It is close to 5 a.m. and the Old City of Jerusalem is still asleep. I walk through the long and empty alleys of the Souq, market, and enjoy the morning silence. An elderly man in his traditional tunic whispers past me on his way to the mosque for morning prayers. From the Christian market I turn into a small alley, wish passersby good morning, and enter the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A medium-sized crowd has already gathered there, including many nuns and priests. Most of them are holding candles in their hands, the ends of those decorated with flowers and leaves. I quickly slip into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and watch the people devotionally as they pray. A few nuns light their handsomely decorated candles in the church and then go outside. In a corner, a few Ethiopian sisters stand in their attractive robes, ready to follow the procession. Then the church bells start to ring at 5 o'clock. Loud and melodious, they signal the start of the procession of the Virgin Mary's icon from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Mary's tomb in Gethsemane. It is carried by a bishop and most of the pilgrims kiss it. The procession slowly starts to move. Blossom petals are scattered on the icon from the windows from time to time. It is a smaller procession than usual, as there are hardly any tourists in the holy land during the pandemic. But this also creates a special atmosphere. Most of the people in the procession know each other.
The procession passes the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, a few buildings further on, a couple of nuns dressed in white peak out of the door. The Greek Orthodox bishop flanked by priests holding candles carry the Virgin’s icon. Again and again, he stops to let the pilgrims and the local faithful touch and kiss the icon. We continue through the Souq. A few Jews scurry past the crowd on their way to the Western Wall. A few Muslims are standing in the side alleys of the Souq, returning from their morning prayers and pausing for a moment to watch the procession. There is sporadic singing in groups. The sun slowly rises over Jerusalem.
At the junction of the Austrian Hospice, it slowly becomes busier. The first traders open. The small maneuverable trucks that transport goods to the Old City have to wait a moment to let the procession pass. The procession continues slowly along the Via Dolorosa, past the First Station of the Cross where Jesus was condemned to death and then through the Lion's Gate out into the Kidron Valley. I spot my colleague George Estephan at the side and wave to him. Then I walk a little ahead of the procession to take a few pictures of it. It is a beautiful start to the day, and I am once again grateful to be able to experience this time in Jerusalem.
The procession ends in the Tomb of Mary Church at Gethsemane, where the icon lies for about a week until its Assumption. I take a candle, light it, place it in the row of other burning candles and say a prayer for my recently passed grandmother. Then I dive deeper into the tomb and watch again in reverence as the icon now lies on a shrine in the tomb and the pilgrims continue to touch and kiss it. I slowly walk up the steps out of the tomb and look up at the rising sun and the bright blue sky over Jerusalem and am grateful to be able to start the day like this. It is still early morning and so I set off through the Kidron Valley into the day.
25 August 2021