The secret spots of Jerusalem are a world waiting to be discovered, a crossroads of eras and vibrations. When it is possible to travel again, I will go for the 24th time to Jerusalem, G_d willing. It is one of the most intense cities in the world, in every sense. What I love most, apart from the wonderful mosaic of people, are the most secret and hidden places, the tunnels, the cisterns and the passages on the terraces.
The way of Holy Thursday
A dear archaeologist friend, Father Pietro Kaswalder, used to tell me that the Christian holy places in Jerusalem are often the result of tradition, few are traceable to history. But in this journey into fascination and mystery, I walk by capturing the beauty and strength of the millions of pilgrims who for centuries and centuries have trodden its paths, I leave the rest to the scholars.
The first route to take, in order to experience the Eucharistic mystery in greater depth, is that of the night of Holy Thursday: we start from the Upper Room – perhaps the most “real” place. It is a bare, clean, powerful room; it is halfway between a Jewish holy place (the so-called Tomb of David) and a mosque. Reading the Gospel in that room immediately reconnects you to the Heart.
From there you exit and walk along the walls, descending into the valley among the tombs of ancient kings and prophets, and arrive at the Garden of Olives. The church is often very full, while the olive garden at the back offers a unique peace.
We climb up towards Golgotha through the Lion’s Gate, always accompanied by the reading of the Way of the Cross. Walking the entire Via Dolorosa – Flagellation, Ecce Homo, and so on with all the Stations;,we arrive at the Holy Sepulchre and stop in contemplation.
The Sufi Centre and the Flagellation
On the Via Dolorosa, in front of the Convent of the Flagellation, there is a bell with the inscription Sheik Abdul Aziz Bukhari. The sheik was a man of peace, my teacher of peace. He founded the Jerusalem Peacemakers, organized the peace march, built bridges of reconciliation. His house houses the Sufi meditation centre, which is now run by his wife Hala.
Records show visits by Sufis in centuries past, coming to receive the teachings of the Sheik ancestors, who came here from Uzbekistan. To experience peace of heart, this is the right place.
The home of two ultra-Orthodox friends, facing the wall
The Old City of Jerusalem is an interweaving of cultures and religions. From the Via Dolorosa there is an underground tunnel leading to the Wailing Wall. Opposite the wall is the Jewish Quarter. One easily encounters ultra-Orthodox clergymen who walk with their eyes lowered so as not to cross paths with the impure, women with their heads covered, children with curls running to school, harpsichord players and poets.
On the recommendation of a dear artist friend, I looked for a couple knowing only their name. I found them, I thought they would not open the door because the neighbourhood is rather closed. They opened the door wide to me: a climb up narrow stairs to a terrace overlooking the Wall, the most privileged place. They offered me dinner and while washing my hands, I saw the solid gold taps. Secrets.
St Anne’s in the secret corners of Jerusalem
The hustle and bustle of certain streets, such as the Arab market, or the Damascus gate, gives way to serenity and peace, an oasis in short. It is the complex at the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, going up on the left. It is French territory, yes, this also happens in Jerusalem. The garden is tended with an almost Provençal delicacy. The main church is a Crusader construction, essential, strong, beautiful. With a smile, I think of the story of the Templars hidden for seven years under the esplanade of the mosques, who fled to Ethiopia, hiding the Ark of the Covenant and the scrolls with the calculations to build the Gothic arches.
Much older is the tradition that sees the church built on the site of Mary’s birthplace, and the home of her parents Anne and Joachim. The ancient Byzantine church was destroyed by the Persians in the 7th century, and then rebuilt by the Crusaders. It became a Koranic school under Saladin. The Church of St Anne is one of the places of the soul.
In front of the church are Roman baths, ancient cisterns and the Probatic Pool where Jesus performed the first miracle in Jerusalem, the healing of the paralytic.
Secret corners of Jerusalem: the terraces and the sacher at the Austrian Hospice
Jerusalem must be seen from above. Its terraces are unique in the world. In some areas, there are fenced-off corridors for Jews, in others, cisterns and antennae. An obligatory stop is the terrace of the Austrian Hospice, the former hospice for Austrian pilgrims, now a comfortable home. Its terrace is large and provides an extraordinary view.
The best part is the descent to the small garden, where you can enjoy one of the best sacher cakes in the world. A big painting of Emperor Franz Joseph brings me back home to the South Tyrolean farms, where his image is never missing.
The most mysterious place, among the secret corners of Jerusalem, and for me the most fascinating, is the Ethiopian monastery on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre – at least on the roof of one of its churches. I wrote a lot about it in my first books. It feels like a dip into northern Ethiopia, it is a little piece of Axum in Israel.
Abitano alcuni monaci e monache. Al centro c’è un grande sicomoro, proprio come nel Guraghe. Per questo mi sembra di essere a casa. Parlo qualche parola di amarico e comunico con questi monaci copti ortodossi. I loro sguardi capiscono cose che nessuno riesce a cogliere. Dividere il pane con loro è un vero privilegio. Una visita vale sempre la pena.
The smell of warm bread at 5 a.m.
Jerusalem, the holy city for religions, holy for peoples, fought over and divided, comes together and becomes one only in the morning before dawn. It is worth getting up very early to walk through the streets, among the closed shops, without tourists.
The muezzin begins his chant around 4 o’clock, then the bells mark the second alarm, and finally the smell of the first bread being baked at 5 o’clock. It sounds like an orchestra, the harmony is intoxicating. Everything is summed up in that bread, round, big, tasty and still warm. A message of peace and hope in the hardest of times.