Crammed with new hotels, cars, and spruced-up shrines, this Christmas it becomes a tourist-agent's dream, featuring the biggest-ever pilgrimage of the pious and the curious

BLAIR FRASER December 17 1966


Crammed with new hotels, cars, and spruced-up shrines, this Christmas it becomes a tourist-agent's dream, featuring the biggest-ever pilgrimage of the pious and the curious

BLAIR FRASER December 17 1966


Crammed with new hotels, cars, and spruced-up shrines, this Christmas it becomes a tourist-agent's dream, featuring the biggest-ever pilgrimage of the pious and the curious



BETHLEHEM IS BOOMING, this Christmastide, as never before in the 1,641 years since the tourist trade of Palestine began.

If the same increase over 1965 is maintained in the second as in the first half of 1966, about 55,000 visitors will enter Jordan in December, mostly for the Protestant and Roman Catholic Christmas on December 25. Another 45,000 will come in January for the Ukrainian and Armenian Christmases, both on January 6.

About a twentieth of this in-gathering will be Christian Arabs and other Gentile residents of Israel; half of the rest will be from neighboring Arab countries, mainly Lebanon and Syria. But the remainder, probably about 45,000, will be foreigners from all over the world — 82 nationalities by the Jordan Tourist Department’s count.

Hundreds of Protestants will gather on our Christmas Eve for a YMCA carol singing, followed by a barbecue in an ancient Palestinian oven, on a concrete platform outside one of the natural caves that overlook Bethlehem’s Shepherd’s Field (and that are still used by real shepherds to this day). Roman Catholics will hear midnight mass in a tiny Franciscan chapel in another such cave nearby, or in the larger chapel beside it built in 1954 by Canadian subscription (its altar suitably decorated with a maple leaf).

Hundreds more will gather in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem itself on the three Christmases of the five sects that share jurisdiction there — the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic and Syrian. And on each of those days in Manger Square, in the centre of Bethlehem town, the living Christmas tree will be decorated for the thousands who cannot get into any of the churches but are celebrating the birthday of Christ in His birthplace anyway.

All may be sure they are taking part in the most massive Christmas pilgrimage, in numbers if not in piety, that the world has ever known.

This is no small attainment. Booms in Holy Land travel have been recurring for a millenium and a half. They began when the dowager Empress St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, came to seek out the holy places that had been lost for two centuries beneath Hadrian’s Roman city of Aelia Capitolina, built upon the ruins of Jerusalem. Her example, and her discoveries, started a 100year upswing in pilgrimage.

Yet it’s a fair guess that in all the years from 325 to 1956, not as many individual visitors trod the paths of

the Holy Land as have done so in the decade just past.

True, the exact figures even for recent years are open to some skepticism. By the Jordan Tourist Department’s official count the total for the decade is more than 2Vi million, but one Jordanian official told me with a smile, “When I get statistics from the tourist department, the first thing I do is cut them in half.” But the net must still be well over a million in Jordan alone, not to mention the increasing flow of Christian visitors to Israel.

For better and for worse, but mostly for better, they have transformed the Holy Places on both sides of the armistice line. The streets of Amman, Jordan’s capital, used to be clogged with donkey carts and hand barrows; now they’re clogged with bumper-tobumper auto traffic. Jerusalem’s skyline bristles with new buildings. Of 50-odd tourist hotels in Jordan, 25 or more have been built since 1956.

As for the Holy Places themselves,

I got my first glimpse of what affluence has done for them when I called at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.

Officially, The Garden Tomb is not listed as a Holy Place at all — or rather, it used not to be so listed. It was discovered by accident in 1867, excavated in 1873, did not even begin to be called the Tomb of Christ until the 1880s when General “Chinese” Gordon, who later died the hero of Khartoum, perceived that it lay only a few yards from a hill that looked, and still looks, remarkably like a human skull. This must be Golgotha, he concluded — “the place of a skull” mentioned by St. Matthew. A large enough and rich enough group of Englishmen agreed with him to purchase the land around the tomb in 1892, and to maintain it in perpetuity.

