The Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai

Day 7 – Catherine’s Church

We drive to St. Catherine’s Church in the Mount Sinai region. Catherine was born to the pagan King of Alexandria and converted to Christianity in her teens. She was beautiful and incredibly intelligent. She remained unmarried having famously stating that she would marry if she found someone who was more beautiful and intelligent than her. When she began spreading Christianity in the region, the Roman ruler of the time had her executed. The story goes that a monk from the Sinai monastery had a vision where he was told that angels has carried her mortal remains to Mount Sinai. The monk found relics which included the skull, fingers and a crown. The relics were preserved. The church, built by Roman ruler Justinian is also called the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai.

Moses is supposed to have a spent a lot of time with the children of Israel in the region and it is not difficult to see why. The area around the monastery is verdant and has several trees so it’s easy to surmise that this would have been an oasis and they would have tarried here. The monastery looks like a fort and has a walled off section outside where Moses saw the burning bush. This is where he heard a voice that asked him to take off his sandals as the place he was standing on was holy. When Moses asked who was speaking, Jehovah is said to have uttered, ‘I am, that I am’. Moses was entrusted with the task of delivering the Israelites from Egypt at this spot. A green bush is visible and tradition says it’s the same bush that Moses saw. There is a glassed well outside called the Moses well. The church is managed by Greek Orthodox. There is a mosque within the compound of the monastery, a symbol of the closeness between the Bedouins and the Church here.

A short drive out is the tomb of Aaron. Aaron was Moses’ older brother who grew up with his Israelite parents while Moses grew up in the palace of the Pharaoh. Aaron spoke on behalf of Moses when Moses went to ask the Pharaoh for the Israelites’ freedom. Later, on Jehovah’s the instructions Moses ordained him as a Priest, said to the first High Priest of Israel. Near the site of the tomb there is a board that says ‘Golden Calf’. Our guide shows us a formation on the rock face that looks like a calf and told us that this was where the Israelites made the golden calf out of their ornaments to worship when Moses went to Mount Sinai to pray. The spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments is on Moses Mountain around the same area.

We drove for 10 hours past the Suez Canal that reach Cairo that night. The canal connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea and is 190 kms long and took ten years to complete. I imagine how long a project like this would have taken in India especially in Bangalore. (The Richmond Road flyover which is hardly 500 Mrs long took more than 3 years to complete.) That apart there are a lot of similarities between Egypt and India. Downtown Cairo is just like suburban Mumbai with pedestrians, buses, taxis and autorickshaws!!! I was told they are imported from India. The wifi connectivity in the hotel is worse than back in India – five minutes per mail to exit from my inbox. There’s more place like home…..

Exiting Israel, Entering Egypt

Day 6 – Taba, Red Sea

As we leave Bethlehem and cross the Palestine border into Israel I see graffiti on ‘The Wall’, all exhortations for peace and brotherhood. It’s sad and ironic there’s little peace in this region, the very place where the Christ preached peace and love. The wall divides more than two countries – the differences are stark. Israel has well laid out roads, good cars, orderly traffic, cleaner streets; Palestine is more like India – the roads are narrow, lined with shops with wares taking up footpaths, there’s litter on empty plots and roads. The people are friendly and warm and the shopkeepers call out, ‘India!!! For you three dollar only’.

We move into Jerusalem, unsmiling Jews look at buses carrying tourists with disdain. Considering that tourism is one of the biggest sources of income, Israel can learn a thing or two about ‘atithi devo bhavva’ (The guest is God) from God’s Own Country. In most tourist places the attendants and officials are impatient and at times their attitude borders on rudeness. I now have a new regard for how India, and Kerala, in particular treat tourists. We are so good that we give up a lot to accommodate guests, like we have given up parts of Goa to guests from Israel, Russia and Nigeria.

