I was seven when my parents brought me to Jerusalem and to the Temple for the first time. It was Passover and the streets were so packed with people the crowds poured through every gate, filling the city and spreading far beyond the boundaries of its walls. Pilgrims had been arriving for days, many in groups of a hundred or more, building makeshift villages among the olive groves and wooded fringes of the Kidron Valley. They brought with them animals bearing food, water and many other supplies, as well as lambs to be sacrificed in the Temple. Women carried armfuls of flowers woven into colourful garlands to lay at the steps leading to the Women’s Court. People sang songs or recited prayers as they walked in procession through the streets, their words mingling with the background hum of excitement.
Having made our own offerings in the Temple, our group set a camp outside the city that night. We were not alone on those hills, far from it; everywhere I looked I saw firelight flickering across the open country like stars glittering in the darkness. The atmosphere was raucous, people wandering from one fire to another, swapping stories and sharing wine. Among our company were the young and old, healthy and infirm. One man, almost eighty and practically blind, had to be led or carried for the entire journey. Young mothers cradled suckling babes in their arms, and small armies of children ran about, crashing into each other or stumbling over obstacles in their excitement. Farmers and teachers sat side by side, as did beggars and priests. All were equal in God’s eyes, all devout in their own ways.
Despite the presence of a road system across much of the country, travelling by land was not for the faint of heart. The terrain was often challenging, particularly in the mountains and hilly areas, and the moods of the desert could be brutal and unforgiving. There was no guarantee of fresh food or water along the way so everything we needed had to be carried with us. Nor was safe passage merely a matter of provisions. Bandits and criminals occupied the more remote territories between the Judean desert and Jerusalem. Pilgrims, armed only with their faith in God, were easy prey for those whose only mission was to fill their bellies and purses. Tales of robbery and even murder were all too common in this region, and we were grateful for any additions to our group. As a result, our numbers had swelled as more and more travellers joined our ranks.
I would be lying if I claimed our journey to Jerusalem was one long adventure, even if it was the most exciting thing that had happened to me in my short life. The harsh realities of life on the road followed us step for step, and there were moments when the stars failed to illuminate our path. As we travelled through the hills to the south of Jerusalem, only two or three days walk from the city, we came upon a village – little more than a dozen houses and a handful of stables. The sun was weakening and dusk lay heavy on the horizon as we searched for signs of life. The place seemed deserted, probably abandoned years before. I have to admit there was a desolate air about it, a feeling not just of emptiness but of loss. Some argued we should move on and leave the village to its solitude, but the day was darkening and we needed to find shelter before night fell. My father, an outspoken and forthright man, made the decision for the rest of us: we must remain until morning and either set a camp or find shelter among the crumbling ruins of the houses. There were mutterings and some cries of protest: who did my father think he was making decisions for the rest of us? However, as it was clear we could not continue our journey in darkness, the decision was quickly made. As the last of the light fled and the air chilled, fires were lit and cooking pots were soon steaming with vegetables and grains. Infants were comforted, bellies were filled, and even those with reservations began to relax into a familiar routine.
Looking back, I realise that what happened next would mark a transition for me, a threshold beyond which I could not return. It would, without a doubt, alter my world irrevocably. As vivid shades of orange, violet and purple dissolved into a black sky and the first stars appeared, I sat by the fire, enjoying the drowsiness of its warmth and the soft murmur of conversation. My parents sat opposite and I could just make out their faces in the darkness, glowing in the light of the flames. The atmosphere was easy and relaxed; nothing disturbed the peace of the camp, and earlier tensions seemed to have evaporated in the heat of the fireside.
Just as people were drifting towards their beds the atmosphere changed suddenly and without warning. Above the laughter and crackling of firewood was a sound that shocked everyone into silence. From somewhere off in the darkness came a scream that reverberated around the empty buildings and surrounding hills. It was followed almost immediately by a thin, faltering wail, both pleading and utterly hopeless. Both noises seemed so out of time and place that for a moment I could not comprehend what I was hearing. I glanced at the faces around me for some clue or reassurance, but all I saw was blankness and confusion. That awful wailing continued for what seemed an age, rising and falling, uninterrupted by any other sound. Just as I thought it would never end, the noise stopped. Somehow, the profound silence that followed was even more disturbing, and alarming images flashed through my mind – of bandits armed with clubs and daggers, or savage dogs prowling the circle of fire. Sitting with my back to the darkness these threats seemed very real to me, but before I could react the entire camp was in uproar, everyone running around and shouting at the same time.
It was only later, after some calm had been restored, that we began to piece together the events of that evening. A woman and her son had wandered from the fire in search of a quiet place to rest. The boy, no more than two years old, was fretful, and his mother hoped to soothe him by finding a bed away from the noise of the camp. They had not walked far when they stumbled upon a stable whose roof was intact and whose interior offered shelter from the chill of the evening. The woman carried an oil lamp, not much in the way of light but enough to illuminate some of the shadows. She laid the boy in a corner on a bed of sacking and straw and, speaking softly and gently, began to tell him a story. Just as the child was drifting to sleep she heard a disturbance from the opposite side of the building. Leaving her son on his bed she raised herself and stepped cautiously towards the source of the noise. What she saw as the light lit up the darkened interior filled her with such terror she could not speak. There, blinking in the sudden brightness, was a figure – barely human – its long hair matted and clothes so torn they barely concealed the emaciated form beneath. Eyes wide and staring, lips struggling to form words without sounds, the apparition seemed to have appeared as if from the mother’s nightmares. Though the lamp gave only the weakest light, it was enough to reveal the features of a face – a female face – but so horribly disfigured it was barely recognisable. Instead of skin there was a landscape of deeply pitted scars and weeping wounds, grotesquely distorted and inflamed. The nose had caved in and was now little more than a shapeless and jagged hole. One cheekbone had crumbled making the side of the face appear hollow and eaten away.
