Even the very name fills me with a certain hope, a lightness; an awe. Heckles spontaneously prick up all over my body every time I think back. A place of deep fascination for me since I first knew it existed at all. And yet, somehow, I feel it’s always been with me. He has always been with me… lingering, omnipresent, silent... waiting to be remembered, brought back to life, recalled…
Most of us will remember such tales about this fabled place from our earliest school days, stories from the Bible and hymns at church.
I’m not really sure when it finally occurred to me that it might be a real place, that this mythical city actually had a geographical location, could be found, visited even, and that I could jump on a plane, take a bus, and within mere hours after leaving the familiarity of home, be walking up towards its ancient walls.
After asking some locals for directions, I entered via the Jaffa Gate.
And so it began…
As with nearly all my solo travels, I made friends even before I left the airport.
We travelled from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem together.
That’s the thing about solo travel I try to express, time and time again: people, everywhere, will connect to your journey, if you keep an open heart and allow them in. Travelling alone is absolutely the most rewarding way to travel. By stepping out alone, taking that ‘chance’ – you allow yourself the potential to gain so so much.
I had some anxiety about visiting the Holy Land. No doubt.
Everybody I spoke to advised me against it, especially going alone without a guide.
Naturally, I didn’t really listen 😉
I had a powerful idea of this place, in my waking dreams. A vision… a vision I had to see realised. No fear is greater than your dreams. At least, you shouldn’t let it be.
We must be careful of the choices we make and what we allow ourselves to believe.
We all have a great power in our minds.
I find, more and more, every detail of my life is shaped by my intentions, thoughts, sentiments and beliefs. One minute you can be thinking of a place, the next you can be traversing its cobbled streets, as if no time passed between at all.
You start to wonder which part was the dream ~ the bit that happened at ‘home’ or this wonderment you are experiencing now?
Life really can be that ‘dream’: but you’re going to need to take some big chances, remove this ridiculous idea of ‘certainty’, and walk blindly into the dark.
Vision is the most immediate sense, sure. But it can mislead you into thinking we are limited by what’s apparent around us. Once you close your eyes, you realise, slowly, you can ‘feel’ your way. Once you trust your footing. Your other senses slowly awaken…
I’m not saying it’s easy !
And nor do I yet find it easy myself.
“only human” I think is the phrase.
But Jerusalem called to me from beyond the dark. I slowly made my way towards its golden arch, my eyes closed, my mind illuminated… her voice sweetly singing in my ears ‘come, come, come and see the Creator…’
From the moment I stepped through that gatehouse, my eyes were mesmerised with vibrant details of life. Everywhere, something to be seen, pondered, solved.
I’d always imagined a city of congruent juxtaposition, with a striking skyline of domes and towers, call to prayer competing mellifluously with church bells; narrow, winding streets bustling with pilgrims of multi-faiths, every age of history and art represented in every building. Every stone a key to Jerusalem’s long history and enduring enchantment. Everyone, everywhere, seeking that ancient magic, some connection to that holy power.
What I imagined was a notion, of course; an idea. The shell of the place.
What I found was the heart, beating, full of a special kind of blood relating to all people, all earth. Everybody could connect to it.
It was easy for me to see why this place was treasured by nearly all humanity.
Magic… the place really was magic, in every sense.
I defy anyone to be disappointed upon their first sight of Holy Jerusalem.
It is a menagerie of detail for the curious mind, for the aesthete, poet and pilgrim.
After walking a little way through the busy markets, up a winding street of pale stone steps, I found myself at ancient traveller’s hostel ‘Citadel’ – where I would stay for just over three weeks, the majority of my time in the Holy Land.
The place is located right in the centre of all the city’s ‘quarters’, a literal stone’s throw from the Holy Sepulchre, and has been a hostel for travellers for hundreds of years, retaining an original character and a friendly atmosphere.
