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The Miracle of the Holy Fire, Jerusalem, April 2009

“This pious fraud, first devised in the ninth century, was devoutly cherished by the Latin crusaders, and is annually repeated by the clergy of the Greek, Armenian, and Coptic sects, who impose on the credulous spectators for their own benefit and that of their tyrants.” 

―Edward Gibbon.

Up at 7.00 to leave the British School of Archaeology at 8.45.  We headed for the Armenian Patriarchate, our hosts for the day, so we could join the Armenian procession to the church of the Holy Sepulcre.  Getting into the Old City was an ordeal.  We began by trying to enter at New Gate.  Here we formed a queue which a crowd of Greek tourists promptly began to disrupt.  They started to shove us, insisting that they should be let in ahead of us because they had something to do with the Greek consulate.  This infuriated my Turkish friend, Yaman, who told them in increasingly assertive terms to wait.  They refused to listen and continued pushing and shoving.  “Typical Greek,” said Yaman.  Fearing what sort of altercation might ensue, I began imagining an especially violent reinactment of the Battle of Manzikert.

We were forced to leave our place and move on, as the Israeli police at New Gate would not let us in.  We tried another gate and failed, but quickly got in throught David’s Gate, whch we should have tried first, as it is closest to the Armenian quarter where we were headed.  At the Armenian Patriarchate we were met by George, our Armenian guide, the Archbishop of British Columbia, and the former vicar of the Church of St Mary Magdalene Oxford, Fr Hugh Wybrew, who had taken us to the Syrian foot-washing ceremony on Maundy Thursday.

We waited patiently for the procession to the Holy Sepulcre to begin.  The Armenian Patriarch and his entourage led the way, followed by an Armenian scouts’ pipe band—a wholesome relic of the British mandate.  Though it was one of the things that I least expected to see, the pipes and drums were strangely moving.

I thought of my previous visit to the Holy Sepulchre.  After arriving in Jerusalem, sleep deprived and rather drunk, my friend Konstantin and I went straight there.  The narrow streets of the Old City were empty then.  The light of dawn shone through small openings above the market-stalls.  Small cats wandered about freely.  The feeling of anticipation was exhilirating—much better than sleep.  How can I describe the church when I first saw it?  It is noisy, crowded, and crammed with an eccelctic mixture of decorations, paintings, lights, and graffiti.  One of the most interesting rooms belonged to the Armenians: it was decorated with a large painting of Heraclius’ restoration of the cross to Jerusalem.  The inscription was in Armenian and I congratulated myself on being able to read some of it.  The rotunda surrounding the aedicule, the tomb of Christ, was extremely noisy and crowded.  Apart from the strange structure in the middle—whose appearance Robert Byron wryly compared to that of a steam engine—the rotunda was indistinguishable from any other church.  I interloped at a Coptic mass conducted at the end of the aedicule, having been saddened by the vulgarity of the Catholic mass I tried to attend, which had been very modern, very Vatican II, and very tasteless.  But my experience at the Holy Fire was to be somewhat different.

Spirits were high and tempers flared easily thoughout Jerusalem that day.  The Israeli police generally choose Holy Saturday as the time to assert their authority.  One of them gave George a hard time at the entrance to the Holy Sepulcre, and told him to get out of the way and to take us with him.  But George told him off, declaring that he was secretary to the Armenian Patriarch, and that the Holy Sepulcre was his church—all true statements.  This had the desired effect, and we were let through.  But I didn’t get very far.  The official badges, which I and the others had been given at the Armenian Patriarchate, seemed to be doing no good.  Not looking particularly Armenian, I was stopped by the police.  “I’m with George,” I said with as much confidence as possible.  This only got me through the threshold.  Getting into the Armenian section proved much more difficult: an aggressive priest began shouting at me that I must leave at once, as the area was reserved for Armenians only.  I called out to my companions as loudly as I could.  Luckily my voice carried over the furious din, and George and Fr Hugh came to my rescue  and interced for me with the irate priest.  I joined my friends on the left side of the aedicule.

The Armenian section seemed to blend with one reserved for Russian pilgrims.  There was a crowd of Russian nuns behind me, and one of them was particularly aggressive—at least at first.  She took the gravest exception to my leaning on a pillar next to her.  I have been blocking her light, or perhaps I was simply to close for comfort.  She shouted at me several times, but we were all so tightly-packed that there was nothing I could do.  She began pounding furiously on my arm, shouting in Russian.  Brian speaks Russian, so he addressed he and pacified her.  Whatever he said, did the trick: she gave me palm cross which she had made.  “A peace offering,” said Fr Hugh in sonorous tones.

The tense, lead-up to the Holy fire had all the elements of a rock concert and a sports match.  Everyone was singing, shouting, or chanting something.  Almost everyone had bundles of candles in their hands, waiting expectantly to receive the fire.  The younger Greeks, by far the loudest there, sat on one another’s shoulders, beating drums and shouting slogans.  To me the three most distinct syllables sounded like ‘sissboombah’.  The Syrians waited patiently for a lull and chanted the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac, but this failed to subdue to Greeks entirely.  Suddenly a loud bell annouced the Greek Patriarch’s arrival.

I didn’t know what to expect of the ‘miracle’ of the Holy Fire.  The Greek Patriarch entered the rotunda, candles in hand.  Before going into the aedicule he removed his heavy robes, and was searched by Israeli police.  They were to ensure that the man had no artificial means of lighting a fire.  This done he disappeared within the aedicule to pray within the tomb of Christ.  Suddenly, a flame appeared through a small window on the left side of the aedicule, the Armenian Patriarch lit his candle from it, and the crowd rushed eagerly towards him.  Candles held in trembling hands were stretched forward.  The fire spread throughout the church in a matter of seconds.  I could feel the heat and smell the wax and oil, and yet people washed their hands and faces in the fire.  A high-pitched bell rang out.

I had read Gertrude Bell’s description of violent scrums at the Holy Fire ceremony with some doubt.  But she was right.  Men and women fighting like wild beasts to light their candles, the deafening shouting, the light and smoke: it was all true.

The crowds were so thick in the Old City that day, that I got lost and wandered aimlessly for some time before finding my way back to the British School of Archaeology via the American Colony Hotel for a gin and tonic.