My next three days of drawing in Jerusalem were at three of the most important holy sites for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These three religions were all born out of Jerusalem, and throughout the past several thousand years, each of them has claimed and reclaimed holy sites all throughout the city. Mosques, churches, synagogues, and religious pilgrimage sites of all kinds were built right on top of each other as the ruling powers changed. For instance, above the tomb of Biblical Hebrew leader King David is the hall of Jesus’ Last Supper, and above that is the dome and crescent of the E-Nebi Daud mosque, from Ottoman rule (which is now drawing controversy with its possible conversion into a synagogue).
My first stop in my own pilgrimage around Jerusalem was to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest sites in Christianity, where Jesus is said to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected. Christian pilgrims from all over the world come to follow the road of the Stations of the Cross through Jerusalem, to reenact Jesus’ final hours, culminating in a visit to the Church.
The church is dark and filled with echoes. Smoke from incense and candles hangs in the air, and people wander through the various shrines of each denomination of Catholicism present in the winding church. Up a narrow staircase to the right of the entrance is Golgotha, where it is believed that Jesus was crucified. From up over the entrance, you can see the streams of pilgrims entering and winding their way through the maze-like church.
Here, pilgrims wait in line to enter a small shrine on their knees, underneath a flat silver Jesus on the cross, to pray. Nearby, dozens of candles are lit in prayer, and collected by the priests as they basins fill up.
What interested me most was the different ways in which people worshipped upon entering the church. The most popular was the Stone of Anointing, where it is believed that Jesus was laid and prepared for burial. Pilgrims wipe the stone with oil, kiss it, put their forehead to it, lay their hands on it, and anoint themselves with the oil.
Some delicately touched the surface with their fingertips, while another was using her kerchief to wipe up every bit of oil, dabbing between and mopping up in between the cracks. Another woman I saw took about a dozen souvenirs she had bought and rubbed each one on the stone to bring back home. There were all different styles, but everyone seemed very intent on making sure they came away with a bit of the holiness rubbed off on them.
Around the church, people stop in front of various places and portraits, crossing themselves, kneeling to pray, and often reciting prayers from their iPhones.
There is a solemnity and compulsiveness to the way people proceed through the space, like they are moved by magnets.
Orthodox priests glide through the halls like big chess pieces, sometimes chanting and wafting smoke out of lanterns.
In the central rotunda is the Aedicule, which houses the Tomb of Jesus. Long lines form outside the tiny entrance for people to go inside and pray, as outside pilgrims light candles.
Unlike the Stone of Anointing, where people seek to take something away, the glowing lines of candles around the shrines were all left behind as burning prayers. The site of the church itself felt secondary to the constant flow of the exchange, with each person taking something with them and leaving something behind.
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