As I contemplate my annual review of In That Howling Infinite, I am reminded, with clichéd predictability, of that well-worn Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”.
A torturous and seemingly endless US election campaign defied all the pundits by producing an colourful and unpredictable POTUS. In the UK, the unthinkable Brexit came to pass, dividing the polity and discombobulating the establishment. Next year is certainly going to be worth watching.
The slow and tragic death of Syria continued unabated with Russian and Turkey wading into the quagmire alongside Americans, British, French, Australians, Iran, Lebanon, Gulf tyrants, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Da’esh might be on the the ropes in Iraq, but the long term survival of the unitary state is doubtful. And the proxy wars of the Ottoman Succession have spread to Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle Eas as Gulf tyrants face off against Shia Iran’s alleged puppets, and, armed and abetted by British and American weaponry, South American mercenaries, and Australian officers, bomb the shit out of the place.
Whilst the grim reaper scythed through the world from Baghdad to Berlin, from Aleppo to Ankara, the Year saw the passing of a record number of icons of the seventies and eighties, two of whom who have provided a continuing soundtrack for my life, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. We shall not see the like of them again.
In our little corner of the cosmos, we endured the longest and most boring election campaign in living memory, resulting in an outcome that only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with a lacklustre Tory government, a depressingly dysfunctional political system, and politicians of all stripes who, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Roman burns.
Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we find that we too are “going up against chaos”, to quote that wonderful Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it proceeds to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn with only half of its proposed harvest completed. But it will return in 2017, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.
And yet, life on the farm remains pleasant and delightful, though dams are low and rain would be most welcome. The bird and reptilian life continues to amaze us, and an ironic corollary to the clear felling of the Tarkeeth Forest is that “refugees” are seeking shelter here. Wallabies rarely seen on our land are now quite common, whilst echidnas, and, we suspect, endangered spotted quolls have been sighted hereabouts
We took time out mid-year to revisit Israel and Palestine, and road-trip through the two countries was much an education as a holiday. We certainly got our history and archeology fix, and in travelling through the Golan and the Negev, we found respite in a stunning natural environment. But the answers to our many political questions merely threw up more questions. We have unfinished business in this divine but divided land, and will return.
In That Howling Infinite addressed all these concerns during 2016, and matters more eclectic and exotic.
And so, to the year in review:
The new year commenced with a reprise of our memorable journey to Hadrians Wall, and of the Victorian lawyer who helped preserve it for posterity, the saga of the viking Harald Hardraga and also, my subjective overview of world history. In a more lighthearted vein, I indulged in an unscholarly discussion of how film and fiction have portrayed or distorted history, and in a review of Mary Beard’s superlative history of Rome, I asked the immortal question “what have the Romans done for us?”
In April, in response to a discussion with a Facebook friend in Oklahoma, I wrote a trilogy of exotically-titled posts examining the nature of rebellion, revolution, and repression: Thermidorian Thinking, Solitudinem Faciunt Pacem Appellant, and Sic Semper Tyrannis. The origin of these Latin aphorisms is explained, by the way, in the aforementioned Roman review.
Our travels through Israel and Palestine inspired numerous real-time posts, and a several retrospectives as we contemplated what we had experienced during what was as much an educational tour as a holiday. Historical vignettes included a tribute to bad-boy and builder King Herod the Great, a brief history of the famous Damascus Gate, and its place in Palestinian national consciousness, and a contemplation on the story of King David’s Citadel which overlooked our home-away-from home, the New Imperial Hotel. Thorny contemporary issues were covered with an optimistic piece on the Jerusalem Light Rail, a brief if controversial post about Jewish settlers in the Old City, the story of Israel’s ‘Eastern’ Jews, the Mizrahim, and what appears to be a potentially problematic Palestinian property boom. Th e-magazine Muftah published an article I wrote about the conflicting claims to the city of Hebron. And finally, there is a poem recalling our visit to the Shrine of Remembrance at Yad Vashem and honouring the Righteous Gentiles who saved thousand of Jewish lives during the Shoah.
Wintertime passed with our minds on the Tarkeeth Forest. I had the pleasure discovering the history of our locality, and connecting via Facebook with the relatives of the Fells family of Twin Pines. But the latter half of the year was very much taken up with enduring and bearing witness to the clear- felling of the forest to our east. “If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. If you go down to the woods today, you’ll never believe your eyes”. And you’d ask “what would JRR Tolkien have thought?”
The UK And US paroxysms fascinated and exasperated the mainstream and social media in equal measure, whilst the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the presidential election has initiated an a veritable orgy of punditry. Never have so many column inches and kilobytes been spent on loud sounding nothings as the sifting through the entrails of such events as Brexit, the US election, and the Australian senate! With half a dozen elections coming up in Europe, Trump’s inauguration and the triggering of Article 50 to take Britain out the European Union, we’re gonna have to endure a lot more. I confined my posts to two insightful pieces by respected right-wing Australian commentators, Paul Kelly’s Living in Interesting Times, and Greg Sheridan’s The Loss of American Virtue, and my own reflection on the right-wing media’s strange fascination with “insiders” and “outsiders”.
Finally, in comparison to last year, this year was very light on music and poetry. But American satirist Tom Lehrer got a retrospective, and murdered Pakistani qawwali singer Madhaf Sabri, an obituary, whilst an abridged and vernacular version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost told the tale of Lilith, the first and greatest femme fatale. In the words of the gloriously-named jockey Rueben Bedford Walker III says in EC Morgan’s magnificent The Sport of Kings, the subject of my first post for 2017, “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man”.
On that wise note, I wish the world a Happy New Year – and may it be less interesting than this one.
During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times.
The Citadel or Tower Museum at the Jaffa Gate, the westernmost entrance to the city, is all the history you can eat in a four hour sitting. It’s a four thousand year old story: from the Canaanites and the Hebrews to the end of the Mandate and the establishment of the State of Israel, via Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Hasmoneans, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatamids, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Tartars, Mogols, Mamluks, Ottomans, British, Australians, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Each left their mark on Jerusalem, and most planted their brickage upon and within the Citadel.
There is a long roll-call of famous names who may or may have not resided in the place.
