Travel: Jerusalem And Bethlehem

Entering the city at the Jaffa gate, we see at our right a strong stone tower now occupied by Turkish soldiers, called the tower of David. Nothing is original about it unless it be simply the foundation stones. Here the street of David starts and runs through to the temple area. This is the main street of the city About half way across the city and to the left is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The building presents nothing on the exterior to indicate the magnificence of its interior. But it sacredly guards what to the superstitious minds of its devotees are the most holy localities on earth. This church has been so often described that much time will not be spent upon it here.

The building covers a large space of ground, and includes not only the reputed sepulcher, but also the place of crucifixion, of scourging, and several other scenes of Christ’s sufferings. Different portions of the church belong to three or four sects, the two Catholic churches having by far the most advantageous points.

The Greek Church possesses many points of advantage over other churches in and about Jerusalem, and behind her it is easy to discern the power and influence of the Russian gov ernment. They hold the sepulcher, which is a marble mausoleurn built under the main dome of the church. To reach it one passes through a low door into a small compartment called the “Angel’s Chapel,” where we are told that Mary met our Saviour after he had risen. Passing through a still lower door, we enter the principal room of the sepulcher, a little cell with a marble box across one side, which is pointed out as the – burial-place of Christ. A priest sits by with a bowl of holy water with which he sprinkles those who enter and will accept his services.

There was at this time a constant stream of pilgrims thronging this spot, some of whom had come many hundred miles to visit the place. With hysterical grief or joy, they would clasp their arms about the marble slabs and confess their sins. Leaving, they felt that they – had done the one great deed of their lives.

Standing there for a few moments and watching them, I could hardly repress the words of the angels,-” Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.” At the various shrines were weeping worshipers, who not only left their tears, but also liberal gifts of money, for the reception of which a bank is maintained within the church. On a ledge of rocks in another part of the church are shown three holes, two of which are covered with brass plates, and the other with a silver plate. The latter marks the spot where stood the cross of Christ, and the others locate the crosses of the thieves. In another apartment is the tomb of Melchizedec, and on the wall is a rude painting of the skull of Adam. In this way we might enumerate enough similar exhibitions of folly and superstition together with idolatrous rites and ceremonies to fill quite a volume.

When one has seen this collection of knavish impositions carried on in the name of religion as veneration for Christ, he does not so much wonder at the skepticism of reasonable men who have been brought in contact with only these phases of a mock Christianity. There is no place in heathendom where idolatry is more flagrantly carried on and religious humbug more boldly practised than at the spot where the Author of Christianity is supposed to have laid the foundation of our faith. The head becomes sick and the whole heart faint in view of such deeds, and the puerile stories with which Jerusalem abounds.

From the church eastward to St. Stephen’s gate runs the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrow, over which it is reputed that Jesus passed on his way to the crucifixion from Pilate’s pal ace, which is said to have stood very near this gate. The same impositions are displayed here. At frequent intervals, occur places marked as sacred by some circumstance of that sad march. Three times Christ is said to have fallen under the cross, and each place is marked by deep indentations in the stone pavements, though it is well known that the original pavement is many feet beneath the present one. At another place a deep mark in the wall shows where he fell and struck his elbow. But this is sufficient. It is not pleasant to dwell on these caricatures of that most precious life, those deepest sufferings, and the hollow mockery of the most elevating religion the world has ever seen.

Access to the temple enclosure can be obtained only by permission of the authorities and under guard of a Turkish soldier. The platform is approached through a lofty arcade by stone steps which still bear marks of past grandeur. The enclosure consists of several acres, in the midst of which stands the most noble building in Palestine, the Mosque of Omar, built over the ” dome of the rock,” which is supposed on good grounds to be the threshing floor of Araunah, and the place where Abraham was told to offer Isaac. It is an octagonal building surmounted by a majestic dome, which on the inside is lined with mosaics. No stranger is allowed to approach the carefully guarded mosque, except when escorted as before mentioned. As partial supports to the dome there are twelve pillars of variegated marble, each different from the others. These are said to have belonged to the temple of Solomon. The rock in the center is surrounded by a stone fence and bears the deep impress of a huge foot-print which we were told was that left by Mohammed when he ascended from earth to heaven. A staircase leads down into a cavern excavated in the rock which is said to have been the granary of Araunah, and concerning which the Mussulmans have nu merous superstitions, legends, and beliefs. Indeed these traditions are characteristic of the whole place.

