Just returned back from our little expedition up into Scotland, (hence the late posting). Despite a lot of driving and some inclement weather, we had a great time. I’ve been to Scotland lots of times in the past, but never beyond the Lowlands, and my aim this week was to head as high up as I could. And so, after motoring all the way up to John O’Groats, we then went further by taking a boat across the Pentland Sound to the incredible Orkney Isles. Treeless and bleak, these isolated outposts of Britain contain what is perhaps the most incredible collection of Neolithic sites in Europe. Well worth the effort!
If you liked those, check out my Flickr album of the trip.
But from ancient British history, to the ancient Middle East and in today’s post I explore the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, the place which inspired both my 2010 trip to Eastern Turkey and last year’s expedition to Armenia.
Uncle Travelling Matt
Links to other parts of the travelogue:
There were no buses back to Bethlehem and, it being a Friday, few travellers, so the sherut was filling up extremely slowly and the driver anticipated that it would be hours before he could set off. Unable to wait that long as I had a wife and child to get to, I splashed out and took a taxi.
My driver was a chatty Hebron Arab who conversed freely on contemporary issues as we drove along. He explained that he, like most other West Bankers, voted Fatah; it was those on the Gaza Strip who chose Hamas. Of course, there were issues with Fatah’s corruption and the like, but one had to remember that they were Arafat’s party and Arafat had been a great hero to the Palestinian people.
As we journeyed, he explained some of the intricacies of the Oslo Accords. The road that we were travelling along was administered by the Israelis, as too were the settlements that we passed and much of the waste ground on either side, but the Arab villages and the entirety of the cities of Hebron and Bethlehem were Palestinian, save, of course, for the Jewish enclave (H2) in the heart of Hebron which was a “big problem”. As for the Israelis, he didn’t like them, they needed to stop stealing Arab land, to leave Palestine to the Palestinians. He did not however, define where he thought Palestine starts and ends.
Nearing Bethlehem, we passed through the infamous Dheisheh Refugee Camp. This had started out as a tent camp for Arab refugees forced from their homes during the 1948 War and in 1949 was leased to the UNRWA for ninety-nine years. These days however, only the UN buildings distinguish it to the passer-through from any other tatty Palestinian suburb, although its population density is extremely high with over 11,000 souls crammed into an area of just over a square kilometre. It was prayer time when we drove through and most of those 11,000, (well, the males at least), seemed to be at the mosque which was crammed to overflowing with hundreds knelt in prayer outside on mats, loudspeakers relaying the liturgy.
Back in Jerusalem it was raining so anything more adventurous that exploring a little more of the Old City would have to wait. Not that there was a shortage of things to see in the Old City mind; Jerusalem is so full of world-class sights that it would take weeks to view them all.
We wandered up towards the quarter of the Old City that I had never set foot in before. Unlike the other quarters which are full of bustle and activity, the Armenian Quarter is quiet, its activities going on behind high walls and closed doors. There was one event however, that we were allowed to witness and since I have long had an interest in the Armenians and their culture I wasn’t going to miss out on a small flavour of their long presence within the Holy City.
Armenia was the very first country in the world to adopt Christianity when King Tiridates III was converted in 301AD by St. Gregory the Illuminator, and very soon after this Armenian pilgrims started making their way towards the Holy Sepulchre. Like with all groups of pilgrims, some stayed on, but unlike all the other groups, the Armenians became a permanent fixture, resident in their own little corner of the Holy City through countless wars, invasions, massacres and persecutions, their numbers boosted considerably in 1915 by refugees from the infamous Armenian Genocide.
Armenian Christianity is quite different from that of the majority of Christian churches, for it is monophysite. Monophysite churches believe, unlike the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant branches of the Church, that Christ is one in nature, that is to say, He is not human and divine, but instead solely divine. Such concerns might seem like theological hairsplitting to us today, but centuries ago they were the cause of great debate and much violence, so much so that in 451AD the Council of Chalcedon declared monophysism to be a heresy and all the churches that profess it, to be in error. This greatly damaged the creed, which had one been believed by a majority of the early Christians and the official line won the day, but nonetheless, several monophysite churches have survived into the 21st century including the Copic, Syriac and Armenian churches, all three of which have a presence in the Holy Sepulchre itself. I however, wanted to see more, to catch a glimpse of this most ancient and exotic of churches in action, so at half past two we made our way into the Cathedral of St. James to view the daily Mass.
It was a surreal experience. The church was almost pitch black, the only illumination coming from a myriad of flickering oil lamps suspended from the high, domed ceiling. Then, from a side entrance came a procession of priests and clergy in costumes so outrageously Oriental that I wondered if I had not stumbled by accident upon some strange Masonic ritual from an Indiana Jones film. That feeling was heightened by the chanting in the Armenians’ alien, ancient tongue and the fact that the congregation barely numbered ten, adding to the sense of secrecy. The sparse church was initially surprising, for coming from a Protestant or Catholic tradition, an empty church is seen as something of a failure, but in the East things are different; their Masses are non-participatory and continue regardless of whether there is a congregation present or not. Like the monks of Mediaeval Europe, the priest prays for his flock and it matters not if they are actually present there with him at the time. Such glimpses are, to me, one of the chief joys of the Holy City: one is confronted with so many radically different ways of approaching the same saviour.
We left the dark confines of the cathedral and continued round to Mt. Zion where we saw the Tomb of King David and the Cenacle. Even by Jerusalem standards this place was remarkable for the tomb, a Jewish shrine, was downstairs in the same building from the Christian Cenacle whilst above that was a Muslim minaret! Inside the Cenacle I tried to focus on the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist which is central to my faith and which I re-enact weekly in St. Saviour’s Smallthorne or St. Margaret’s Draycott, but I found it impossible to do successfully. The crowds of Korean and Slovenian pilgrims which filled the room to bursting did not help matters, but it was more than that. To my eyes the room itself was wrong, it seemed far too large and its architecture far too Crusader to be right.
By this time the rain was still falling and we were all getting hungry. Again we headed into the New City, this time to find a cash machine so that we could fill our bellies, but cash machines it seemed, were in short supply, and those that we did find did not work. Eventually, after getting soaked through trawling the streets, we found one on Jaffa Street, got our money and then spent it taking a taxi back and buying a well-earned meal in an Arab restaurant close by the Damascus Gate.
 The Upper Room where the Last Supper took place.