(Travellers’ tales, fifth episode – January 1965)
The Orthodox-and-Catholic tomb was identified by the mother of the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire. She comes with pretty impressive credentials, so she may have been right. Her site is protected by an ornate cathedral with all the traditional bells and whistles, and about as romantic as a brick wall.
The Protestant site – or the Church of England, at least – was identified by a famous English general more than 1500 years later. And thank God for his English perseverance, because his tomb is in a sweet little grotto – a terrifically romantic place altogether. The Emperor’s mother also unearthed four or five (I forget) nails from the One True Cross, which sounds like pretty diligent work from an old lady, three hundred years after the event.
Linda and I walked the original Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, while trying to resist the temptation to buy any souvenir crowns of thorns from the shopkeepers along the way. “You should buy, effendi! For these, two piastres (or whatever the currency was) – for those, three piastres. You should buy those!” They looked identical. “What’s the difference?” I asked. “Oh, sir! On those, the thorns are much sharper. Feel them, madam!” Our resistance fell away in the face of such logic, and we bought a wreath of sharp ones for the equivalent of two shillings Sterling.
Disappointingly, there was only one site claiming to be where the Holy Manger had stood, in Bethlehem. I have a fuzzy memory of peering into a dark hole in the floor of a second ornate cathedral. You’d think General Gordon might have come up with something better, but he must have been called away on business. The sole unrivalled site had also been identified by the Emperor’s mother. What a busy old lady she was – and so devout.
All these sites were in Palestine, in 1965 – in that part of it that had been given to Jordan in the 1949 Armistice Agreements. Since then, Israel has occupied so much of the territory that it’s hard to say which country they’re in now. All the best Old Testament sites were in Palestine, too, but probably aren’t now. So were most of the United Nations refugee camps for Palestinians expelled by the people they saw as European invaders. (Palestine has been wiped off the map since then, of course...)
We took the liberty of visiting one of the camps, and had tea with a family there. Most Christian Palestinians – Christians since the time of the Apostles, presumably – had given up and emigrated. Generally, only Moslems stayed, trusting in God and their corrupt leaders. They’re still there.
The only way out of Palestine for us was north to Syria. The Jordanian authorities would let us cross into Israel but not come back. That meant flying out to Cyprus from Tel Aviv, and we weren’t ready for that. The barbed-wire of the cease-fire line was fifteen feet from our hotel door, and that was as close as we got.
Instead, we took buses up to Damascus and were shown the very window used by St Paul in his famous escape. That was cool, not least the actual scuff-marks from his sandals on the wall, miraculously preserved. They didn’t actually look two thousand years old – although, in that dry air, who knows?