Its garden is cultivated as if it still belonged to St. Joseph of Arimathaea, and the tomb itself is still the simple, bare cave hewn out of solid rock that the real Tomb of Jesus must have been. But when I first saw The Garden Tomb in the autumn of 1954 it looked as if this Protestant support would be insufficient. Few tourists visited there (only 7,000 in the whole year) because few even knew of The Garden Tomb’s existence. Official guides were discouraged if not actually forbidden to take tourists there. It was considered an upstart competitor of the “true” Holy Places.

When I revisited it briefly in 1958 I thought calamity had indeed descended. Nobody answered my ring, the garden was uncared-for. I concluded it must have been abandoned.

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THE HOLY LAND continued firm page 12

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There is affluence —but sometimes at

a cost to solemnity

have been more wrong. This time as I walked up the narrow high-walled lane to the entrance I threaded my way through a clump of tourists emerging (60 U.S. Congressmen and their wives,

I learned later). The gate was opened by a pale-haired, pink-cheeked German girl who, it turned out, was the warden’s full-time secretary. The garden itself was flourishing, its flower beds a blaze of bloom, its turf kept, its benches agleam with fresh green paint. The tomb was now protected by an iron railing to keep the thundering herd from tramping a path in its soft sandstone. About 50,000 visitors had come to The Garden Tomb last year, and this year's total would exceed 60,000. The authorities apparently realized at last that The Garden Tomb was not a competitor but an added attraction.

This was not the only beneficial peace to descend upon Jerusalem since I last saw the Holy Places. Another example is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself.

Ever since it was shaken by an earthquake in 1927, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been encased in unsightly iron scaffolding. For 35 years thereafter no work was done on the repairs, partly for lack of funds but more for lack of agreement among the five fiercely hostile Christian sects that share its custody. (On my previous visit I was told it took long, bitter negotiation among the rival priests even to replace a defective electric wire.) But now funds are more plentiful and relations are more harmonious, and both these changes made it possible to recommence the repair job about three years ago. It will be completed, they expect, in about 10 more years, but already the place looks much better.

Nazareth, on Israel’s side of the armistice line, is a reminder that the effects of affluence are not all good. The nine guides, five Christian and four Moslem, who have been taking tourists through the traditional dwelling of the Holy Family since 1953, have so far been able to resist all attempts to add to their number, although the number of tourists has multiplied at least 10 times. (In fair-

ness it must be admitted that even with more guides, the narrow entrances and exits would keep the visitors queueing up anyway.)

The profusion of tourists also, by itself, impairs the atmosphere of Nazareth as it does any place of beauty or solemnity. But Nazareth has the added disadvantage that the old, small, charming Church of the Annunciation is being replaced by a large new structure of quite astonishing ugliness. Only Mary’s Well looks the same—and even it is now deserted by the veiled housewives of Nazareth, who no longer have to carry water since their homes acquired modern plumbing.

It was a coincidence, but an appropriate one, that in Jordan I had a very different type of guide from the one 1 had in 1954. The previous one was nominally a Christian but actually a man of no religion (he had, in fact, started his career as a spy for the

British in the Communist Party of Palestine). This time 1 had a devout Moslem, a guide all his life like his father before him, who’d been born and brought up on the Mount of Olives and knew the Christian Gospels by chapter and verse.

"This is Jacob's Well where Jesus met the woman of Samaria — St.

