Project Canterbury

In and around Jerusalem. The Greek Easter.

By Wiliam Brown Keer.

From Mission Life, Vol. V (new series) (1874), pages 197-206.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2007



BY THE REV. WILLIAM BROWN KEER, Late Harbour Chaplain, Bombay.

THE Holy Week and Easter of the Greek Church, coinciding with an important Moslem feast, including numerous processions, was of sufficient interest to detain me in Jerusalem; especially as I wished to see many objects of interest in the city itself before extending my journeys to surrounding places. I accordingly repaired each morning, like a good Greek, to the early mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was crowded from daybreak, the time of opening, till noon; when, except on the three last days of the week, the crowd became less dense. The yard on the south side of the church, which will hold a crowd of some thousands, was like a fair during most of the time, with the sale of rosaries, beads, crosses, photographs, pictures, and refreshments; and many articles were bought and sold in the precincts of the church itself, making it, as the Jews did the Temple of old, "a house of merchandise." After my visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Palm Sunday morning, I paid a visit to the English church on Mount Zion. The Anglican Bishop Gobat, who often assists at the services, was absent; indeed I had but just passed him on the road to Jaffa, whither he was proceeding with his family to embark for Europe. The English church is a neat and chaste-looking edifice, both within and without; and the plain, simple, devout services, with the hearty congregational singing, presented a marked contrast to the theatrical display at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On the same premises are a minister's residence, besides schools for about fifty poor Jewish boys, who are boarded and educated, for the most part free of expense to their parents and friends, by the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. There is also a depot for the sale of books, residence for the schoolmaster (who is also a clergyman) and his family, besides a house for the church-keeper and general overlooker of the premises. Near the entrance, and fronting the Jaffa Gate, is the Bishop's residence, abutting on, but not forming a part of, the premises owned by the English church. At [197/198] a short distance from both is the English school for Jewish Christian girls, with an hospital, dispensary, and doctor's residence, and in another part of the city a workshop for employing, in some useful work, those who may need employment, and even some are there taught trades. A few of those who have been thus taught have become successful tradesmen. I name this to show that though the English have not a part in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, nor such splendid hospices as the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians, they are yet doing something to elevate and benefit the Jew.

Finding that a number of pilgrims, both Moslem and Christian, were proceeding on the Monday to El Recha, or Jericho, for the purpose of bathing in the Jordan, I hired a horse after church-time, at the bazaar near the Jaffa Gate, and followed, giving my syce, or guide, orders to proceed along the Via Dolorosa, and out at the Bab Stephano, the most eastern of the five city gates, and over the Jebel-et-Tur, or Mount of Olives, to Bethany, which village is on the road to the Jordan. Whilst assenting to my direction, however, I found him proceeding out at the northern gate, and round the west side, and past the Jewish almshouses of Sir Moses Montefiore, to avoid, as he said, the crowded streets, and hills and stones on the east. Nor could he comprehend why any one should prefer a bad road to one he thought so much better and easier, though less direct, and of course thought me little less than mad when I made him turn back and go the way originally indicated, though he was equally puzzled to understand how one, who he thought had never seen the place before, should know that there was a road at all in any given direction. The road or track over the Mount of Olives to Bethany, one of the most ancient, is one of much interest, as it passes several churches, and between the two enclosures of Gethsemane of the Greeks and Latins; the former a bare, stone-paved spot, the latter a pretty garden, with several ancient olive-trees, and parterres of shrubs and flowers. The view, too, of the city from Olivet is one of the best, as the elevation is near, and is about two hundred feet above most points of the city. The path over this mount is said to have been daily trod by "the Prophet of Nazareth" during the last week of His sojourn among men--that very Passion Week which the Greek Church, after eighteen hundred years and more, was then, with so much pomp, commemorating. There are, too, several tombs in the valley of some interest; among which that of Absalom, with its cupola, supported by pillars, is the most conspicuous. The tombs of S. Anna, of the Virgin Mary, and others, are shown in a Greek church, and the house in which S. Anna is said to have lived. The interest; however, of these pretended spots, pointed out by a doubtful and modern tradition, fades before, and is eclipsed by, the great natural objects, the identical vales, hills, [198/199] and mountains, which admit of no counterfeit, and which, while they contain the same soil, in the main present the same outlines and features to-day which they did when patriarchs, kings, and prophets trod those very paths, and gazed on those very scenes, thousands of years ago. The Mount of Olives, too, not only gives one of the best views of Jerusalem, but of the country around. From one of its heights parts of the Dead Sea are distinctly seen in the distance, and one looks down from it into the rugged valley of the Kedron, as well as upon the hills and vales on the other sides of Jerusalem, and a thousand historic reminiscences rush into the mind. And in spite of the entreaties of my guide, who wished to travel slowly, and in plenty of company, I stopped and gazed until the crowds of pilgrims had proceeded miles along the road, and the guide began to hint at the possibility, if not probability, of our falling among thieves, and of there being Arabs in the way, whose notions of meum and tuum are everywhere said to be extremely confused.

