It is with some reluctance that I board the coach this morning. Somewhat bizarrely, I am reminded of the final scene from the film 'Jesus Christ Superstar' from years back, when the cast board a bus to trundle back across the desert having finished filming, their lives changed in some profound way by their re-enactment of the Gospel.
We drive round the old city to the Dung gate, where we disembark and pass through. The area is paved with no access for vehicles. To our right and over the wall is a large area undergoing archaeological investigation. The area has been under investigation since the early 19th century and has turned out to be a rich source of artefacts from the time of the 1st and 2nd temple periods. Looking over the wall, we can see some remains of the temple forecourt and market, where Jesus would have walked when he visited the temple to pray and teach, where he cleared it of the money changers.
Walking on, we reach the area of the Western Wall. The group divides into male and female so that we can pass through security gates, only to immediately reform as one on the other side. There are quite a lot of people around, though the area is by no means busy. Orthodox Jews dressed in full black garb and long beards hurry past on their way to pray at the wall. Family groups gather joyfully to celebrate bar-mitzvahs. Occasionally someone pushing a metal container crosses the plaza before us. Behind us and to our right are tall buildings - a cafe, shops, a feeding centre, more security guards. In front of us is the Western Wall.
The Western Wall is a place of great importance to the Jewish people as it is the only part of the Great Temple of Herod to survive after the Roman destruction in the First Century AD. The wall supported the western side of the Temple Mount, upon which the temple itself was built. The Jews believe that the Divine Presence has never left the wall, in spite of the destruction elsewhere. The cracks between the stone face of the wall are filled with the prayers people have left there.
The area in which we stand had been built upon by Muslim conquerors from the 1200's onwards. Their buildings encroached on the wall more and more over the years until there was just a narrow alleyway between the wall and the nearest buildings. It became virtually impossible for Jews to pray at the wall. Over the ages, the name of the Wailing Wall became synonymous with it, as Jews lamented the loss of their temple. During the Six Day War in 1967, the buildings in front of the wall were razed to the ground as Israeli soldiers fought for control of the city, thus giving clear access to the wall. Today people from all over the world, both Jewish and non-Jewish, come here to pray.
The area immediately before the wall is separated into male and female areas, so once again the group splits to go and pray, the men being given a white skull cap to wear, as a sign of respect, as they enter the prayer area. The women's area is smaller than that of the men, but there are still plenty of women praying at the wall, sitting or standing, reading from their Torah or praying silently. In the men's area there are wheeled trolleys that Jewish scholars use to support their books as they pray or study before the wall.
I approach the wall and lay my hand on it, as others are doing. Looking up, the wall towers above me, the immense stones from Herod the Great's time in the lower layers giving way to the smaller stones used to reconstruct the wall. I pray for unity, peace and understanding in this place, sacred to three monotheistic religions, each believing in the same God, each with a common historical foundation, yet at loggerheads with each other.
Later, we re-group in the plaza, taking in the view of the ramp to the Mughrabi gate. This is the only access point for non-Muslims to the Temple Mount and has been a source of controversy for several years. The current ramp is a temporary structure which has been in place for several years now. The original access route collapsed and in doing so, not only gave greater access to the wall on the women's side, but also revealed artefacts dating back hundreds of years.
Slowly we make our way back to the coach crossing the plaza then following a walkway and across old slabbed paths to the road. On the edge of a small cultivated area, just outside the walls, a lone clarinettist plays a sorrowful air. Jew, Muslim or Christian? Who can say, but each in their own way and through their own beliefs has reason to lament the state that this city finds itself in - cherished by all, fought over tooth and nail for ownership over the centuries. Can anyone really lay claim to a place of such spiritual significance to so many? It rather feels like trying to own God, yet God has no boundaries, is not constrained by walls or borders, but just Is.
Travelling round the edge of the old city we manoeuvre along busy roads and then turn into a wide forecourt lined with palm trees. The place before us looks rather like the gatehouse to a castle, with turreted towers to either side. We have arrived at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre. Entering the building we find ourselves in a spacious, calm reception area where we are greeted warmly. As we enter, another group is leaving and we realise with pleasure that it is the group of young girls with whom we shared Holy Hour at the Church of All Nations. Many of us stop to talk with them again and wish them a safe journey. I am reminded again of the exuberance of youth and the importance of their presence in the church today - challenging our preconceptions; filling us with their enthusiasm; the trust with which they follow their beliefs; their sheer joy of life, of love; their deep felt emotions and their strong sense of right and wrong, of injustice and of truth.