Citadel Hostel was buzzing with excited travellers from all corners of the globe, old and young. I must have made friends with nearly everyone in the place at some point, sharing stories and reflections from a life on the Great Wide Road… we all had our reasons for being there. We broke bread together and explored parts of that city I will recall long into old age, names of which are already lost to me now.
I spent the first few nights sleeping on the open rooftop, which was an experience you would only believe if you’ve lived it yourself (the morning bells!)
The whole ancient city lay out beyond the rooftop in perfect panorama.
Day break was pure magic. I could see everything from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the Dome of the Rock, and even the infamous West Bank dividing wall at the edge of the city.
Something I’ve learnt… Always be ready for friendship.
You never know from where it may come, or how fulfilling it may turn out to be.
The companions I made at the Citadel will always stay with me, their souls forever part of the colours of my own, forever visible in my mind’s eye, as is everyone I meet on my travels. It’s such a beautiful thing to journey across the world to an unknown place, and become instantly part of a great family.
p.s. if you ever go to the Citadel Hostel in Jerusalem, take a look at the mural on the kitchen wall designed and painted by me and some of the other residents. A fun little project we shared in 🙂
I don’t pretend to ever ‘represent’ a place, define or vend it. I do not profess to ‘know’ things; I only know myself. With travel, I merely present what I have seen, how this has made me feel, and the Creations that flourish as a result of inspiration.
This, all that you will find here, is simply the bounty Jerusalem gave to me. Next time could be a whole different city, a whole different time of the world. Perhaps this Jerusalem was just a fleeting moment in time, transient and unique. Not to be seen again for many days… perhaps. Although I do sincerely hope not.
…I hope this golden flower blooms eternal, a precious token for many shepherd walking her vast undulating prairie, seeking signs among the rocks…
I will not lie and say that I went to the city with no agenda at all. But I will say that I went to the city with an open heart, and I say it sincerely.
I travel to see how other people live, to learn from it and grow, deepen myself in some way. I prefer to approach things with neutrality if I can. I don’t want to be held back by prejudice. Furthermore, I didn’t go to the Holy Land on a specific pilgrimage route, with a tour guide or package holiday, to visit family or be part of a festival, or with any real sense of ‘timing’ at all really. I wanted to see what the place wanted to show me.
But I confess, I wasn’t fully expecting to be shown such depth of colour,
such varying shades ~
I prayed at the Western Wall with a self-confessed ‘queer’ orthodox jewish girl who smiled when I told her I wanted to visit the Wall before offering gladly to take me. She held out a hand, gave me friendship for a time and told me a lot about Judaism, her perspective, which was indeed fascinating…
I fasted with Muslims in the Negev desert during Ramadan and hitch-hiked across the Judaean Desert from the Dead Sea. I explored ancient tombs alone and took tea with Bedouins in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, traversed some of the city’s oldest tunnels by torchlight, cried on the Mount of Olives, entered the tomb of Jesus with Orthodox Christians…
Each morning I would explored deeper the Muslim quarter, purchase fresh bread and mint, using some of the Arabic I’d learnt in Morocco. Jews would come up to me as I walked alone in their own quarter, offering me food and help, speaking to me in Hebrew… I celebrated the huge ‘Jerusalem day’ party at the Western Wall, met Messianic Jews who would quote me random bits of Scripture, many Atheists, and some Christians who believed Jesus never died on the cross at all…
I sang hymns with a harpist in an 800-year-old crypt… was given a box of dates as I crossed the great dividing Palestine wall unchecked, in the back of a stranger’s car…
Trust me, Life is far more vibrant in reality than imagination,
if you’re ready for the ride.
To finally touch the Western Wall was a fantasy come to life. Somewhere so universally evocative, suddenly brought to reality before me. Mighty, holy, yet simple. Just a wall, built for purposes in the past, for events that no longer ‘affect’ the present, or at least my present.
Anybody is welcome to pray at this place.
A fact that resonated with me, yet a ‘nobody’ myself.