John’s gospel, chapter four,” he said as we stopped at Bethel. And as we toiled up the eastern slope of Mount Zion (the western is in Israel, with a narrow no-man's-land at the summit) he said, "We are going to the House of Caiaphas the High Priest, where Jesus may have spent his last night on earth — St. Matthew’s gospel, chapter

26. This is where St. Peter denied his Lord before the cock crew.”

At the site itself is the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu — “at the crowing of the cock.” A small band of archeologists who are also Assumptionist Fathers have been excavating beneath it since 1925. and what they have found bears out the tradition that this was indeed the House of Caiaphas, that it did have a dungeon cell below what seems to have been a

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THE HOLY LAND continued

The pilgrim business is big business

courtroom, and may well have been the place of Christ’s first trial.

I met, this time, very few people who said, “This is the place.” Almost all said, “This may be the place.” In the convent of the Sisters of Zion, the apple-cheeked English nun who showed me around said only that this was “believed to be” the site of Pontius Pilate’s palace, as she took me down to see the Roman paving stones with the marks of a Roman dicing game upon them. The “game of the king.” it was called; was this where they mocked tV “Kin? of the Jews” with a crown of thorns?

Nobody minds the hordes of tourists — call them pilgrims if you like — f~r they brin? more money to Jordan than any other single source, and thereby they have changed the face of Palestine. Even Israel, which is not usually thought of as a place of Christian pilgrimage, welcomed 150,000 visitors to the Christian shrines of Nazareth last year. Jordan’s total was half a million — most of them neighboring Arabs, it’s true, but 214,353 visitors from abroad carrying hard money.

Again, not all the effects are improvements. The view from the Mount of Olives on a moonlight night used to be magnificent, the pale li°ht glistening on the golden dome of the great mosque of Mount Moriah, beside the site of King Solomon’s Temple, and the small domestic lamps of the Old City twinkling behind it. Now the Mount of Olives is crowned by the Jerusalem Inter-Continental Hotel, its seven arches blazing with electric bulbs like a fat dowager in a tiara. What with them and the Israeli floodlights on no-man’s-Iand below Mount Zion, I couldn’t see even the silhouette of the mosque on a night of full moon.

But the balance is overwhelmingly on the side of 1966. Even Israel, still the only nation in the Middle East with a 20th-century standard of living, has not gone as fast or as far as Jordan in relation to what it was 10 years ago.

At least one reason for this welcome change is that passage through the Mandelbaum Gate is so much easier now than it used to be. (The Mandelbaum Gate is not, of course, a gate at all. It’s the short barricaded street in Jerusalem where, in 1948-49, the firing line that became an armistice line ran rhht through the house of an unfortunate Dr. Mandelbaum.)

Last year 54,434 tourists went through the Mandelbaum Gate from Jordan to Israel, and 11,892 from Israel to Jordan. The totals for 1966 will almost certainly be higher. But neither country cares to give much publicity to these figures — not that Israel really minds, but the Israeli have no wish to embarrass Jordan. And in Jordan this is still very dangerous ground, politically.

Officially, there is not and nmst not be any contact between Jordan and Israel, because officially, for Jordan, Israel does not exist. Visitors who drive their own cars through the Mandelbaum Gate are stopped and provided with Jordanian licence plates, so

that no one may know they have come from Israel. Silliest but most important of all, perhaps, no member of the Jewish faith may set foot on Jordanian soil no matter what his nationality may be.

Any visible concession to Israel, or even to Jewry in general, is still apparently enough to inflame the Pales-

tine refugees who are a majority of the Jordan electorate. Yet only by some quiet accommodation with Israel. whereby foreign tourists of any religion would be let through the Mandelbaum Gate in both directions (instead of one way only with no return. as at present), can Jordan readily increase the pilgrim trade that has brought such unexampled prosperity. If such an accommodation coil'd be made it would probably add 50 percent to the tourist traffic in

both countries, without even requiring more hotel space—for as things stand now, Jordan’s hotels are often half empty when Isreal’s are jammed, and vice versa.

Some optimists hope that if the accommodation is quiet enough, it might be achieved within the coming year. Peace on earth, good will toward men might come at last to the land where it was first proclaimed 1,966 years ago. No land on earth needs it more, and few have seen less of it. ★