Jerusalem: My Home and Yours
What motivates a Christian pilgrim guide in the Holy Land? RIMON MAKHLOUF, a Latin-rite Catholic from Jerusalem, tells his story.
My home is Jerusalem. This is what I always answer when my tour groups ask me where I’m from.
I was born on the Mount of Olives and lived in Jerusalem all my life. I grew up in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. My father is buried on Mount Zion and my grandfather’s tomb is in the Garden of Gethsemane.
As a child I helped my father, George, when he did contract work at the church of the Holy Sepulchre. I was amazed at this holy place and the number of foreigners who came there to visit and pray. I was fascinated by the tour guides and soon I followed tourists inside the church and offered to guide them.
And so, in the holiest place in Christianity, the actual place of the crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, my vocation as a Christian tour guide took off.
It was on February 19, 1980 when I picked up my first group, Baptists from Cleveland. On our first full day we awoke in St George’s Hotel in Jerusalem to find my beloved city knee-deep in snow. As a Latin-rite Catholic, I took the group on the Via Dolorosa and the church of the Holy Sepulchre, little realising that Baptists don’t do these things! I quickly had to learn that not all Christians do things the way we Catholics do.
A Christian tour guide is different from a secular one, and also from one who is not a follower of Our Lord Jesus. The secular guide and the one who isn’t a Christian takes tourists to different sites and churches and talks about the significance and history of these places.
The Christian guide is different, because his visitors are pilgrims, not tourists. Christian guides communicate the Christian faith in the land where it was born. They can make the Gospel come alive to the pilgrims because they believe.
But we are also ambassadors of our land and our people, of our culture, of our religious traditions, of our history, of our sufferings and our hopes.
As a Christian Palestinian guide I am a “Living Stone” among the ancient stones of this land. We, the Palestinian Christians of the Holy Land, are the connection between the sites of the Gospel and the living faith that continues to breathe here today.
My job, which provides me and my family with a living, is also a ministry.
Often people ask me whether I ever get tired of going to the same places all the time. But how can I tire of being at the places of Our Lord’s birth, childhood, ministry, death and resurrection? Even after all these years, every time I take a group to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, I touch the stone on which we know for sure the cross stood. Like a priest who never tires of saying Mass, so do I never tire of going to the same places in the Holy Land.
I have worked to pass on my experience and my passion for the Holy Land to the next generation. After I earned the travel expert licence in 1995 I taught tourism at Bethlehem University for 12 years.
At the same time I was able to negotiate and convince the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to allow Palestinians who lived in Jerusalem to get licensed as tour guides. After developing the programme in English, the first guiding course for East Jerusalem started in 1997. We now have more than 300 Palestinian tour guides who are licensed by the state of Israel.
It is estimated that 80% of the tourists who visit the Holy Land are Christian pilgrims. As a Christian tour guide I always make sure to connect them to the land historically and spiritually, letting the Bible unfold as they see the places they had only ever read about. To me, it is not only a profession, but also a ministry.
Many of my pilgrims go home and write me “thank you” letters for helping them strengthen their faith, and also for opening their eyes to the truth and the realities facing the Christians of the Holy Land today which they never knew about because of the distortions in their media. Sometimes I don’t even have to say anything!
My home is Jerusalem. And when I receive a group of travellers from anywhere on earth, I welcome them home, for Jerusalem is home to the whole world.
• This article first appeared in The Southern Cross in April 2015. Rimon Makhlouf died suddenly on October 3, 2017.