Touching history, I felt its living presence,
enduring under that bright sun, those towering domes and profound minds.
One of my favourite places, however, was to be found outside the city walls, in the Kidron Valley, a place somewhat overlooked by time.
At the base of the Mount of Olives lies a cluster of ancient jewish tombs, a dell where sometimes bedouins stay, offering tea to passersby. I visited this place quite a few times, alone, took tea and sheltered from the hot sun, talked with some of the men from the nearby City of David who offered me horse rides and provided some local knowledge of the area. I covered my head with the long scarf I bought in the Sahara town I last stayed in a couple of weeks before this trip.
I brought some friends here and we explored the old tombs around the area. This area is popular of course with Jews, who still bury their dead along the skirts of the mountain. Most tourists bypass the area and head straight for Gethsemane, which sits nearer to the top.
I just adore these ancient places… old stone, warm and worn, rough beneath my fingertips… split into chiaroscuro rivalry under crusading sun…
Of note, are the tunnels of Hezekiah which run from the City of David down in the valley, all the way up to Jerusalem. As a visitor, you may walk through the tunnel, knee-deep in pure water, until you reach the Siloam Pools at the exit.
The journey is made in the pitch dark and you must bring your own source of light.
I made the journey with one of my Jewish friends. I remember vividly the feeling of the stone walls against my fingers, the sounds of the water rippling at my feet, and the echo of our voices as we sang gently into the endless dark. The natural acoustic of the long, narrow, cave-like tunnel made it seem as though our own voices came not from us, but from something else, beyond, ricocheting into beautiful harmony. It was so peaceful a moment and I was thankful we knew so many of the same kinds of song!
A journey not for the claustrophobic, and one made infinity better in the taking of a good friend.
Walking up the hill one time I stopped outside a strange looking building, perhaps a church, an edifice unknown to me. Something was pulling me in, or down, judging by the long staircase leading into the profound dark below.
I asked somebody where I was. “The mother of God tomb,” came the answer, in a thick accent I didn’t immediately recognise.
Of course, I went in.
The Grotto was a holy place, no doubt to me. Bearing the little branch of olive I had taken from another grotto on the Mount of Olives, intended for my mother, I walked around, in silent awe. I saw an icon, one that I recognised instantly but wasn’t sure exactly where from. Tears gentle ran down my cheeks as I realised it was an Orthodox icon I have seen in many churches in Greece and around the world, in the homes of family on my Greek side.
Theotokos …of course.
I’m not really sure why I felt so emotional. I’d never really heard of the place before. Maybe I had, but it hadn’t found any permanence in my mind. And yet here I was, by chance. Without thinking, I joined the queue to kiss the icon, a custom I am used to.
Thoughts of my own mother were centred in my mind.
…the loss of a child… pain, suffering…
I felt many things, a beauty, and a great sadness.
For some reason, I had no doubt this was the place Mary finally rested in body.
Whoever she was in life, whichever of her many tales were accurate, whatever she’d truly seen and done on earth, this was absolutely ‘her’ place.
I knew it, and I was deeply moved by the omnipresence of this knowing.
The journey to Bethlehem wasn’t long from Jerusalem, and I was able to make it there and back in a day, still in time to hear the evening call to prayer from the Citadel rooftop. I thing I just adore.
As soon as you get the other side of the wall into Palestinian territory you know, for sure, you are in a different country. Suddenly, the Middle-East envelopes your every sense. The congested streets, burgeoning markets and cacophony of noise are a steady reminder.
The political graffiti across the wall contrasts greatly to the gilded interior of the Church of the Nativity, making for some stimulating scenery.
I finally laid my hand on the spot that blessed babe was born…
Now, if you ever head into the Judean Desert, east of the city, to the famed Dead Sea, try to get to Metzoke Dragot, if you’re feeling adventurous…
Metzoke is a free beach on the Dead Sea, frequented by ‘hippies’ and nudists, free-thinkers and gurus. It has some natural cool and hot springs which make it the perfect place to wash down after getting muddy in the sea, as long as you don’t mind sharing your pool with a couple of random naked people who (now I stress this point) have absolutely zero shame in dangling their bits around as they get in next to you.
