Raised as a Catholic but now agnostic, Justin visits the Holy Lands of Israel and the Palestinian Territories with Intrepid Travel to find out whether faith is really all you need.
My jaw drops the moment I first step inside the spectacular Holy Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Not because of the intricately painted vaulted ceilings, the sparkling chandeliers or even the simple awe of visiting a building that is nearly 1,700 years old.
Prostrate before me in the entrance of the church are a dozen people lying on the cool granite floor, all with their hands reaching for a rectangular marble slab bevelled into the ground. Some have their heads bowed in silent prayer, others are using their scarf to polish the great stone with oil.
My local leader, George, quietly tells me this slab is the Stone of Unction, marking the spot where Christ’s body was said to be laid and anointed after his crucifixion. Any object that touches the stone becomes a holy relic, which explains all the polishing and touching.
‘Many don’t know this’, George continues, ‘but the stone is a fake. The current one was only added in 1810 during the reconstruction of the church after the Crusades.’ Despite this inconvenient fact, pilgrims like us still carry on their devotion each day.
But here’s the thing, I’m not sure I believe in Jesus.
Or the Prophet Muhammad.
Or even the teachings of the Torah.
But I’m not quite an atheist either.
I went to a Christian primary school and then a Baptist secondary school, spent many hours learning stories from the Bible and more still unravelling their meaning about what it meant to live a good life. I took communion, practiced confessional and celebrated Confirmation when I was a teenager (completing the official induction into Christianity).
But as I grew up and expanded my horizons, there was always a niggling doubt. I found the most accurate expression of my faith in agnosticism; the idea that there is something higher and bigger than us, but something that can’t be fully explained. For most of my adult life agnosticism was my ticket to conveniently skirt around the edges of religious debate, at least until I arrived in Israel and the Palestinian Territories with Intrepid Travel.
Coming to the Holy Lands unavoidably confronts you with the question: do you believe or not?
It’s a question that silently begs itself when a copy of the Quran arrives as a side with my shawarma at dinner. Each time the neon-vested crowds flood the streets along the Via Dolorosa. Or when the sirens declaring the beginning of Shabbat spook the pigeons in the Jewish Quarter. Perhaps this is why the maddening ‘Jerusalem Fever’ became such a bizarre, unique malady for visitors to this ancient city (go ahead and Google it).
As the week progresses, once-forgotten Biblical stories from my childhood spring to life while we walk through the Gardens of Gethsemane or the tangled streets of Nazareth. I visit the place where the angel Gabriel reportedly appeared to Mary beside a well to announce her pregnancy (you can fill your bottle from the well for a small fee). We pass beneath concrete walls and hoops of barbed wire into Bethlehem, in Palestine, to see the Church of the Nativity. Here, surrounded by dangling red and green Christmas baubles, the site of Jesus’ birth and his manger are unambiguously marked by altars and plaques.
Later I inadvertently offend some of my fellow travellers when I inevitably ask how, with over 2,000 years of history having passed since the events of the Bible, can anyone claim to know with any certainty where a particular event took place?
Entire dynasties have risen and fallen, cities expanded outwards, buildings destroyed and renewed. The logical part of my brain tells me it’s impossible for any of this to be true, and in the case of the Stone of Unction, some of it just isn’t. But that’s the nature of faith. It’s not so much about the details but feeling connected to something higher.
I can appreciate the appeal of visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories to see the Biblical sites, but you also don’t need to be religious to enjoy what this fascinating place has to offer. I couldn’t push my doubts aside, so instead I found greater satisfaction in uncovering the ancient histories that lay in wait at every turn.
It doesn’t take faith to visualise the destruction of the Jewish Temple or admire the crowds of dedicated Jews who flock to the remaining West Wall each day. Gazing out over never-ending deserts from the top of Masada fortress, I can imagine the grim determination with which 960 Sicarii rebels chose to take their lives rather than submit to their Roman besiegers. You don’t need faith, either, to share a joke with a baker while buying one of his flatbreads at Machane Yehuda Market or enjoy cocktails at a beachside lounge in Tel Aviv.
Because really, this region comes alive with the people who are living there today, and with the stories vividly told of ancient places still standing.
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