Turning off at a brisk pace into the bridle-path, we soon reached some of the pilgrims, and shortly after an Arab horseman rode up, and first in broken English, and then in elegant Arabic, asked me whither I was going; and, after stating that there were Arabs on the road, and that he was their sheikh, besought me to put myself under his protection. I thanked him for his concern for me, but as there were a number of authorised protectors with the pilgrims on the road, I told him I thought I need not trouble him to bestow his services in protecting me, and hinted that he might occupy his time better in teaching his tribe not to rob and plunder, than in protecting travellers from them. And, though we soon overtook the main body of the pilgrims, and halted for the night, long before sunset, my Arab friend, who I learned afterwards was guide to some English gentlemen, paid me another visit with the same object, and this time in company with a dragoman, who professed to share the sheikh's solicitude for my safety; they seemed, at the same time strangely puzzled to know whether I was English or "Amellikan," French or Muscovite, and my familiarity with some of the Greek and Russian pilgrims, with whom I had travelled either in Syria, by caravan, or on the steamboat, rather increased the perplexity than otherwise, and they joined in the laugh at the expense of the sheikh and dragoman both, who went-off apparently not very well pleased. The camp for the night presented a motley and rather busy appearance. Tents from the first-class English canvas, surmounted by the English ensign or Union Jack, to the black wool or hair cover of the Arab, or a common umbrella, might all be seen, and among them the American stars and stripes, and the French tricolour. The Russians, who perhaps mustered stronger than all, made no display of their national emblem. [199/200] Native villagers came in considerable number to sell cucumbers, onions, grass and fodder, and to dance and sing for amusement or gain. The singing of one kind or another, and the beating of the drums, was kept up till near midnight. In the early morning, that is, between two and three o'clock, the pilgrims, of whom there may have been from 1,000 to 1,500, were again astir, and tents were struck, baggage packed, and steeds mounted, and all, arranged this time in a tolerably compact body, were prepared to march. Three or four Arabs, with rope turbans, around handkerchiefs of red, white, and yellow silk and cotton, on their heads; a coarse hair aba, or cloak, on their shoulders, old firelocks of prodigious length, and profusely ornamented stocks and barrels, strapped at their backs, and a long sword or dagger, or brace of heavy, big muzzled pistols in their belts, went on foot before. One youth only of the Arab pilgrim guard was mounted, and he seemed not a little proud of his steed and his position. The Arabs reserved to themselves the right of directing or stopping the march, and did so whenever the company became straggling. The distance to be travelled was possibly six or seven miles, through jungle, and over broken and unlevel ground, but it was accomplished shortly after daylight, camels, horses, asses, mules, and foot-passengers arriving all nearly at the same instant at the river, which is here a deep, turbid, rapid stream, running in a reedy, wooded dell. A few Englishmen, with a mounted sheikh (as these Arabs all call themselves), had been permitted, by extra backshish, to precede the rest by a few seconds, for the sake of getting a good bathing-place; and another party, with a few English ladies, and of course another Arab, besides a dragoman or two, came a few minutes later. There is a ghat, or slope, cut or worn down to the stream, which is nowhere fordable--the fords being a few miles above the Latin bathing ghat, some two hours higher up. Into this lower, or Greek bathing ghat, most of the pilgrims rush, not indeed with such eagerness as to occasion much danger, as it was an hour or two before all had bathed; numbers picking their way to the water, and taking a quiet dip among the reeds, tamarisks, willows and other shrubs, which serve as good foothold, bathing-ropes, and shelter at the same time. Of course large numbers of both sexes were in the river at the same time; but very few were in a state of perfect nudity. Of several natives whom I observed swim across, most had their clothes girt around them, and the few who had not were certainly not of the number of the pilgrims, but apparently natives of the district, who swam into the stream or across for bravado, and on the whole I observed less impropriety than I have witnessed at Margate or Brighton. Of course, like the rest, I had my "dip," and though the water was by no means clear, it was cool and refreshing after the morning's exercise in reaching it.