We enter into Egypt at the Taba border drive along the Red Sea. The waters are a deep blue and quite calm. The roads are deserted but there are scores of housing projects coming up alongside the shore. Spartan resorts with camping facilities dot the beaches. We check in to a beach resort for the night. The beautiful sea looks inviting but I am tired and sore. But not wetting my feet in the Red Sea feels unthinkable. The waters are warm. I click a few pics when one of the guards, Amr (that’s how he spelled it for me) and says, ‘namaste India’. He loves India, he says, ‘India green and bootiful’. When I asked him if he has visited, he says, ‘only on television’. At most places – the customs, the restaurants, shops Egyptians are warm towards Indians. Nice to know we have at least one friend in the Moslem world.

The Way of Grief

Day 5 – Via Dolorosa and The Upper Room

We were adequately warned that the day would be an arduous one. After all, we were going to Via Dolorosa or the ‘way of sorrow’. The most important site in Christendom is within the walls of the old city. One of the things you will notice as you enter is that the cobbled stones stones have become polished and slippery with the millions of footsteps that have passed through here. My mind goes back to the many times I have imagined the scene of the crucifixion in my mind’s eye every Good Friday. I am overwhelmed at the thought that Christ carried the cross and was whipped and dripped blood as he stumbled on this very path. The pain and suffering become real and palpable and I get emotional. We pass the place where Pilate ordered the crucifixion, the spot where Christ was stripped, whipped and crowned. The next station marks the place where he saw the ladies weep and he is said to have consoled them saying, ‘Do not cry for me, but weep for your sons and daughters’. The place where Simon, the Cyrenian was summoned to help carry the cross is marked. I look around and try to figure out where Simon would have stood watching the tragic scene and how he was singled out from the crowd to help Jesus with the cross. And as he took the cross he would have sagged under its weight at first and then steadied himself and wondered how this bloodied and tired man carried it. The Bible has many instances of bystanders being pulled into playing important parts, not of their own volition but by divine compulsion, and once they are they play their roles with great conviction

The path leads me into a church, the Church of Sepulcher. The Church has parts claimed by different denominations – Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox. There is an interesting factoid that I heard, due to the constant strife between the various factions the Government had to intervene and now the key to the church has been entrusted with a Moslem. Think about, it takes a Moslem to keep peace between Christian groups, ironic.

The order of the holy spots inside the church is in reverse, the tomb, the place where the body was washed and then the place of the crucifixion. The church is crowded and only three people are allowed to enter the cave which is the tomb. The Greek Orthodox priests are stern and shout at people to move quickly. I entered and knelt at the spot, said a quick prayer and quickly snapped a pic on my mobile phone, no time to think deep about the significance of the place. Ahead is a stone slab on which people are placing articles and kissing the stone. This was where the body of Jesus was washed before he was buried. Steep stairs take us up to the Golgotha, a painting on the wall shows where the nails were driven into the hands and feet. And there it was – the Holy of Holies – the spot where He was crucified. There’s a rock with a fissure that is enclosed in glass. A stone altar covers the spot where the cross stood, I crawl under it and kissed the floor and felt a tremor pass through me. Literally pulled out, I stand for a while in the anteroom and imagine the sight Simon saw unfolding in front of him. He would have stepped back after putting down the cross, scared and pained as Jesus would have been laid on the cross. Simon would have flinched as he heard the hammer hit the nail and the piteous groan of Christ. His heart would have gone out to Mary as she stood there weeping loudly in great sorrow as her son was crucified. The cross would have swayed as the soldiers pushed it into the hole in the ground, Simon would have stretched out his hands involuntarily. Tears would have welled in his eyes when he looked up at the bleeding half naked young man as He said, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani’. And then it would have all gone still. It was a moment when I felt overcome with sadness.