Jokes aside, it’s a nice area to explore – unspoilt – and if you’re on a budget and don’t fancy your time at the Dead Sea being ruined by selfies and groups of tourists, it might be the place for you.
After spending a few hours there and realising there were no more direct buses, I resorted to hitch-hiking back to Jerusalem, which was a whole story in itself. I crossed the ‘border’ unchecked and was even given a massive box of dates by one of my drivers.
They were incredible let me tell you! (the dates and the drivers)
Just be warned, if you’re as nuts as me to travel in early Summer, the temperatures were around 40 degrees. Head scarves were much needed.
“Many are called but few are chosen,” she shouted down to me one time as I was descending the many stairs of the hostel.
She was a Jewish girl who stayed sometimes at the Citadel, where I met her, one afternoon on the roof. Most people thought she was a bit cuckoo. She was certainly a bit odd, you might say, yet I felt a strong sensitivity in her which made her alluring to me.
She would beg down at the Western Wall when she had no money, and would tell me bizarre and sometimes frightening stories about her experiences studying the Torah with Orthodox Jews, who she described as disliking her intensely because of the way she acted. She was rogue-like in appearance, and manner to some degree.
While most of the other residents would ignore her or quickly exit if she entered the room, I found myself lingering a little, drawn in.
These ‘snippets’ are gold to me. The things people say, often in passing or when they’re not fully aware I’m paying attention, these things often stick, like a delicate flying insect, caught in the fine webs of my mind.
This was the first of the things she said which I remember well.
The Dome of the Rock is truly a site to behold, with its perfect golden dome rising up into the blue sky above like the morning sun.
Even though, as an non-muslim, I wasn’t allowed to enter, it was indeed a privilege to walk across the Temple Mount, the site of much history and legend, as a free person, in a time of relative peace.
It was beautiful to be able to just wander and ponder, admire beautiful architecture and the presence of this holy site, as a ‘nobody’, seeking only what is given freely… For some reason, that particular morning, maybe because it was still early, I was one of the few people up there.
☩ ✟ ☩
The first time I entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a great sadness overcame me. Again, like with Mary’s Grotto, I wasn’t really expecting it. I wasn’t really sure what to expect at all. You never do when entering these historic holy places. So much culture, ritual, gilding; heavy layers of religion and tradition. You find yourself wondering if any of the original magic could still remain at all, unspoilt and pure… as it was.
But I knew it would be a place where I would ‘feel’ something, something strong
…or nothing at all.
I walked in, slowly looking around, moving gently towards the grand central space, in the middle of which stood the Holy Sepulchre itself, bathed in soft light. It was surrounded by a mass of Christians of every thinkable denomination and creed, all identifiable by one thing: they were there, of all places in the wide world.
I was sad and overwhelmed. It just came over me like a wave, the same feeling you get in those moments after learning a loved one has died. You are sad, you know it is right to be sad, somehow. But you’re not entirely sure what it is exactly that is making you sad. You find your reason, your logic, but, ultimately, the sadness is something beyond you. It isn’t so simple… and yet somehow it is. Perfectly simple.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is simple, compared to many others I have seen in my time. It is ancient, hallowed. I could feel its history, its long and troubled story. Its fight to stay within the light of the world.
Many things had happened here. I could feel it.
I just knew that He was here.
That this was the place of Jesus.
People were queuing in their hundreds to enter the Sepulchre, for a chance to touch the final resting place of the Messiah for themselves. A chance, perhaps, to come face-to-face with their Maker.
Something was blocking me from joining the crowds, so I went and sat down on the stone floor, in a corner, gazing up at the bright dome above and contemplating this huge place, and the movement within it.
