Monday, December 12, 2016

Yad Vashem Museum, Ein Karem, Via Dolorosa, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Nov 25, Fri:
Yad Vashem Museum-Ein Karem-Old City of Jerusalem-Via Dolorosa-Church of the Holy Sepulchre

            Our day began with breakfast in Hotel Arthur’s lobby.  As the Sabbath had come around again, things would be closing by 3.00 pm that day. We steeled ourselves for our visit to the Yad Vashem (or Holocaust) Museum as we knew that it would not be easy.

Visit to Yad Vashem Museum:

            All over the world, Jewish Holocaust Museums have sprung up in addition to the conversion of former concentration camps into museums. Over the years in our travels, we have seen a vast number of Holocaust Museums (Paris, Berlin and Washington for instance) and we have also visited two concentration camps (Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland) where we have actually seen the gas chambers and the crematoria that were used to exterminate the Jews as part of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ from 1942 onwards. Israel was established in 1948 and within a few years, it was decided, that a museum ought to be built to remember both those Jews who had perished in World War II as well as those “Gentiles” who, without thought to reward or their own safety, helped in saving Jewish lives (e.g. Oskar Schindler). A site was chosen on Mount Herzi and the architect selected was an Israeli-Canadian called Moishe Safdie.

            The modern structure clings to the hillside. Inside, the building is shaped like un overturned boat. It is narrow and dark—a structure that hopes to depict the despair of the inmates of the camps. As you move from room to room, you receive tons of information through multi-media resources of the history of Jewish persecution from the beginning of time to the present. It also traces the history of the creation of Israel. There is a wonderful Hall of Remembrance which is dome-shaped and covered with black and white pictures of the departed and a Children’s Memorial which has been designed in such a way through multiple mirrors that a single candle flame is replicated thousands of times into infinity to reflect the numbers of children that were killed during the Shoah (the Jewish Hebrew word for Holocaust). The grounds are filled with sculpture created by Jewish artists from all over the world. These were some of the highlights of the museum that remain with me.

We spent the entire morning in the Museum and had lunch in the cafeteria. Llew and I chose to eat a full lunch of rice with two side dishes—we chose a chicken stew and a vegetable. It was all delicious and we were glad we filled up as there was no opportunity to eat again until dinner.

Visit to Ein Karem (Village with Church of John the Baptist and Church of the Visitation):

            Our next stop was the small village of Ein Karem which has gained significance as the site of two important Biblical happenings: the birth of John the Baptist marked by the Church of John the Baptist (run by the Franciscans) which is quite ornate with a beautiful crystal chandelier inside and mosaics on the wall. The priest was closing up for the afternoon but he permitted us to descend the stone stairway leading to a cave which is supposed to be the one in which John the Baptist was born.

            Up on a hill, a little away from this church, is the actual Church of the Visitation built on the spot at which Mary arrived to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was married to Zacharias. The Bible tells us that when Mary and Elizabeth met, Elizabeth who was pregnant with John the Baptist felt him leap in her womb. At this occurrence, Elizabeth is supposed to have told Mary, “Most Blessed Art Thou Among Women and Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb.” These words, of course, are now part of the Hail Mary as well as of the Magnificat, which is the most well-known of the Latin hymns to Mary. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to make it to this church which is also a must on many pilgrimage agendas. Instead, Moti spent quite a bit of time, using maps, to explain to us again the complicated history of Middle Eastern politics.

Shopping in the Old City:

            There was not a lot of time left, so Moti led us into the van and back into the Old City of Jerusalem so that we could do some shopping. Members of our group bought all sorts of things from ceramics to olive wood carvings and soon it was time for us to move on again.

Visit to Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

            Moti then led us on foot to another piece de resistance of our travels—our visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which is built exactly on top of the spot that is recognized by Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Church as Golgotha (also known as Calvary). We found our way there and entered the church. It is an imposing edifice of huge proportions built in yellow sandstone with domes, Greek Corinthian pillars and striking Gothic arches. Had we realized how difficult it would be to see the Tomb after the Stations of the Cross, we would have opted to get to that spot before their commencement. As it turned out, all we did was enter the church and go directly to the marble slab upon which Jesus is said to have been laid after his death. The interior of church is ornate and elaborate and once again impressive in its Byzantine architectural design. We knelt down and kissed the slab and we were also able to nip upstairs, up a flight of curving stone stairs, to the spot which is recognized as Golgotha. However, we barely had a few minutes there when we were ushered out again to make our way to the spot where the Stations of the Cross commence.