The room right below spot has the rock that cracked preserved. There is a tradition that this is the centre of the earth. The next room has a preserved piece of a pillar from Pilate’s house. Ahead are two flights of stairs that takes us to the place where the cross was found which was a pond. The belief is that Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, heard that the cross was inside the pond which was smelly and dirty and no one would venture to dive into it and so threw gold coins into it. The cross was retrieved but there were a total of three and to test the authenticity of the cross she touched the three crosses over a sick person who was healed when the right one touched him.

There is a disagreement about the venue of the Last Supper, we are taken a few streets away to a house with a room upstairs that the Catholics believe it to be. Below this is the tomb of King David, guarded by a fierce Jewish man who kept shouting something or the other at visitors. Wonder why Jews don’t smile much. A stone’s throw away is the house of Mark also called ‘The Upper Room’. This is a Syrian Orthodox Church and is said to be the first ever Church in Christianity. We are ushered in by a portly nun who smiles and frowns at almost the same time. Sister Yosnita was a high school teacher who gave up her job to look after this church. She tells us the upper room is a floor below and that is where Jesus had his last supper and later appeared twice to his disciples, the latter instance being at the time of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and they were asked to ‘go to the ends of the earth to preach the Gospel’. She also tells us that the icon was painted by St. Luke, he painted a picture Mary with the infant and since he couldn’t draw the infant’s face as he was not there he painted the infant’s face with that of adult Jesus. This is supposed to be the first actual picture of Mary and Jesus. We go down to the room which has an altar with a cross to mark the spot. As the others walked into a curio shop in the compound I went inside the church to copy the inscription on the wall when the Sister told me, ‘You can take pictures, no tell everybody. You share if they want’. And as I moved back a bit to take a wider shot, she gesticulated angrily screamed, ‘Not there! You come here and take picture, bad for icon there’.

We leave for Jericho and from afar see the wall that Joshua and the Israelis brought down after walking around it for seven days while singing and playing bugles and drums. The Dead Sea is a unifying place where people of all races and colours smear themselves with clay and wade into the grey waters. I did too, the waters are so salty that a small wound from a bump hurt as it touched the waters. My eyes were stinging when just a small spray of water fell in my eyes. One just floats without any effort, you just have to lie back and ensure your head doesn’t touch the water.

Tomorrow we leave for Egypt, I do feel sadness about leaving the Holy Land. I would have loved to stay for a couple of days more and spent time reflecting on the significance of what I have seen and felt over the last few days. It has been a blessing to have been here, this visit will be etched in my mind and I know I will relive it over and over.

Ale’s Well That Ends Well

Day 4 – Church of Visitation, Mount of Olives, Gethsamane and Church of Nativity

It’s a chilly morning as we set out for the Church of Visitation. Irrepressible Jack is at it again, he makes the customary speech on the PA system about how not everyone is lucky to get to see these holy places and he feels that this group is a blessed one. He explains the significance of John the Baptist in the Christian faith and then in an effort to sound knowledgeable he says that most people take the literal meaning of a sentence in the Bible that says John lived in the wilderness and survived on locusts and wild honey. He says locusts is actually a vegetarian dish. I have to admit even his ignorance is entertaining.

The Church stands tall and majestic in the faraway hills in a place called En Karem. There is a spring at the foot of the hill where Mary is supposed to have been greeted by her cousin Elizabeth. It would have been like any two cousins meeting after a long time and Elizabeth would have rushed down the hill unable to contain her excitement about her cousin’s visit. Her husband Zachariah would have cautioned her to be careful, in the manner of an expectant father. The house of Zachariah is about a 150 kms from Mary’s home in Nazareth. A steep climb takes us to the church that is built on the spot of Zachariah’s home and there is a well that is preserved inside an anteroom. The chapel is above this. In the anteroom a encounter a group of Nigerians I had seen in the Church at Cana, they are singing and trembling in prayer while some are lying on the floor weeping. The air is cool and it is quite nippy up on the hill. The return takes us on roads through almost barren rocky land with scattered bushes. This was how the landscape would have looked in the biblical times.