King David didn’t, despite his name being given to the place and the apocryphal story that he once spied on the bathing Bathsheba from its ramparts. Nor did his son and heir, Solomon, builder of the First Temple. Conquerors Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus did not. They just wrecked the joint. Judah Maccabee might have, and those other famous Jewish rebels, the Zealots didn’t, but during Great Revolt, they retreated there and trashed the place. Herod the Great, a psycho with an serious edifice complex, resided here. As did also Procurator Pontius Pilate when he was in town (he preferred the luxuries of Caesaea Maritimus (Latin for “on Sea). Historians now believe that the Citdel was where he actually cast judgement on Jesus, and not in the Antonine Fortress which overlooked the Temple (where the Haram al Sharif now stands) throwing into question the whole basis for the existence of the Via Dolorosa.
Roman general and future emperor Titus would have taken up residence therein after he destroyed the city in 70CE, leaving only the citadel standing. His troops needed somewhere to crash. Constantine didn’t, but his mom Helena most likely did when she “discovered” The True Cross, commissioned the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and single-handedly invented the Holy Land pilgrim industry that endures to this day. The Muslim conquerors Omar Ibn Khattab, Salah ud-Din, and Baybars may have, but Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the magnificent, who built the city walls we see today, never set foot in Jerusalem, and nor did his successors.
Ottoman troops occupied it, and General Djemal Pasha would hang Arab Nationalists in the Square before it. General Allenby declared Jerusalem and Palestine liberated on the steps leading to the citadel in 1917, but most likely stayed across the square at our wonderful East New Imperial Hotel (the Kaiser stayed there too when he visited Jerusalem in 1898). British troops garrisoned it during the Mandate years – like the Roman legionaries before them, they’d’ve needed a place to lay their heads. The British-commanded Arab Legion of then Transjordan took control of it in during the the battle for Jerusalem in 1948 and defended it successfully against the new IDF. They did so again in 1967 only to lose it and the Old City.
If the stones could talk, what a tale they would tell. And indeed, the museum now does just that, in content and in form. We sit on the roof garden of our hotel, directly across the street and look across at its towers, ramparts and gardens, and sense it’s story in our souls. We watch present generations passing beneath its walls, and the young folk parade within, just a few in a long, long parade of humanity.
For further reading, you can’t beat Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s Jerusalem : The Biography (Phoenix 2011).
When it comes to stories about The Middle East, I am reminded of the Bobster’s closing lines in the wonderful ‘Black Diamond Bay’: “Seems like every time you turn around, there’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear”. Anyhow, getting away from all the doom and gloom, here is something completely different.
Our recent visit to Jerusalem inspired several posts on this blog, and several songs. One of the latter, published below, examines the Jerusalem Syndrome.
This is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not exclusive to one particular religion or denomination, having affected Jews, Christians and Muslims from many different countries and backgrounds.
Jerusalem is all about faith and passion, and there is no city on Earth that people get more passionate about. The light is luminous. In high summer it almost shimmers. The very air is full of prayer and politics, passion and pain, and the rocks and stones virtually sing a hallelujah chorus of history. I am not a religious person, but I cannot help getting excited by the place – although I do not transcend to transports of delight and delirium.
In The Simpsons episode The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed, the Simpsons travel to Israel where Homer is afflicted with the syndrome, the illness and its effect on Homer being one of the plot’s central themes. In The X-Files episode Revelations, agents Scully and Mulder try to subdue a man afflicted with a form of the syndrome.
The featured photograph at the head of this blog is a real-life version of the above Simpsons picture. The man at centre stage is Carl James Joseph of Detroit, Michigan, ‘The Jesus Guy’ we encountered in the Church Of The Holy Sepulchre. He has been a common sight around the Old City for many years now.j
Of all the cities in the world, why Jerusalem?
“ The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’. It was deemed sacred from pre-history. Those aforementioned iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. A city of the mind as much as of this earth, it haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breathe”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot! “There’s this thing that happens here, over the hell mouth”, says Buffy, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished”. From A Brief History Of The Rise And Fall Of The West by Paul Hemphill
A lot of folk put a lot of energy into mattters millenarian, when they could divert it to more practical matters like health, water, human rights, blah, blah blah… Some diligent souls have constructed a 3D virtual second temple as a template for its reconstruction. And they don’t care if they start a world war to get it built. Others strive to create a Caliphate that will precipitate the long foretold great battle at The End of Days. And yet others are endeavoring to recreate Noah’s Ark in Kentucky, USA. Different tribe, same psychosis. Never underestimate the irrational mind. For such is the power of myth and magic even in this techno day and age. More blood has been shed in and for Jerusalem than any other city on earth, and we ain’t done yet!
Sound the trumpets of Zion to summon forth the saints.
From The Song of Solomon
I never thought that faith could be so strong!
I never knew that faith could be such fun!
It’s something you don’t do at home.
It happens in Paris and Rome.
The fevered faithful’s illusion
That causes such holy confusion.
Scully and Mulder have fought it,
Homer Simpson has caught it
Bear me up on angels wings
And other transcendental things.
Cradle me in Jesus’ arms,
Far from home but safe from harm.
Where the Golden Walls still glow,
Let my people go
Never knew that faith could be so strong!
Never knew that faith could be such fun!
Filipinas in a row harmonizing with “Swing Low
Charismatic holy clown roams the alleys of the town,
Says he’s hunting down Iscariot.
Pentecostal Germans heard
Their pastor preach the Holy Word.
Drab babushkas clutch their crosses,
Eastern priest in black now blesses
Those who lie with arms out swept
On the rock where Jesus wept,
Never knew that faith could be so strong!
I want whatever they are on!
See that women dressed so plain, thinks she’s
Waiting just beyond the Tomb for her Lord
To come again.
Is he not already here? Don’t you see him
In his robe of woven wool, sandals, beard,
And flowing hair.
There’s lady known to me
Who would make a cup of tea
And take it to Mount Scopus every morning
To give to Christ when he returned in glory –
I tell you, I’m not making up this story!
I never knew that faith could be such fun!
I want whatever they are on!
