Another day, another enormous bowl of hummus. If you enjoy the taste of mashed chickpeas, then you are fortunate indeed to be in Jerusalem. When the manna fell for the lost tribe of Moses, I imagine at least one of them asked, "Is there any hummus?" And another possibly said, "I have an allergy," and got stoned for it.
Driving to Jerusalem is an education itself. You meet the obligatory security point of course, but being a bus full of cockneys from Raine's Foundation School, the young guard waved us through. On the outskirts between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, we saw a sign that forbids Israelis to enter the Occupied Territories, for their safety, and we wondered how two cultures could tumble and spill over into each other so completely, but still be so completely segregated. And how could the future hold anything other than dwindling understanding if even a handshake was forbidden? It was a sobering reminder that here, nothing was taken for granted. It was a 20-minute drive to Jerusalem, but a million miles apart. Eruv wires and flags twitched along the road to indicate that here, Shabbat prohibitions against work were suspended. We passed an emergent colony of Jewish frontiers people, settlers on the disputed lands, and suddenly, the shining city of Jerusalem.
It really is magnificent. Unutterably holy to the three Abrahamic faiths, destroyed twice, ancient as civilisation, and home, within its tiny space, to the most contested human narratives imaginable. Depending on your perspective, it's the womb of the Apocalypse, the death site of Mohammed, and the setting for the Passion play of Christ's last days. It used to be thought of as the spiritual and geographical centre of the universe, and I was struck throughout the day by how it symbolised the world in microcosm; every human story of difference and similarity, mistrust and cooperation, pressed together.
We were there as mixed pilgrims, to visit Holy Week in a day, following the footsteps of Jesus. Everyone, student and teacher, had their own interest and perspective: some saw it as holy, while others were looking for history and culture. Khalil, our guide, unpacked it all with wit and dignity; a Palestinian born next to the second station of the cross in Jerusalem, he spoke six languages and trained as an archaeologist. Fortunately, he only needed one language with us, but I can say without a second of hesitation that a city as buried in history as this could only be unlocked with the key of an expert guide. Without it, Holy Zion could turn into a curious day's stroll through churches and markets, and that would be a sin against history.
We started at the church of the Ascension, and the first of our relics: the footprint of Christ in the worn stone floor. I suspect that this, along with other claims of authenticity, were in disputed territories of the truth, but 50 million pilgrims can't be wrong. Some of us saw a footprint, and some of us saw nothing. Yet we both saw the same thing.
Then to Dominus Flavit chapel, the tears of Christ, where our guide's legerdemain secured us a coup: exclusive access to the church so our chaplain could conduct another mass. So there we sat, stood and kneeled, children of the Bow Bells – and Bearsden – taking communion, or blessings, overlooking the hills of Jerusalem through the window, the golden Dome bristling in the background. If I didn't have a spiritual bone in my body, I would have been moved, and I do, buried beneath the empiricism and logic.
We next stumbled across a grove of olive trees, and bushes – the Garden of Gethsemene, with trees older than the Gregorian calendar: trees that had seen the Byzantines, the Romans, the Turks, and a thousand races ride by, then leave again. A sign next to the garden reminded us how far from Kansas we had come: no picking the plants, no litter, no guns. Of course. I was glad I'd remembered not to pack any heat. The risk assessment couldn't have taken the strain, and it was straining already.
The house of Caiphas, the High Priest of Jerusalem from the Gospels; buried deep within it was the converted purification well where Christ was imprisoned before trial. And at the bottom of that, we stood and listened as our school Sacristan read a passage, silent in the deep rock. It's easy, when one tours Church- Heavy cities like Venice, to become weary and jaded of even of the most beautiful of ancient houses and piles, but the narrative, buried deep into most children before they leave primary school, made a powerful thread with which to trace our steps.
We paused in the Arab quarter for, of course, hummus, in case there was any danger of any of us forgetting what it looked like. Brandon, one of our boys, found that, in Jerusalem at least, his grand Afro made him something of the celebrity. It was astonishing: people called out to him, complimenting him, even giving his hair a hearty tousle just to confirm that it really was a a majestic as it seemed. Brandon bore it like a martyr. I made a mental note to update next year's risk assessment. I had been more worried for the dignity and safety of our girls from unwanted attention, but Brandon's hair acted as a kind of enormous attention magnet, draining all onlookers of any interest save for his magnificent barnet.
Then, the Via Dolorosa: if you have ever been tempted to humph a heavy cross through tiny, winding streets, then this is your Christmas. Led by our chaplain, we traced the stations of the cross, Christ's journey from sentencing to execution, as our students took turns to bear the load. In a city of religious spectacle, it was a privilege to provide, for a moment, a piece of spectacle and theatre ourselves. People stopped and took pictures, and tourist guides directed their groups to us, explaining what the significance was. Less edifying was an American woman who buzzed around and between us with her enormous camera, snapping away like a crime scene photographer, every damn step of the way. My piety was pretty thin, but Khalil saved her from my protective wrath. And camera origami.
Not one of us was unmoved by the experience, despite everything – maybe because of it. It was both utterly memorable and utterly inexplicable to me. I suspect I think I might be the most High Church agnostic it is possible to be.
And then, finally, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: the site of Golgotha, the crucifixion, the tomb. If New York is like stepping into every movie set, suddenly we had stepped into Sunday School Psalms. I found a stillness there that could have stopped the Sun in the sky. Do we bring this to the moment? Do we construct meaning, or is meaning found?
Q: What's Do the one last signifier of sacredness in the world, secular or spiritual? No cameras allowed. To forbid technology has become the last remaining reminder that there are at least some spots in the world that defy trivialisation. We have built our own gods, and the old gods will not endure it.
One final thing, and one last disappointment: we visited the Wailing Wall, the last remaining wall of the second temple, destroyed by the Romans, and the most holy site in Judaism. Men wail in sorrow – for sins, for the loss of the temple, along two thirds of the wall; women do the same for one third. Proposals to open a third section, mixed, for families, has met with resistance from the orthodox community, and we are reminded that religion has a heartbeat that takes centuries to pulse.
I took my boys to the wall, with the intention of a moment to see, perhaps touch the enormous and ancient fragment of sacred rock. As we approached the wall, an angry, pious man wearing his tefillin shouted at us. "Are you Jewish?" he said. "This place is not for you."
I ignored him, because I could, and it was permitted, and he had no right to tell us who was fit and who was not fit to go as they please in a public space. Our chaplain has, in the last few years, been spat on for his collar at the wall, and once even suffered the butt of a gun in his ribs for having the temerity of being a Christian there. Such actions are an insult to the dignity of their faith. Fundamentalism of any creed is a weed and a tragedy. I know that he does not speak for his people. But I wish the world never had to hear such casual hostility and separatism from either side. My children did not understand his anger because they've been raised to view strangers with civility, whatever the differences.
What a shame they had to hear such words on a pilgrimage to the heart of the Holy Land.