Ann George joins the tail of a procession


On my first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem I attended the 8 a.m. mass in the Anglican Cathedral as usual. As I walked out of the entrance into the warm sunshine of a Jerusalem Spring morning I noticed a small group of smartly-dressed Palestinians, a boy aged about 14, a girl of 10 or so, and presumably, Mum and Dad, all waiting to go into the 9:30 Arabic/English service. Grouped together, they looked slightly bizarre, even photograph-worthy, as each carried what looked on first sight to be a green furled umbrella, decorated with a floral pattern. Why are they expecting rain? I wondered, looking up at the blue, cloudless sky. On drawing closer, however, I saw that these “umbrellas” were in fact made of spirally woven palm leaves, and the decorations were real spring flowers. Welcome to the Holy Land Holy Week, when Jesus enters Jerusalem with the waving of green palm fronds, sprigs of grey-green olive, and even complex decorations made from the intricate weaving of green palm leaves – not a dried palm cross in sight.

Many Christians live in the West Bank, and quite often they are not allowed to cross the barriers into Jerusalem. When I was living in the Old City the wall between East and West Jerusalem had been taken down, but it could still be difficult for local Palestinians, even those with jobs in Jerusalem or some of our students at our school, for example, to cross over from the West Bank, including those from the nearby major towns, such as Bethlehem or Ramallah. Often the decision to close the barriers seemed arbitrary or even perverse, and for some years Catholic Christians had been unable to join the Palm Sunday Procession into Jerusalem, but on my 3rd Jerusalem Palm Sunday the West Bank Christians had been given the go-ahead to attend.

Chris, my fellow deputy at the school, was a keen photographer, and asked me to go with him to view the procession. We roped in another teacher at the school to drive us up to a place on the route quite near the starting point, which was outside the church at Bethphage at 2:30. The plan was for us to watch the head of the procession passing us, take photographs, then join the Anglican Cathedral contingent, which, led by its banners, would be following the Greek Catholic congregations, and that way go down to the Sheep Gate and enter the city: good plan, but in the event, impossible to carry out.

We were duly delivered to a lofty outcrop of rock at about 2:15, climbed it and waited impatiently and for a very long time for the head of the procession to appear. We could hear a muted roar but nothing happened for nearly an hour. Suddenly there was a cacophonous trumpet sound and the head of the procession appeared from around the curve of the road. Chris sprang into action: there were outriders, one of them a woman, wearing the long floating white cloaks of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, the bold red Jerusalem crosses emblazoned over their arms, keeping their mounts to a stately walk, there were attendants dressed in black and gold, carrying staves, and then, pacing together, the Custos of the Holy Land, a brown-habited Franciscan, the Latin Patriarch, in purple, and the Greek Catholic Patriarch, in black. There were scouts, huge numbers of scouts, of all ages, shapes and sizes, popping up everywhere, long columns of chanting priests in surplices, and masses of banners. At this point, Chris became unable to stop taking photos, and I became distracted, not only by the huge numbers of people, all waving palms or olive branches, and the multiplicity of banners, but also by the sight of some enclosed nuns watching the procession from their roof. We were high enough to see them, a fact of which I am sure they were unaware, and I was diverted as much by their simple, enthusiastic pleasure at watching this rare event through the crenellations around their rooftop eyrie, rushing to and fro from one vantage point to the next, as I was by the extraordinarily large and diverse mass of people passing by, singing their own songs in a variety of languages, the bands all playing their own thing and the banners dipping and swaying.

In the end, of course, we missed the Anglican Cathedral group. I was told afterwards that it was very large and quite close to the front. Chris and I ended up at the tail of the procession along with a large group of Koreans and various independent travellers from all the continents of the world, happily joining in. We were some of the last to pass through the Sheep Gate and missed by at least an hour the ceremonies at the end of the procession at St Anne’s Church. We were hot, tired and exalted. The courtyard, cooler now and shadowed, beckoned. ‘Come to my place,’ I said to Chris. ‘Meet Auntie and Uncle and we’ll have some olives and a glass or two of the white Golan wine I’ve been saving up in the fridge for just this sort of moment.’