Sometimes in morning dreams, I see
The Holy City in front of me:
Forever and ever, and world without end,
We all need an invisible friend
© Paul Hemphill 2014 All rights reserved
Need to know more about the Jerusalem Syndrome? Read: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerusalem_syndrome
But the article reproduced below by Chris Nashawaty is much more entertaining.
See also the following article about ‘The Jesus Guy’:
And this recent piece in Ha’Aretz:
Jerusalem Syndrome? Tourist Goes Treasure Hunting in Old City Cave
Nir Hasson Ha’Aretz Mar 15, 2016
Zedekiah’s Cave is a remnant of what was the largest quarry in Jerusalem that dates back to at least Second Temple times. Daniel Bar-On
An American tourist was arrested last week after spending the night in Zedekiah’s Cave, also known as Solomon’s Quarries, which lies under the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Last Thursday afternoon, when the site was open to the public, the 19-year-old entered the cave carrying a backpack. When closing time came, he hid in one of the crevices of the cave and the security people did not notice him as they checked the site before closing. He was there overnight and started digging in various sections of the cave, apparently seeking to find some of the treasures that various legends say have been buried there over the centuries.
While the cave is usually closed on Fridays, last Friday it was opened to do some development work. The workers found the tourist in the cave covered with mud, his backpack full of stones and shards that he’d dug up from the floor of the cave. He was handed over to police and his findings were confiscated.
During questioning the young man could not explain his motives for what he did. Police said he apparently has emotional problems and may have contracted the so-called Jerusalem Syndrome, a phenomenon involving religious obsessions or other psychosis-like experiences seemingly triggered in some people by visiting Jerusalem. He was released and has since left the country.
Zedekiah’s Cave is a remnant of what was the largest quarry in Jerusalem that dates back to at least Second Temple times. It covers some nine dunams (two and a quarter acres), with an entrance between the Old City’s Damascus Gate and Herod’s Gate. Over the years a number of legends and traditions have sprung up involving the cave. The Jewish tradition is that King Zedekiah tried to flee through the cave during the destruction of the First Temple.
A later Muslim tradition identifies the cave as “the cave of Korah,” the place where the biblical Korah and his allies were swallowed up by the earth when they tried to revolt against Moses.
In 1968 a resident of the Old City claimed that his grandfather had hidden three crates of gold coins in the cave before the War of Independence. He asked permission to search for the crates using signs his grandfather had left him and promised in return to give three-quarters of the treasure to the authorities. He was given permission to search but found nothing.
The cave also serves as a ceremonial site for the Freemasons from the 1920s to this day. The Freemasons revere the place, believing it to have been the site from which the stones for the First Temple were quarried. Since the 1980s the cave is operated by the East Jerusalem Development Corporation as a tourist site, and events are held there from time to time.
The Jerusalem Syndrome: Why Some Religious Tourists Believe They Are the Messiah
Chris Nashawaty, Wired, 17th February 2012
Shortly after his 40th birthday, the life of a man we’ll call Ronald Hodge took a strange turn. He still looked pretty good for his age. He had a well-paying job and a devoted wife. Or so he thought. Then, one morning, Hodge’s wife told him she no longer loved him. She moved out the next day. A few weeks later, he was informed that his company was downsizing and that he would be let go. Not knowing where to turn, Hodge started going to church again.
Even though he’d been raised in an evangelical household, it had been years since Hodge had thought much about God. But now that everything seemed to be falling apart around him, he began attending services every week. Then every day. One night, while lying in bed, he opened the Bible and began reading. He’d been doing this every night since his wife left. And every time he did, he would see the same word staring back at him—the same four syllables that seemed to jump off the page as if they were printed in buzzing neon: Jerusalem. Hodge wasn’t a superstitious man, he didn’t believe in signs, but the frequency of it certainly felt like … something. A week later, he was 30,000 feet over the Atlantic on an El Al jet to Israel.
When Hodge arrived in Jerusalem, he told the taxi driver to drop him off at the entrance to the Old City. He walked through the ancient, labyrinthine streets until he found a cheap hostel near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He had a feeling that this was important. Supposedly built on top of the spot where Jesus Christ was crucified and three days later rose from the dead, the domed cathedral is the holiest site in Christendom. And Hodge knew that whatever called him to the Holy Land was emanating from there.
During his first few days in Jerusalem, Hodge rose early and headed straight to the church to pray. He got so lost in meditation that morning would slip into afternoon, afternoon into evening, until one of the bearded priests tapped him on the shoulder and told him it was time to go home. When he returned to his hostel, he would lie in bed unable to sleep. Thoughts raced through his head. Holy thoughts. That’s when Hodge first heard the Voice.
Actually, heard is the wrong word. He felt it, resonating in his chest. It was like his body had become a giant tuning fork or a dowsing rod. Taking a cue from the sign of the cross that Catholics make when they pray, Hodge decided that if the vibrations came from the right side of his chest, it was the Holy Ghost communicating with him. If he felt them farther down, near the base of his sternum, it was the voice of Jesus. And if he felt the voice humming inside his head, it was the Holy Father, God himself, calling.
Soon, the vibrations turned into words, commanding him to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. None of this scared him. If anything, he felt a warm, soothing peace wash over him because he was finally being guided.
Not eating or drinking came easily at first. But after a week or so, the other backpackers at his hostel began to grow concerned. With good reason: Hodge’s clothes were dirty and falling off of him. He had begun to emit a pungent, off-putting funk. He was acting erratically, hallucinating and singing the word Jesus over and over in a high-pitched chirp.
“Jesus … Jesus … Jesus …”
Hodge camped out in the hostel’s lobby and began introducing himself to one and all as the Messiah. Eventually, the manager of the hostel couldn’t take it anymore. He didn’t think the American calling himself Jesus was dangerous, but the guy was scaring away customers. Plus, he’d seen this kind of thing before. And he knew there was a man who could help.
Herzog Hospital sits on a steep, sun-baked hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Its sprawling grounds are dotted with tall cedars and aromatic olive trees. Five floors below the main level is the office of Pesach Lichtenberg, head of the men’s division of psychiatry at Herzog.