[201] A stay of an hour or so for bathing, and refreshment to men and horses, and we prepared to return viĆ¢ the Dead Sea, Jebel Moosa, and the Greek convent of Mar Saba, a ride of only eight or ten hours, which may be done well in the day. Here, however, the ordinary pilgrim protectors, or authorised backshish takers, were not going, and although my guide knew the well-beaten track, over which several other travellers were about to pass, my friend the sheikh came with a dragoman, and made another appeal to induce me to put myself under his "protection," which could be secured for a small amount of gold, or to give to him a written document absolving him and his tribe from all responsibility should I be robbed, as it was not unlikely, he hinted, I should be, of everything, and, if I should resist, perhaps be killed into the bargain. I told him I would give him such a document if he would only show me his written authority for requiring it, as I had written authority from the Turks to travel here; and as to being robbed, I assured him that I had taken the precaution to leave all that was really valuable behind me, bringing as little as possible, so that his tribe, or any other, would, if they robbed me, scarcely get repaid for their trouble, and should they think it worth while to kill me, it would be a decided gain to my friends, as they would get what property I might leave, and be saved my funeral expenses. It was the old lesson, which I had learned in coming across Turkey, if not before, of the "vacuus viator," who may whistle before the highwayman. The dragoman laughed heartily, and the sheikh, on the last clause being explained to him, joined therein, said no more of "protection," but followed me with his party, an American and a Frenchman, and took the lead, as soon as I started, and we became the best of friends for the rest of the journey; the sheikh even eating with me, and trying his horse with the one on which I rode, which was a really fleet and fine-spirited animal, that delighted in a gallop.

By the desolate mountain-girt shores of the Dead Sea, the "Bahr-el-Lut," or "Sea of Lot,"--which we reached after about an hour's ride from the bathing ghat, we halted, and had a bathe in its clear, quiet waters.

Many trees, shrubs, and reeds were strewn, bleached and whitened, on the shore, forming plenty of fuel, and wood whence curiosities for pilgrims are made. This sea is more than thirteen hundred feet below the level of the Mediterranean, and of course has the additional weight of a column of air of that height pressing on its dense waters, besides which, either from evaporation or other causes, its waters are so impregnated with salts as to be extremely buoyant, as well as excessively bitter to the palate. One positively started on tasting the beautifully clear but nauseous fluid, and, on stooping to pick up something from below, I was thrown like a cork upon the top of the water, on which [201/202] we all had no difficulty in lying--the chief difficulty was to keep one's feet below water. On returning towards Mar Saba, we ascended some two or three of the highest peaks near Jebel Moosa, where were a number of Moslem pilgrims encamped; the views of the rugged mountains, and the almost barren country, were very fine.

After a halt near a mountain cistern, where we prepared and thoroughly enjoyed a cup of tea, for the way was toilsome to man and beast, and the sun scorching hot, we reached Mar Saba, about four hours from Jerusalem, a little before 2 P.M., and halted for the night. The buildings, churches, grottoes, pictures, and library of this fine old Greek convent have a world-wide fame and historical interest. A terrible massacre was once perpetrated here by the Persian Chosroes, and the skulls of the slain are still shown behind a glass case in a cavern of the rock. The buildings, which rise on the rocky sides of the Kedron, have ever since been strongly protected by parapets and iron doors, into which no female, on any emergency whatever, is permitted to enter.* [* It is otherwise at Mar Elias, where I found a party of English ladies from Jerusalem, all engaged in sewing or other work, in a cool and pleasant room.] As I had no tent I accepted the proffered hospitality of the fathers for the night, and was domiciled in a neat and comfortably furnished apartment, kept with scrupulous regard to cleanliness. I was only permitted to see, not to read, any of the books or MS., as I was told this required a special order from the Patriarch in Jerusalem. A number of Russian pilgrims, too, stayed for the night, and departed next morning, after purchasing some of the curiosities in beads, crosses, sticks, pictures, &c., made by some of the fifteen or sixteen poor resident monks. A pleasant early ride brought us, by the valley of Kedron, and the village of Siloam, into El-Kuds. A visit was subsequently made to the grand old rock-hewn tombs of the kings, to the extensive underground caverns or quarries running from the entrance, under the north wall, far under the city, and some other objects of interest within the city.

