think that the city is no better today than it was back in 2009.

As I write, I am again on my travels, this time exploring the extremities of my own country. I write today from a small bed and breakfast just south of John O’Groats, right at the top of Scotland. It’s ridiculous but before today, whilst I have explored North Korea and Uzbekistan, I have never roamed the Highlands of Scotland. As with my Paris trip earlier in the year, this was obviously an omission which needed to be rectified, but unlike with the French capital, so far this trip has been far from a roaring success. My friend Paul pulled out at the last minute which has meant double the driving which, I have to admit, I’m struggling with, whilst the idyllic campsite where we tried to camp tonight was simply too windy and so we’ve retreated to the confines of a proper building for the night before heading up to the Orkney Isles off the top of Scotland and home to some of the finest Neolithic remains in Europe – what with Stonehenge this year and Bru na Boinne last, this is getting to be a bit of a theme.

I’ll update on that later but for now, back to the mists of early Middle Eastern history and the place where the patriarch of three major world faiths is buried…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem



There was a place on this trip that I was absolutely sure that I wanted to visit. It was also the one place that I was sure I would not be visiting with Thao and Tom. The idea had been formulated when Lenin had come to visit back in December. His tales of his recent Israel-Palestine trip had been interesting but not particularly inspiring; half the places I’d been to already and the other half I was not that fussed on seeing. One however, did stand out, a name recognisable from countless news programmes over the years, a name synonymous with both religious heritage and religious hatred. That name is Hebron.

It all starts in the Book of Genesis. Abraham, father of the three great monotheistic faiths has a field called Machpelah and…

“after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan.

And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a burying place by the sons of Heth.”

Genesis 23:19-20

And a little later on we hear:

“Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man full of years; and was gathered to his people.

And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.”

Genesis 25:8-9

So in short, Hebron is the place where the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is buried, along with his wife and – at later dates – a host of other Old Testament notables.

It was asking for trouble.

There were no direct buses to Hebron and I was advised to take the Bethlehem bus as we had done the day before. This took me through the wall and then deposited me at a rough patch of ground just after the checkpoint where several sherut minibus taxis were waiting. I located the Hebron one, waited for it to fill up and then off we went.

The journey was not long, but went through the heart of the West Bank. The landscape was dramatic and the land harsh yet beautiful, but what was most striking of all were the human traces upon it. Every so often we passed a Palestinian village, houses clustered around a mosque, scratty, untidy and poor. In between these villages, occupying the hilltops and built like fortresses, were the Jewish settlements, wealthy, organised and highly secure. The space between was a no man’s land where nothing much grew or happened. Most people, like us, sped through, past the Israeli military checkpoints, guardians over an occupied territory.

It was raining when we reached Hebron and that seemed apt for it was a run-down, untidy place like so many Arab towns seem to be. It seemed devoid of any appeal whatsoever, just peeling concrete buildings lining pot-holed streets and I wondered why Lenin had found it so interesting. Nonetheless, I was here now, so I alighted from the sherut and walked through the streets lined with market stalls, utensil and barbers shops and throngs of people, heading in the direction of the Ibrahimi Mosque.

And then I was all alone. The crowds had dissipated and I was walking down a deserted street. On either side the shops were boarded up and there was an eerie feeling in the air. I glanced heavenwards and was shocked to discover a metal grill covering the roadway. On the floors above the grill were apartments and sentry boxes. I felt afraid, I had made a wrong turn, I was somewhere that I wasn’t meant to be. But to turn back would be an admittance of failure. I walked onwards.

Halfway along the street was a bridge. On either side machine gun wielding soldiers patrolled the rooftops. Then on the right a street branched off, only to be blocked off a few metres later by some huge concrete blocks, metal sheets and barbed wire. Someone had sprayed ‘Zionism is racism’ on one of the blocks. Where the fuck was I?

At the end of the street was a small square. On its right-hand side was a fortified gateway guarded by two military posts. I looked in and saw the eyes of soldiers peering out from within their fortified perches. I continued on my way but then the gates opened and a platoon of men in full combat gear carrying machine guns came out and started edging their way up the very streets that I had just come down. It was like watching the 10 o’ clock news except with me as the headline. The phrase ‘friendly fire’ now sounded far more menacing than it had ever done in the past.

The reason behind all the high tension and military presence is a group of Jewish settlers. I’ve already mentioned the Cave of the Patriarchs, but the significance of Hebron does not end there, (although that alone would be enough one suspects). The city has often played a significant role throughout Jewish history and was for a time the capital of a Jewish state. Over millennia there has continually been a Jewish presence there, but that long unbroken tradition horrifically came to an end in 1929 when the local Arabs massacred the majority of the city’s Jewish population and then drove out the survivors. The link with thousands of years of history had been severed and for one group of New York based fundamentalists that was simply too much to bear. In April 1968 they checked into the city’s Al-Naher Al-Khaled Hotel ostensibly as tourists, and then refused to leave. Later, in a deal with the Israeli government, they agreed to move to a former Israeli army base on the edge of the city and there they established the Kiryat Arba Settlement. That however, was not enough and in April 1979, Miriam Levinger (wife of Moshe Levinger, the Rabbi who led the original Al-Naher Al-Khaled Hotel occupation) and Sarah Nachshon led a march to the centre of Al-Shuhada Street in Hebron, and occupied the in Beit Hadassah building, that had been a police station during the Ottoman Era. When the authorities found out they were not impressed. The then-Prime Minister, Menachem Begin did not want any settlements within the ancient city itself but at the same time he did not want to forcibly expel the squatters. So it was that soldiers were posted around the building and it existed in a state of siege for over a year until in May 1980 authorisation for a settlement in the ancient heart of the city was given.

That settlement has continued until the present day, gradually expanding but at not always successfully, as with the controversial occupation by the settlers of a building called Beit HaShalom from which the Israeli military forcibly removed them in 2008. Under the Oslo Accords of 1997, the city has been divided into two sectors, H1 where around 130,000 Palestinian Arabs live and H2 which is home to around 30,000 Palestinians and 500 Jewish settlers. H2 was the area in through which I had been walking and relations between the two groups are extremely poor, even in comparison with the generally low-level of Palestinian-Jewish co-operation across the region. Having inadvertently walked through the most controversial street in the city – Old Al-Shallalah Street – where the ground floor shops (all boarded-up) are Palestinian and the upper storeys, Jewish, and judging from the empty wine bottles (remember, Muslims don’t drink alcohol), and rubbish thrown down from the settlers onto their Palestinian neighbours, it is no surprise that relations between the two groups are rocky. It becomes even clearer though, when one hears the story of February 25th, 1994 when a Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein from Kiryat Arba, (the former military base on the edge of Hebron), walked into the Cave of the Patriarchs and opened fire on the Muslim worshippers inside, killing 29 and wounding another 125. The crime horrified the world, for the attack was unprovoked, in a place holy to both Goldstein’s religion as well as that of the Muslims, and that he had managed to enter carrying an automatic rifle past a checkpoint put in place to guard both Jews and Arabs, carried with it implications of complicity by the soldiers on duty. Although Goldstein was widely denounced by the majority of Jewish and Israeli society, to the settlers of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, he has become a hero and his grave had to be demolished by the IDF in 1999 as it was becoming a place of pilgrimage. As I said, with goings on like that, it is hardly surprising that the city exists in a state of permanent hatred, with the Israeli-controlled H2 area by and large a ghost town.

hebronmap2A map of the H2 area of Hebron, with the Old City, Cave of the Patriarchs and Old Al-Shallalah marked

I continued on my way, after the somewhat unnerving incident regarding the Israeli soldiers in full combat gear, through the Old City of Hebron towards the Cave of the Patriarchs. There had been some sort of scheme financed by the international community to beautify Hebron and the streets were beautifully paved which, along with the atmospheric old buildings, made one realise that, if there were no political problems, Hebron would be a magnet for tourists as its Al-Qasba district truly encapsulates the aura of the Middle East. However, at the current time, with part of the city’s heart occupied by a group of extremists antithetical to the majority of the population, that was never going to be, and I was again reminded of the current day problems just outside the building where I was confronted by a border post similar to those one find where one country meets another.

