7: A vision that changed history
Our time in the Holy Land was slowly winding down. For a week we followed in the footsteps of Jesus, as the indispensable cliche goes and, indeed, in those of St Peter, to whom this pilgrimage was dedicated. So it was fitting that our penultimate destination in the Holy Land should be Jaffa, whence Peter sailed to Rome.
Today Jaffa is a suburb of Tel Aviv. It still has a considerable Arab population, as the many mosques testify, whereas Tel Aviv is entirely Jewish, mostly of the secular variety. As a consequence, Jaffa’s infrastructure is inferior, though things are beginning to improve.
One brief incident in Jaffa (or Joppa, as it is called in Scripture) changed the world fundamentally. One moment the leader of the budding Jewish sect that followed the executed Jesus of Nazareth was a devout Jew, the next he went to a trance. When he awoke from it, the Christian Church was born. It came to Peter in a vision from God that the Kingdom promised by Jesus would be open to all, Jews and Gentiles alike. And so the traditionalist Peter came to acquiesce with the notion that Gentiles could join the nascent church. How might we read history today had the Christian sect remained exclusively Jewish? Odds are that we would not read about it on a Catholic newspaper.
After Mass in the lovely St Peter’s church (which is built over the old citadel) we made our way back to Jerusalem, making a stop at Emmaus, having approached from the opposite direction of the two disillusioned followers of the crucified Christ. Nobody really knows where the ancient Emmaus is. Various ruins have been found, and several sites commemorate the famous encounter.
The most famous Emmaus shrine is at the Trappist monastery at Latroun, but the site we visited was the Franciscan shrine, a Crusader church from where one has a most magnificent view of the surrounding landscape. When the Crusaders arrived here, they found the remains of an old Roman fort named Castellum Emmaus, which is as good a signpost as any.
Alas, the Franciscan Emmaus is difficult to reach since the Jewish settlers of Har Adar unilaterally blocked off a road used by nearby Arab villagers of el-Qubeibeh, who are now forced to make a long detour on a frighteningly treacherous road to travel from and to their village.
Har Adar, like many of the settlements here, is on land taken from the Palestinians for Israeli use. In 2003, Israel confiscated more Palestinian land (not Israeli land) for the projected construction of the notorious Security Wall. The people of el-Qubeibeh, where there is now 80% unemployment, are virtually prisoners in their own village. It used to take 15 minutes to reach nearby Jerusalem. Now, with three checkpoints along the way and numerous detours, it takes 90 minutes. And so our group, who made the same detour on the same hazardous road used by the people of el-Qubeibeh, again came face to face with injustice perpetrated against Palestinians.
And with that, the Holy Land leg of our pilgrimage in the Holy Land virtually ended. In the afternoon of a hot Saturday, most of our group of 45 took the opportunity to have a float on the Dead Sea and to buy the excellent cosmetic creams made from Dead Sea minerals.
Before leaving the Holy Land we had Sunday Mass in a very special place: the Franciscan chapel in the church of the Holy Sepulchre our third official visit to the church (several pilgrims also went there in their free time). The chapel is just a few metres from the holy sepulchre, the tomb where Christ rose again. How marvellous that our Holy Land pilgrimage should conclude with a Mass near the spot of Christ’s Resurrection.
And so we checked out of our hotel, the Vatican-owned Notre Dame Centre, and travelled to Tel Aviv to catch our plane to Cairo.
Cairo is a chaotic, peculiar city. Its drivers ignore all common rules governing traffic safety, yet after three visits to Cairo I have yet to see an accident scene in the city. The densely populated Qarafa the so-called City of the Dead is a huge necropolis whose tombs have been taken over by several million of Cairo’s poor (see photo on the right). Suburban multi-storey buildings remain perennially unfinished, as a tax dodge. Informal traders at the popular tourist sides can be as agreeable as a gang of buzzing green flies. These characteristics alone make Cairo unique. And then, of course, there are the pyramids and the sphinx, which form a frontier between urban Cairo and the beginning of the vast Sahara desert.
The Cairenese are generally genial unless they occupy a position of authority that requires them to wear a uniform. The bakshish(tip) culture is so endemic that signs at the airport instruct travellers not to offer tips. The toilet attendants expect their US dollar bakshish anyhow.
To some Cairo can be intensely irritating but it is nevertheless a fascinating and unique city. Next day, we would depart from Cairo to another fascinating and unique city: Rome!