On the Thursday morning I witnessed the somewhat pompous ceremony of the "lava pedis," or feet washing, conducted by the Greek Patriarch, a venerable old man, on a small platform, about twelve feet square, erected in the enclosure on the south front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Patriarch, having laid aside his golden crown and richly embroidered robe, girded himself with a towel, and then water from a silver ewer was poured by an attendant bishop through the Patriarch's hands over the feet, into a large silver bowl or basin, as it was borne round to each of twelve bishops or priests, seated with naked feet on benches around the platform. The Patriarch then slightly wiped the feet of each with the towel. A priest with a loud sonorous voice read meanwhile, from a second and higher elevation, [202/203] shaded by an olive branch on the wall, the portion or portions of Scripture relating the original occurrence. Some few more verses followed, and then the Patriarch dismissed the assembled thousands with his blessing. There was then a general scramble for the olive branch, which was soon torn to shreds, and the stock was at last borne off guarded by four soldiers. On the Friday, the day of the Crucifixion, there was perhaps less ceremony than with the Latins on the corresponding day. No mock crucifixion takes place. There is a large crucifix exhibited over the high altar in the church, but it is there both before and after the day of the Passion. Nor is there any taking down from the cross or ceremony of sepulture. A large cross, about six feet high, which surmounts the smaller of the two domes of the church, is illuminated at night, and has a very fine effect, looking at a distance like a golden cross of light rising over the city. The crowning ceremony, however, of the Greeks is the giving out from two orifices, one on the north and the other on the south of the small inner church, of the so-called "Holy Fire"; which fire, whatever the priests and bishops may believe and teach, is believed by many of the ignorant (though not by the well-educated) to come supernaturally from heaven.

Crowds assemble over night in the church, though the ceremony takes place on the afternoon of the Saturday after the crucifixion. Places are eagerly sought by strangers, and are given in the galleries by authority of the bishops. A large number of armed soldiers are posted during the day, and even the whole of the preceding night, in the church, to keep order. The enthusiasm of the crowds below knows no bounds; they shout, clap their hands, and, raise one another up on their shoulders, for hours before the final event, the clapping of the hands and stamping resembling that known in England as "Kentish fire." The different patriarchs and files of bishops and priests with golden censers, walk in procession several times around the area below the central dome, and around the small inner church, the space being with difficulty kept open for that purpose by lines of armed soldiers. A hope was expressed by Dean Stanley, when he wrote several years ago an account of this matter, that the usage would be laid aside by the Patriarch, and the scandal prevented, especially as some had already withdrawn and dissented from it. So far from this being the case, the ceremony was supported this year by a marvellous array of patriarchs, archbishops,, bishops, and priests of four at least of the great religious bodies of the East--Greeks, Armenians, Kopts, and Maronites. After some hours of waiting on the part of the people, and much promenading by the bishops and priests, the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, accompanied by one or two others, entered the small door at the west of the small inner building, the crowds around, nearly all of whom had unlighted candles, being then almost frantic with excitement, though [203/204] the noise was partly suppressed in expectation, and very soon first one and then another and another, in quick succession, caught the fire from the two orifices in the wall, the Greeks from one side, and the Armenians from the other, and very soon the hands of all below were brandishing in triumph lighted candles or tapers, and conveying the light to those in the galleries. Some, I observed, put the candles out by grasping the flame, or smothered it in their clothes, but they soon re-lighted them again. And if any believed the flame would not burn them, they were quickly undeceived. The crowd very soon dispersed, and the church was quieter in the evening than it had been for some days before. The cross was again illuminated over the dome as twilight faded into the pale light of the late rising moon. By nine or ten o'clock in the evening the Russian pilgrims, and other Greeks and Armenians, began to assemble again, to await the midnight service, or the announcement which is made by the Patriarch, or some bishop in his place, immediately after midnight, in the words, "The Lord is risen," or "Jesus Christ is risen indeed." These words the congregation then take up, saluting each other by kissing of hands, and repeating the salutation to all the Christians they may chance to meet during the rest of the day.