“Where are you going?” asked the Israeli guard.

“To the Cave of the Patriarchs,” replied I.

“You can’t go in now, the Friday prayers are on and it is full.”

“Is there not a Jewish part as well?”

“You are not Muslim?!”

“Of course not, I’m Christian!”

“OK then, no problem, you can go in the Jewish section. I just need to see your passport first…”

I went on through, as if entering a new country, from the Arab Zone to the Jewish Zone, and there in front of me was the Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial place of half of the Old Testament. It looked neither like a mosque or a synagogue, more an immense block of stone that had been there since time immemorial. Mind you, that should perhaps, have been expected; after all, the building dates from Herodian times, before synagogues took on their current shape and mosques had not even been thought of.

Inside it was a strange mix of being very Jewish and yet also very Arab. The style of the furnishings and decoration, and in particular the tombs reminded me of the many Ottoman buildings that I have visited in Turkey and the Balkans, but this should come as no surprise for Herod’s building was merely an enclosure, open to the air, whilst the present, roofed in interior dates from Crusader and Arab rebuilding. The Jewish element however, came from the people who populated it; the building was abuzz with activity for there was a Bar Mitzvah on and the courtyard in the centre crammed full of smiling, celebrating Orthodox Jews.

I moved away from the crowd and took up a place in between two of the tombs, (not being able to read either Hebrew, I hadn’t a clue as to whose they were),[1] where it was quieter, and taking out my rosary, I began to pray. My mind still in overdrive from the harrowing reality of modern-day Hebron, I prayed fervently for God to heal the bitter divisions between His people, tears running down my cheeks as I reflected on how Abraham’s children hated each other to such an extent that a wall had to be built to separate them through the heart of the prophet’s own resting place. I reflected too on how the cruel apartheid of Hebron is, in many ways, merely a microcosm of the separation of the wider world, between First and Third World countries. There the barriers are not so visible, but they exist, with highly-trained soldiers being deployed to protect the interests of the rich minority, regardless of the legal facts and feelings of the dispossessed poor majority. Hebron was a gospel, a bell sounding out a powerful message loud and clear, that hate can triumph over love, even in the most sacred of places. For a follower of a faith based on love, the Gospel according to Hebron was a most depressing and cynical one indeed. And yet it was perpetuated by people, normal, everyday, human beings. I looked up from my musings at the party going on in the main part of the synagogue. They were nice guys, with kind faces, smiling and singing at one of those events that cross all cultural and linguistic barriers, the joy of a boy becoming a man. Yet were those normal, happy people not the very same settlers who threw wine bottles and litter down onto their Palestinian neighbours, who took over houses and land that they had not bought, who drove the defenceless from their homes with the connivance of one of the world’s most advanced and efficient military machines? These guys were pious, they loved God! How come they could hate so vehemently at the same time, a hate that even the most committed atheist cannot muster? Why is it that, as the French philosopher Pascal Blaize once put it, ‘Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions’? Such was true of Baruch Goldstein, but such was also true of the Inquisition, the Crusaders, the September 11th bombers and the countless other religious fanatics who have sullied history with their actions.

clip_image004A plan of the layout of the Cave of the Patriarchs. The blue section is that used as a synagogue and the yellow as a mosque. The white area was originally a courtyard but now has a roof over it. It was here that the Bar Mitzvah ceremony was taking place. I prayed in between the two tombs to the far left.

As I left the Cave of the Patriarchs, the Muslim Call for Prayer began. Immediately, loud music started blaring from the Jewish settlements so as to drown out the mosque and remind people that this was Jewish land. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach, for the action was pure, unbridled intolerance and there is no place for such things in my worldview.

I tried to go back the way that I’d come, through the checkpoint into the Arab sector, but a soldier stopped me. “You can’t go that way,” he said.

“Why not?” I replied.

“Because that’s the Palestinian area.”

“But I’ve just come from there!”

He looked puzzled. “You’re not Jewish…?”

“No, I’m Christian.” I produced the rosary from under my shirt as proof and his face changed back into a smile.

“Ok then, no problem! Through you go!”

Back in the Arab Al-Qasbah district, I stopped for tea in an atmospheric café full of old men playing backgammon and smoking shisha pipes. It was like any other souq café in the Middle East save for the fact that just outside the door was a guard post manned by men with M16s. As I sipped my tea I mused on the fact that I was probably the only tourist in this beautiful, ancient and fascinating city. It is the fourth most holy place in Islam and the second in Judaism, with Christian connections as well and so should have been heaving with guests, its shops, instead of being boarded up, stocked with tacky souvenirs or craftsmen making the famous Hebron glass in time-honoured fashion. Instead though, it was empty, the only foreigners who entered being peace activists or screwballs like me or my mate Lenin who’d visited the year before. All the others in that café were locals, most doubtless having lived in Hebron all their lives and yet I was probably the only one in there, and aside from the soldiers, possibly in the whole city who had been able to cross the line and visit the other half of their most famous and sacred building.

And there was something fundamentally wrong in that.

[1] Later research has led me to identify them as being the tombs of Leah and Jacob. See the plan for details.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Holy Land: Sacred Pilgrimage: Part IV–Exploring the Old City

 world-map israel


The other day I was messing about on the internet as one does when I came across an article entitled ‘30 ways in which living in Israel has ruined you for life’. As such articles often turn out to be, this was not the best piece of net journalism that I’ve ever stumbled across, but there were a few of them that I found myself nodding along to. 1). In Israel it is socially acceptable to yell at people – definitely, and 8). Direct public involvement in every aspect of your life – ditto. 20). Wallah and yallah become the centre of your vocabulary this also rings bells, as too did 26). Six-day working week – now that can ruin anyone. But generally speaking, this is Nedida’s list (she’s the blogger) and not mine. So, how has Israel changed me, the Top 5:

5). You actually know what people are talking about when they pontificate on social media about the Arab-Israeli conflict and know just how biased and misinformed their pronouncement are, (whatever side they prefer).

4). You forever long to be sat around a campfire with a bunch of weird international hippies drinking cheap lager or vodka.

3). The Bible is more than an abstract book about bearded guys and camels in a land of palm trees and square mud huts. Nazareth and Bethlehem become real places just as familiar and flawed as Nottingham and Birmingham.

2). You learn that being polite is not a virtue, it’s hypocritical and it is far better to be blunt and straight with anyone. Very blunt and straight.

