Saturday, April 07, 2007

Easter Night in Jerusalem

Yesterday I promised to tell you about Easter Saturday night in Jerusalem and how I danced on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre with an African Pope.

It was twenty years ago, I was sixteen, and I was accompanying my parents on a pilgrimage my father was leading to the Holy Land. My father led pilgrimages for many years, once co-presenting a series with the BBC's Anne Gregg, and they were very popular and great fun as well as educational and spiritually-enlightening.

It was Easter Week, and Jerusalem was heaving with pilgrims from all over the world. The Souk ( market) was rammed and the usual scents of spices, dyed wools, piles of over-ripe fruit and smokey grills selling felafel were mixed with the cigarette smoke and sharp sweat of bargain hunters, picking up supplies for Passover feasts, as bored Israeli soldiers toting guns looked on.

Inside the Holy Sepulchre, a sprawling huge gilded lump of stone and gilt, that had sprung up over the centuries like a holy multistorey car park over the rock tombs where Jesus was once buried, the smell of incense was choking. The Sepulchre is ''owned'' by four Christian churches - Coptics, Latin (Catholic), Greek Orthodox, and Armenian - who bicker over politics and ownership and care for the building according to their wealth and infludence as best they can.

Crowds of tiny sharp-elbowed black-clad grannies fought to kiss the stone of the Tomb, brandishing white material that would be used to wrap them in when they died. ( The same determined grannies had been spotted earlier in the week at the River Jordan, paddling and dunking in their cotton robes, renewing their baptismal vows). Everywhere there were people wetly kissing masonry, and carrying nightlights and flowers. I wandered about inside the enormous church, dazzled by the indescribable amounts of glitzy junk everywhere, and was invited by a wizened-faced Coptic Orthodox priest in a threadbare black cassock to come and kiss the Tomb.

'I thought the Tomb was over there? ' I said, pointing the the queues.
He smiled, revealing black stumps of teeth. 'REAL tomb here, ' he said, gesturing behind him. So I went in, ducking under a heavy embroidered curtain, and squeezing into a dark space where some blackened stone and candles could be seen, amidst clouds of incense smoke. I touched the smooth greasy stone and crossed myself, I didn't fancy kissing it. The priest looked pleased and gave me an olive-wood rosary. I gave him a donation for the upkeep of his small area of the church, where he seemed to live day and night surrounded by dust, icons, candles, oil lamps hangings and fake flowers, and he waved his small clawed hand in a blessing as I squeezed out under the curtain again

Later on I found Mum and she said that we had been invited to celebrate Easter with the Ethiopian Pope. On the roof of the Holy Sepulchre. Where there was apparently an African Village.

'Are we? How on earth did that happen?'
'I don't know. Ask Dad'.

Late that evening we went back with an Ethiopian guide who had befriended Dad, to the Holy Sepulchre, and were taken into a small room, which was covered in frescoes of the Queen of Sheba meeting King David. The Queen of Sheba, famed for her beauty and wealth was thought to be Ethiopian. The room was full of women who had rolled themselves up tightly in white shrouds so only their large, beautiful dark eyes could be seen. The women were lying in heaps on the floor, keeping very still.

'What's going on?'
'They are waiting. They are being dead with the Lord Jesus, ' our guide said
'Ah ha. I see'.

Mum and I waited here, quietly, for about twenty minutes. The women stayed silent, many of them had their eyes rolled back but occasionally one or two would peep sideways at us. Occasionally one would let out a soft groan.

Suddenly, we heard noises on the roof, and we were beckoned to come up and join in. The women sat up straight and began to tear off their shrouds. It was clearly going to take them some time to disentangle themselves, so Mum and I went up the stairs to see what was going on.

There was a bonfire on the roof, just as we had been told. And there was indeed an African village, small tatty huts, which housed Ethiopian priests and monks who staked out their Coptic Church's claim to have a presence in the Sepulchre by living on the roof in great poverty. Everywhere men were running about ringing bells and shouting. They were doing a sort of exaggerated hop-jog, waving their arms and hulloo-ing, crouching down and then leaping up into the air.

'What are they doing?'
'They are looking for the body of the Lord Jesus. They cannot find it, so they are very happy, they are dancing because he is risen'

At this point a great crying out of joy went up, and the beaming Ethiopian Pope appeared from a tinsel-covered hut, wearing golden robes and surrounded by priests who were holding up three cane-handled umbrellas, that had been reupholstered with tassels and gold material and sequins. The Pope announced that Christ was risen, Exultet! Chistos Enesti and everyone began to dance, as drummers began to beat out a rhythm. We joined in the dancing, round and round the fire, as the women spilled out of their chapel and joined in, clapping and jogging from foot to foot, smiling broadly. It became crowded and chaotic, a whirl of bright fabrics and shining limbs and faces in the fire light, Easter had come and these people were partying under the Jerusalem stars, under the Passover Moon; for them, tonight was the most important night of the year.

We felt very privileged to have been invited to watch them start their celebrations. We had to rise early the next day, and it was very late, so we said goodbye and left them to their festivals and feasting on peanut soup. They were poor, they lived in tiny rough huts and slept on the hard roof, but they had made us strangers graciously welcome. We were amazed, and delighted to have been invited to their special party.

I am thinking of them now, whether the women are wrapped in white, fasting and waiting, lying still as the dead at this moment, and whether tonight the Ethiopian Pope will emerge in his glittering golden robes, and call out a benevolent blessing in a strong voice, and whether tonight there will be dancing again, under the stars of Jerusalem.


Anonymous Alys said...

Happy Easter! I have enjoyed your Easter posts very much, a nice change and very thoughtful.


April 07, 2007 7:18 pm  
Anonymous seth said...

hi rachel,

"the ten commandments" is always shown on u.s. tv the day before easter. though by todays standards the special effects are very primitive,its always entertaining.

btw. "kew gardens" in nyc is an area in the borough of queens (where the airports are) that has some very nice homes-alas the gardens are private.

weather has been cold and sunny-but hopefully we are done with ice and snow for the year-we had our final( hopefully) storm on march 17th.

hope alls well with u,j and miff.

April 09, 2007 4:41 pm  
Anonymous Maria said...

What a lovely description!

April 09, 2007 6:23 pm  
Blogger Jane Henry said...

Brilliant story Rachel.I once went to Lourdes in Easter week (where they favour luminous crosses and rosary beads...), and I did meet the late great Cardinal Hume on a couple of occasions, but I don't think I can top dancing with an Ethiopian Pope!!

Happy Easter.
love Janex

April 10, 2007 8:55 am  
Blogger granny p said...

I've been on that roof - weird to see an African village up there. But dancing - the Pope - Easter - no - oh how wonderful.xx

April 11, 2007 2:46 pm  
Blogger granny p said...

I've been on that roof - weird to see an African village up there. But dancing - the Pope - Easter - no - oh how wonderful.xx

April 11, 2007 2:46 pm  

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