Easter at Jerusalem

by Unknown

AT no time is there more to be seen and done in Jerusalem than during the Easter season.

Then it is that the old city is crowded with pilgrims from far and near and wears, in consequence, an appearance of varied life and activity. Some of the pilgrims are Moslems returning from their journey to Mecca; others are Jews who have come to see that the massive stones of the old temple are being duly wailed over by their brethren; but by far the greater number are adherents of the Eastern Church.

Their purpose in making the pilgrimage is to anoint themselves with the fire which, according to their belief, is sent down from heaven each year at Easter-time to light the candles on the altar in the tomb of our Saviour in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Can they but ignite their little bundles of wax tapers by the holy flame and with it bathe their faces and breasts they believe that all their sin-stains are purged away. The great crowds of devotees become so wrought up with excitement over this divine manifestation that it is safer for those who would witness the ceremony to go to the church under consular protection.

Accordingly we assembled, about eleven o'clock on the morning of one Easter Sunday, at the American Consulate and from thence proceeded, with a number of fellow-countrymen, to the Church under the guidance of the cawass, or consular servant, whose heavy staff of office—a veritable drum-major's bāton—inspired respect on the part of the natives and opened a way for us through the dense crowds.

Arriving at the Church we were led to one of the galleries which run around the building in three tiers. The main portion of the structure is circular in form, and in the centre of the rotunda is a small chapel which, according to the tradition of the Greek Church, guards within its walls the Sepulchre of our Lord. The entrance to this little building is so lowly that one has almost to crawl on hands and knees to gain admittance; and when once inside there is only a shabby altar worn down by the lips of countless thousands of pilgrims, and shabbier candles which make the atmosphere most disagreeable.

From our vantage-point in the gallery we looked down upon a curious scene. Men, women and children armed with little bundles of tapers covered every foot of the spacious floor, save an aisle which a double line of some two hundred Turkish soldiers kept open around the Holy Sepulchre as best they could. The officers of the guard had difficult work in preserving order. Serious outbreaks were of frequent occurrence among the excited people which could only be quelled by a vigorous application of the officers' rawhides to the backs of the ringleaders, and, in some instances, a gentle prod from a soldier's bayonet was necessary to remind the individual that he was forgetting his good behavior.

The space between the inner line of soldiery and the Sepulchre seemed to constitute a sort of prison-pen, for here were thrust the most turbulent spirits. In a short time an assortment of these leading rascals was thus gathered together and, as might have been expected, they soon began to make things lively among themselves; the result being a vivid representation of pandemonium. In fact, rough-and-tumble fights were now the order of exercises, for all were endeavoring to elbow their way to a position nearer the chapel that they might be the first to secure the coveted fire. Such was the conduct of the adherents to the Greek Faith in their holiest sanctuary and at their holiest ceremony!

After waiting for nearly three hours, surveying the hubbub below us which had been, if possible, increasing, we noticed an unusual stir; and soon from one of the ante-rooms issued a procession made up of priests bearing large banners of various hues, and numerous surpliced boys swinging silver censers of incense, while in the centre of this company walked the Patriarch of the church clad in robes of heavy silk and satin richly embroidered with gold and silver thread as befitted the dignity of the High Father.

Three times this band moved round the Sepulchre while the crowds were awed to silence by the magnificent spectacle. After the procession passed out the pent-up excitement of the people broke out with renewed energy and those in the rear redoubled their efforts to gain a front place, for this pageant of priests seemed to herald the advent of the fire.

Soon two of the priests approached apertures in opposite walls of the Chapel and through these received from the Patriarch, who had meanwhile entered the Sepulchre alone, the heaven-sent flame. As the priests drew forth handfuls of tapers ignited by the holy fire, the agitation of the multitude knew no bounds. The great surging crowd seemed frenzied in their eagerness to light their own tapers. The women and children in the throng were entirely ignored and, as the stronger pushed them aside, more than one went down and were trampled under feet. But gradually now the divine flame was passed from one to another, those in the galleries letting down their tapers to be lighted until the whole church was soon ablaze.

Strife and wrangling speedily gave way now to smiling good-nature, and all were anointing their faces and breasts with the holy fire. The dark recesses of the old building, which the sunlight could never penetrate through the dingy dome, were lighted up with the flickering glow of the little candles which, with the constant darting to and fro at the flames, like so many will-o'-the-wisps, made up a weird picture never to be forgotten. Soon, however, the smoke and heat rendered the atmosphere intolerable and we were glad to elbow our way out through the now happy throng to the open air.

Such is the ceremony gone through with each year at Jerusalem. Many of the people try to carry the fire away with them that they may keep a candle which has been lighted with it continually burning, as it is reputed to possess wonderful restorative properties both for body and soul.