The view from Mount of Olives is impressive, the Dome of the Rock, the most recognisable structure Jerusalem skyline gleams in the afternoon sun. The wall encompassing the old city of Jerusalem with the walled East Gate is visible. The guide points to a corner outside the wall and tells us that it is the village that David founded. I go back in my mind to the time when David would have walked on these very slopes with his sheep and would have sat on a rock somewhere close by and played on the harp, the thought it gives me goosebumps. We walk down to the Dominus Flevit Church which means ‘The Lord has Wept’ in Latin. It was here that Jesus was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Jerusalem Temple wept as he foresaw its later destruction. The church is shaped like a tear.

Down the road is a church that houses the tomb of St. Mary adjacent to which is the grotto where Judas betrayed Jesus. Beside that is the garden of Gethsamane, where Jesus prayed on that fateful night. There is a massive church called the Church of All Nations, the general belief is that the church was funded by churches of various denominations across the world. However, there is a board in the church that denies that tradition and states categorically that it was funded by a few Catholic Churches around the world. There is a rock outside that is called the Agony Rock where Jesus is said to have uttered the lines, ‘Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt’. The garden evokes peace and serenity despite the blazing afternoon sun and the bustling crowds.

We make the long drive back to Bethlehem to visit the Church of Nativity. I have to say of all the holy sites I visited, this is the most disappointing. All those Christian qualities of love and brotherhood evaporate as you enter the church. It’s being renovated and that adds to the chaos. Boards outside ask guides to explain the details outside the church and maintain silence inside the shrine. However, it is a veritable Tower of Babel, with guides and tourists shoving and pushing. There was this group of obnoxious American tourists who were passing racist comments the moment they saw the Indians. They quickly surmised that brown skinned Natives cannot speak English and they should wait in deference to the white Masters. The Indians for once were not to be blamed and were being decent. The comments got nasty and I asked one particularly rude lady if she realised where she was and if this was her idea of being Christian. It did shut her up.

The holy site is in a narrow cave, a silver star marks the birthplace and a few feet away a step down is a glass enclosure that marks the spot of the manger, we are literally hustled out by the attendants. We then went to a nearby Syrian Orthodox Church where the priests in the group performed mass and Communion was delivered. It was quite a moving experience hearing the Malayalam mass at the site where it all began. However, back in the hotel the experience at the shrine with Americans kept playing in my mind and left a bad taste in the mouth. I washed it off with a local beer called Taybeh.

The Boy, His Loaves and Fishes

Day 3 – Church of the Beatitudes, Capernaum, Sea of Galilee,
Jordan, Mount Carmel and the Tomb of St. George

Our Indian guide is a mallu from Kottayam. I dub him Jack, for obvious reasons. Like a true mallu he loves his voice and loves it even more over a loudspeaker. He drones on for the nth time since we started out that he made special efforts to include a lot more holy sites than the regular circuit because ours is a ‘special group’. He intones that one should read up on the significances of the visited places from the Bible to make it more meaningful. Muchas gracias Jack, we are such ignoramuses that we need you to tell us that.

The Church of the Beatitudes is on a hill beside the Sea of Galilee. This is the spot of the famous Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus enumerated the Beatitudes. It is said that the crowd that heard him numbered around 5000. Nearby is the Church of Multiplication where the five loaves and two fishes miracle happened. The church is again built on top a 4th century Byzantine Church, the mosaic from the ancient church is still visible. The area around the church is called Tabgha or place of Seven Springs. For me the hero of this story is the young lad that carried the bread and fish that his mother had packed for him as he set out to listen to the young Rabbi from Nazareth. And how innocently he handed over his lunch without a murmur to the disciples as they scoured for food for the hungry crowd. Imagine the spring in his step as he dashed home to tell his mother how Jesus created a miracle from the lunch packet that she had forced him to carry.