One thing to which our attention was called in this cellar was of peculiar interest. Upon stamping on the floor a hollow, ringing sound was produced as if we were standing over an empty cistern. But there is no apparent opening to this inner cavern. The Jews have a tradition that the prophet Jeremiah deposited the ark of the testament in this place. It is said to have mysteriously disappeared at the time of the Babylonish destruction of the temple, and the Jews insist that it was not destroyed but secreted by Jeremiah. It would be a matter of great interest to have the place investigated, and I was told that Captain Wilson, the celebrated English explorer, procured a decree from the sultan, authorizing him to open the place, but when it was presented at the mosque, the local authorities would not allow the search to go forward.

At the southern end of the enclosure is an old Crusader’s church, which has been converted into a mosque called the Mosque of El Aksa. It is a vast, gloomy structure, through the archways of which the monotonous tones of priests at prayer may often be heard. The southeast portion of the temple platform was built up from the valley of Jehoshaphat, and instead of filling it up with soil, the pavement is supported by arches and pillars. Of the latter there are said to be one thousand. This place was discovered and excavated by Captain Wilson about 1875. It formed the stables where King Solomon kept his horses and some of his stores. The place is about two acres in extent, and bears every mark of great age. There are in its walls some of the huge stones placed there in the time of Solomon, and remains of the mangers and the holes in which the halters were tied may also be seen.

On the southwest corner of the temple enclosure, and outside the walls but inside the city walls, is the wailing place of the Jews. At this point the wall is perhaps thirty feet in height, and some of the lower rows of stones are said to be of the original building. If so, they were probably the top rows, for the wall extends seventy feet and more below the present surface of the street. Some of the abject houses in which the Jews live in this wretched region are thirty or forty feet below the street, showing to some extent how the city has been filled up with ruins.

At the wailing place the Jews assemble, especially on Friday afternoon, to lament their condition and the desolation of their city and temple. The place devoted to weeping is about fifty yards in length. The people range themselves along the wall, leaning their heads against the cold stones, or standing and reading some portion of Scripture, or praying, and thus pour out their lamentations. The seventy-fourth psalm is one that is much read, and it will be seen that it most vividly sets forth their pitiful situation. The women, especially, work their feelings up to a high pitch, and become hysterical in their grief. Their weeping is no pretense, but genuine tears flow down, and with wringing of hands they cry as if their hearts were broken. The scene touched my heart, and I longed for the power and privilege of pointing these darkened souls to that true Light that shineth for all the world. The Lord they seek is nigh to them, and stands with pitying love ready to have compassion upon his ancient people when their hearts shall turn to him. 2 Cor. 3 : 15, 16. ‘

The streets through which approach is made to this spot are among the most filthy in the city, which is saying much. They have no supply of water except such as is taken from the roofs or caught in pools in the scanty rains. Consequently, as for sewage or sanitary systems, the city seems to have none at all, not even of the primitive kind enjoined by the law of Moses.

The population of Jerusalem is variously stated. It is said to be sixty thousand, by those who live there, though the latest reliable statistics give it scarcely more than forty thou sand. Of this number, which is doubtless sufficiently large, there are, it is said, twenty-five thousand Jews. This number includes not only the people who live inside the walls, but in the newly built suburbs as well. The German colony lies to the west of the city, the English to the northwest, and the Russian principally to the north. In this direction are also the refugee Russian Jews who were driven to this country by the persecution of the Russian government.

For a time there was a large influx of Jews to their native land, but there was such a cry raised against their return by the Turkish inhabitants, that the sultan forbade their settling in the land or obtaining any real estate therein. Under pressure from other powers, these measures have been modified somewhat. One thing is very noticeable, and that is the prevailing impression that according to the prophecies of the Scriptures, the Jews are to return to Palestine, their polity is to be restored, and they are to become once more the favored people of God. The Jews are not at all reluctant to accept such an interpretation of the Scriptures as this, and they seem to have become thoroughly impressed with the idea, so far as they have been brought at all under the influence of these teachings. Those Christians who accept this theory connect with it the reign of Christ in his kingdom during the millennial period, with headquarters at Jerusalem. This, of course, the Jews are not so willing to receive.

