Around the year AD72 the historian Flavis Josephus wrote
I cannot but think that it was because God had doomed this city to destruction, as a polluted city, and was resolved to purge his sanctuary by fire, that he cut off those who clung to them with such tender affection. (War 4.5.2 323)
This was part of his interpretation of what happened so recently to Jerusalem in AD70 as the Romans, who had been encircling the city and waiting for their moment launch an attack which would see the Temple destroyed, the city reduced by fire and many of the people killed. You can never escape the fact of that destruction. Whether you’re looking at Jerusalem, as most pilgrims do, from the Mount of Olives or as I was yesterday, from the ramparts, your attention is always grabbed by the glorious and shimmering golden dome, the Dome of the Rock, sitting magnificently on what we still so often call the Temple Mount. Before the Romans did their worst our eyes would have been attracted by the marble and gold of the Holy of Holies at the very heart of the Temple complex. We would have seen the smoke rising from the continuous burnt sacrifices being offered and we would have seen the upper part of the city filled with the smart homes of the priestly families.
In a quest to see things that I have never seen before, what I’m calling the ‘Hidden and Holy’ I decided to begin today by finding the Burnt House. It’s in the Jewish Quarter, so I set off in that direction.
Having so much time here, six weeks in all, means that if I see somewhere on the way I can stop and see it. I had decided to walk down Al-Wad Street and then turn off to ascend towards the Jewish Quarter of the city. Al-Wad is the left hand road at the fork just inside the Damascus Gate. Despite what I was saying yesterday about there being steps everywhere, this is a street without steps. In fact, as its name suggests, this is a natural valley, a waddi, a river valley, that has become a thoroughfare. Once you know that you understand a little more of the topography of the Old City. I suppose it’s a bit like Fleet Street in London in that respect.
Al-Wad intersects with the Via Dolorosa and pilgrims will know the spot because it’s where two of the stations, III Jesus falls for the first time and IV Jesus meets his mother, are next door to each other. There was a crowd outside the Armenian Catholic Church, the Church of the Spasm (so named because of the spasm of grief that went through Our Lady as she saw her son), which serves as the place where the pilgrims remember Station IV and I could see that the door of the church was obviously open. I’d never had time to go in before – but I had now.
It’s a lovely church with a typical Armenian Catholic altar on which the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. A nun was there praying on her own. So I joined her. Then after a while I noticed a staircase in the corner with a sign saying IVth Station. So I left the nun to her adoration and went down stairs and there was the real IVth Station!
A twentieth century statue of the event is in an alcove but beneath it is a Byzantine mosaic floor and into that floor are depicted two footprints. A sign assured me that those footprints mark the spot where Jesus stood as he met his mother. I was reminded of the popular poem ‘Footprints’ which you will no doubt know. It ends with these lines
The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child. I love you, and I would never, never leave you during your times of trial and suffering. When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.
The Lord, carrying his cross, was also carrying me, carrying you, even carrying his most holy Mother in the first spasm of her grief. That was why only one set of footprints was depicted in the mosaic. It was a deeply moving encounter with Jesus in the complete stillness of that place.
But I had a place I was intending to go. So I rejoined the Al-Wad Street and eventually made my way (up staircases of course) to the Jewish Quarter.
The little museum that houses the Burnt House isn’t that easy to find. But if you know the remains of the crusader church and hospice of St Mary’s of the Germans which stands above the golden menorah the museum is very close to this. The story is that after the 6 Day War when the Jewish Quarter was beginning to be rebuilt archaeologists came across the remains of a house which appeared to have been destroyed by a devastating fire. In it were domestic remains, pots, furnishings, the severed arm of a young girl, a spearhead, jewellery and equipment that a priest might use at home to make the incense he would offer in the Temple which was nearby. In addition to this a stone with an inscription saying that this place belonged to the priestly Kathros family was found.
The little museum houses the remains of the house and the artefacts found in it. I’m not usually a fan of the audio-visual presentations in these places but I was on my own, literally, in this place and I had the time. The presentation was excellent and dramatically told the story of the events of AD70 and what happened to this family. It set my agenda for the day.