Lichtenberg is 52 years old and thin, with glasses and a neatly trimmed beard. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, he moved to Israel in 1986 after graduating from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and has worked at Herzog more or less ever since. It’s here that he has become one of the world’s leading experts on the peculiar form of madness that struck Ronald Hodge—a psychiatric phenomenon known as Jerusalem syndrome.
On a bright, late summer morning, Lichtenberg greets me in the chaotic lobby of the hospital, smiling and extending his hand. “You missed it!” he says. “We had a new Chosen One brought into the ward this morning.” We go down to Lichtenberg’s office; on top of a bookcase is a giant shofar, a curved ram’s horn that religious Jews sound on the high holidays. A middle-aged British man under the doctor’s care had used it to trumpet the Messiah’s—that is to say, his own—coming. Lichtenberg explains that allowing me to meet his latest patient would violate hospital policy, and he can’t discuss ongoing cases. He’ll talk about past patients as long as I agree to de-identify them, as I did with Hodge. “But,” he adds, “that doesn’t mean we can’t try to find a messiah of our own. In a few days, we’ll take a walk around the Old City and maybe we’ll find one for you there.”
There’s a joke in psychiatry: If you talk to God, it’s called praying; if God talks to you, you’re nuts. In Jerusalem, God seems to be particularly chatty around Easter, Passover, and Christmas—the peak seasons for the syndrome. It affects an estimated 50 to 100 tourists each year, the overwhelming majority of whom are evangelical Christians. Some of these cases simply involve tourists becoming momentarily overwhelmed by the religious history of the Holy City, finding themselves discombobulated after an afternoon at the Wailing Wall or experiencing a tsunami of obsessive thoughts after walking the Stations of the Cross. But more severe cases can lead otherwise normal housewives from Dallas or healthy tool-and-die manufacturers from Toledo to hear the voices of angels or fashion the bedsheets of their hotel rooms into makeshift togas and disappear into the Old City babbling prophecy.
Lichtenberg estimates that, in two decades at Herzog, the number of false prophets and self-appointed redeemers he has treated is in the low three figures. In other words, if and when the true Messiah does return (or show up for the first time, depending on what you believe), Lichtenberg is in an ideal spot to be the guy who greets Him.
“Jerusalem is an insane place,” one anthropologist says. “It overwhelms people.”
While it’s tempting to blame the syndrome on Israel’s holiest city, that wouldn’t be fair. At least, not completely. “It’s just the trigger,” says Yoram Bilu, an Israeli psychological anthropologist at the University of Chicago Divinity School. “The majority of people who suffer from Jerusalem syndrome have some psychiatric history before they get here.” The syndrome doesn’t show up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it and its kissing cousins are well-known to clinicians. For example, there’s Stendhal syndrome, in which visitors to Florence are overwhelmed by powerful works of art. First described in the early 19th century in Stendhal’s Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, the disorder can lead to spontaneous fainting, confusion, and hallucinations. Paris syndrome, first described in 1986, is characterized by acute delusions in visitors to the City of Light and for some reason seems to preferentially affect Japanese tourists. Place, it seems, can have a profound effect on the mind.
What’s actually happening in the brain, though, isn’t completely clear. Faith isn’t easy to categorize or study. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, has conducted several brain-imaging studies of people in moments of extreme devotion. The limbic system, the center for our emotions, begins to show much higher activity, while the frontal lobes, which might ordinarily calm people, start to shut down. “In extreme cases, that can lead to hallucinations, where someone might believe they’re seeing the face of God or hearing voices,” Newberg says. “Your frontal lobe isn’t there to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t sound like a good idea.’ And the person winds up engaging in behaviors that are not their norm.”
SHE WOULD RUB HER TEMPLES, DESPERATE TO DIAL IN THE VOICE OF GOD LIKE SOMEONE TRYING TO TUNE IN A FAR-OFF RADIO STATION.
The psychosis typical of Jerusalem syndrome develops gradually. At first the victim may begin to feel symptoms of anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia. The next day, there may be a compulsive urge to break away from the rest of the tour group and visit holy places like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Sufferers might follow this with a series of purification rituals such as shaving all of their body hair, clipping their nails, or washing themselves free of earthly impurities. The afflicted may then venture into the Old City to shout confused sermons claiming that redemption is at hand. In some cases, victims believe they are merely a cog in an ineffable process, helping to set the stage for the Messiah’s return with some small task they’ve been given. In more extreme cases, they can be swept up by psychotic delusions so intense, so ornate, that they become convinced they are Jesus Christ. “Jerusalem is an insane place in some ways. It overwhelms people, and it has for centuries,” Bilu says. “The city is seductive, and people who are highly suggestible can succumb to this seduction. I’m always envious of people who live in San Diego, where history barely exists.”
In other words, what you can blame Jerusalem for is looking like, well, Jerusalem. The Old City is a mosaic of sacred spaces, from the al-Aqsa Mosque to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount to the well-trodden stones on which Jesus supposedly walked. Like every city, it’s the combination of architecture and storytelling that makes Jerusalem more than just a crossroads. Great cities, the places that feel significant and important when you walk their streets, always rely on stagecraft—a deftly curving road, finely wrought facades, or a high concentration of light-up signage can all impart a sense of place, of significance. This architectural trickery can even instill a feeling of the sacred. The colonnades around St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, the rock garden at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto, and the pillars at the Jamarat Bridge near Mecca all shoot laser beams of transcendence into the brain of a properly primed visitor. “Part of the experience of going to these places is the interweaving of past and present,” says Karla Britton, an architectural historian at the Yale School of Architecture. “There’s a collapse of time. And for some people who visit these sacred sights and spaces, this collapse can be psychologically disorienting. The whole act of pilgrimage is deliberately intended as a kind of disorientation.”
That in and of itself doesn’t make someone crazy. “There are a lot of people who come to Israel and feel God’s presence, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Lichtenberg says. “That’s called, at the very least, a good vacation. God forbid a psychiatrist sticks his nose into something like that.” He smiles and rubs his beard. “But the question is, at what point is belief OK and at what point is it not OK? If someone says, ‘I believe in God,’ OK. And if they say, ‘I believe the Messiah will come,’ fine. And if they say, ‘I believe His coming is imminent,’ you think, well, that’s a man of real faith. But if they then say, ‘And I know who it is! I can name names!’ you go, wait a second—hold on!”