But the whole theory rests upon a foundation that has little or no ground in the Bible. It is true that in the Old Testament many special promises were made to Judah and to Israel. Their dispersion was foretold, and their final gathering together. But their continued and repeated rejection of God, their rejection and crucifixion of the Son of God, and the disdain with which they refused the gospel, filled to overflowing the cup of judgment, and they were cut off from their special privileges as the people of God. The Lord himself declared that he was no respecter of persons. The Jews were broken off like the branches of the olive tree, and the Gentiles graffed into their place. There is but one way of salvation, both for Jew and Gentile, and that is through faith in Christ. The Lord still proposes to gather his people, but not in old Judea. There is a city whose builder and maker is God, the New Jerusalem, the ” many mansions ” which our Saviour has gone to prepare. That will be Christ’s capital, and the final gathering of God’s people will be in that city rather than in the sterile and worn-out regions of Jerusalem, the child of bondage.

If the Jews become the people of God, it will be in the same way that others do, by individual faith in Christ and repentance for sin. All who come in this way will be re ceived, none others will. Their returning to Palestine will not constitute them heirs of God’s kingdom, for the Lord has not so changed his nature as to lose his abhorrence of sin, nor have the Jews changed so that by nature they are any more the people of God than others without the renewing and converting influence of the grace of Christ. If they abide not in unbelief, God is able to graff them in again.

But from a worldly standpoint there is no present prospect of a return of the Jews as a body to the land of Palestine. There are, it is estimated, over fifteen million Jews, and of these less than fifty thousand, or less than -one in three hundred are there, nor is there any perceptible desire on their part to go there as long as they can live in peace in any other country. One leading Jew said in reference to the matter, that if the restoration of the Jews to Palestine should ever come to pass, he should petition to be sent as minister to Paris. There is nothing in Palestine to attract people except the needy condition of the people who live there in darkness and degradation. Missionary efforts are being put forth for them and not without some success.

It would not be correct to state that the Jews have no aspirations for obtaining possession of their old home, it is natural they should have, though they may well take into account that two obstacles stand in their way, which from a human standpoint, are insurmountable. In the first place, the Turks have possession, and they are exceedingly jealous of their prestige and unfavorable toward the Jew. In the second place, Russia does not conceal her designs upon the Holy Land, and the claim of the Jew to his fatherland will not stand a moment in the way of her carrying out her longcherished design. Nor is Russia more kindly disposed to the Jew than is Turkey, both regard the claim of the Jews to the land as inimical to their highest interests.

In every place of vantage the Greek Church is intrenching itself in Palestine, especially so about Jerusalem. And in its aggressive work there is not the slightest room for doubt that it is backed up by the wealth and prowess of Russia.

Six miles nearly south from Jerusalem, on the highway to Hebron, is the town of Bethlehem, celebrated as the birthplace of our Saviour. I availed myself of the opportunity of being there on Christmas eve, at which time there are extraordinary ceremonies and the place is full of pilgrims and sojourners.

By the wayside about two miles from Jerusalem, is one of the most celebrated monuments of the land. It is called Rachel’s tomb, as being the burial-place of the favorite wife of Jacob. From the account of her death in Genesis 35, we learn that it occurred when “there was but a little way to come to Ephrath,” and that Ephrath was Bethlehem. They were traveling southward, hence it must have been very near this spot that her death occurred. This tomb is mentioned in the sacred record after this, and it is claimed by the Jews to have been sacredly preserved. Bethlehem, like the other cities of this country, has narrow and filthy streets, though the town is quite well preserved. The Church of the Nativity is in the southern portion of the city, which necessitated our driving through the place. On the way we met another carriage, but as there was not room for the two vehicles to pass, there followed a lively colloquy between drivers and dragomen, which terminated in the other outfit backing up to a corner, and then by their crouching as closely in the angle as possible and nearly upsetting our conveyance, we managed to pass. Through the crowds we made our way directly to the church, which was the center of interest. The building is an unpretentious one on the outside, and might be taken for a huge grain warehouse. It is entered through a door so low as to require one to stoop considerably. We first found ourselves in a spacious and lofty room, empty except for the rows of massive columns which support the roof. This was the church built by the Crusaders, and in it Godfrey Bouillon was chosen king of Jerusalem, though he declared he would not wear a crown of gold in the city where his Lord wore one of thorns. Off from this room open the other apartments pertaining to different sects, for this church, like that of the Holy Sepulcher, is held in joint ownership by Latins, Greeks, Armenians, and Copts. The Latins, or Roman Catholics, are masters of ceremonies on this occasion, and the services are in their portion of the church. While each body owns its exclusive share of the building, they have a common interest in the grotto where the birth of Jesus is reputed to have taken place, and each sect has hours allotted in which its members have exclusive privileges in the little vault which is held so sacred. And here is exhibited the fanatical folly of those worshipers in a scene which puts the Christian name to blush. The way to the cavern which is said to be the birth-place of Christ is through a large corridor and down winding stone stairs into a grotto hewn in stone and festooned with richest drapery, which glitters with precious metals and jewels. Here are the reputed manger, the place where the wise men presented their offerings, and other points of equal interest.

