A little late in publishing but finally got it done. From my time on MSC Lirica during the summer of 2013, Haifa, Israel was one of our stops.
I have never been particularly religious in the typical sense. From my travels I have encountered faiths from all around the world from Catholic, to Buddhism to Muslim, to almost everything in between. Don’t get me wrong, I went through a period when I was a Sunday school teacher in High School and part of the local youth group. But after numerous adventures and cultures I prefer keeping my faith as something for myself. I love discussing religion and discovering the nuances of all the different beliefs, in fact at youth group I would always end up being that one in the middle of the table questioning. I grew up hearing the tales of the old and new testament, and well we were told they were true, for the most part they always felt like just that.. tales.
That is why it was no surprise that I chose to float in the Dead Sea, a long time dream of mine, before visiting one of the most sacred cities in the world for many cultures. Luckily working on a cruise ship allows you these sorts of choices and eventually I got round to getting the chance to exploring this ancient place. The early morning started at 5am for us with a 2 hour drive from the ship and I woke from my nap just as the bus entered the outskirts. Even before my driver began explaining things I just had this overwhelming, bordering on emotional, sense of awe wash over me. It seemed so obvious, when before it was kind of sketchy, that the stories I had grown up with were, in fact, based in truth and most likely completely true, in some form or another.
Dome of the Rock
Our first stop was a view of the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was truly breathtaking.
The site’s significance stems from religious traditions regarding the rock, known as the Foundation Stone, at its heart, which bears great significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is considered “the most contested piece of real estate on earth.” (Wikipedia)
Temple Mount with Dome of the Rock in background and cemetery in foreground.
Known to many as the Wailing Wall because of the thousands who come to pray and leave messages, the Western Wall is something to see and experience.
The sign before going through security at the entrance to the wall
We arrived on the first day of Rosh Hashanah*, the Jewish New Year. This meant that there was no traffic anywhere and thousands of pilgrims at the wall. It also meant that no photos were allowed, which was a bummer as the people who came to pray that day were amazingly beautiful. Not in the typical “magazine cover” sense of the word, but in the cultural aspect, and the looks of absolute love and religious fervor that the wall seemed to instill in people. I had a very itchy finger wanting to take pics.
3 generations heading to pray
But I opted to obey the rules…and show respect. I wish I could paint you a picture of how amazing this was. I wish I could have sat and just watched the flow of humanity, often seeing it in it’s rawest and truest form.
The wall has a male and female side. On the male side it looked like a full party rave going on. Men were chanting and dancing and singing, the intensity increasing with every word uttered. They were lifting chairs above their heads and you could see the religious fire burning in their eyes.
On the women’s side it was the complete opposite. The women were silent except for some whispered prayers, there was a quiet dignity about them. All ages, all races and most likely many religions. Some were just sitting and reading the bible, sharing their beliefs with younger generations.
I walked down found a scrap of paper and wrote down my prayer, my hopes, my dreams…found a space between the rocks and, resting my head on the ancient stones, placed it well pouring all my positive energy into what I had written.
Heading further into the Old City of Jerusalem, we left the Western Wall behind us and continued towards Via Dolorosa, or the “Way of Sorrows”.
This is the route Jesus was made to walk while carrying the cross to his crucifixion. The winding cobbled street passes from the Antonio Fortress to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, around 600m/2000ft. Today it passes by bakeries, fruit sellers and souvenir shops. I wonder if the people living here today pause to think about the significance of this path or if it lost to them as so many other world marvels are lost to the people ho see them everyday.
The route has changed over the years, but this one has been established since the 18th century, along the way tehre are nine Stations of the Cross. Places where it is believed Jesus stopped, or fell or met certain figures, such as Mary.
At the fifth station, known as the Chapel of Simon of Cyrene, it is believed Simon carried the cross for a ways. Jesus is said to have lent on the wall and left a bloody hand print, this spot is now much revered and has worn down over centuries of being touched by followers and tourists alike.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
As we meandered along this sacred route, I was struck by the people, the scents, the sounds. Life seemed so real, so alive, you never knew what you might find around the next corner.
such a table with a wide array of multi-colored candies
Soon, we neared what is considered the most sacred site of pilgrimage for Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It lies on what is believed to be the hallowed site of Golgotha (The Hill of Calvary), where Jesus was crucified and is also said to contain where he was buried and later resurrected. The church now plays host to the headquarters of most Christian sects, ironically enough, due to much…disagreement… between these sects, it is a Muslim family who holds the key to the ancient door. They have been responsible for it for over 1,300yrs.
(Article in the SFGate telling the tale).
Out in the courtyard you see pilgrims from all walks of life, all sects of Christian religions, all nationalities.
Greek Orthodox Ladies taking a break
Young African man playing his drum
I was in awe of this place, and you could feel the love and hope virtually emanating from the hundreds of people, most of whom had probably planned and dreamed of this day.
Just inside is the Stone of Anointing, a large slab (added in the 18th) century on the spot where Joseph of Aramathea was said to have prepared the body of Jesus for burial. Pilgrims take an item of clothing or jewelry and rub it on the stone as they pray, hoping to bring blessings to the item.
Our group purchased candles from the Church store and lit them saying a prayer. Some get over enthusiastic and think the bigger the bundle the more likely their prayer will be heard, this is when a priest comes in and has to douse them so that a fire doesn’t break out.
We spent some time exploring the church and I think photos are the best way for you to get a feel for it:
Light streams in the the arches creating an ethereal beauty
The lamps that hang over the stone are contributed by Armenians, Copts, Greeks and Latins.
The Immovable Ladder
Another interesting anecdote about the Church is what has been named the Immovable Ladder. This is a cedar ladder (the wood is believed to originally have been from Lebanon) that was placed below a window on the outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during some construction. However, during a disagreement between the Christian sects, an understanding was made that no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian orders may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of all six orders. Since getting consent of ALL the orders is near impossible, the ladder was not allowed to be removed and has therefore become Immovable and a symbol. It was first mentioned in 1757 and is replaced when the present ladder disintegrates over time.
After a truly fascinating and emotional trip for the entire group our bugle toting guide, blew a few notes (not enough to bring the walls crashing down)
and we headed out of the Old City with many other pilgrims in search of new inspiration and understanding of the world around us.
Personal Note – it truly saddens me that a place that has more history in one stone than most places in the world and that should bring the world together due to it’s significance and meaning seems to be constantly at war. The people I met in Israel were inspiring and welcoming and I hope everyone visits and learns to put old prejudice aside.
*Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew: ראש השנה, literally “head [of] the year”), is the Jewish New Year although the real name for this Feast of the Lord is called Yom Teruah (Hebrew: יום תרועה, literally “day [of] shouting/raising a noise”) or the Feast of Trumpets according to the correct biblical calendar of the 1st and 2nd temple period, not Rosh Hashanah. It is the first of the High Holy Days or Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe”) which usually occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere. Rosh Hashanah is a two-day celebration, which begins on the first day of Tishrei. The day is believed to be the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of mankind’s role in God’s world. Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn) and eating symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey to evoke a “sweet new year”.