I had been many times before but I now needed to see the Western Wall, so often called the ‘Wailing Wall’. It’s the closest that Jews can officially get to the site of the Temple destroyed in the fire that destroyed that house. The wall is vast in scale and above it you can see the buildings on the artificially created platform which made a level area, a fifth of the area of the Old City, around the peak of Mount Moriah, the navel of the earth and the place on which Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, the place where David and Solomon built the Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, the place that Jesus visited so often and taught and cleansed and predicted its destruction and the place from which the Prophet Mohammad visited heaven.
Seeing the great stones and with the story of destruction in mind I thought of Jesus’ words to his disciples.
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’. (Mark 13.1-2)
When I first began coming to the Holy Land getting onto the Temple Mount was relatively easy. Nowadays it is open to non-Muslims only at very restricted and often changing times and the great al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are now never open to us. As I watched people praying at the wall I noticed people moving along the elevated walkway onto the Temple Mount. So I went through more security checks, but with no queue of people at all and found myself after many, many years back on the Mount.
It is a beautiful space, vast and open, clean and spacious with its two great buildings, the Mosque where the great staircase would have delivered worshippers including Jesus and his disciples into the outer courts and the Dome standing, we suppose, where the Holy of Holies stood. This vast space was created by the act of destruction. It was hard to believe that a place so beautiful could have come through fire. But regular acts of violent protest continue to mar its peace and beauty. This really is disputed territory as it always has been and perhaps always will be.
In his ‘Four Quartets’ T S Eliot meditates on this whole theme
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
Hope or despair? It’s all there in this place of fire and fire. I left the Mount to make another connection in this encounter with destruction.
Mount Zion stands outside of the city walls and it was there that I was heading. Across the road from David’s Tomb, the Dormition Abbey and the Cenacle, all of which are on Mount Zion, is the Protestant Cemetery. The unimposing entrance is just a few yards away from where the coaches take pilgrims to the wonderful church of St Peter-in-Gallicantu. Above the entrance to the graveyard it says simply ‘To Oskar Schindler’s Grave’ and that is what I had come to see. Schindler is regarded as a ‘righteous gentile’ and was brought to Israel to be buried here in recognition of what he had done to rescue Jews from destruction through the period of the holocaust, the story told in the 1994 film ‘Schindler’s List’.
His tomb is simple and not that easy to find, until you have found it and then it could be no other. The edges of the slab on the top of the tomb are covered in rocks left by Jews visiting and paying their respects. The Jewish practice is not to leave flowers but stones which add and add to each other and make, I suppose, over time a kind of cairn. I added mine. It was very moving to see, simple, understated in a place passed by by so many but so precious in the history of the Jews. The sign above the entrance was so different from the one I saw some years ago on a visit to Aushwitz- one spelt destruction, but this man came with the promise of life and rescue.
Back across the road and taking a different route into Mount Zion I passed the Holocaust Chamber and Memorial. I have been to Yad Vashem, the official holocaust memorial and I intend to visit there again, but this was much smaller and quite different. The man on the desk at the entrance explained that it was not supported by state funds. It had a tomb like quality, the walls covered with memorial plaques to all the cities where Jews had been resident before the holocaust and a large memorial to those who died in the concentration camps. But, as always, the things that I found most poignant were the human reminders, the clothes, the badges that had to be worn. It was a reminder after Schindler’s grave that so many did not find a friend to save them.
It was time to head back to St George’s College, but there was a last visit I wanted to make on this day in which the theme of destruction had emerged, a theme that made me feel that spasm of grief with which the day had begun.
I had seen the Western Wall but I then discovered that there is the ‘Small Wailing Wall’. It is in fact a small section of wall that is off Al-Wad but separate to the main section of wall. It was not easy to find but I managed it. It’s at the end of Bab al-Hadid Street next to the Bab al-Hadid entrance to the Temple Mount and to the immediate left of the police stationed there. I was on my own, there was no one there and I was able to stand close to these old stones, from Herod’s Temple, destroyed by fire and feel the warmth of so much faith.
Not far from where I am bombs are raining down on the people of Aleppo and communities are being destroyed in so many places. Houses are being burnt, people killed, places of worship destroyed and walls crumble. The people are in the constant spasm of grief and there seems as if there is no one to help. Destruction is still at the door of so many in the world, so many in this region. As Eliot said
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
Perhaps this is the fire that issues from hatred as opposed to the fire of God’s love. May Jesus carry those who face destruction today, that they may be saved from fire by fire.
God of peace,
teach us to build and not destroy,
to love and not to hate,
to heal and not to hurt.