1). You realise that the bad guys can be really good and kind and the good guys can be arseholes because in fact, there are no such things as good guys and bad guys, only people.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Part 3: Bethlehem with a Baby

Part 4: Exploring the Old City



Thursday (continued)

Back in Jerusalem, we took a walk around the Old City. Thao wanted to see the Dome of the Rock, (or “Golden Temple” as she termed it), so we headed to the Wailing Wall from where one gains access to the Temple Mount itself. Thao was also acutely feeling the absence of Vietnamese victuals and in particular, rice, so she declared that she was cooking that evening. So it was that our stroll out to some of the holiest places on earth was lengthened by various detours and forays into shops that might sell rice.

1909522_155237165304_2132501_nMy first trip to Jerusalem: At the Wailing Wall with Simeon, Elton, Adrienne and Pepa

Of course, I had been to both the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock before. Back on my very first visit to Israel on February 22nd , 1997, I’d gone to both with Elton and Adrienne, Pepa and Simeon, and I still have a framed photo of us all stood in front of the wall on the wall behind my writing desk. More powerful however, had been the visit a year later when it was just me and Pepa. It was Christmas 1997 and she was in a difficult period of her life. After booking into the hostel, we had gone to the Wailing Wall and simply sat there in silence for around half an hour. The holiness and power of the place was all-consuming and I have respected it ever since. The following day, Christmas Day, we climbed up onto the Temple Mount itself, but this time could not go into the Dome as we had done previously, and instead had to make do with photos outside.

1909522_154328010304_359710_nPepa and I, Temple Mount, Christmas Day 1997

But back to 2009, I’d explained to Thao beforehand that we were going to the holiest place on earth for the Jews, their #1 temple you might say. When we got to the Wailing Wall however, she was less than impressed.

“Where?” she asked.

“Here!” I declared.

“But there’s no temple here,” she replied.

Looking out across the vast plaza in front of the Wall, one had to admit that she had a point. There was no temple in the normal sense of the word.

“The temple is over there; that wall is their temple.”

“A wall?”

“A wall.”

“Stupid!” She was most indignant. Praying to a big stone wall evidently does not make much sense to the Oriental mind. I decided to explain.

“Well, they used to have a temple, up there, where the Muslim Golden Temple is now, but they got beaten by the Romans in a war and it was knocked down.”

“Why don’t they build it again?”

I looked up at the big golden dome. “Because the Muslims got there in the meantime and built their temple there instead.”

She looked at the dome too. “Isn’t there room for two temples up there?”

I recalled the vast, windswept expanse of the Temple Mount with the tiny Dome of the Rock in the middle. There was room up there for a dozen temples if they were so inclined.

“Maybe the Muslims wouldn’t like it if they tried to build one?”

She sighed. “Ok then, why don’t they build the temple here instead?”

I looked at the huge plaza in front of the Wailing Wall. There was room there for a Temple of all Temples.

“But the temple must be there, not here!”

She sighed again as if talking to a child. “In Vietnam, if they build something where the old temple was, we just build new temple again next-door, no problem.”

“But this is not Vietnam!”

“Like I’m say to you, stupid!”

And with that she walked off, leaving me to think that whilst culturally insensitive she definitely was, at the same time there was a lot of common sense in what she said. More sense in fact, than one usually heard from Jerusalem’s religious authorities, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

1928273_147058060304_5283621_nThe Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock

We were not allowed up to the Dome of the Rock so we moved on into the Jewish Quarter. I have to admit that this is my least favourite part of the Old City, not because it is Jewish, but because it is new. That’s not the fault of its residents of course – the whole area was flattened during the fighting in 1948, proof if it were needed that it’s not just the Jews who go in for clearing out people who’ve lived in the same houses for centuries. Most Jews that I have met are decidedly proud of the job that the Israelis have done in rebuilding the quarter after it was recaptured in 1967, but I beg to differ: the houses are too modern in appearance and in amongst the creamy Jerusalem stone, there’s an awful lot of concrete.

What is remarkable, however, is just how different the atmosphere is in the Jewish Quarter to those of the Arab, Christian and Armenian Quarters. In an instant all the clutter and chaos is gone, replaced by affluence and order. We stepped into a shop to buy some food and I found charitable leaflets asking shoppers to donate presents to Israeli soldiers “protecting our land” alongside those for a local synagogue or yeshiva. Hebrew is totally ascendant and Arabic noticeably absent. These people are not only Jewish, but serious about it.

On my last visit to the Quarter on Christmas Day 1997, I stopped at a restaurant for a falafel. The establishment in question did not sell falafels, but the next-door one did so I ordered from them instead. They however, did not sell any tea, so I went back to the original restaurant for my cuppa. I then sat outside at one of the tables shared by both establishments to enjoy my snack, when the proprietor of the first restaurant came rushing out to me shouting “No! No! No!”

“Why?” I asked, somewhat mystified.

“Meat and milk!” he declared, (Orthodox Jews cannot drink milk within six hours of eating meat, vice versa though, it’s only an hour).

“But this is a falafel, there’s no meat in it!”

“Yes, but that restaurant, that is a meat restaurant!”

“But this is not meat!”

“No matter, meat and milk! No! No! No!”

“But I’m a Christian anyway, I can eat meat and milk!”

“Just go around the corner and eat them,” advised Pepa quietly, who had lived in the country long enough to know not to argue.[1]

This time there was no stopping for falafels – or milk – and we strolled straight through, down the elegant Cardo – the restored main street of Byzantine and Roman Jerusalem – back to the poky, chaotic and yet less-sterile Arab Quarter and our hotel where Thao was eager to cook up her Asian meal. I retreated to the room with Tom to keep him entertained and wait, but within half an hour I was confronted by an irate Vietnamese woman who was still struggling to cope with the realities of the Middle East.

“That woman, that crazy woman!”

“What woman?”

“That Sarra. She say when we come here, ‘Use the kitchen, it’s for your cooking, no problem,’ but now when I’m cook she’s complaining, says that the kitchen is only for small food like toast or soup, not to do big cooking. But I am the guest here, I am Vietnamese, Vietnamese cannot eat toast and soup, we need rice and seafood! Crazy woman this Sarra, I’m tell her she is crazy!”

Atheists and observers of the Middle East often declare that all of the world’s problems, (and the problems of that small corner of the world in particular), are solely due to religion, a force that the world would be better off without. At that particular moment however, the antagonisms between Jew, Christian and Muslim seemed slight compared with those caused by women, whose bickering always seems to be behind any woe. Unable to confront such formidable opponents, I bid a hasty retreat to the terrace to leave Buddhist and Muslim to fight it out to the death in the kitchen. There on the terrace, I enjoyed the tranquillity of the evening in the City of Peace, one of the most violent places on earth. Taking out my rosary, I meditated over the events and sights of the day; the Nativity, the Shepherds, the Magi, the miracle of the Milk Grotto, the Security Barrier – good versus evil, the Palestinian girl at the checkpoint, the tragedy of Israel which has been plagued by violence ever since its establishment. I recalled the words of my good friend Paul Daly, an active supporter of the Palestinian cause who would talk over the issues of the day in the pub and talk about a victory for the Israelis for a defeat for the Palestinians, and thought, no, no and thrice no, Paul, you have got it all wrong. In such a conflict where brother is set against brother, there is never any victory, for either side, only defeat. If only the men with the power could see that, then there might be a glimmer of hope. At the moment however, like 2,000 years before, the peacemakers are not listened to and instead crucified, metaphorically if not actually.

Why does man never learn?

