Ann George says farewell to the Old City
I remember being a part of a tour of the Armenian Cathedral in Jerusalem led by Henry, a son of the Armenian jeweller family who had helped me with accommodation and other advice when I was looking to live in the Old City. Henry pointed out the richly painted, rather grubby egg-shaped objects that were linked into the chains holding the huge oil lamps hanging everywhere in the cathedral. You can find these wooden eggs in tourist shops all over the Christian Quarter and actually Henry had some of them for sale in the family shop, too. They must not to be confused with the decorated eggs of the Russian Orthodox tradition, which are a symbol of resurrection, but which were also readily available to the tourist. ‘What are they for?’ he asked, and then shook his head at each suggestion: ‘a decoration’, ‘a weight to keep the lamp steady’, ‘a way of joining bits of chain’. He smiled broadly as he said, ‘They are there to stop rats clambering down the chain and drinking the oil in the lamps’. Well, in Jerusalem there is no end to your learning, which is compounded by the city being a vortex of 3 major religions, and even when considering just one’s own faith, experiencing the events of the Christian Year in 3 calendars, so that there rarely appears a date that is insignificant in anybody’s diary.
Even on the street you never know whom you might meet. You might even meet King David at the bus-stop, which happened to me once. He was dressed in the regulation long white robes of King David in 19th century stained-glass windows, his feet were bare and he carried his small harp in the traditional way. With his white, slightly curly shoulder-length hair and long white beard he was unmistakable and highly photogenic. I had seen him previously, of course, standing in various picturesque poses near the Western Wall, and it might be that tourists gave him money in order to be photographed with him, but I have to say I never saw any such transaction. I felt very honoured to be boarding the same bus as King David.
As I walked the streets of the Christian Quarter I knew that some of the paving-stones were Roman, and so it was very likely that Jesus had walked those very paths. When I climbed up the Mount of Olives I could see the ancient track that crossed the Kidron Valley and which Jesus and his disciples would have known and used regularly, not just on that fateful Maundy Thursday, when it is likely from the Gospel accounts that he crossed the valley at least 3 times.
Because I had lived in the Old City for 4 Holy Weeks and Easters and having had some involvement in 3 different Christian traditions (Anglican, Greek Catholic and Armenian), I had a wealth of associations to treasure. The usual pilgrimages avoid the major festivals because the sites become very over-crowded, but I had been blessed with the opportunity to get involved in such experiences as walking to Gethsemane to pray over Jerusalem with the Anglican Cathedral congregation on Maundy Thursday evening, Searching for Mary in the Old City afterwards with Greek Catholics, attending the Funeral of Christ on Good Friday evening at the Greek Catholic Cathedral, and seeing the New Fire shoot out of the Edicule on Holy Saturday afternoon, as I stood beside my friends in front of the Armenian Chapel in the Church of the Resurrection.
So living in the Old City of Jerusalem both brought the Gospels very close to me and was also an on-going learning experience, with its ups, for example, never feeling unsafe in the street at any time of the day or night, and with its downs, such as having to avoid the Via Dolorosa throughout Catholic Good Friday (non-stop Stations of the Cross re-enacted with horrifying exactitude). On the other hand, saying good-bye to Jerusalem was very difficult indeed.
In some ways saying goodbye was made easier because I had already moved out of the courtyard and into some teacher accommodation behind the school for the last few months of my contract. Auntie had become very sick and her relatives had taken her and Uncle back to their home in Antigua so they could look after them better. My final visit to the jeweller’s shop came inevitably; my friend Grace, Henry’s sister, and I went for a last visit to the Armenian Cathedral, we lit candles for Auntie and Uncle, and then went back to the shop for coffee, Armenian coffee of course, then embraced and parted.