Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Survives Centuries of Volatility

Ladder outside window of the Church which cannot be moved according to Status Quo Agreement
Ah, Jerusalem, where every stone, wall, church, synagogue, mosque, street, gate, archeological site, and neighborhood is steeped in history and politics.  The layers run deep and passion high.  In the Christian world, no place is more political than Church of the Holy Sepulcher and few approach its volatile history.

Helena, a self-declared archeologist and mother of Constantine, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, arrived in Jerusalem around 325 AD.  She promptly discovered the cave that was believed to be Jesus’ tomb and found three wooden crosses, the plaque with Jesus name as King of the Jews, and nails from the cross.  She had the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher built in four parts around the cave and the site of the crucifixion, making it the holiest site in all Christendom.

Soon after Mohammed’s death, Jerusalem was conquered by his followers. Muawiya , commander of the Arab believers, visited Holy Sepulcher in 661 to show continuity of religions and his imperial role as protector of holy places.
In 1009, al-Hakim, the caliph of Egypt ordered the church destroyed, but forty years later, Christians were allowed to rebuild. When Crusaders arrived in 1099, after very bloody battles, they prayed at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and took possession for the Latin or Roman Catholic church.   Saladin  took the city back in 1187 and restored the patriarchal throne to the Orthodox.

Ethiopian Monk who lives on roof of Church
Despite years of neglect, fire, and battles, the Church still stands but with wounds from the divisions of Christianity.  Looking at a floor plan of the church is similar to viewing a patchwork map of Israel and the occupied territories.  There’s the Armenian chapel of Division of Robes, the Greek chapel of the Derision, a Syrian chapel and Armenian shrine.  We entered from the rooftop where Ethiopian monks patrol their monastery site to keep Egyptian Coptic Christians out.  The only western presence is the Catholic church, thanks to the arrival of Franciscan monks 650 years ago.

American visitors to the Church are surprised to experience its deep Eastern Orthodox ambiance and very large crowds from Russia and eastern Europe.  When the various churches could not agree on custodianship of Holy Sepulcher, a “Status Quo” decree was issued in 1853 by the then sultan, freezing ownership of the parts of the church among the Greek, Latin, and Armenian churches with the Orthodox dominating.  Russia even threatened to invade Turkey if this arrangement weren’t maintained, a bit of an overreaction in our modern eyes.

Forward 160 years and the Status Quo still governs.  The Roman Catholic church waited years for an agreement to celebrate its new liturgy in the church.  With details sketchy, arguments still arise. Recently, the Israeli government fixed a leaky roof and added stainless steel stars as no consensus could be reached on responsibility among the churches.   Just a week before our visit, police broke up a fight between two priests caused by a swinging incense burner crossing the designated lines of authority.  But all this pales compared to the shoot-out in 1846 on a Good Friday when Catholic monks and Greek priests argued over who would conduct the first service.   They fought with crucifixes, candlesticks and lamps before resorting to daggers and pistols.  40 lay dead before Ottoman soldiers broke it up.

Graffiti left by Crusaders on wall of the Church
Surprisingly, two Moslem families of long standing help keep the peace.  The Al-Judeh family protects the key to the church, handing it every morning at 4 a.m. to a member of the Nesseibeh family, who then opens the Church.  They try to mediate disputes among the Christians and  have been carrying out these hereditary duties since the mid-seventh century - 1300 years.

After reading Jerusalem, the Biography by Simon Montefiore (from which much of the above information is found), I was well aware of  Holy Sepulcher’s foibles.  But the church is so steeped in history and religious fervor, a visit is still a must. The tomb, the  marble slab where it is believed Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, a beautiful silver altar given by the Italian De Medici family, cross graffiti on walls of a hall where Crusaders marked their presence, and pilgrims visibly moved by the closeness to their Lord’s life all evidenced the power the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has exerted for 1700 years.  Many are transformed by their visit.  Hopefully, their prayers asked for the divisions to cease - a tall order for this complicated part of the world.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Hiking Abroad

International Marking for Trails

  My husband and I love to hike.  A trip is considered particularly good if it includes one walk through the countryside.  Hiking is hardly limited to the United States and easily available for those who care to try sites abroad.