[1] To be fair to the restaurant proprietors, discussing the issue with Paul Lewis back in England, he informed me that they could easily have their license to run a Jewish eating establishment taken off them for compromising with gentiles such as myself and that can cost a lot of money, which perhaps explains why they were so serious about it.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Holy Land: Sacred Pilgrimage Part III–Bethlehem with a Baby

world-map israel


My knee improves slowly, (no doubt helped by two remarkable test matches), and I’m able to move again a little and thus start to think about life beyond my settee. And with that comes thoughts of future trips. I’ve ordered a load of books about Cuba which I will read through to give me a bit of a background on that fair isle, but prior to that there’s a more immediate travel concern for in a couple of weeks or so I’ll be off to tour the Highlands of Scotland for the first time ever with my son and mate Paul. To prepare I’m ploughing through Magnus Magnusson’s ‘Scotland: The Story of a Nation’, several thousand years of history condensed into 700-odd pages. It’s a readable tome I suppose, but far too concentrated on kings and battles for my liking and I’m struggling to get a feel for the place so far. Maybe when I get there…?

magnuss magnusson

Another book of interest that I read last weekend was Patrick Thomas’ ‘From Carmarthen to Karabagh: a Welsh discovery of Armenia’.

carmarthen to karabagh

Thomas is a Welsh clergyman, (I’ve read another of his books on the very different topic of Welsh saints), who discovered Armenia on a pilgrimage a decade ago and has been transfixed ever since. The book is the tale of his love affair with the land, its faith and its people and I recommend anyone thinking of heading to Armenia to give it a go. True, I found the history chapter at the start to be very basic and unfulfilling, but as an introductory guide it would work much better and the later chapters which pick out certain intriguing aspects and episodes from Armenia’s story were fascinating to read and managed to teach even someone like me whose read a bit on the topic some new things. My only criticism is that it can be a tad politically one-sided at times and contains traces of nationalism which, as any regular reader of mine will know, can turn poisonous if consumed too often. That aside though, like with Armenia itself, give it a go!

For those who wish to know more about my trip to Armenia, here’s the link but for now, from one holy land to another, let’s head to Bethlehem…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Part 3: Bethlehem with a Baby




Having ticked the holiest site on Earth off on one’s pilgrimage list, then it is only natural to next aim for Number 2, particularly if one is in the vicinity. So, it was that the following morning found us bound for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Unlike the Holy Sepulchre, this was one place that I had not previously visited, although I had come very close. In the December of 1997, almost a year after my kibbutz experience, I had found myself returning to Israel to catch up with (amongst others) Simeon and Pepi, the charming Bulgarian couple whom I met on my very first trip to Jerusalem in Elton and Adrienne Netto’s camper van back on 22nd January, 1997. To my surprise however, when I arrived, as a couple, they were no more. I found Simeon working in a bakery in Eilat with a rather plain female Belorussian friend who appeared to be far more than just that, (and at the time Simeon continually went on about how beautiful women only let a man down whilst the plain ones had a more inner beauty and lasting quality), whilst Pepi was to be found crashing on the sofa of Katya, the only other Bulgarian on the kibbutz back in those halcyon days but a few months previously. I caught up with them both in the soulless Tel Aviv suburb of Cholon and in fact ended up spending the night on a Jewish settlement on the West Bank,[1] agreeing to meet up with Pepi a week later for the holiest night of the year, (well, ok, technically the second holiest…), Christmas Eve, in Bethlehem.

Not that many people stay in Bethlehem of course, a town synonymous for poor accommodation options the world over, so bad that even God can only crash in a cave there. Nowadays, all the cheap sleeps are in Jerusalem, so we’d toured the hostels of the Old City Pepi and I, but there was no room at the inn(s) until eventually the Al-Arab Hostel said that they had space but, being holy in the holiest of all cities, it was only available if we were married. “But I am married,” replied Pepi in all honesty, (and with a ring to prove it), and since they never asked to whom, we found shelter and then headed out by bus to join the worshipping throngs in the Church of the Nativity.

Except that the church was full, booked by the Roman Catholics for Mass apparently, and so we were left outside in Manger Square with a service in seven languages and Yasser Arafat’s wife as a celebrity celebrant, (he was inside at the actual Mass). Nonetheless, it was a glorious night; the air was pungent with joy and celebration and I was with a girl who not only felt alienated from her faith and culture, alone and in need of a friend, but was also stunningly attractive and possessing the sexiest accent on earth. Oh how blind youth can make us, and yet at the time how sublime it all is!

In 2009 however, I was married, somewhat fatter, kid in tow and the celebratory mood had been replaced by a chaotic Palestinian bus station. That said, would I have changed things? Of course not, after all, Stoke City were not a Premier League team back then…

I say a Palestinian bus station, because Bethlehem is a Palestinian town. Back in 1997 that meant a checkpoint en route, but in 2009 it meant a whole lot more for in those intervening years peace has alas, become more distant rather than closer and since 2005 a ‘Security Barrier’ (read ‘New Berlin Wall’), has hermetically sealed the West Bank off from the rest of the country that it is purportedly part of.[2]

Like most of the world, I had seen images of this wall on the TV and in the newspapers and, (particularly after visiting Berlin in 2007 and learning all about the world’s other famous ‘security barrier’ that had inspired this one), was interested to see what it looked like in reality. Sat on a Palestinian bus travelling up out of Jerusalem I did see it, snaking across the barren Judean Hills, separating Jew from Arab. It was heart-breaking; that one man can so hate his brother that he needs to put such a barrier up is indescribably sad. It also struck me on one level as perhaps the most stupid thing that Israel could ever have done. Whilst the right-wing politicians may argue that it reduces terrorism, (and the evidence is that it does), from a PR point of view, it has to be a disaster as it virtually screams to the world that Israel is the evil aggressor. There are arguments on both sides as to the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet such a visible symbol of hatred and intolerance is surely impossible to justify whatever one’s opinions. I, who have always tried to steer a middle path with regards to Israel and her Arab neighbours, found myself angered by the State of Israel when I saw that concrete knife slash across an ancient land. Like with its now-demolished brother around Berlin, I would hate any state that could build such a structure, whatever their reasons may be.

1928273_147056590304_4639341_nIn Manger Square, with the Church of the Nativity in the background

The town of Bethlehem sprawls over many hilltops, is scruffy around the edges, but it is also atmospheric and considerably more tourist-friendly – and richer – than any other Palestinian town. Its population may be majority Muslim these days,[3] but the flocks of pilgrims and various religious institutions maintain a distinctly Christian feel to the place. That said, they do not ruin it as can easily happen in places of pilgrimage. When I stepped through the Door of Humility, (so called because one has to bow down to pass through it – not an easy task when carrying a baby on your back! – as it is only four feet high),[4] the atmospheric church built in the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian was almost entirely empty.

1928273_147056605304_7000568_nThe Door of Humility

We made our way to the Grotto of the Nativity underneath the main altar where, over 2,000 years ago, Christ was born, and there we paid our respects. Although the object of my pilgrimage had always been Jerusalem, in many respects I felt Bethlehem to be more fitting, since Tom, for whom we were thankful and thus making the journey, had been born on the 25th December, the day traditionally ascribed as Christ’s birthday, (even if it may not have been the actual date), and so it was perhaps fitting that he paid a visit to the birthplace of his more illustrious fellow Christmas Day baby.

1928273_147056620304_5795846_nSame birthday, same place, different baby: Tom visits the Star of Bethlehem, the exact spot when Christ was born.

Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity is not one church but instead a collection of them, its different parts being run by different denominations. After visiting the Grotto itself, we explored the other parts; Armenian, Roman and Greek, dating from the reign of Justinian up until the 19th century, and then went out to look at the town itself. Although its hilly location is pleasant, there is not actually a great deal to see or do in Bethlehem and most of what there is I had seen or done eleven years before with Mrs. Kovatcheva so, after browsing through the magnificent collection of souvenir emporiums full of crucifixes, rosaries, fridge magnets and vials of Jordan water labelled in Russian, Thao retired to the tourist information centre to attend to the nappy needs of Tom whilst I headed up a side street to seek out the Milk Grotto.

1928273_147056625304_4315108_nTom outside the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine

My hopes were not high; it was more just a place to visit rather than somewhere that actually warrants a visit. The church was founded on a legend that tells that when the Holy Family were escaping from King Herod to Egypt, a drop of milk fell from Mary’s breast and turned all the rocks in that place white. Now, as legends go, that one is sufficiently silly and disappointingly devoid of any kind of worthwhile religious message to be remembered for all eternity and so it has proved, with the site being a place of pious veneration ever since.

Cheesy as the legend might have been, the church located of the milky white catacombs was, in fact, quite moving. Although most of it was quite new, (or at least, renovated), it was tastefully done and a superb place to reflect in silence, (I was the only visitor). Like with Walsingham in England, I found that God can be present in even the cheesiest of folk tales and indeed, is often more present and tangible in such places than elsewhere. I left more respectful of the story and the church that it had produced. It was a worthwhile side trip.

Getting back to Jerusalem was an unnecessarily complicated affair. We had to take a taxi to the edge of town where the minibuses stopped and then on a tour of the suburbs in said bus. It was packed and I stood which gave me a chance to people-watch. Most of our fellow travellers were Palestinian university students, some of the female ones quite fetching. A girl sat beside me had a book on teacher-training in Arabic and English and was tempted to try and strike up a conversation on the theories of Maslow, Kolb and Schön, but then realised that that would be more than a little bit sad and also most likely unwelcome. In front of me stood another striking girl who wore tight jeans and no headscarf which seemed quite shocking compared with the attire of all her other female compatriots, but when she crossed herself at every church that we passed and I realised that she was a Christian.

Then media generally portrays the Palestinians as Muslim, often fanatical at that, and whilst this may be true in part, it should also be remembered that there has always been a significant portion of the Palestinian Arab population that is Christian and has kept the faith alive in the Holy Land far better than the Crusaders ever did with their swords. That minority however, is dwindling due to the higher birth rates of the Muslims and the opportunities to migrate overseas being more for the Christians who tend to be richer. In a perverse way, Israel’s policies have helped destroy the Palestinian moderates (i.e. their potential allies) and increase the hardliners who are almost all Muslim and from the poorest sections of society for whom migration is simply not an option.

Israeli policies again came to the fore when we stopped at the ‘border’ checkpoint in the wall. Entering Palestine we had been neither stopped nor checked – after all, why should Israel care about weapons and terrorists leaving their territory? Coming back however, it was a different story entirely; the bus was stopped and everybody made to present their ID. As tourists we had no problems and were not even required to leave the bus, but each and every Arab was ordered off and scrutinised intently. As this happened, I watched the other travellers at the border. Each Palestinian vehicle was checked thoroughly whilst the Jewish cars, (they have different number plates), containing settlers one assumed, sailed through without even having to stop. The injustice of it all was infuriatingly tragic, (after all, whatever one’s political affiliations might be, one has to admit that the settlers too have resorted to violence as well over recent years). The whole tragedy for me however, was encapsulated by one young Palestinian lady in the next lane who, alone out of a whole busload, had been refused entry into Israel for whatever reason. Her tears and pleas were being dismissed perfunctorily by the guards – females of a similar age to herself – who then waved to the passing be-yarmulked settlers. The frustration in her face was the frustration of an entire people powerless in the face of adversity. I, neither a Muslim nor a Jew, with many Israeli friends, someone who believes firmly that Israel has a right to exist and defend herself and is, in so many respects, a positive enterprise, found the scene maddening. What such episodes must do daily to the psyche of a Palestinian, I dare not imagine.

[1] See ‘Settling Into Israel’

[2] The Israelis declared both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to be part of the State of Israel in 1967. This has never been recognised by the UN or the international community.

[3] This has not always been the case, for as recently as 1947 the town was 75% Christian. The Arab Christian minority has been one of the main casualties of the Israeli-Palestinian violence and has left in droves to America and other countries. The Christian population of Bethlehem today stands at around 12% of the total.

[4] The door was originally much larger but it was bricked up in Ottoman times to prevent mounted soldiers from entering as the Church of the Nativity was often attacked and indeed, even today it looks more like a fortress than a church which proved useful when the church was occupied by Palestinian militants and besieged by the Israeli Defence Forces in May 2002.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Holy Land: Sacred Pilgrimage: Part II–Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

world-map israel


And what a week it has been. Last Saturday whilst exploring the Roman city of Wroxeter, I tripped backwards and knackered my knee (again). The result: four hours in A&E and a week sat on the settee with nothing to do except read books and type up travelogues. The results: my Welsh travelogue A470 which tells the story of my driving expedition from the top to the bottom of Wales with my brother last year is completed and I’m making good progress in writing up my trip around Ireland last year. Oh yes, and I’ve been able to listen to every over of England destroying the Aussies in the Third Ashes Test. Every cloud…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem



Ash Wednesday

We were up early and glad to be leaving Tel Aviv, that soulless city with its abysmal hotel. To make things worse, Thao was suffering from an allergic reaction to something or other and so we had our taxi driver go out of his way to a pharmacy which cost more but at least stopped the complaints. Like all our drivers, he was an Arab and a friendly one at that. He chatted about his toddler son and a Filipina regular customer, (he’d assumed the Spouse was Filipino), who only left the house when he was outside for fear of the police, (she was an illegal visa-overstayer).

I decided that the train was the best way to travel to the Holy City despite it being much longer, partially because neither Thao nor I particularly like bus travel, partially because the trip was reputed to be rather scenic, partially because I like trains and partially because I’d never done it before. The Ottoman railway line to Jerusalem had only been reopened four years before – since I’d last visited Israel has undergone a rail revolution with several passenger lines being opened and what’s more, it isn’t over yet; a high-speed line between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem is currently under construction and there are plans for a line all the way down to Eilat; all good in my opinion.

As our diesel rumbled out of Tel Aviv, through Lod, (birthplace of St. George of dragon-slaying fame), Ramla, (the only Arab-founded town in Israel, although looking remarkably like all the Jewish-founded towns) and Beit Shemesh, I tried to focus my thoughts in a more religious manner as befits the journey towards Jerusalem, the City of Peace, Al-Qud, the holiest place on the planet. I started by reading a little of Journey of a Lifetime,[1] a book that I’d borrowed from the prison chapel, an account of a 1950s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but it proved to be a poor read and so I laid it aside and delved into The Holy Land,[2] a Catholic guide to the sites of pilgrimage that the Roman Catholic Deacon at the prison had leant me. This proved to be far more interesting and I began to get a feel for the land we were visiting. By this time we had entered a desolately beautiful ravine with no roads and only a trickle of a stream at its bottom that the single track railway kept criss-crossing. It took very little imagination to be transported back not just to the time of Christ, but well before that, to the landscape that Elijah roamed and David hid in. I took out my rosary to focus my thoughts but found my meditations much disturbed, jumping from Elijah, to prayers for Christian friends around the globe who have never had the chance to come to the Holy Land, to John the Baptist who preached in a similar wilderness, to David who fought in it. On previous pilgrimages, focussing had been easy; there’d only been one story to meditate upon, such as that of Our Lady and Richeldis at Walsingham or that of St. Kevin at Glendalough, but here in the land of both the Old and New Testaments, (not to mention an extremely eventful recent history as well!), there was simply too much to think about and now I understood why so many Christians focus solely on Christ during these trips – they can’t take in any more than that.

