by Tobias Thornes
Travelling slowly into the Holy Land, I tread a path taken by countless millions of pilgrims before me, congregating here from every direction. A peculiar power dwells in this small corner of the world, on the Fertile Crescent where human civilisation first found its genesis. A force draws people here – some in peace, some in war – to holy ground that has felt the feet of myriad preaching prophets and countless clashing armies. It’s a landscape wildly transformed by human society. The land, once so fertile and flush with forests, was degraded by centuries of constant use, and long ago its ancient civilisations declined in prominence, to be conquered by the Persian, Roman, Islamic, Christian and modern European Empires that have all felt the pull of this place and desired to take it for themselves. But its inhabitants have resisted them all, often violently, and as I approach the border of this long-contested country, I find it still wracked by war. Barriers between cultures become physically tangible here where the deep trench of segregation between Palestinian natives and Israeli colonists is made hideously manifest in fences and walls.
Approaching from Egypt, it would be perilous and probably futile to attempt to pass through the Palestinian-administered enclave of Gaza. As I gaze at the high, wired fences that ring it round, ‘prison’ seems to me a more fitting description. To protect the state of Israel from the fearless force of fanatical Palestinians who attack their perceived oppressors, sometimes suicidally, a counter-force of fences is deemed a necessary evil. The freedom of the few is sacrificed for the security of the many in a trade-off that speaks loudly of the severe sickness of heart that has infected this place. The officials at the Egyptian-Israeli border are uncompromising. Had I been a professed Muslim or an Arab, the crossing would be near-impossible. Fortunately, I pass through without any greater difficulty than the Israeli stamp on my passport, a mark brandished here with pride but which, I reflect, will rule out any chance of entering Syria or Lebanon. It is a suspicious tension, not the Peace of God, which seems to prevail over the Holy Land I witness.
Jerusalem. The Holy City gleams before me, the focus of the three Abrahamic faiths and the centrepiece, it would appear, of God’s communication with mankind. It still possesses a power, beyond that of any other city, to move the mind, heart and soul of many a pilgrim arriving at its walls. In the Old City temples, minarets and spires jostle with one another, shimmering in the sunlight like a golden desert oasis amidst the arid hills. The place where Christ was crucified, where Muhammad made his Night Journey; the city Richard the Lionheart wept to see but not to enter, and from which countless composers of words, paint and music have drawn their enlightened inspiration. My breath, too, was taken as I looked down from the dusty Biblical hills that crown this ever-treasured gem and felt for myself the glowing embers of a powerful past.
Attacked fifty-two times over its history, this jewel is still contested, and both Israelis and Palestinians claim it for their own. Another great barrier fences Jerusalem’s eastern side, separating Israel from the Palestinian West Bank in the east. Though it will still be possible for me to travel on to the blessed city of Bethlehem, somewhere over the hazy horizon, the concrete and wire fencing ensure these two spiritually significant cities are more forcefully cut asunder than ever before.
In the Old City still stands the great Western Wall of the Jewish Temple, a testament to a conflict waged here nearly two millennia ago when, in the meeting of Jewish insurrection with the full force of Roman Imperial power, the great building was destroyed. Now it is the Israeli state’s fear of Arab insurrection that pulls a pall of watchful, wary tension over this place of prayer. As I climb the Temple Mount, passing through the army of policemen that guards it, I think of the words that lie at the heart of those religions that hold this site so sacred, words that must have been spoken here countless times before. ‘Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might’. Taken on its own, it would be tempting to see this as the source of the uncompromising, all-consuming religion that divides this land’s people by creed and culture to the point of death. And yet, just as important in all these religions stands its companion commandment, ‘and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ The first cannot be accomplished without the second, and that this commandment has so clearly not been put into practice by the neighbouring peoples here speaks more of a human inability to truly ‘love the Lord’ than it does about any supposed divine origin for the man-made religious divisions that mar this region.
Crossing the concrete wall that scars this now so severely deforested, unnatural landscape, I wonder how often the perpetrators of war stop to ponder the wider-reaching effects of their actions. Every bomb, whether detonated by incensed fundamentalists or dropped in the name of ‘counter-terrorist’ war, comprises a concoction of deadly chemicals designed to cause death. As well as snatching away lives and ruining landscapes by battering one another with these brutal inventions, the warring powers waste vast resources and pollute our precious planet even by manufacturing such monstrosities. How much suffering, future conflict and fundamentalism will be fuelled by climatic change accelerated by the armadas of aeroplanes and armies engaged in modern war? In fighting one another to impose short-term security by force, we only condemn ourselves to centuries of calamity. From the perspective of this timelessly sacred city, today lapped by the surging seas of short-sighted war, it all seems so pointless.
The Jordan River valley leads me to a sorrowful end of my slow journey through the Holy Land. The crystal waters of the life-giving river in which Christ himself was baptised are no more; now the flow is filthy, sluggish and subdued, composed entirely of sewage and a salty slime disgorged by fish ponds. Hostility between the nations through which the Jordan flows has led to each piping off what it can for irrigation, with none taking responsibility for the protection of the ecosystems that, even through all the conflicts that have plagued this region over previous millennia, until now flourished on this artery of life. That was before man declared war on his own mother, Nature. The Jordan’s Dead Sea discharge is become a pathetic deathly dribble, this wonderful force of nature is so severely sapped. Now the Sea, as never before, is worthy of its name. This shrinking, shrivelled swamp is mankind’s foremost mark upon the landscape to which we owe our civilisation’s genesis; greed has supplanted gratitude it seems. And as I leave this elegiac Holy Land, the prospects of peace and prosperity seem furthest from my sight. This land of our salvation was, and is, also the site of our species’ greatest sins.