Re-enacting the Way of the Cross:

            One of the highlights of the trip for me was being able to undertake a re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross exactly as they might have occurred two thousand years ago. The commencement site is just outside the Umariya school in a courtyard inhabited by Franciscan monks at the Monastery of the Flagellation. At exactly 3.00 pm, the procession began with a few prayers outside the church. Unfortunately, the entire service was in Latin, but we were able to follow with the small guide books that we had purchased for a dollar.

            The procession winds its way through the 14 Stations that are mainly to be found on what was the road to Golgotha or Mount Calvary (where all crucifixions took place)—what is today the Via Dolorosa or the Road of Sorrows. Because there is a microphone system throughout the Way, you can hear the service no matter where in the procession you might be. The Via Dolorosa today is a busy thoroughfare, exactly (I am guessing) as it might have been in Jesus’ days. So although it was crowded and narrow and busy, it seemed to be a very authentic re-enactment of the situation as it might have been at that time when all prisoners who were sentenced to be crucified, were required to carry their own crosses all the way to Golgotha.

            Today, there are shrines and small churches at every one of the Stations which reminded me, of course, of the various decades of the Rosary. Eventually, during the last few decades, we left the Via Dolorosa and entered the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when all participants followed the monks to the top floor up the narrow winding stone steps. The last two Stations were upstairs under the grand mosaic-encrusted Byzantine ceiling that was covered with medallions depicting the saints and the Blessed Mother. There was a great deal of incense and the ringing of bells—it was all very ritualistic.

            At the second last Station, when Jesus dies on the cross, we move to another niche which was absolutely elaborate and has a wooden cross right above a small marble altar. As in Bethlehem, at the spot of Jesus’ birth, here too, there was a small marble niche under a marble altar, to mark the spot of Jesus’ death. You had to bend down and literally crawl into the niche in order to kiss the spot where the cross would have been affixed. The last station involved going down the same winding stairs to the marble slab where he was laid out after his death and attended to by his mother, Joseph and St. Nicodemus who then prepared his body for burial. At this point, we moved to the last station, the laying of Jesus in His Tomb. When we entered this small side segment of the church, I found it once again to my enormous disappointment) to be fully enshrouded by scaffolding. What are the odds that two of the most significant sites—the place of Christ’s birth and of his Resurrection—would be under renovation at exactly the same time and just during our visit???? I simply could not believe it!

            Anyway, we then had to join a long and winding queue to get a glimpse of this final resting place where a majority of Christians believe he was laid to rest and from where he rose on the third day. This line led to a highly ornamental altar richly clad in variously colored marble—I managed to catch a glimpse behind the shrouded sheeting. I can only imagine how gorgeous it must be (and later I caught postcard glimpses of it). Llew and I found our way into the queue and finally arrived at the hidden niche. No photography was permitted inside which made it impossible for me to record one of the most significant parts of our pilgrimage. We did eventually get to the spot and managed to kiss it, but we barely had a few seconds in there before we had to move out again. I found the crowds deeply annoying and very distracting—but I had been warned about this by most people who said that the crowds diminished the entire experience for them. The general chaos completely robbed me of the spirituality of the moment and I felt deeply ‘cheated’ (even though I had been warned about this). Since we had the time, I then circumnavigated the entire church and was amazed at its intricate architecture as well as the multiplicity of altars and niches and shrines that have been carved out of it

Dinner at Ditn:

            We made our way almost directly back to our hotel after what was a very eventful and significant afternoon—although not quite as solemn and prayerful as I had hoped it would be—and returned to Hotel Arthur. Moti had made reservation for us for dinner at a place called Ditn, located at a railway station of a former railway line that is no longer in use—known as the First Jerusalem Railway Station. The entire area has been reconfigured to include restaurants, amusement arcades, etc. Moti’s partner Ruthie was also present and we ended up having a really good (if very pricey) meal. There were a few toasts and Thank-yous said (which took me by surprise as I did not realize that this was going to be our last ‘formal’ meal). Since we still had one more day to go before our tour ended, I had assumed that the next night would be our last dinner and the one at which we would say our Farewells and Thank-yous. 

            It was not long before we got back into our van and got back to Hotel Arthur for the night.  

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