A Christian Holy Place in Jerusalem? (The Church of the Holy Sepulchr)

I’ve spent a week in Jerusalem, but I’ve only visited Jewish and Muslim holy sites. I’ve spent some time at the wailing wall on two different days. And to be precise, I haven’t actually been up to the Temple Mount to where are the holiest Muslim sites – but I’ve approached and been turned away from the mount several times, which is itself an experience which gives a sense of the importance of that place. Today I wanted to visit the church of the holy sepulchr, which is the holiest Christian site in the old city of Jerusalem. I thought that going there would be like coming home. I am not religious, but since I am a person of Christian heritage I thought going there would be in some sense similar to the wailing wall, but in the contexts of beliefs and narratives I am more familiar with.

The church itself is very beautiful. It has a long history, which I won’t bore you with but you can read it if you want on wikipedia. The experience of visiting the church, however, was totally different from the wailing wall, or even being near the temple mount. It is crammed with tour groups. Not just tourists, but “hello my name is” tourists, complete with stickers on their shirts which correspond with the number on a sign held up by the tour guide.

Talking to Chris, my catholic friend on this trip, helped me understand why this place is so different from the other holy sites in Jerusalem. While a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is traditionally an important part of Christianity, today it is seen as totally optional, and as more of a tourist trip than a religious experience.

Maybe the place is so different because there is a much smaller Christian community in Jerusalem and Palestine than Muslim or Jewish. This doesn’t correspond with the map of the old city, which has two large Christian quarters (the Christian quarter, and the Armenian quarter). Maybe the real Christians who live around here don’t pray here regularly because of the massive number of tour groups. There were real Christians there, obviously, priests and nuns, praying and reading and solemnly practicing rituals in the midst of a thousand white and poorly dressed tourists.

It made me somewhat upset, visiting this church today. I wanted the Sepulchre to be a spiritual place that I could relate to. But maybe it isn’t there anymore – destroyed by years of infighting between different religious groups, and by the failure of Christianity to as a community take a stand on the conflict here. Destroyed by a million tourists who come here for personal reasons, and who come “for the experience” more than for religious reasons or to relate with the local community here. The failure of the majority of Christians, or at least north American Christians, to stand in solidarity with Palestinian Christians, is I think a strong demonstrable failure of Christianity to act on its principles.



5 thoughts on “A Christian Holy Place in Jerusalem? (The Church of the Holy Sepulchr)

  1. There’s a certain irony in you finding this church ‘destroyed by a million tourists who come here for personal reasons more than religious reasons’ when only two paragraphs prior you describe yourself as not religious and that you’re going to this church to look for your heritage.

  2. WASPs have a history of not appreciating the Holy Sepulchre :-p That’s why they came up with this. I kind of like the Sepulchre’s cobbled together nature and its warrens, but when I’m feeling religious, I’m pretty ritualistic and I can’t remember my first reaction to it. I wonder if some of your disappointment might be a reverse image of the traditional WASP dislike, which was seeing all these Papists and Eastern or Oriental Orthodox scraping around, doing their decidedly un-English Christianity. Rather now it’s been swamped by the most inauthentic “Hello, my name is…” tourists, as you put it, and is thoroughly inauthentic. I hope that doesn’t come across as mocking (luckily I can put all my first reactions down to being a teenager and I wasn’t keeping a journal as I had them, so I can twist them in my memory). It’s funny how the history of the Holy Sepulchre has it all feeling so wrong to so many Western visitors – seen as overly “oriental” or inauthentically touristy, etc.

    Outside of the regular shutdowns the Israeli authorities place on the Haram A-Sharif/Temple Mount, including the constant closing of it to Palestinian men between 18 and 40, I’d say it’s the most beautiful of the three representative religious sites, with its gardens, ritual washing stations and possibility to sit down and relax and observe and think.

  3. Thanks again for your insightful comments, Nathanial.

    I’m disappointed personally with my own appreciation of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m going to go back on Sunday for service, and give a more concerted attempt to connect with my heritage. Maybe it won’t work because I was raised protestant and I see the highly decorated appearance of the place as idol-worship, but on the other hand I have no problem with Christianity being pagan.

  4. I’d say a lot of this has to do with the collapse of Nasserite pan arabism and Ba’ath ideology in particular. The 1920-70s approach of treating Arabs as a national / ethnic group made Christian Arabs fully part of the nation. The latter pan-Islamic approach leaves them out. Throughout the middle east Christian arabs have been leaving in far greater numbers. 90% prior to 1965 and 2/3rds even today. This also is heavily tied to the brain drain issue. Christian arabs en mass were less hostile to British and French colonialism (on average) and got educations. The popular socialist revolutions threatened their lifestyle so many decided to leave.

    Most importantly this has been speeding up since 2001 where “war of civilizations” thinking on both sides have left Christian Arabs subject to persecution and also quite often out of step with their populations ethnically. BTW this is not unique to Arabs it is happening in Iran and Pakistan as well. It is unclear whether Christianity is going to become a tiny fragment religion in the Islamic world.

    1. This isn’t so much a reply to this message, but I want to apologize for the lateness of the approval of your messages. They are mostly well thought out and challenging, and it takes time to write careful responses.

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