But stationed here are a number of Turkish soldiers. What are they here for ? They have no interest in the worship. They are necessary to keep these devoted (?) people from mur dering each other. But their presence is not sufficient to restrain the angry passions, for blood is often shed in their strife over the possession of the relics of a baseless superstition. A few days previous to my visit a bloody fracas took place in which the inflammable material was nearly all burned out of the place by the upsetting of the lamps. How any one can for a moment imagine that this is the place where the lowly Jesus was born, or that it bears any resemblance to it passes understanding.

On Christmas eve, or rather morning, for the ceremonies do not begin until midnight, after a long time spent in prayer, the new-born babe, which is a wax doll, is brought forth from the manger and carried in solemn procession first through the church and then out through the town amid great excitement and enthusiasm. The one who personates Mary the mother receives the adoration of the deluded crowd.

My dragoman was born a Jew, but had been converted to Christianity, and though a poor man, was one of intelligence and uprightness. In passing through the town he frequently re marked, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” This remark was caused by the omnipresent filth. As we rode back to Jerusalem, he was enjoying his cigar which was quite a constant companion with him. Suddenly he broke the silence by saying, “Will you tell me why you never smoke nor use tobacco ? ” ” Yes, ” I replied, ” it is because ‘cleanliness is next to godliness.’ ” I then spoke of some passages of Scripture in which it is said that we are ” the temple of the Holy Ghost, ” that we should ” glorify God in our body and spirit – which are his, ” that “if any man defile the temple of God, him will God destroy,” etc. Therefore, as a Christian, I could not indulge in a practice that was hurtful to health, a useless waste of money, and was of itself unclean. There the matter dropped. But three days later, he told me he had not smoked since that evening, and never should do so again, a promise which I learn he has since kept.

The return journey to Jaffa was made by carriage from Jerusalem, a method greatly to be preferred to the railway. Leaving Jerusalem in good season, we took an excellent road, and after about six miles passed the village of Emmaus, which sits upon a hillside. Thus far the way is descending, but here we cross the bottom of the valley, and after climbing a sharp hill for some distance, pass a tower built by the Crusaders from which they obtained their view of Jerusalem, the goal of their march, but which they could not reach in that expedition. Descending into another valley, we are in Kirjath jearim, celebrated often in Bible history, and said to be the home of the two thieves that were crucified with Christ. It bears evidence of having been a place celebrated for its beauty.

At noon we reached the edge of the plain of Sharon, and halted for dinner at a rude inn, but as we had our own provisions, all that was required was table room. After lunch we crossed what is called, on doubtful authority, the valley of Ajalon, and came to Ramleh where another halt was made to rest the horses. Here is a quaint mosque. After this place we came to a town said to be Timnath of the Philistines. Having had a good night’s rest in Jaffa, we were ready for the vessel which was to take us back to Port Said.

It was with no particular regret that we saw the shores fade away in the distance, for though those appointed to care for travelers had done their duty kindly, still those whose lives and presence hallowed the land are no longer there. Lebanon and Hermon stand like two headstones at a grave one hundred and fifty miles long, where glory and prosperity lie buried, and ” Ichabod ” is written over the tomb. ” The Pleasant Land ” was once a fitting type of Paradise restored, but the likeness has faded out under the blight of sin, to be restored only when Christ comes with all his saints to make the beautiful new earth their eternal home.