As the young mother stood, unable to move, she watched the figure raise its bone-thin arms towards her as though offering her a gift. It was only then that she noticed the small bundle clutched in its hands, the material so filthy and stained that she instinctively shrank from it. Yellowing ribbons of fetid cloth began to unravel as the bundle was lifted towards her and she realised with horror what was inside.
I did not see myself what was in the bundle. I was a young boy and my parents would never have exposed me to such a sight, or even discussed it in my presence. However, there are no limits to a boy’s curiosity and it was not long before I found an alternative source of information, someone who knew the young mother and was so effected by the excitement in our camp he needed little encouragement to tell the tale. The appalling disfigurement of that poor creature’s face was the effect of leprosy, so advanced it had consumed most of her features. The bundle turned out to be an infant – a girl – so tiny she would have been suckling at the breast. Though blessedly free from the curse of the disease, the child was so wasted from hunger it was no longer living. The body had already begun to decay and it was thought that death had occurred many days before.
The next morning we were all subdued. A solemn air had settled over the entire camp and there was little conversation. People wandered aimlessly, busying themselves with practical tasks but finding neither the will nor the concentration to complete them. Some of our group tried to persuade the poor leper to join us for the remainder of our journey, but she refused all help. She would not even accept food, preferring to follow her child to that other world where hunger is a dream and suffering merely a memory. In the years that have passed since that incident, I have asked myself the same questions. Where was God when that infant took its last breath? Where was He when its mother wept tears of grief that burned the open wounds of her flesh? Where was compassion? Where was love? If there are answers to these questions I believe they can only be found in the midst of grief and loss, in those rare moments when the heart opens to every hurt and injustice and all the endless suffering contained in our tears.
It was a gloomy procession that made its way through the village and into the hills, leaving the crumbling houses to their memories. No doubt we were reflecting on the inequities of this life, or thinking of our own deaths which surely followed us in the shadows. As for my young self, I was aware of a shift in the world, a sense that things could never be the same. Something had changed within and around me, but I had neither words nor thoughts to understand what it was.
As we drew closer to Jerusalem my mood became more and more subdued. I found excuses to hang back from the others, or hurry ahead to climb a hill or explore a riverbed. I barely said a word to my parents who were too busy with the needs of our group to notice my absences. As an undercurrent of excitement began to swell among the people, I withdrew further into myself, ignoring the other children and only entering the camp for food. I was happier in my own company, and though my head was full of strange images and disquieting thoughts, I was never bored. All around me an unfamiliar landscape revealed itself, constantly changing, presenting me with so many opportunities I barely knew what to explore next.
I was so busy in my own world I did not notice the hills surrounding the holy city as they came into view for the first time. A shout went up from the crowd, followed by cheering, weeping and calls between families as everyone stopped to look and point at the horizon. Although the hills were shrouded in haze, it was possible to glimpse flashes of sunlight reflecting off the gleaming city walls. Caught up in the excitement I felt my stomach lurch with anticipation. We had been on the road for so long I had almost forgotten this journey had an end, and yet, finally, here it was. Jerusalem. Not a city of dreams and childhood imagination but a real place, with temples and palaces and hundreds, even thousands, of people. I stood for a moment, unable to move, my chest tightening and my heart racing. My surroundings began to spin and all I could see was a blur of bodies and faces. I felt as if my feet were no longer in contact with the ground. Unanchored from my body, I seemed to float above the crowd, separated from everyone around me. Then, suddenly, a hand gripped my shoulder and spun me around, and I found myself falling into my mother’s arms. I smelt the familiar scent of her skin, felt the warmth of words whose sounds were drowned out by the cheers and excitement.
Towards the end of that day we entered Jerusalem through the north gate, its soaring arc of stone so tall and wide that thirty or forty of us entered as one. In front and behind us a steady stream of people filtered into the city. Some shouldered sacks of grain; others carried baskets of figs and olives to be offered within the Temple walls. Tradesmen pulled carts piled high with oils, spices and incense. All around me there was noise and commotion. As we passed through the gate and into the ancient city, a remarkable sight came into view. Ahead, the stream of bodies widened and overflowed into a seething ocean. I never dreamed there were so many people on this earth. Old men offered lambs and doves for sale to sacrifice in the Temple. Women squatted outside doorways, weaving baskets and mats made of straw, talking and laughing as they worked. Everywhere I turned I saw pilgrims, slaves, hawkers, priests – even soldiers – all packed together shoulder to shoulder. The effect of all this on my senses was overwhelming. Imagine living in a cave with no company or light, only to emerge one day into endless skies and mountains, oceans and cities, a vision like the first day of creation.
Whether I was struck with terror or overtaken by excitement and joy, I could not say. Some part of me wanted to hide under a rock and be reassured by the darkness, while another part wished to expand limitlessly, just as during our journey the world had expanded before my eyes. I must have seemed dazed for I remember my father leaned down and hoisted me onto his broad shoulders, a rare moment of intimacy between us. From there onwards I rode triumphantly into the heart of Jerusalem like a king carried high on his throne.