When we last saw our stress-filled, anxious travellers (and their oblivious friend), they were headed to the Via Dolorosa, which I now know means The Road of Suffering.
Entering the Muslim Quarter after leaving the Temple Mount is like jumping from the fire into the frying pan. And yes, in case you are wondering, it is different from the Jewish Quarter -- COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!
Walking through the Arab market means enduring constant pleas to spend your money or at least drop by for a cup of coffee (which probably offers another route to the slave chicks in Gaza thing that I mentioned in the previous post.) It is dark and claustrophobic. Not an ounce of sunshine or an open space to be found. And not one Muslim woman to be seen. You feel like a potential human sacrifice walking through the ancient windy streets....
... which explains how I ended up paying an opportunistic 10-year-old Muslim boy four shekels to direct us to the Via Dolorosa. I know it was ridiculous, but since he wanted 100 shekels for his two minute effort, I think I did okay.
We arrived at the VD at the sixth Station of the Cross, which amounts to an ancient stone brick on the streetside facade of a church (or at least it looked like a church) where Jesus, who was carrying his own crucifixion cross and wearing a crown of thorns, stopped to rest for a second -- and he apparently leaned on the wall RIGHT THERE. Since then, about a trillion people have touched the same spot to the point that there is a noticeable indentation in the rock facade. (And for those of you who do not know what the Stations of Cross are, then if you are interested you can google it. I managed to get all the way to 49 without knowing so you can probably have dinner before you start getting anxious that you don't know what they are either.)
With the Via Dolorosa now checked off our To Do List, we found our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is in the Armenian Quarter and is much airier than the Muslem Quarter. Still not open and welcoming like the Jewish Quarter, but a far cry better than where we had come from.
It took me about 100 attempts to say the word "Sepulchre" properly. Try it, you'll see what I mean. You can hurt your tongue doing so.
When we entered the church courtyard, we knew we were in the right place because there were at least 300 tourists ahead of us. All in little groups with matching hats, listening to explanations in various languages from their tour guides. Suffice it to say that Jesus is a big draw and can really pull in the crowds.
When we entered the church the first thing we saw was a marble slab on the ground and many people lying down to kiss it or rub their belongings on it. I didn't understand what they were doing at first until my Catholic friend pointed out to me that they were rubbing their souvenirs on Jesus' grave so that they could give their friends a touch of his essence. From her persepctive it was no different from us touching the Western Wall as we prayed there. I don't really agree but I do see how she got to her position.
Since Jesus' grave was right in the entrance I didn't feel any need to look around further, but since we were there we decided to be good tourists. Of course, having survived the Temple Mount and the Arab Quarter my Jewish friends were invigorated and feeling a little invincible. So .... in we went.
When we entered the second room we were met by a monsterous black structure that looked to me like a giant incense burner. It was surrounded by a lot of people -- a lot of people. People were lighting candles everywhere. We couldn't figure out what it was but the line up to enter was very long. We finally agreed that it must be some sort of weird altar.
Well, it is good that we are naturally chatty types. We stopped in front of the giant incense burner/altar to talk to a Greek woman who turned out to be a tour guide. After five minutes of superficial Christianity chit chat I asked her what that thing was.
Talk about a watershed moment. It turned out to be the "real" grave of Jesus!
How did she know that for sure I asked her. And of course, I got the usual answer for all tough questions of faith .... it's in the ancient writings. I'm sure she noticed my cynical smile, but she wasn't deterred.
The Greek tour guide was really pushing us to get in line so that we could enter the tomb -- even after I told her that we were Jewish (I was a lot braver after I left the Muslim Quarter). She insisted that it was for all religions, so we nodded and said good-bye ... exiting in the opposite direction. Yeah, like we were really going in there.
(For those of you wondering what the first slab was, it turned out to be a facsimilie of the slab that Jesus' body was placed on after he was removed from the cross and before he was buried. Notice that I said "fascimilie". It wasn't even the real slab so who knows why all those people were going nuts kissing it and rubbing things on it. Didn't they read the guide book? It's all there!)
I think that's enough information for readers today. I promise to wrap up the story in the next installation.