Ann George visits the holiest Christian site very early in the morning

Saturday morning was a lovely time to wander in the Old City. It was, of course, still Shabbat, so although observant Jews could be seen striding along Armenian Quarter Road to the Western Wall, there was none of the usual noise of traffic on the Old City bypass and the streets were noticeably quieter. Doomed during the week to get up really early for school (I needed to be on-site by 7:15 a.m. at the latest) I naturally woke up bright and early when I didn’t need to, and was ready to prowl the Old City streets by 6:30 a.m.

The great door to the Church of the Resurrection, the focal point of Christian presence in the Old City, was unlocked at dawn, and by the time I reached it, the first regular stop on my Saturday routine, this power-house of prayer was well and truly open for business with priests, monks, nuns and laypeople moving purposefully around the huge, sprawling and often secretive edifice. Only an hour or so later, however, and it would be over-run with untidy crocodiles of pilgrims and tourists, often in extraordinarily large forces of fifty or more, led by a person wearing a curious hat, carrying a plastic rose on a stick or waving a national flag. For that reason very early morning was definitely the best time to say one’s prayers, light a candle, think one’s own thoughts.

As I started up the steep, winding staircase to Calvary I would find myself saying the words, ‘I was glad when they said unto me, we will go into the house of the Lord’, and by the time I had reached the top I had arrived at, ‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem….’, an apt phrase if ever there was one. The first chapel on Calvary is a Catholic one and is the site of the 11th Station, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross. To one side is a bust of Mary, and in a miracle of craftsmanship, she really does look as if she is shedding tears. I always paused to appreciate this sight, particularly because I had met the elderly Armenian jeweller who had been called upon to restore this statue when it had been damaged some time before. He was a gentle, quiet, serene man, and I could well imagine the loving care he must have lavished on repairing this work of art.

But my main focus, of course, was Calvary. Under the rather sardonic eye of the Orthodox monk on duty at the lectern I would settle myself against a pillar at the back of the chapel and say my prayers, and sometimes even presume to kneel before the great crucifix, placing my hand inside the hole believed to be the place where the cross had been set up on that first Good Friday. The hole is worn smooth, glassy even, with the hands of so many pilgrims, and the action links each of us into that great chain of belief stretching right back to our Christian roots.  

Leaving the church the sudden transition into brightness would make me blink and the sun would strike hot on my cool skin. Time for breakfast! A stroll down the Via Dolorosa then branching off to pass through the Damascus Gate would bring me to a Palestinian bakery where they made Lebanese bread spread with olive oil and a za’atar mix (hyssop, sumac, ground sesame seeds and salt), and also sold the local cheese, a type of halloumi: what a treat to be able to take it all back to the courtyard and eat it to the accompaniment of Uncle Joseph’s pattering reminiscences and Auntie’s Lebanese coffee!

Ann George is a member of FinF National Council