When people with Jerusalem syndrome show up at the hospital, doctors often just let them unspool their stories, however strange the narratives may seem. If the people aren’t dangerous, they are usually discharged. Violent patients might be medicated and kept under observation pending contact with their family or consulate. After all, the most effective treatment when it comes to Jerusalem syndrome is often pretty simple: Get the person the hell out of Jerusalem. “The syndrome is a brief but intense break with reality that is place-related,” Bilu says. “When the person leaves Jerusalem, the symptoms subside.”
Lichtenberg didn’t know any of this when he started at Herzog. Then, shortly after he began his residency in the late 1980s, he met a 35-year-old Christian woman from Germany. She was single and traveling alone in Israel. He remembers her as being gaunt, prematurely gray, and highly educated. The police had picked her up in the Old City for badgering tourists about the Lord’s return. “She arrived in a state of bliss because she believed the Messiah was coming,” Lichtenberg says. “I probably thought, she’s just meshuggeneh.”
Over the next few days, Lichtenberg underwent a transformation of his own. He became obsessed with the German woman’s case. He thought about how she would ricochet from periods of giddy rapture to moments of outright hostility and confusion. During her more manic moments, she wanted to share the Good News with the doctor. In her more depressive ones, she wandered the psychiatric ward desperately trying to hear the voices in her head that had gone momentarily silent. She would rub her temples as if she could dial in the voice of God, like someone trying to tune in a far-off radio station.
The woman stayed at the hospital for a month, until the doctor could arrange for her to be sent home. Lichtenberg has no idea what happened to her after she returned to Germany, but more than 20 years later he can still recall the smallest details of her case. “It was so interesting talking to her, but I was also a little embarrassed because there was no one at the hospital to encourage that sort of thing back then. At the time, the thinking here was more like, OK, what dosage is she getting? Should we increase it?”
This way of thinking is more sympathetic than many psychiatrists would call for. Actually, it wasn’t that long ago that one respected Israeli physician put two patients who both claimed to be the Messiah in a room together just to see what would happen. Each rabidly accused the other of being an impostor, barking fire-and-brimstone threats.
“People come to Israel and feel God’s presence,” Pesach Lichtenberg says. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Self-styled prophets have been journeying to Jerusalem on messianic vision quests for centuries. A certain Nazarene carpenter was merely the most charismatic and most written about. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that an Israeli psychiatrist named Heinz Herman clinically described Jerusalem syndrome for the first time. One of his early cases involved an Englishwoman who was so convinced the Second Coming was at hand that she climbed to the top of Jerusalem’s Mt. Scopus every morning with a cup of tea to welcome the Lord.
Most cases are harmless, but there have been disturbing exceptions. In 1969 an Australian tourist named Denis Michael Rohan was so overwhelmed by what he believed to be his God-given mission that he set fire to the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s most sacred sites, which sits atop the Temple Mount directly above the Wailing Wall. The blaze led to rioting throughout the city. Rohan later said that he had to clear the site of “abominations” so it would be cleansed for the Second Coming. (The mosque was rebuilt by a Saudi construction company owned by Osama bin Laden’s father.)
More recently, an American man became so convinced he was Samson that he tried—and failed—to move a block of the Wailing Wall. An American woman came to believe she was the Virgin Mary and went to nearby Bethlehem to search for her baby, Jesus. And a few years ago, the Israeli press reported on a 38-year-old American tourist who, after spending 10 days in Israel, began roaming the surrounding hills muttering about Jesus. Shortly after being hospitalized, he jumped off a 13-foot-high walkway near the emergency room, breaking several ribs and puncturing his lung.
Lichtenberg says that during times of uncertainty and conflict (not infrequent in Israel), admissions to his ward spike. For example, in late 1999, when the rest of the world quaintly panicked about the Y2K bug and whether they’d be able to use their ATMs on January 1, Israel was on high alert, afraid that deranged religious crazies would flock to Jerusalem in anticipation of a millennial apocalypse. At the peak, five patients a week were brought into Lichtenberg’s ward. The country’s defense forces were concerned that someone would try to blow up the al-Aqsa Mosque, finishing the job Rohan started 30 years earlier.
One of the patients brought into Herzog at the time was an old man who sold novelty wooden back-scratchers near Lichtenberg’s home. The doctor knew him. He also knew that the man firmly believed he was King David. “Was he psychotic? Yeah, OK,” the doctor says with a shrug. “But I didn’t see any need to keep him. Unfortunately, he passed away recently. Otherwise, I would have loved for you to meet him. He would have been happy to talk to you.”
At 9 the next morning, the doctor and I are walking the narrow streets of the Old City. It seems like a good way to conduct an interview, outside the sterile confines of the hospital. Plus, we are still hoping to meet a messiah.
The scents of cumin and turmeric and cardamom are so overwhelming that my eyes begin to water. And even though the doctor has lived in Jerusalem for 25 years, his sense of direction in the winding alleys of the Muslim Quarter seems sketchy at best. After several embarrassing wrong turns and switchbacks, we find ourselves standing face-to-face with an Arab butcher skinning a goat that hangs on a giant rusty hook. We detour left down a dark passageway and nearly crash into a dozen elderly Italian women dressed in the black clothes of mourning, carrying a 6-foot wooden cross on their hunched backs. They’re huddled together like a rugby scrum, chanting in Latin as they take plodding steps along the Stations of the Cross, reenacting Jesus’ bloody march to his crucifixion.
We move aside to let them slowly pass. Neither one of us says a word. And as soon as they turn the corner and disappear from view, he turns to me. “I’ve got chills. Do you?”
I have to admit I do.
The doctor asks me to try to describe what I’m feeling as if I am one of his patients, and I stammer a response about going to Sunday School as a kid and the thick smell of incense I remember at Easter Mass at my father’s Syrian Orthodox church. But, really, as soon as I try to put the sentiment into words, the chills subside and trickle away.