We continued down that valley right until the end of the journey when vast new housing developments appeared on the cliff tops above us, Jewish bastions against the Palestinians, in place of the scattered Arab dwellings that had lined the previous few miles,[3] and we drew into the brand-new Jerusalem Malha terminus.[4]

We took a taxi to the Old City that, on an inflated rate, took us on a round-robin trip that eventually dropped us at our destination. Thao was not best pleased, I too and in our hurry I left our Lonely Planet Israel on the dashboard. Bad enough that we had no guidebook now, but what made it worse was that it had been the 1995 edition, a relic from my very first trip to Israel, well-thumbed and used. I have developed an attachment to my old guidebooks and the loss of this one was especially hurtful as it was permeated with memories and alas Lonely Planet guidebooks have gone downhill rapidly in terms of content since 1995 so any replacement was always going to be inferior as well as costly.

I had booked us into a hotel that Lenin had recommended before flying out called the Golden Gate. That was all well and good, but finding it without a guidebook was something else. I had an address on the Suq Khan ez-Zeit but several searches along that street did not reveal its location. In the end I went to the Lutheran Church and a guide kindly showed me where it was. Then, with the Golden gate receptionist in tow, I went to pick up Thao and Tom from the café where they’d been waiting and together we made our way to the hotel.

Lenin had made a wise choice in recommending the Golden Gate to us. It was cheap yet clean and the room spacious. Most of all though, it had character, both ancient, (the building was a thousand years old), and modern, in the form of Sarra, an American convert to Islam who was friendly yet somehow odd at the same time. In her own way she reminded me of those British girls who go out to Greece on holiday, fall in love with a Tassos or Stavros and then stay there long after Tassos or Stavros has left them for another passing tourist, part of the fixtures, though never part of the local society which tolerates yet never quite accepts them. Sarra mind you, in her full hijaab dress, might not have been enamoured with this comparison and so I never once put it to her.

Settled in, we went out to eat in a nearby Arab restaurant. This meal was special for me as it was Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent and during Lent I don’t eat meat. But Lent doesn’t start until you’ve attended Mass on Ash Wednesday and on this particular Ash Wednesday I was intending to attend Mass in none other than the holiest church on earth. Therefore, the midday shwarma that we were served tasted even better than it actually was, for it would be the last meat that I’d touch in Israel and signified something very special.

1928273_147061515304_2167614_nTom and Thao on the Suq Khan ez-Zeit

At the heart of the Christian faith is one man, Jesus of Nazareth, and His message, and this message is symbolised best by two places; Calvary, the site of the cross upon which He died and the Empty Tomb from which He overcame death and was resurrected. For a Christian these are the things that matter, for it is that death and resurrection that set Him apart from all the other great prophets and religious figures that the world has produced, and that death and resurrection that has set mankind free and confirmed God’s love for His people. And quite amazingly, both sites are today contained within one great building, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

When I first visited the Holy Sepulchre back on the 22nd February, 1997, I was in Jerusalem on a day trip with Elton and Adrienne Netto and Simeon and Pepi Kovatchevi, all friends from Kibbutz Revivim. I was not particularly religious at the time although I described myself as a Christian on the forms and knew the Bible stories well after spending hours reading and looking at the pictures of The Children’s Illustrated Bible as a kid. I went that time not as a pilgrim, but a tourist and my lasting memory was one of surprise that two sites that I’d always assumed to be about a mile apart, (I’d always imagined the tomb to be some distance out of the city in a shallow wooded valley). That of course brings into question the issue of whether the sites of pilgrimage are the actual sites of the events, but that is a huge topic that could fill a whole book but not this one.[5] In pilgrimage you see, what matters is what these sites symbolise, not historical accuracy despite that being hard for many a modern mind to understand. So it was that with Thao and Tom in tow I went to Calvary and prayed at the site of the Cross. Since I had come to Jerusalem in order to say thank you for Tom’s arrival – after years of waiting and miscarriage with complications we did wonder as to whether he would ever arrive – then I was glad to have fulfilled my promise so soon.


We walked to the Tomb together but the queue was long and both Thao and Tom were tired so they left and I stayed on to immerse myself in this, the holiest of all places, further. I explored the side chapels and bought mementoes from the Coptic tent at the rear of the tomb for Christian friends worldwide who would never have the opportunity to come there themselves. Then I explored the alcoves behind the tomb where there is a tomb that tradition states is that of Joseph of Arimathea. Whilst there I came across a sight that quite shocked me: a Muslim girl in a headscarf facing Mecca on her prayer mat and praying. When I first saw her I must admit I felt a little angry: what right had she to invade the holiest place of my religion, only yards from the Tomb itself, and then pray to somewhere else in far-off Arabia? Those thoughts however, evaporated in an instant when I just thought about it all for a second. Hadn’t Christ’s death been for everybody and don’t the Muslims respect Him as a prophet? And doesn’t it say something really positive about Christianity that a Muslim can come within yards of its holiest shrine and pray in their own fashion and not be hassled or worse? After all, Christians – or followers of any other religion for that matter – are not even allowed within the boundaries of the city of Mecca, let alone the shrine itself and, if they prayed openly as Christians in any part of Saudi Arabia, then in all likelihood a holy war would break out. No, upon reflection I was glad that I had seen that Muslim girl praying in that place; it said a lot about a religion based on love and it challenged the baser instincts in man.

The Holy Sepulchre is in many ways not a church but a collection of churches all under one roof yet administered by different denominations. The central section is Greek Orthodox but the Armenians, Copts and Syriacs all have chapels as well. The world’s largest Christian church, the Roman Catholic, also has sections but they are small in comparison with those held by the Greeks. They should consider themselves lucky mind; the Protestant churches, (who make up approximately a third of all Christians), have nothing. Not that that bothered me particularly, for whilst I technically am a Protestant, I tend to attend Catholic Mass when abroad and on that particular day there was one on in the Franciscan Chapel of the Apparition at the side of the Empty Tomb.

How the other denominations organised their services I don’t know, but the Catholics did theirs on a booking system whereby pilgrim groups could reserve a slot and so it was that the Mass I attended was in Portuguese and I shared it with several coachloads of worshippers from Lisbon.

Not that I minded. It was honour enough just being able to celebrate in that place and one of the great things about the Mass is that you know where you are with it whatever the language. As the priest intoned, I tried to meditate but it was difficult to concentrate as like with my meditations on the train coming into Jerusalem, there was simply too much to take in. Nonetheless, I persevered and returned to the island and cave that I had visited at Walsingham, but then I travelled further, to a hilltop above the cave from which I could see the island, sea and mainland beyond. In the same church as Calvary, it was a fitting journey.[6]

Back in reality though, there was much to think about also. As I heard the muezzin from the adjacent mosque calling the Muslims to prayer during Mass, I thought about this remarkable church, unspectacular compared to many European cathedrals, reeking of incense, dark, and in places totally dilapidated, yet with an atmosphere all of its own, labyrinthine, Western, Eastern, truly unique and, despite the crowds, a place of quiet and reflection.