View of Marlborough Sound on Queen Charlotte Track
Walking sticks for sale on trail
New Zealand’s zest for trails and “tramps” exceeded any we’ve experienced.  There are walks EVERYWHERE - behind your hotel, across from the restaurant, down any of the thousands of dirt roads, and along the many rivers.  Kiwis take pride in their long term hiking. An entire vacation is often spent in their mountains.  On a local radio program, we heard a physician who was leaving his government job.  But before taking a new position, he intended to do a month long “tramp” exploring his country - a jaunt that is culturally encouraged

Weka bird on Queen Charlotte Trail
Furneaux Lodge on Queen Charlotte Trail
Here, the trails are well marked with the painted international white and red lines, mostly on trees but occasionally on rocks or the ground.  On a coastal walk, a sign advised  dogs were banned as they killed kiwis.   They forgot to warn of another endangered bird, the weka, who will steal your banana if unattended for even a short time. Along one path, walking sticks were for sale on the honor system.  Beautiful hotels are available a days walk apart on some of the treks.  More common are mountain hostels with basic sleeping quarters and kitchens.  Water taxis will even drop off customers for a coastal walk and pick you up down the way. It is a walker’s heaven.

Walking on plateau
After such  good experiences in New Zealand, we tried a day of hiking along the Lycian Trail, Turkey’s first walking path.   The 300 mile trail opened in 1999 and follows the Mediterranean Sea as it curves around the southern corner of Turkey.  Our hotel owners in Kas had never had anyone try the plateau cliff portion of the trail above the town which should have been a warning.   According to the guide books, we could catch a bus to the town above and follow a road out to the trail.  As we tired of waiting at the bus stop, a passing taxi responded to our waves.  Gratefully, the driver knew exactly where to let us off and we were again following the red and white painted lines.

View of Kas from Lycian Trail in Turkey
This trail followed a dirt road through fields and onto a flat desert like escarpment plateau.   Painted directions on stones were essential to stay on the path.  As we neared the edge, a forested area blocked the view but our last steps brought us to a cliff with the splendid  blue Mediterranean Sea 1500 feet below.  Thinking the hard part behind us, we started down, crisscrossing the cliff face on a narrow path - a significant challenge to 60 + year old knees.   At the bottom, our wobbly legs barely carried us to the nearest restaurant to recover.  

Cinque Terre Town
Italy’s Cinque Terre is a very popular walk between small villages along the Ligurian Sea coast .  After a terrible storm flooded two-fifths of the trail last year, we were able to walk only the three opened parts.  Since the first part was paved and level, tours walked this portion.  But the numbers diminished on the next leg as we passed through small vineyards, around homes, up rocky stairs, and across streams, always following the red and white paint.  An enterprising Italian had a lemonade stand along the way.  If the trail became too much, trains were available.

Vineyards up close on Cinque Terre Trail

Few American accents are heard on these trails.  Germans are the most adventuresome travelers and love to hike. “Michael” joined us on the Abel Tasman walk in New Zealand.   He was born in East Germany and had taken a year off to travel and learn English. He loved Motown and couldn’t believe we had grown up with that music.  At Italy’s Cinque Terre, we heard mostly German from fit baby boomers. On Turkey’s Lycian trail, no Turks were in sight.  Only a couple from England shared the path whose entire vacation was dedicated to walking the trail and staying in towns along the way.

Beach at Monterrosa on Cinque Terre Trail

Hiking in foreign countries requires time.  You may miss other more popular tourist sites.  Finding trail heads can be a challenge.  Hiking shoes are cumbersome to pack.  But only on trails do I feel really connected to the country - its air, fauna, birds, animals, weather, and views.  So, we’ll keep hiking - as long as our knees hold up.

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