This is essentially what happened to the patient I’ve called Ronald Hodge. After a month of taking antipsychotic drugs under Lichtenberg’s care at Herzog, he gradually came to accept the hazy reality of what he’d been through. He was still confused, but he was calmer, more cooperative, and he no longer felt voices thrumming through his body. The American consulate arranged for his discharge and put him on a flight back to the States. He went back to his old life.
Lichtenberg and I come to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Inside the entrance is the Stone of Unction, symbolizing the spot where Jesus’ body was anointed and wrapped in a shroud after he was taken down from the cross. Men are kneeling with lit candles. Women are kissing the stone and running their rosaries along the top of it. Many are crying. It’s profoundly moving.
We head east toward the Wailing Wall. There, rows of men dressed in black and wearing sidecurls are rocking back and forth as they pray. Lichtenberg grows quiet and slowly approaches the wall, rubbing his hand on one of the giant stones. He leans forward and softly kisses it. After a few minutes, he looks around and says, “No messiahs here today. Sorry.” He seems honestly apologetic.
Later, over a cold drink, Lichtenberg confesses that he sometimes views his patients with less-than-scientific eyes. “I guess when someone comes into the hospital claiming to be the Messiah, my interest is not just clinical,” he says. “Sometimes you can see right away that the patient isn’t the charismatic type. They’re just a sick patient. But, OK, yes, I’ll admit it. There have been a number of people over the years who managed to arouse a certain hope that, hey, wouldn’t it be great if this person really is the One? So far I’ve been disappointed. But you never know who will walk through that door tomorrow.” His cell phone buzzes on the table. He’s needed back at Herzog.
As Lichtenberg walks off toward the hospital, the drone of the muezzin’s call to prayer crackles and hisses over a loudspeaker. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Is this the strange power of Jerusalem? Or just the result of an overactive limbic system? It feels deeper than that—more holy. But then again, what is deeper than neurochemistry?
Chris Nashawaty (email@example.com) is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly.
In my earlier blog, The Grand Old New Imperial Hotel, I wrote:
Had the hotel been there in Biblical times, what events we might have witnessed from our balcony. King Herod, the ostensibly psychotic master builder of Bible infamy dwelt opposite as he planned his Second Temple. So did Pontius Pilate. If one accepts the narrative of Simon Sebag-Montefiore, in his Jerusaelm : The Biography, we could also have watched the last journey of Jesus of Nazareth. It was but a short distance from the Citadel where he was condemned and Golgotha where he died: across the square, right at the New Imperial, left just past the Med, and straight on to the Hill of the Skull (where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands). The present Via Dolorosa runs from the site of the Antonine Fortress, on the northern edge of the Haram ash Sharif, to The Church, its course set by custom and customers from Byzantine days.
And now it appears that this indeed might have been the case.
As I relate in my earlier post, ‘Amazing Grace – There’s Magic In The Air‘ : “from the Jaffa Gate, we look out from our balcony in the Imperial Hotel, a late 19th Century mix of trash and treasure, five-star history, and ten-star views”.
Planning our recent visit to Jerusalem (we were there in May 2014, just two months before the recent events – in 2019, see below) I wanted to book a hotel that was both historical and conveniently close to The Old City. I also fancied the idea of staying in a pilgrim hotel so we could witness at first hand the excited comings and goings of the faithful (see my post ‘Messianic Carpet Rides‘). The New Imperial Hotel, just inside the Jaffa Gate, was just the ticket. And we struck solid gold! Stepping down from the Nesher bus on the road outside the famed Walls of Jerusalem and the Citadel (see: Once in Royals David’s Citadel), we looked up towards the Jaffa Gate and there, right above us was the imposing facade of the New Imperial Hotel
The Jaffa Gate, in the western wall of the Old City (not to be confused with the ‘Western Wall’ or ‘Kotel’ so revered of Judaism), has traditionally been one of the busiest entrances to Jerusalem. Its Arabic name is Bab al Khalil (Gate of the Friend) a reference to Abraham, forefather of both Arabs and Jews. The wall bears the inscription in Arabic: “there is no god but Allah, and Abraham is the friend of Allah”. Topographically the Gate provided the easiest access, so it’s approaches provided a most convenient camping ground for the many invaders who sought to conquer the city. These included Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Frankish Crusaders, Turks, and finally, the British. Caliph Omar Ibn al Khatab entered through this gate after Jerusalem’s capture by the Muslims in 638AD. As did General Allenby, commander of the British forces which captured Jerusalem in December 1917.
Just inside the wall, there were fields of winter wheat until the late nineteenth century; and in summertime, the empty fields became dumping grounds for carcasses of donkeys, camels and horses. The Turkish authorities moved this ‘cemetery’ outside the wall, and what was forever the main thoroughfare, became the location for important commercial institutions, including the Banco de Roma, the Anglo-Palestine Bank, and the German bank of Johannes Frutiger, the Austrian Post Office, The Thomas Cook Tourism and Travel Company, and the studios of a number of Jerusalem’s famous photographers.
And also, several hotels catering for the growing tourist industry, including the Mediterranean Hotel (now called The Petra), and in 1884, the Grand New Hotel, built on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. According to the Thomas Cook Tourist Handbook in 1876, the Mediterranean was “the best in Jerusalem”. Travelers were however wont to damn the Med with faint praise, and soon began to write about the really new, really ‘grand’ hotel with great facilities, round arched windows, high roof pedestals topped by Grecian urns, imposing entrance staircase, and balconies looking right out over Omar Ibn al Khatab Square. See the pictures below from the end of the 19th Century, showing the square in all variety of citizenry and costume.
The place comes with a history. During construction, builders uncovered what was believed to be the Pool of a Bathsheba. It was said that Uriah’s wife was bathing thereon when spied upon by a randy King David. David subsequently sent Uriah off on a suicide mission to clear the way for his own passions. The historical record is confused here. Leonard Cohen and the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme apparently got it wrong. They both placed her up on the roof. The Bible says he saw her from the roof.