My reflections were broken by the Peace. This is the one part of the Mass that does differ across the cultures and I always find it interesting to see how the locals approach it. In England, it is the cue for a hearty handshake whilst in Vietnam the congregation always looked uncomfortable and annoyed at being asked to interact with their fellow worshippers and merely afforded one another a cursory nod. The Portuguese however, much to my surprise, all waved at each other enthusiastically. It was altogether quite pleasant.

After the Peace I prayed for Christian friends around the world and for my own family. Then I took the host in the holiest church on Earth and that done, I returned to the hotel a content man.

Thao is a difficult person to please, particularly regarding food. She did not fancy more of the same fare as before and so we went on a stroll to locate something different. We walked up through the Old City to the Jaffa Gate and then through a plush new shopping complex to the New City where we found a Japanese restaurant of middling quality in which to dine. This short trip made me realise that I did not know Jerusalem at all; on my two previous visits I’d not left the Old City and even within the walls had explored either the Christian or Armenian Quarters.[7] As we walked back outside the city walls full of ramen and sushi, I resolved to correct that omission post-haste.

[1] Author: Carlyle Witton-Davies

[2] Author: David Baldwin

[3] In the past it is recorded that the inhabitants of these villages often threw stones at the passing Jewish trains although thankfully there were no such episodes on the day that we rumbled by.

[4] The former terminus was near to the Old City but it had not been rebuilt due to objections from the local residents about potential noise pollution.

[5] Ah, but what a subject it is! In the Holy Land there are two sites claiming to be the Empty Tomb, two Upper Rooms, (where the Last Supper took place), and no less than three contenders for Emmaus. Since Christian holy sites only began to get popularised some three centuries or so after the death of Christ, then the accuracy of all of them is questionable, although ‘The Holy Land’ by David Baldwin argues that St. Helena of Constantinople – mother of Emperor Justinian and the greatest holy place identifier of them all – came to Jerusalem in 326AD she merely officialised sites of traditional veneration that could easily have been prayed at first by the disciples. As for the Holy Sepulchre, Helena identified Calvary as being the spot where Hadrian’s temple to Venus and Jupiter stood, (built to thwart Christians she said), and excavations revealed three crosses and the tomb that Joseph of Arimathea gave for Christ’s body to be placed in. Therefore, of all the Holy Places, the Holy Sepulchre is said to be one of the most historically accurate. The first church on the site was built in 326AD under Helena’s supervision.

[6] See Walsingham Pilgrimage travelogue.

[7] I also realised just how small the Holy City is. Before I’d always felt it to be huge and labyrinthine, but on both counts it is beaten hands down by Fez, Marrakesh and countless other Arab cities. In reality, Jerusalem’s Old City is small, compact and easily navigable.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Holy Land: Sacred Pilgrimage: Part I–Tel Aviv

world-map israel


And what a week it has been. On UTM we have finally finished ‘Among Armenians’ and so it is time to shift our attentions elsewhere, to the land that first attracted me to Armenia: Israel.

I wrote this travelogue many years ago and have kept it in storage until now. That’s been largely due to the fact that anything about Israel/Palestine, (when you feel the need to add slashes into country names you know you’re on dodgy ground), seems to invite controversy and awaken strong feelings. And more than any other conflict in the world, this one tends to result in you falling one side of the fence or the other. And so it is that I am accused of being Pro-Palestinian by Pro-Israeli friends and Pro-Israeli by Pro-Palestinian ones. All I try to do is sit on the fence but in the Middle East fences tend to be spiky.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this exploration of what is, in my opinion, not the most beautiful country in the world but undoubtedly the most fascinating. When I wrote this travelogue back in 2010 I considered it to be the best that I had ever penned, the first decent travelogue. Looking back, I feel I have improved but it still holds up well and I hope you agree.

Oh yes, and I said that this has been a big week for me: I booked my flights to Cuba for next January. Time to get practising my Spanish. Soy Matt. Tengo uno hijo…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem








This is an account of a journey, undertaken during the early months of 2009. Although one single journey, it falls into two distinct parts and that should be appreciated when reading this account which is somewhat different to my other travelogues because of it.

The first part of the journey is a pilgrimage, a religious pilgrimage. I have never made any secret of the fact that I do have a faith that I take seriously and in none of my writings does that come across more than in Book 1 of this work. It is unashamedly Christian and laden with religious references. This is deliberate. It is not an attempt to convert, but merely to convey some of my feelings as a pilgrim to the Holy Land. Pilgrimages are extremely different in character to normal travel and hopefully this comes across in the account. If you are not religious, please bear with it, it will be worth doing so.

The second part of the journey is also a pilgrimage, but this time a secular one. Twelve years before this journey, I travelled to the Holy Land as a young man to work as a volunteer on a kibbutz. It was an experience that changed my life and part of my reasoning in returning was to reflect on that experience now that I am a father, a husband, older and, hopefully, a little wiser. References to those earlier travels permeate throughout the entire account, but particular this latter part. The second half of the account, like the journey itself, is an entirely different experience to the religious pilgrimage that proceeds it. I just hope that you the reader, manages to find something of use and enjoyment in both.

Finally, I wish to talk a little about the writing of this account. It was begun only a month or so after the trip concluded using notes compiled during the journey, but then left and not completed until midway through 2011. In the intervening period, Tom had grown up considerably and Thao and I had separated. During the journey itself, I had no intimations that we would ever part, but through the writing of this account, it became obvious that in many respects, we were already living in separate worlds back then. I was focussed on God and my memories; she just wanted to look after the baby and get home. The absolute non-engagement of her in the experience in which she was present in body is deafening in its silence. Those comments are not criticisms of either her or myself, merely a statement of fact.

Last of all, I wish to thank certain people who helped make this travelogue, the trip and all my former Holy Land expeditions special. There are too many to name in person, but below is a short list of some of the prime movers:

Thao Nguyen

Lenin (Brian Connellan)

Paul Lewis

Yankalei Shemesh

Sara Shemesh

Zohar Shemesh

Tom van den Ouden

Christoph Geiser

Simon Woods

Heather Nolan

Adrienne Netto

Elton Netto

Pepi Kovatcheva

Simeon Kovatchev

Andrei Kovalski

Maija Spektor

Pavel Serebryakov

Fr. Tony Rigby (for the Holy Land pilgrimage book)

Paul Daly

Bela Kadar (for use of the photos)

Matt Pointon

Smallthorne, U.K., May 2011


Every trip starts with a journey. You need to get to wherever it is that you’re going. Rarely though, do you get there before you’ve arrived. This trip however, was different. We were going to Israel, to the Holy Land, and we got there the moment we arrived at the gate in Manchester Airport’s Terminal 2.