Jack hurries us, ‘Make fast’, he exhorts. Capharnaum, or Capernaum is called the Town of Jesus. The ruins of house of Peter is here. The ruins of an old synagogue lies adjacent to the site. Even in its dilapidated condition the structure is imposing with huge Romanesque pillars and massive walls. A group of American tourists armed with guitars and keyboard sing a gentle song and bow their heads in prayer. A statue of Peter in gardens has this inscription at its foot, ‘Thou art Peter And Upon This Rock Will I Build my Church’. The boat trip on the Tiberias is as good as any boat trip around a lake. The boatmen hoisted the Indian flag and played the national anthem and some in the group in a sudden burst of patriotism saluted the flag and bellowed out the anthem, nothing like an overseas trip to inject patriotism that usually is missing in India.

On the road to Jordan, Waleed proudly tells us about the War of Six Days when a young Israel famously defended itself against its three neighbours, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. The River Jordan begins in the Golan Heights runs into Lake Tiberias and then ends up in the Dead Sea, a distance of 360 kilometres. The river is called Yardenit in Hebrew. The place is abuzz with activity, people in white robes are being baptised in the river as shouts rent the air. I wade into the cool water take a drink of the water and fill a bottle. I get a ticklish pedicure from the fish in the river. Lunch is served at the restaurant beside the river, besides the usual kubbus, hummus, pickled veggies the waiter slams a whole grilled fish with lightly seasoned rice. ‘Peter’s fish’, he says at every table. The story goes that when Peter asked Jesus about the need to pay taxes to Rome, Jesus asked him to go and cast his net in the sea and open the mouth of the first fish he caught and take out the coin that he would find inside it. He then asks Peter whose face he saw on the coin, to which Peter says that it is of Caesar. Jesus then says those immortal lines, ‘Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’. The fish tasted good, but the hummus was the highlight of the meal.

We pass the Mediterranean and the Haifa port as we ascend to Mount Carmel. Spectacular garden-lined and well laid out streets take us past the beautiful Gardens of Haifa. Mount Carmel is atop a hill that overlooks the deep blue Mediterranean. The church has a cave that Elijah stayed in. Around two and a half hours out past is the town of Lod, the place that has the tomb of St. George. The board outside takes me by surprise it changes the beliefs I have had over the years, it says St. George was a soldier of the Imperial Roman Army and was executed for spreading the word of Christianity and was buried in Lod. The church shares a wall with a mosque and is administered by the Greek Orthodox Church. The tomb is a floor below in a low roofed cave. The murals and pictures are in the Byzantine style. The muezzin’s call to prayer reverberates in the air as we return.

We pass through the beautiful city of Jerusalem and we cross into Bethlehem in Palestine. There is a massive intimidating wall that greets us at the check post, I am told there are 700 others across this wall that runs 800 kms. Waleed is intrigued when I tell him that we have a dwindling Jewish community back in Kochi with one of the oldest synagogues in the world with one of the oldest Torahs preserved there. He was not aware that we had Jews in Mumbai and the North East as well.

Our Guide, the Italian Lawyer From Nazareth

Day 2 – Cana, Nazareth and Mount Tabor

And so it came to pass that we crossed the border from Jordan into Israel without much ado, barring a few intimidating moments at the Israeli customs. Wonder why passing through customs in any country can be nerve wracking. There was this stern lady officer shouting at meek Indians asking them to stand in lines. And standing in queues is as un-Indian as passing up an opportunity to haggle in a fixed price shop.

Waleed is our guide in Israel, sterner looking than genial Sulaiman, he was a lawyer in Italy for seven years before he decided that helping pilgrims find peace was more satisfying than helping lawbreakers find deliverance. ‘We love Indians’, he announces on the PA system. I tell myself that’s two less foreigners that dislike Indians, impressive feat by our tourists. Driving through Israel is like walking through the pages of the Bible, boards with names that one heard in Sunday School whiz past you – Nazareth, Galilee, Tabor, Tiberias, et al. The roads are narrow but well laid out and there is a fair bit of traffic on the roads.

