Thursday, December 12, 2002

The Mother of all Churches

With all apologies to Rome, of course. But the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is something to see. Not for its magnificence - it's, well, a little short on the "magnificent" scale. Heck, my old church, St. Nicholas, on Northern Blvd., is better looking than this. But for the scale of sheer history; a colossal game of push-me-pull-you among almost every pre-modern form of Christianity, this place it IT.

Finding it was a challenge, of course. I can read a map wrong if it has flashing lights and arrows on it. I spent a few amusing minutes going through the Arab market, amazed that anyone would still want to buy raw meat from a stall, and avoiding the amazing temptation to buy one of those outer robes with the gold braid and pretend I'm Lawrence of Arabia, striding along on top of a dune with the wind billowing around me. (If you didn't know, I'm a tad theatrical from time to time.)

Anyway; I found the Church at the end of a short street where all the venders sold Christian objects. (A clue, Watson? No shit, Sherlock.)

The Church courtyard was empty, save for one Armenian priest carrying, of all things, a hand saw. (Maybe he was doing some minor repairs somewhere.) I took a few shots outside, a little unsure of the proper thing to do. (I figure pictures INSIDE would be rude.) But before I could slide my camera into my pocket, out bustles a tour guide.

"Hello! Where are you from? Speak English? Tourist? Would you like a guide?"

He's very nice, but I decline - how hard could walking around a church be? I think to myself.

Fifteen minutes later, as he proudly shows me the secret icon which swings open to reveal the actual rock which covered the tomb of Jesus, I admit I'm outclassed. This is unlike any other church I have ever been in. Part of this is because there are actually several churches in there - Armenian, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic - oh, and the Ethiopian Christians outside, too. Everyone but the Protestants, really.

You'd think this place was gorgeous, right? The best of every faith put together to raise a church of such splendor and majesty, etc. But to tell the truth, it's a tad run down. In fact, it's VERY run down. Cracks in the marble columns are held closed by ugly steel bands. The inner shrine of the tomb has heavy scaffolding around it to secure it together - it was damaged by an earthquake at the beginning of the last century.

The first thing that hit me when I walked in, by the way, was how familiar the place smelled. It was the good old Greek Orthodox incense at play - great stuff! Makes me hungry for dolmades, though. But wandering around was not nearly a good way to find out exactly what was in the building. There were no signs, nothing roped off in pathways. And it's all active, too, with priests, worshippers and pilgrims all doing their things.

The tomb building, inside the main building and directly opposite the most ornate chapel/church (Greek Orthodox) is quite a thing of beauty. Gold surfaces everywhere, and beautiful lamps hanging outside. They covered up the rock because pilgrims used to come see it, kiss it, and then carve off a piece to take home. After Mr. Guide showed that to me, he figured he'd better stay by my side to make sure I missed nothing else.

On the second floor, the spot the church calls Golgotha, is an actual hole drilled into the rock which is supposed to be the place where the Romans lodged the cross of the crucifixion. You can kneel under the altar and stick your arm in there, but I declined. Instead, I studied a strange, yet compelling icon of Mary. Done in 3 dimensions, this sad portrait shows her heart pierced with a long, slender silver dagger. The guide starts to talk, and I say, "That's when she saw the crucifixion."

I can tell he's disappointed. He nods, and quickly recovers, telling me that most people wonder what it means. I spend the next few minutes examining the ceilings, which are covered with lovely and understated tilework. I'd love a picture of the altar above the hole in the rock, but there's a woman praying there, so I started to leave. Mr. Guide, who doesn't miss a thing, assures me that it's Ok to take a picture, but I just can't. Sorry to those who wanted one; it's worth seeing. But I can't just take a picture when someone's in there praying. It's just rude, even if they are used to it. I'm sure there are pictures on the web somewhere; feel free to look 'em up.

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