This gate you see, was different to all the others. Most were full of the pasty-faced, waiting to get a tan, clad in shorts and football shirts, ready to hit the beaches of the Canaries, the Balearics, the Costas. A few had businessmen waiting at them, suited and tied, passing the hours before tying up that important deal in Frankfurt, Tokyo or Singapore. This gate however, was, as I said, different. At this gate all the men had beards and ringlets whilst the women were well-covered. They held their prayer books in their hands and bobbed up and down facing a wall. Israel might boast some great beaches and bars in Eilat and Tel Aviv, but something told me that this lot weren’t on a lads’ holiday. Nor too were they headed for Tel Aviv’s central business district to complete a takeover or merger. Israel may be a party land and a business land, but above all it is the Holy Land and in Manchester Terminal 2 we had already arrived, for all those waiting had their eyes and ears tuned into the Almighty, not mere human concerns.

I was no different to these other travellers in that faith was the primary motivation for my journey, but the cross around my neck betrayed the fact that whilst we all prayed to the same god, we did it in slightly different ways, for as well as being the Promised Land of the Jews, Israel is also holy to the Christians, Muslims, Baha’i, Druze and Samaritans. Many faiths flock there and coexist, not always happily, within the borders of that ancient land.

For me though, the pilgrimage was not only religious, it was also very secular and personal, for just over twelve years previously, I had boarded a plane at Gatwick to take me to Tel Aviv. It was my first dose of back-packing, of real travel, and it marked the start of a passion for such travel that has stayed with me ever since. Despite infuriating me in so many ways, political and cultural, social and environmental, Israel has retained a very special place in my heart and after completing religious duties, I would be taking my son and wife to the place of my enlightenment, a kibbutz in the Negev Desert, for the very first time.

On board we got chatting to a young lady who, like us, had a baby in her arms. The majority of the plane’s passengers she explained, were in the same party. There was an Hassidic wedding on in Beit Shemesh and the Hassidim on board were all friends or relatives of the happy couple from Leeds or Manchester, the two traditional centres of Judaism in the North of England.

As this was a pilgrimage more than a holiday, I decided to start as I meant to continue and so I pulled out my rosary and prayed for the trip to come, concentrating on past pilgrimages and also on Tom who was, after all, the reason for the whole expedition, even if he himself was unaware of the fact.

Thao and I had wanted a child for years, ever since our marriage. Despite trying though, one had not come, nothing at all. Then, in 2005, she’d got pregnant. She’d got excited and started making plans; I’d got excited and started making plans, but then, as with so many pregnancies, especially first ones, she’d miscarried. We were both devastated, but particularly her. Worse than that, there were complications; she had pains that continued for months and required several hospital visits. It was at this time, in the depths of despair over our lost child, that I made my promise to God: if He blessed us with a child, then I would make the pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre to say thank you. Still we tried, still we waited and then, just as we thought it would never happen, in 2008 Thao fell pregnant again. This time though, there were no miscarriages and on Christmas Day 2008, he was born. Two months later he was christened Thomas, (after his godfather and the saint who doubted for I’ve always believed doubt to be most healthy), Việt Anh, (which is Vietnamese for “Vietnam and England” which requires no explanation).

I’m not saying that his birth was a miracle. For a healthy young woman to give birth to a healthy young baby is not even unusual, let alone miraculous, but for us he was, and still is, a miracle, and his choice of birthday only serves to confirm that. However, with joy comes responsibility and, since I’d made that promise, well I then had to go and keep it…

I was not the only one who decided to pray on that flight. Not content with their exhortations in the airport, midway over Europe all the male Hassidim lined up in the aisle and, taking the lead from the one at the head of the line, went through an impromptu service. The Thomson flight attendants with their trolleys full of duty free looked bemused; one imagines that such things do not happen on the more standard Manchester-Lanzarote route.

At Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport everything had changed since my last visit a decade before. A sparkling new terminal had been built and the horrendous queues of the olden days were no more. My mind went back to my first visit, my arrival on January 17th, 1997 when I was met by the Shemesh family, friends of Paul, my father’s best friend, a Stoke-on-Trent Jew who visited Israel annually. Back then I was a different person to now; younger and far less confident. I’d hardly travelled either and had only agreed to go to Israel because I knew that there was the safety net of the Shemeshes to catch me if I fell. Prior to then, my only independent travel outside of Britain had been to Corfu and a day in Albania.[1] Now I had almost fifty countries under my belt, five of which I had lived in, and with that experience comes confidence. I did not need any Shemesh to meet me at the airport now, but I was still grateful for the fact that they had been there on that fateful day over a decade before.

Sailing through the customs with ease – the only thing that hadn’t changed was that the officials are still some of the sexiest in the world – we transferred downstairs to take the train into Tel Aviv. This too was new; in the olden days you had to take either a taxi or a bus but now there was a rail link direct into the heart of the city. As a lover of trains, I approved. Israel’s rail network has traditionally been very poor, so much so that I’d only ever managed one train trip on all my previous visits, down the coast from Haifa to Tel Aviv, but in the intervening decade the country has undergone a veritable rail revolution, with services being restored to Jerusalem, Beersheva and Ben Gurion Airport, and track capacity being increased on the main coastal trunk route. It’s not all finished either, for there’s a high-speed line under construction between Tel Aviv, the airport and Jerusalem and extensions planned for Dimona and Eilat amongst other destinations. I was impressed by it all and I wasn’t the only one, for when the diesel locomotive pulled into the station, its engine’s roar amplified ten-fold by the concrete walls, Tom bounced up and down excitedly. Hopefully, he too was beginning a lifetime’s love affair with trains and travel…?

Things were less impressive however, when we alighted at Tel Aviv’s Savidor Station and caught a taxi to our hotel, Momo’s Hostel on Ben Yehuda Street. Tel Aviv is a bland, colourless, concrete city which one finds difficult to like. The best description that I have ever read of the place is that by Paul Theroux:

No other city in the entire Mediterranean looks more like an American concoction than Tel Aviv. It is wrong to compare it (as many people did) with Miami and its tangle of suburbs. Tel Aviv was both more sterile and less interesting, and it was strangely introverted; its streets were lifeless, its different cultures, and its tensions, masked… Somewhere on the east coast of Florida there must be a city that Tel Aviv resembles, a medium-sized seaside settlement of ugly high-rise buildings and hotels, a shopping district, a promenade by the sea, not many trees, a white population watching gray [sic] flopping waves under a blue sky.”[2]

All I can say is, if that is the truth, I never want to visit Florida.

Dating entirely from the 20th century, Tel Aviv lacks an identifiable centre and instead seems to consist solely of rows of concrete apartment blocks with shops underneath. As we rolled along the streets, the meter ticking over and the Arab taxi driver talking of the Champions League, (he was an admirer of Chelsea because of their Israeli manager, Avram Grant), my mind was cast back to my very first visit when Sara and Zohar Shemesh showed me round the centre of the city with its Druze market and expensive shopping streets. I’d wondered then if there wasn’t more to it, if I was missing something, but I am still looking for it if there is, for all my subsequent visits have revealed naught of note.

Even all of this however, did not prepare us for the hotel which was, in a nutshell, awful. Thao was enraged – and rightly so – yet I protested that it had seemed alright on the internet and besides, the staff were friendly. She however, has higher standards than me, but eventually we both agreed that since it was for one night only, we would make do and, after dropping off our bags, we got out as soon as we could, going for a Japanese meal at a nearby establishment called Supper Sushi as a sop towards an irritated Indochinese, before then going onto the beach, Tel Aviv’s one great draw card, where we drank beer as Tom slept whilst gazing out over the waters of the Mediterranean, the moonlight glittering on the waves.


Next part: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

[1] See ‘Albanian Excursions Part I’.

[2] The Pillars of Hercules, p.387-8