Our first stop is at Cana, the spot where Jesus signalled his divinity by performing his first miracle. It is here that empathising with the father of the bride, Jesus replenished the empty wine jars, (a cool power to have, if you ask me 😀). The church is built above the ruins of the house, one can see stones and pillars of the old house below. There is a glassed piece of rock that is supposed to be the last of the jars that witnessed the miracle. Outside there is a curio shop that sells, you guessed right, wine of course. School children dressed in white shirts and blue trousers with, the almost universal, loaded school bags trudge along.

Nazareth is a crowded settlement. As we drive down, Waleed announces that this was the very same way Jesus walked from Nazareth to Cana with his mother to attend the wedding at Cana, though 2000 years ago it would have been just a path through the wilderness. We walk through narrow by lanes past graffiti filled walls into a massive church, the Church of the Annunciation or the place where the angel Gabriel gave Mary the good tidings. On the lower level there is a small room with a staircase by the side, this was supposed to be the house of Mary. The church two levels above is magnificent with intricate murals, an interesting one had a Japanese motif. The church is built on top of the village of Nazareth, the ruins are visible below  Outside the church about 100 meters away is the Church of the Holy Family which was where Joseph stayed. So Mary’s journey from her filial home to her husband’s home must have literally been a hop skip and jump. This was where the boy Jesus spent his early days.

The climb up Mount Tabor is a steep one and our bus takes us to the base station, where there are vans to take us up further. The church is built in front of the ruins of the first Byzantine Monastery which was built between the fourth and fifth century. One level below is an altar to mark the spot where Moses and Elijah are said to have appeared to Jesus and the disciples saw his face glow with divine light. The walls of the cave like structure have murals of Jesus, the disciples and his divine visitors.

On the way back I chat up with Waleed on the life of an Arab in Israel. And he says he is a proud Israeli and that he loves his country. He lives in Nazareth which predominantly Arab while Jerusalem is dominated by the Jewish community. Someday he would like to go back to Italy, he loved it there. Our stay that night was at King Solomon Tiberias, overlooking the Lake of Tiberias. Lake Tiberias is the Jewish name for the Sea of Galilee, an important site in the life of Jesus. I look out from the window and see only darkness the sighting of Galilee will have to wait till tomorrow, I am bushed.IMG_0775.JPG

Sulaiman and Mount Nebo

(I am embarking on a trip around the Middle East traversing Jordan, crossing into Israel, up the Nile into Egypt, flying into Qatar before I return home. My next posts will be a travelogue that I will try to update everyday if I have access to the Net. Comments welcome.)

Day 1 – Jordan and Mount Nebo

‘Welcome to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’, says Sulaiman. Our portly and smiling guide is a true blue Jordanian. He wears his love for his King on his sleeve, you can almost hear his voice tremble with emotion as he recounts how King Abdullah wanders on the streets of his kingdom disguised so that he can experience the life of his citizens first hand. Sulaiman says with that being peaceful nation it is a natural choice for people from neighbouring countries to settle in. As you pass through the rural areas surrounding the airport one sees large tracts of ploughed land. Olives and wheat are the main crops.

We pass through Madba, Sulaiman says he would have loved to invite us to his house here but his wife might throw him. Olives and pines line the roads that leads to Mount Nebo, the place that Moses spent his last days. The stone memorial to commemorate the visit of Pope John Paul 2 has words from the Bible etched in Arabic. Close by there is a stone memorial that talks about Moses. We move ahead to the side of the hill that has a wrought iron representation of the bronze serpent that the Jews made to worship in place of Jehovah when Moses went away to the mountains to commune with the Lord. Sulaiman points out far into the horizon and says that what we see there is Canaan. Moses was told here that he could only see Canaan, the Promised Land, the ‘land of milk and honey’ but it is not his to lead the Israelis to.

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