After some time I made my way down the long staircase that leads to the crypt and beneath Golgotha. Huge bits of the rocky outcrop can be seen as you descend. I admired the hundreds of crosses carved into the cold walls by crusaders and past pilgrims. I watched other seekers lighting candles, chanting, writing prayers on bits of paper and then sticking them into crevices in the walls.
I was so content to have made it there, sort of relieved.
I couldn’t wait to tell these stories to my mother. I knew how much she would appreciate and cherish them.
I left without saying goodbye.
I had to come back.
One evening I was flicking through a pamphlet in the Citadel and realised that the church was opening late that night, for an Orthodox service.
I got my things together, mentioned it to another resident, an agnostic girl from an Orthodox background herself. She wanted to come. So we made our way through the dark streets, following the light of yellow street lamps and little flocks of priests on their way to mass.
The air inside the church was somehow similar to before: heavy, sad. Solemn.
I was a little anxious, but we both agreed to enter the Tomb together. This was surely the night. If it wasn’t now it was never, especially as there was hardly a line outside at all, just a group of older Romanians who had come for the Orthodox service.
This was somewhat serendipitous as, to be honest, I had no idea what to ‘do’ once I got inside, neither did my companion.
The ladies told her to cover her head, so I gave her my long scarf.
We took little candles in with us, mimicking the others.
As it came to our turn we (me, my companion and an elderly Orthodox lady) got on our knees and crawled through the tiny doorway, and we would later leave in the same fashion, without turning our backs on the resting place.
We knelt down by the tomb, and, each following the first (the lady) rested our heads on the bare stone, the place He finally lay, in death.
I don’t know how long I was in there for. But a conversation happened in my mind, not in words, but in feelings or some kind of language that doesn’t need to be uttered to be understood.
In our words, it might have gone something like this, starting with a hearty chuckle ~
“You can relax now, James.
I am always with you, I always have been,
even when you couldn’t feel my closeness, I could feel yours.
What did you really expect when you came here?
That I would judge you, press down on you,
Make you repent for your mistakes in life?
Change you? Make you better, greater or new?
You are exactly as I intended you to be,
And I love you…
Now get out of here and go and live.”
When I left, me and my pal turned to each other with this huge sigh of relief and described nearly exactly the same sensation, a lightness, an ease, as if some heavy heavy weight had been finally lifted.
☩ ✟ ☩
“Yeah, we were created in God’s own image, sure.
God’s true image is Free Will.”
Again, I was struck by her words.
She had said it in passing, jumbled among various other proclamations of sorts.
Yet this line stuck in my mind, fixed itself and has hardly budged since.
You know, the more I think about it,
even now, as time glides swiftly on,
It just makes more and more sense…
I see proof of these words.
As you climb the Mount of Olives, out of breathe, your body slow under the weight of dust and travel, you look back upon that fairest of places, for a moment forgetting the heavy beating of the low sun, and instantly you are lifted. You made it. You arrived. You arrived to find it all true ~ her beauty; her sand, stars and domes. You lose all sense of you for a time; you are lost to her strange yet comforting melody, foreign, ever distant, and yet somehow familiar. You are enchanted, no doubt. Not by a place, not by a city, but by Jerusalem ~ Palace of Earth.
And you know it is destiny, that you were meant to be here exactly at this time in the world, at this pinpoint in all space. You know it, because you see its truth in everything around you. You know it and are contented with it.
You will never be the same again.
And nor would you wish to be…
For you have Seen.
I dedicate this story to my beautiful granny Cecilia Martha Clayton, who we lost just before Christmas. Her smile and bright aura shall not be forgotten. She was a bright light in my childhood, her love of story-telling and the natural world stays with me.
Her star will forever endure.
Please keep her in your prayers.
May she fly swiftly through the long night.
Merry Christmas to you all.
May the New Year bring much joy and light,
In all the many choices we make.
We are never too far from one another.
To the stars… Jx