I went again to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, after daybreak of Easter Day, and, though masses were being said, the crowd was more than two-thirds gone, and the numbers of priests were thin, compared with the former attendances. Thus the day on which so many flock to church among the Latins, seemed to have lost much of its interest to many of the Greeks, who seemed to have regarded the giving out of the "Holy Fire" as the culminating scene in the great annual commemoration of the most important event that ever occurred for Christendom and the world, and deceived themselves, or allowed others to deceive them, with a fiction.

A few of the pilgrims, I observed, left the city shortly after sunrise for Bethlehem, Mar Saba, Hebron, or Galilee, and some few left at once to return to their homes, though others lingered for more than a week.

On the previous Friday afternoon I had witnessed a sad, but deeply interesting scene, at what is known as the Jews' place of wailing, a noble portion of the old city wall near the Haram. There were from eighty to a hundred Jews of all ages, male and female, assembled with faces turned to the wall, and most of them reading or reciting, in plaintive tones, prayers or portions of the Hebrew Scriptures; while others were bewailing the desolation of their holy city, with tears and wringing their hands, and kissing the wall, with all the outward manifestations of deep and genuine grief. It being a Jewish feast during the week the number present was larger than usual, but some always [204/205] meet here on the same day and hour, for the like sad and interesting purpose.

On the Saturday morning early, and before going to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I accompanied a few other English visitors, who, like myself, had obtained a consul's order to visit the Haram, or reputed site of the Temple of Solomon, but now of the Mosque of Omar. A "cawas" or peon, from the consulate, accompanied-us. A backshish of a mejidie, or five-franc piece, was asked and paid by each on entering, and more was demanded only lately; and shoes had to be taken off, and slippers put on to enter the sacred place, which, owing to a Moslem feast, had been wholly interdicted during the ten or twelve days previously. The extensive platform or enclosure, on which the sacred buildings stand, is paved with flag-stones, and tolerably level, yet, from the numerous vaults and cisterns below, it is evident, that the place is filled with ruins to a great depth, and here and there columns of massive size and ancient date may be seen. This is especially the case in the vaults below the El Aksar, the spacious church or basilica said to have been erected by the Empress Helena, who also erected the noble Church of the Holy Nativity at Bethany. The El Aksar is an immense room, supported by columns. I paced the inside, eighty-four paces long by sixty-two broad. But here, as well as in the Mosque of Omar, mats were being taken up, lamps removed, and the place, though everywhere grand, presented a dirty and unfavourable aspect. The great dome-covered mosque, whether built by the Khalif Omar, or by Abd-el-Melek, is not certain, was intended to cover the site of the Temple of Solomon. It covers a rugged mound of natural rock, and hence is called Kubbet-es-Sukrah, or "Dome of the Rock." The dome is the largest and most conspicuous object in the city, and its external covering appears like copper, but is said to be lead only. The windows and internal decorations are very beautiful. There is a grotto under the rock, as if for a tomb. On one spot the guide professed to show the last earthly footprint of Mahomet, and in the El Aksar a footprint of Christ, as well as His cradle of stone.

The Golden Gate of the city, which is closed on the east of the Haram, has some very fine and interesting columns, and other architectural adornments. The walls near here, which overlook Absalom's tomb and the village of Siloam, are of great height from the valley below, and recent excavations showed that the soil for eighty feet, or even greater depths, was but a conglomeration of ruins. And somewhere in the vast enclosure stood the Temple of Solomon, and the later one of Herod; yet so thorough has been the sweeping destruction, that it is impossible to point out with accuracy or certainty the exact spot where each, with its several well-defined courts, stood. So fully and truly have the New Testament predictions of the utter destruction of the city and temple been fulfilled.

[206] Though it was early morn when we entered, and we had not breakfasted, yet the day was so far advanced, and the heat in the sheltered courts began to be great, before the party could summon the resolution reluctantly to withdraw themselves from scenes so intensely interesting and full of suggestion.

Project Canterbury