The view from the rarely frequented roof terrace of the New Imperial itself, whilst not quite as picaresque as the vision that tempted the poet king, offers a splendid vista of the cupolas of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock – not to mention a fine peek at the battlements of the Citadel. On the western side, we look out over West Jerusalem and what was the old Arab neighbourhood of Mamilla, now totally rebuilt with a lux shopping mall, the rectangular bulk of the King David Hotel, once the HQ of the British military and bombed by Irgun terrorists in June 1946, and the iconic YMCA tower.
Anyhow, there is still an ancient cistern beneath the hotel. And also, part of the second wall. There are Roman tiles signifying the HQ the Roman Tenth Legion, and part a column erected by the legion, bearing a votive inscription honouring Emperor Augustus’ Legate, Marcus Julius Maximus. It stands there today as a pedestal for a street lamp, in the mews near the hotel front door and right in from of Versavee Restaurant and Bar, where the writer and his companions ate good Jerusalem fare and downed Israeli wine and Taybeh Palestinian beer.
Had the hotel been there in Biblical times, what events we might have witnessed from our balcony. King Herod, the ostensibly psychotic master builder of Bible infamy dwelt opposite as he planned his Second Temple (Herod might have murdered most of his nearest and dearest, but he was fitted up for the massacre of the innocents!). So did Pontius Pilate. If one accepts the narrative of Simon Sebag-Montefiore, in his Jerusaelm : The Biography, we could also have watched the last journey of Jesus of Nazareth. It was but a short distance from the Citadel where he was condemned and Golgotha where he died: cross the square, turn right at the New Imperial, left just past the Med, and straight on to the Hill of the Skull (where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands). The present Via Dolorosa runs from the site of the Antonine Fortress, on the northern edge of the Haram ash Sharif, to The Church, its course set by custom and customers from Byzantine days. But, the wrong side of town! (See Nova Via Dolorosa).
I digress…From rom our hypothetical balcony, we could watch the comings and goings of the conquerors: the entry of the Roman Titus’ legions; Omar Ibn Al Khatab entering al Quds on foot; the arrival of the First Crusade at the Gates of Jerusalem; the exit of the crusader garrison and the Christian inhabitants when the city fell to Salahuddin (portrayed in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven). And thence, Mamlouks, Seljuks, and Ottomans. The last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, stayed at the hotel on his visit to the Holy Land in 1898. His bust still sits in the entrance hall. This is when The Grand became the New Imperial! Kaiser Bill came in style. No walking for him. The wall between the Jaffa Gate and citadel was torn down and its moat filled in on orders from Sultan Abdel Hamid II to enable the Kaiser and his wife and their huge entourage (looked after in grand style by Thomas Cook Tourism & Travel) to motor into the Old City (again, read Sebag-Montefiore’s amusing account).
Twenty years later, General Allenby and his British Army marched through the gate. The good general entered on foot just like old Omar. It would be fun to imagine that he made his proclamation of the liberation of Jerusalem from one of those balconies (probably the big one in the centre, which now serves the office of the present proprietor Walid Dajani); but the reality is that he marched right past the hotel, veered right, and ascending the imposing steps of Kings David’s Citadel, deliver his oration there (although he may have indeed lodged at the New Imperial during his brief sojourn). He spoke of how the Holy City had now been freed from the Turkish yoke, and that, safe in the bosom of His Majesty’s forces, the Palestinians, in all their diversity, Jews, Christians and Muslims, would enter a new era of health, wealth and happiness. If he was aware of the nefarious dealings of Messrs Sykes and Picot, and the arrangement made by Lloyd George and Chaim Weizmann, he did not let on. He left the best news for the politicians to reveal a while later, and for the world to agonize over ever since.
So we enter the Twentieth Century, with its momentous political upheavals, the hotel having several changes of management but remaining largely unchanged, with its balconies, and its grand entry staircase. Walid Dajani’s father, Mohammed, took a “protected” tenancy” of the hotel from the Greek Orthodox Church in 1949, In the 1950s and 1960s, the hotel housed a small cinema, and its elegant ballroom was a favourite Palestinian wedding venue. It was damaged during the 1948 war, and during the 1967 Six-Day War, it was used as a base by Israeli troops, then returned to the Dajani family, the tenants of the property. It is, as far as we know, still owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, a status that ten years ago gave rise to a curious controversy about its future status, and in 2019, to a High Court appeal of its sale, and that of The Petra Hotel, to a shadowy right wing Jewish group – see the link below.
And thence to the present, with Sayyid Dajani greeting us like long-lost relatives, “ahlan wa sahlan bil Quds”.
© Paul Hemphill 2014. All rights reserved
See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany
https://howlinginfinite.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/amazing-grace-theres-magic-in-the-air http://www.iaa-conservation.org.il/Projects_Item_eng.asp?subject_id=10&site_id=3&id=112 http://www.academia.edu/3677136/The_Mediterranean_Hotel_in_19th_Century_Jerusalem https://www.timesofisrael.com/greek-church-to-appeal-against-sale-of-old-city-hotels-to-right-wing-group/
“If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem!”
Jerusalem, The Golden. The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’. It was deemed sacred from pre-history. Iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. A city of the mind as much as of this earth, it haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot! “There’s this thing that happens here, over the hell mouth”, says Buffy, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.
Paul Hemphill, A Brief History Of The Rise And Fall Of The West
Jerusalem is all about faith and passion, and there is no city on Earth that people get more passionate about. The light is luminous. In high summer it almost shimmers. The very air is full of prayer and politics, passion and pain, and the rocks and stones virtually sing a hallelujah chorus of history. I am not a religious person, but I cannot help getting excited by the place – although I do not transcend to transports of delight and delirium.
These include a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not exclusive to one particular religion or denomination, having affected Jews, Christians and Muslims from many different countries and backgrounds. In The Simpsons episode The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed, the Simpsons travel to Israel where Homer is afflicted with the syndrome, the illness and its effect on Homer being one of the plot’s central themes. In The X-Files episode Revelations, agents Scully and Mulder try to subdue a man afflicted with a form of the syndrome.
It is Shabbat in Jerusalem, and there’s magic in the air.
