Walls and stairs

You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.  Noel Coward knew that when in 1931 he wrote the song with the repeated line “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”. I know the song but I still did it – me and the mad dogs. But I wanted to take every opportunity to get to know aspects of this wonderful, magical, eternal and disturbing city that I’ve not had time to encounter before.

I had decided that today, rather than getting the usual overview of the city that new pilgrims are treated to from the Mount of Olives, I would climb the walls of the Old City and survey it from that vantage point. The guide book I looked in said I could begin the tour from either Damascus or Jaffa Gate. It was wrong. (Note to self – get a new guide book!)

The entrance that was alongside Damascus Gate is now only an exit.  I needed to make my way across the city to Jaffa Gate. So I set off, deciding that I wouldn’t get lost if I went via New Gate. But that led me into another wonderful new experience and an unexpected blessing.

Being at St George’s College which is located in the Cathedral close of St George’s Anglican Cathedral, is, I’m discovering, a little like being part of a semi-monastic community.  The day begins with the Eucharist at 7.00am. So after saying Morning Prayer alone in the chapel in the College I made my way to the Cathedral for the Mass. It was 4 October and so the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. The Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Revd Hosam Naoum, was presiding and introduced the Mass by talking about St Francis and the guardianship of the holy places, the Terra Sancta, by the Franciscans.  He mentioned that the members of the order in Jerusalem would be gathering that morning for the great celebration of their founder in the church in their main monastery.  The church is St Saviour and it is by New Gate and I was on St Francis Road. The decision was made for me.


Getting to the church reminded me of something that G K Chesterton wrote in 1920 about Jerusalem. In his book ‘The New Jerusalem’ he comments

Jerusalem might be called a city of staircases. Many streets are steep and most actually cut into steps.


Everywhere seems to involve going up.  It’s like a real life version of one of Escher’s relativity paintings, mind-blowing depictions of staircases going everywhere and nowhere.  In every direction in Jerusalem you seem to be invited to go up.  I mentioned Psalm 122 as being the psalm to accompany me here and in one version the psalm has been translated in this way

I was very glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go up to the house of the Lord.”
Jerusalem, our feet are standing
    inside your gates.

I was inside the gates and I was going up, not to ‘THE’ house of the Lord as the psalmist was singing, not the Temple, but ‘A’ house of the Lord, the church of St Saviour and the gathering of religious from across Jerusalem and its many traditions. The church was packed with every kind of habit and headdress, the simplicity of the Franciscans in their brown habit and the relative exoticism of the Orthodox bishops invited to be present. I sat towards the back, surrounded by nuns. It was another stairway to heaven. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones painted the lovely image of the ‘Golden Staircase’ that you can see in Tate Britain in London. Well, I think it’s lovely, but then I love that kind of art. But there is that staircase with the ethereal figures ascending and descending but of course it’s Jacob who sees the original ladder to heaven, a staircase on which angels ascend and descend (Genesis 28.12). Any Eucharist – the early simple one in the Cathedral, the grand one in St Saviour’s later that morning – is a ladder into divine encounter and a blessing for that.


As the Mass finished and the long line of concelebrating priests left in procession I made my way to the statue of the seraphic saint, a relic of whom was there for veneration. Francis’ simplicity was in contrast to the church and the liturgy but the intentions were good and that golden staircase well occupied by angels.

But I still had to complete my intention for the day, doing the ramparts walk.  One of my intentions for this time in Jerusalem is to have new experiences, doing the things that we never have the time to do with a bunch of pilgrims. Staying in a church for a 100 minute Eucharist is one thing, climbing the walls is another.

The walls of Jerusalem are so much at the heart of the image of the place that we have. The Holy Week hymn, ‘There is a green hill’ begins with the verse

There is a green hill far away,
outside a city wall,
where our dear Lord was crucified
who died to save us all.

The truth is, of course, that the walls that we now see and along which I walked are not the ones that Jesus knew, not the ones through which he was forced to carry his cross.  Those walls surrounded a much smaller city and in fact the site on which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands, now inside the present walls, was outside the walls in Jesus’ day. The present walls date from the 16th century and are the work of the Ottoman, Sultan Suleiman I who ordered the ruined city walls to be rebuilt. The work took some four years, between 1537 and 1541. Before then there had been no walls for centuries and the beautiful fortified city of our biblical imagination was not much more than an unfortified village.


The walls we now see, slightly altered by the addition of more gates and interventions in the defences at various stages of history, are basically those of Suleiman I, better known as Suleiman the Magnificent.

By the Jaffa gate I found the shop that sold the tickets, handed over my shekels and got onto the ramparts.  By now the sun was high and hot, but I didn’t want a little thing like that to deter me.  In fact, though the heat was extreme and there was little shade it was worth it.  I almost had the walls to myself.  It was peaceful and the views were magnificent.

As sections of the walls are not open to visitors I was only able to walk from Jaffa to Herod’s Gate.  Going slowly and carefully (the uneven surface, the uneven steps and the heat and height kept me going at a gentle pace), it took me almost two hours to complete this part of the walls.  I found a stone in some shade at one stage and sat.  I was in no rush, and I looked and listened.  From that vantage point you see a jumble of roofs and domes and spires and minarets, of water tanks and wires and rubbish in one unholy mess that makes one holy city.  It is so real and it is so wonderful.


Jesus said to his disciples

‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.’ (John 14.2)

I was going up into the house of the Lord, Jerusalem, this divine dwelling place in which the people of God – Jew, Christian and Muslim – find a home.  And the house needs walls and stairs and that is what I have encountered today.

In 1864 Samuel Johnson wrote a hymn we still sing and especially I like to remind pilgrims of it as we look, but don’t climb, the walls.

City of God, how broad and far
outspread thy walls sublime!
The true thy chartered freemen are
of every age and clime.

At the end of a good day this is my prayer.

God of walls and stairs,
bless and inhabit our own homes
and may we find our eternal home
in your heavenly mansion
with its many dwelling places.