Discover more from backstory
and the answers to last week's quiz
Friday 3 March: The oil to be used in the coronation of King Charles III is consecrated in Jerusalem. It has been harvested from groves on the Mount of Olives. The ceremony is expected to be a tourism revenue bonanza.
Saturday 4 March: Prince Harry livestreams his therapy session with a trauma expert, Gabor Maté, for US$33.99
Standing in the gloom I hear an American voice enquiring, in loud confident tones, "And where are we right now?"
A hooded nun keeps her head down. Father Azania, the Coptic monk who has sworn never to leave this place and is reading the Bible nearby, does not appear to notice. The tour guide replies in a whisper. "You are standing near where Our Lord's blood fell when He was on the cross. It is actually the centre of the earth."
"No way! Awesome!" The rest of the group press forward. Although just a moment ago, they hadn't known the centre of the earth was here, they all now want to be the one standing on it.
A pilgrim pushes through and quickly presses his forehead to the spot. I can sense the tourists annoyance, but they seem to accept that faith takes precedence.
I wander around enjoying the cool darkness and the atmosphere. I'm not religious at all, but I like religious sites and you don't get much better than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. After sunset all the tourists clear out and it gets quieter, then a man comes in, checking everyone has left, apart from the resident monks.
His name is Wajeeh Nuseiba and he is a Muslim entrusted with the key. "Salah-ad-Din gave my family this job in the 12th century. People had got fed up with the various churches fighting each other over access."
He has other duties. At Easter the tomb where Jesus lay is sealed up for three days and Wajeeh checks that the seal is good. We stand by the massive doors and he shows me the supporting stone pillars where pilgrims have inserted prayers in the cracks. The doors are 16 feet tall and covered in graffiti, mostly in Arabic, Coptic and Ethiopian. "The oldest I've found goes back to 1819. Actually the doors are not so old as the originals got burned when there was a fight between the Armenians and the Greeks."
When it's time, I help him heave the doors shut. He'll be back at 4 a.m. to open up.
In a nearby cafe I meet Usama. He says his family have the important job of spraying rosewater over the people going to pray at the Aqsa Mosque. Then there is Khalid who claims that Wajeeh and family usurped the door-keeper role during Ottoman times. His own family are the rightful key-keepers.
A man dressed in rags dragging a large wooden cross makes his way up the alleyway, ignored by everyone. In a shop I find Joel from Birmingham, England, who has decided that a new temple should be built on the Temple Mount and now has made a model of it for passers-by to examine. "Once this is built, the new messiah will come."
A man dressed in robes wanders in and says, "I am Jesus." Then wanders out.
Joel snorts contemptuously. "You wouldn’t believe how many prophets come in here. I feel sorry for them. You know - psychologically disturbed." He spins a forefinger at his temple - the one on his head.
Jerusalem is where everyone wants to be at the centre, but once arriving, realise not everyone can be there. So then they construct elaborate stories about why their group should have priority. Frustratingly, none of the other groups accept these stories. It's like one of those scandalous airline rip-offs where you pay extra to be in a 'fast lane', only to find the plane only leaves when the slowest, non-paying, slacker ambles aboard.
At the Wailing Wall I meet Aaron from New York. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, but only spoke Yiddish until he was eighteen. In his black hat, white shirt and black overcoat, he looks very orthodox, but he isn't. "Chosen people? I dunno. I gotta problem with that."
He's very interested in the British royal family. "That Queen Elizabeth - very beautiful girl."
He comes every year to buy 2,000 kosher lemons for the community back home.
I walk around the city and make my way to the Garden of Gethsemane where an Indian visitor is being scolded by a warden for trying to fill his bag with olives and soil. The eight olive trees do look wonderfully ancient.
Next day I visit the Dome of the Rock. It's taken quite a bit of persuasion and bullshitting, but I get a pass to go through the Israeli border guards and then meet a custodian from the mosque committee. He shows me around. In the centre of the mosque is a large rock. Under the rock is a cave. Under the floor of the cave, he tells me, is a hole that descends into Hell. When Solomon was here, he placed a chain, dangling down the hole ready to be grabbed hold of on Judgement Day. We gaze at the cave floor. I want to say, 'There is no hole to hell'. But I don't. I'm not sure if I'm being too literal.
One thing the custodian is very sure about is that this cave is, literally, the centre of the earth.
"What about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?"
He raises an eyebrow and gives me a look, as if to say, don't be an idiot.
LAST WEEK’s QUIZ…
top row from left to right…
Francisco de Paula Santander 1792-1840. Hero of Colombian independence wars 1810-1819, then acting president of Gran Colombia until 1826 (Gran Colombia included Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama)
Lenin on a 25 rouble note from the USSR
Queen Elizabeth II (on a banknote from Fiji)
Ayatollah Khomeini on an Iranian note from a 2005 trip
Kemal Ataturk on a 500,000 Turkish lira note before the change to new lira in 2005
Maria Montessori 1870-1952: Italian educationalist and founder of the eponymous teaching system on an Italian 1,000 lire note from 1978
Georg Grisze 1497-1562 on a 100,000 mark note given to me by my grandfather. He had kept it after being stationed in Berlin in 1919. Grisze was a prominent Hanseatic league merchant painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1532
Jomo Kenyatta on a 50 shilling note from Kenya
Genghis Khan on a Mongolian banknote
Ho Chi Minh on a 1,000 dong note from Vietnam
Mahatma Gandhi on an Indian note
Chairman Mao on Chinese banknote from a 2008 trip
Would you like another one? Name the countries that issue these banknotes…
answers next week
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