Magazine | April 17, 2017, Issue

Center of the World

We call our city “the city,” yet even we occasionally acknowledge the existence of others, especially when one of them is the center of the world. You have all seen the medieval map that shows the world as a three-lobed plant, Europe, Asia, and Africa, with Jerusalem at the pistil. This is confirmed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where, on the floor of one of the chapels, there is a mark noting the center of the world. That beats even the globe in the lobby of the old Daily News building.

Admirers over the centuries, and all the guidebooks now, speak of Jerusalem’s beauty. But beauty is not what struck this tourist’s eye. A coach-class flâneur can think of eight or ten cities that are more lovely, including several here at home. Nor is it particularly exotic. It has its nowhere-else rituals — see below — but its daily life is surprisingly ordinary. The modern city is modern, the bazaar in the old city is the cheesiest I have ever seen. Olivewood Last Suppers, cheapo shofars, Pika-Jew T-shirts: Are they made separately, or is there one giant factory, DrekInc., that churns them all out? Some, finally, love it because they are conflict-heads, endlessly balancing the weight of this old claim versus the verdict expressed in the American gambler’s ballad: “When you lose your money, learn to lose.” I cede the task to politicians, terrorists, and think-tank panelists.

What Jerusalem has is history, of a density and depth that makes Gettysburg and Independence Hall a blink. We stayed in a hospice of the Church of Scotland, dedicated to the memory of Robert the Bruce, whose dying wish was that his heart be carried there (they tried, but it was lost en route). Robert died in 1329. Yesterday! Out the window of our room was Mount Zion, just on the other side of Gehenna. If the Bible is the book for a billion people (and the unacknowledged book for a few million atheists and Europeans), think where it is set. Eden and Egypt have their innings, and Bethlehem and Patmos make late bows, but its Elsinore and plains of Troy is Jerusalem. So much that is in your head is here.

Including the climax of the great biography. Sorry, Jews: Lots of fascinating folks in your T, but the hero of the NT tops them all. Among a million other things, we owe Him the politics of woe. Because we once worshiped the man of sorrows, the suffering situation still commands our deference. Hence the wrangles: Which was worse, the Middle Passage or the Holocaust? (The poor Ukrainians pitch for the Holodomor.) The contests are ludicrous, beyond tragic, inescapable. And all thanks to Jesus.

The Via Dolorosa is for the most part a dull walk. Art has done almost nothing to improve it. That is as it should be: You must earn it in your thoughts. Devotion does more. Seeing the pilgrims from Nigeria, Sri Lanka, West Virginia singing, touching, kissing is like an after-image of the thing itself.

Three thoughts of mine:

About a third of the way down the slope of the Mount of Olives, east of the old city walls, is the supposed site of the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus spent his last watchful night. In one churchyard stands a collection of eight or ten olive trees, reportedly over 2,000 years old: bulky, twisted, stunted trunks, some mere shells, with living branches poking out. Jesus asked the disciples to keep watch, and they all fell asleep. So these trees would have been His sole companions. Trees, we now realize, are more active and reactive than science once gave them credit for. They think, just slowly. These have had a lot of time to think about that night, if they remember flitting men. They represent Jesus’ point of view.

At the first or second station of the cross (they have blurred in my mind) is a church where Jesus was flogged. On one of the paving stones is the scratched grid of a Roman-era board game: backgammon or tic-tac-toe (or maybe hangman). Archaeologists now seem to think it is second century. Contemporary or anytime, it represents the world’s point of view: We are just doing our jobs here. Why is the governor taking so long? “The torturer’s horse,” wrote Auden, “scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” While the bored torturers say, roll ’em.

The Via ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, location of Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb. Because it was the start of Lent, the patriarchs of Jerusalem’s churches — Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian — were arriving in processions. The Greek Orthodox was most grand, accompanied by six Muslim guards in Ottoman fezzes, beating silver-tipped staves on the pavement. Because the Greek Orthodox have charge of the church’s bells, their patriarch gets a deafening peal, reverberating in the stony courtyards. It was sumptuous, barbaric, oriental. Israeli cops directed traffic (the officer in charge was an Israeli Arab). Definitely worth seeing, though it had nothing to do with Christianity. Neither did the interior of the church, a compound of confusion, gloom, sectarianism, and ugliness. Each church squats at its altar or eyrie, like homeless men on cardboard mattresses. Penn Station is better organized.

A detail of one newish mosaic caught my eye: beneath Christ’s crucified feet, a gray skull. I thought it was an allegory of death vanquished. But my guide, an archaeologist’s daughter and city native, told me of a tradition I had not known: that Adam’s skull was brought to Golgotha, and Jesus’ blood trickled down to it.

On the one hand, what a farrago (the skull was on Noah’s ark, like an heirloom, whence Shem fetched it). On the other hand, if you have an incarnation, this also should happen. The Son’s blood saves, in the first place not everyone in general, but the failed father. This is a story of which we can literally say, it is touching.

After the church, we went and had Arab coffee.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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