Afterwards we make our way up shallow stairs to the beautiful Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel. Stained glass windows shot through with light send streams of colour into the body of the chapel, enhancing the grey/white stone surfaces. The decor is simple with few distractions to prayer. Here we have our final mass of the pilgrimage.
Later, Fr Paul (the Younger) treats a few of the group to a quick extract from Widor's Organ Symphony. Most of us have already left the chapel in search of lunch or to browse the Centre's shop for last minute gifts. Lunch itself is in a large refectory filled with an eclectic mix of nationalities, illustrating once again the universality of Christianity.
Making our way back to the coach, we are reminded that there is an exhibition about the Holy Shroud. Unfortunately, there is not enough time to take in the vast quantity of information or look at all the exhibits displayed, just a chance to take some quick pictures before we set off again.
The coach leaves the main road and pulls up in a side street. There is a quick exchange on the phone and then we move further down the street and stop. In front of us, a car has pulled up by the roadside. Someone gets out and opens the rear door. An old gentleman wearing a thick grey overcoat and woollen scarf is helped out and ushered to our waiting coach where he is assisted up the steps. Gabriel.
Gabriel is the founding owner of Guiding Star, the company who are acting as our local guides in the Holy Land. He started the company in 1961 and he and his family have been running it ever since.
This amazing person has many of the coach in tears as he speaks to us, thanking us for visiting the Holy Land and asking us to pray for peace and mutual understanding in this beleaguered country. He emphasises how important it is for Christians to visit and get to know the places we read of in the gospels. Our visits give hope and support to those Christians who struggle to remain in the land of their birth. Since 1967 the Christian population of the Holy Land has been reduced by 65%. Small in number, those who remain represent just 2% of the total population of Jerusalem.
Gabriel's address finishes with the presentation of a stole to each of the priests. This has been made by the women of Bethlehem, allotted this work to enable them to feel worthwhile in a place which seems to have no hope, no prospects. Each of us is also presented with a certificate signed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem and a cross, designed by Gabriel's son, for those who travel with Guiding Star guides in the footsteps of the Lord.
The coach is quiet when Gabriel has left us. Each of us perhaps pondering his words; contemplating the journey before us, or thinking over our recent experiences. Our journey to Tel Aviv Airport illustrates the truth of the divisions which exist. Fences, concrete walls and occasional watchtowers line the main highway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, cutting right through the middle of the West Bank. As we travel, Usama gives us a security talk on how we should behave at the airport, what we should answer if we are questioned, how we should behave. It all seems very clandestine...........
Disembarking at the airport and collecting our bags I feel we could be at any airport in the world - until I notice that we are being carefully watched from one side. Passing through the entrance we are immediately herded into a queue. Other travellers for other flights are directed to other queues, which quickly clear. We stand in line for some time. Ann is at the front and is being questioned by staff. After some time, Des and I are called forward from the back of the line to be questioned too. We remember what Usama has told us. Eventually we are waved on, but Ann is kept back for further questioning.
Slowly, gradually our party, including Ann, passes through this initial check and drop their bags off at the check-in desk. A high proportion of us have been questioned. Are we considered a security threat, are the security forces super conscientious in the job, or are we just being intimidated? Moving through the airport and finally arriving at the departure lounge involves many stoppages and checks. We had arrived at the airport at about 2.30, about 4 hours before our flight. We just had time to get a drink and make a quick foray of the duty free shops before boarding our flight.
Our journey home is uneventful; many of us sleep on the flight or hold quiet conversations. I spend much of my time just thinking about the last few days, where we have been, what we have seen and done. During the flight a group of Orthodox Jews dress in their prayer shawls and make their way to the back of the plane to pray to our mutual God.
Turbulence heralds our approach to Manchester Airport. We disembark and proceed to Passport Control where we are pleasantly greeted by a young man who explains how best to use the passport reader machines - a contrast to our experience at Tel Aviv Airport. We may have our faults in the UK, but I think as a nation we are generally courteous and friendly to those coming in to our country, in spite of what we read in the news at times.
We reclaim our bags and with many hugs and words of thanks for shared experiences, we go our separate ways.
The thoughts and impressions stated are those of the writer only and may not reflect the feelings and opinions of others in the group.