This morning, Enya wafting across the square in front of the Imperial Hotel. This afternoon, a Gregorian Chant rendering of REM’s “Losing my religion”. This evening, Haredim hustle through the square on the way to the Kotel, the walls of The Citadel are alive with Son et Lumiere, a weird blend of classical and faux movie music, retelling the ageless story of this ageless old town.
The Kotel, or Western Wall, is open to all, twenty four seven. Women now have their own section – a hard-fought for innovation. And Jews of all courts and communities share the space without rancour, each tribe differentiated by their interpretation of the Holy Torah, and by their garb, as determined by the fashion codes of 18th Century forebears in Eastern Europe and Mitteleuropa, heedless of the Mediterranean climate.
This, the only variable remnant of the Herodian Great Temple, is Judaism’s Holiest Place. And down below, in the tunnel, one can now actually walk the wall’s fundament (and view the biggest house-brick in history). This too is now a sacred site, the more holy the closer one gets to the location of the long-destroyed Holy of Holies.
Immediately above, on Temple Mount, is the Islam’s third holiest. It is said that the Prophet alighted here on his night journey to Jerusalem on Borak, the winged horse with a human face, conversed with Abraham, the father of the three faiths, and thence, ascended to Paradise. Revisionist historians suggest that Jerusalem may indeed have been the primary Islamic city, sacred from times long forgotten, until Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conquering Muslims’ desert narrative.
Non-Muslims can enter the Haram Ash Sharif, for strictly limited times (three hours a day, on five days of the week), and then, only through the Maghrebi (or Western) Gate, which ascends like an unsightly concertina from the right of the Kotel Plaza. Admittedly, the Haram custodians are wary of would-be desecrators and of Jewish religious elements seeking to pray on the Mount (haram!), and set precedents for the rebuilding of The Temple. But they do themselves and Islam no favours when the other People Of The Book permit pilgrims of all persuasions and passions to enter their precincts.
And passion is the name of the game. On the Church Of All The Nations, at the foot of The Mount Of Olives, pious of all nations prostrate hysterically across the stone where Jesus wept and prayed in Gethsemene. There is bliss in the Filipino pilgrims choraling ‘Amazing Grace’ in the Basilica of St. Anne. There is ecstasy In The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, an Escher jumble of chapels and chalices. Russian pilgrims, led by a priest in black, and looking like they have just come in from their villages on the steppe, clutch their many wooden crosses and clamour at the penultimate Station Of The Cross. A young man dressed like Jesus sits in a terry-towel habit of white, beard and hair looking for all the world like the Jesuses in ‘GodSpell’ and ‘Super Star’. Groups gather in clumps, cabals, and covens and read the Word to each other. A kind of ecclesiastical book club with only one book.
Over the centuries, The Church, as it is called, has seen much biffo and bloodshed as three faiths butted each other for dominance. At times, knives and guns have been drawn. The Ottomans sent in troops at one time to restore order, and they didn’t pussyfoot around. They used their weapons and scores of faithful were killed. It’s that centuries old conflict between the three custodian faiths, the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, and the Armenians. They each have their own chapels within the church. The Greek’s have the glitziest. Historically, the first two have always been the strongest, backed by the French and the Russians respectively! And Russian influence prevails still with state-supported legions of Russian pilgrims who throng the Via Dolorosa. The Ethiopians now have a small presence. They have be given a tiny little chapel ON THE ROOF! And there is a rival Tomb of Christ just outside the Old City walls, patronized mainly by Protestants. But that is another story.
You know you are near the the Church of The Holy Sepulcher because the aroma of frankincense and candle wax hits you before you reach the it. The Pope arrives for a flying visit next week, so there are banners and all manner of preparations taking place to greet His Holiness. Outside the church of churches, still the basilica that the crusaders restored to Christendom in a welter of blood and violence, shops hawk kaffiyehs, kippas and headscarves, icons, crucifixes and menorahs. Jerusalem is economically ecumenical. And the patronage of pilgrims unites the divided sects of the Old City in a common purpose that prevails regardless of the political impasse, positions, and non-negotiables that divide their political and pastoral leaders.
At the Jaffa Gate, we look out from our balcony in the Imperial Hotel, a late 19th Century mix of trash & treasure, five-star history, and ten-star views. The Kaiser slept here in the days when Germany had an emperor. His bust sits in the entrance hall (on the floor, strangely enough, but nothing is surprising in this Fawlty Towers of a hotel). The old gate was demolished to let him and his entourage pass through. He didn’t want to walk like Omar did when he first entered al Quds and claimed the city for Islam. General Allenby may have even stood on this same balcony in 1918 when he addressed Jerusalem and declared it liberated from Turkish rule. He left the the best news for the politicians to reveal a while later, and for the world to agonize over ever since.
And meanwhile, back in the now: Jaffa Gate, Shabbat.
The pilgrims are still flowing though like schools of fish, with matching hats, and happy, awestruck faces. Filipinos and Brazilians, Indians and Americans. And in a poignant sort of irony, Germans. Gloria in excelsis Deo! Tourists and backpackers amble through in daggy dress, maps and cameras in hand, all mini-back-packs and sun hats. Why do tourists dress so badly? And why in bright reds and blues that make them stand out so in photographs! Thank god for Photoshop!
Jews of all sects walk by all day and all night, in a myriad of hats and coats, the men in their devotional array, their ladies in plain garb. Young men walk out in groups of black, locked in serious discourse, young women, in many shades of sober fashion, yet all striving somehow for an individual voice. For young folk don bright plumage regardless of the chains of faith. Young soldiers ramble by, a hotchpotch in khaki and beige, half with handbags and sandals, clutching their mobile phones, and half with weapons and army boots. A reminder that this is at once a land of fable and also one on constant alert. And just to prove this, on occasions, noisy groups of stotting teens with Israeli flags gallivant through the Old City, and one time, semi-automatics, “trying it on” with the ever vigilant occupying authorities who endeavour to keep the peace on this here frontier. Unmarked white vans are never far behind to foil these attempts to mark territory.
Yes, Jerusalem is all about faith and passion, and there is no city on Earth that people get more passionate about.