Why Art Is Holy

I woke this morning head banging full of hell. I took out my earplugs, and asked my German roommate the time. He told me I had eight minutes to get breakfast. I threw on some clothes and found myself church of the holy sepulcher basilicawaiting in line for toast. Next to me was a handsome curly-haired man who I’d been jealous of last night as he sat smugly talking to two pretty girls. He let me choose a piece of sliced bread before him and I asked where he was from when I heard his English accent. I followed him to a table where sat an Indian man from Kolkata and a tall girl from Massachusetts. We talked of love, and our plans for the day. Sasyok was waiting for his girlfriend for lunch but wanted to chill later, at 3, and Alena wanted to come with me to East Jerusalem. Josh was going to Bethlehem, a trip from which I was excluded since my passport is still in Tel Aviv (soon I’ll explain). I had planned on more sleep, but once up, with the sun brightly shining in Jerusalem, it wasn’t worth it. You can sleep later, they said. I wanted to meet in fifty minutes. “What are you doing till then?” Alena asked. “Fine,” I agreed to meet her at 11:35.

I went back up to my room and lay in bed. Sun shone through the open windows onto my feet, deliciously warm. I roused myself to take a shower, wash a pair of socks, and dress. I had made Turkish coffee but it hadn’t settled. I debated over what to do, since I had to brush my teeth before leaving the house. Such are the conundrums of the hungover. I left it, brushed my teeth and settled on instant coffee breath. I was downstairs at 11:45, which was exactly the amount of time I knew I needed.

As we walked it was cool and the sun shone strongly. I drank the bitter black coffee, feeling more sprightly with every sip. I said we should go to the Austrian Hospice first since it had been so highly recommended for its spectacular views. Alena told me how she went there the other day and was propositioned for sex by a red-haired Muslim after talking to him for a half hour. Men are lucky since they don’t have to fend off strangers, she said. She was frustrated with herself for not telling him to fuck off and instead, letting it build until she could take no more, and had to leave. I attributed it to her easygoing, positive energy.

Soon enough, we entered the Old City through Damascus Gate. We passed sweet-smelling candy shops and butcher shops with animals hanging in the window. I wondered what they were, with their wispy-haired tails. “Dogs?” Alena suggested. They weren’t pigs; pork ain’t halal. I entered the store, got weird looks and pointed, asking, “What is that?” “Kefes,” the boy said, which I assumed to be goat. Alena was outside looking at the the innards on display when I reported back to her. We stared at the lower jaws with tongues and teeth intact, the livers, and there, in the back, the brains.

The quiet Austrian Hospice was in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. The golden Dome of the Rock was much closer than I had previously seen it from the Jewish Quarter. I swore at the Muslims for not allowing us entry into their places of prayer. Alena said the Dome of the Rock is the most photographed building in the world, although how do they judge that, she laughed. We set out along the Via Dolorosa for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But there he was–the red-haired Muslim who had propositioned Alena the other day. He stood, face in the sun, leaning against the wall where he was selling carpets. She was scared. But it was the only way to conquer her fear, I said. I walked on her side, shielding her from sight. Yeah right, she’s six one. He saw her, she adjusted her glasses. It was over. When we had walked another few hundred meters we realized we had been walking in the opposite direction. We were near the Lion’s Gate on the east side of the city. We couldn’t turn back, especially not to see that ginger Muslim again. We walked outside the wall, up a stone path built with funds from a Texan benefactor, and decided to go to the nearby Rockefeller Museum, which is home to the Israel Museum’s overflow, and is free.

Past the military-checkpoint-styled entrance were Roman busts, old pottery, ancient human skeletons, and Bronze Age artifiacts, which dated to the fourth millenium B.C.E. Placards described the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras, about 12,000 years ago, when humans first began to bury their dead and domesticate dogs. Little is known about early homo sapiens’ spirituality because there is no art from the era, a point which I found very interesting.  We walked through the small collection and walked outside to a sun-soaked courtyard. I rambled on about the culture in the American West, which can really be found in the energy of the red rocks and the vast spaces, and about how D.H. Lawrence went to die in Taos, and how special and neglected that part of the world is in comparison to a place like the Old City, where millions of people have trodden the same steps throughout the millennia, while in a remote part of the forest in Oregon or California, no human may have ever set foot…

At two the museum closed, so we decided to tour East Jerusalem, where Arabic is preferred. Salah Ed Din Street was crowded with headdressed women, bass-bumping cars, screaming schoolchildren and smoking men standing in the thresholds of their shops. Despite being the only English-speakers I felt perfectly safe, which was largely thanks to the wall put up a few years ago–ten years ago Jerusalem was dangerous with suicide bombers. We walked until the St. George Cathedral, which was a hundred years old and disappointing, and then to see the Tombs of the Kings, which was simply a grass field with a locked gate and a French sign. We turned back. We still had to see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and it was already two-thirty. Sasyok would be waiting. I bought a falafel for seven shekels and ate it as we walked, back to Damascus Gate, past the old women selling sage, past the men selling bras and children’s films in Arabic. We resolved not to get lost this time.

We walked through the maze of the Old City again, past the same candy shops, butchers, and hawkers, and into a large church, which we thought was it, but turned out was only the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. It was three o’ clock and the Muslim call to prayer was being sung. Past the Muristan and there it was, sunken, towering high. We entered to see the spot where Jesus was supposedly anointed after coming off the cross. The stone was added over the area two hundred years ago and still, people wiped, knelt and kissed, touched their foreheads to it. With the Muslim song in the background and an Eastern Orthodox deacon waving an incense thurible, the scene was dreamlike. I knelt, touched the stone, and didn’t feel any of the sanctity I experienced at the Western Wall. I was confused, momentarily disappointed, then distracted by an ornate gold leafed mosaic depicting Jesus’ crucifixion (see my facebook for the pics). We snapped photos, looking up into the basilica, and walked to the Anastasia Rotunda, home to the Edicule, the sepulcher itself. Police gates cordoned what was probably a half hour line to see the tomb.  I learned why the crowds from an elderly Irish pilgrim.

The church is actually five separate churches, occupied by Armenians, Copts (Egyptian Christians), the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholics. In the bowels of the church Constantine’s wife, Helena found the “True Cross,” so she was canonized. As we ascended the steps marked with Crusader graffitti, I thought again of what I had read at the Rockefeller Museum, how all art reflects religion. The splendors of Notre Dame, or any Gothic cathedral, are all dedicated to God. Anna Karenina is a reflection of Tolstoy’s personal Christian philosophy. A Rothko painting is a reflection of his own godless, despairing worldview. What will my art say about my personal religion?

We walked into the Greek Orthodox Catholicon, and were directed to the right side where the lay stood. Black-clad nuns sat opposite us, listening to the robed cantors. A bishop in sat in a red throne looking pious, scepter in hand, boy at his side. The middle of the floor was entirely clear. Above us, in the highest point of the basilica light shone through the omphalos, streaming Jesus’ mosaicked face (see above). Intrepid laypeople walked closer to the huddled cantors, curious, attracted by their holiness, as if these religious men knew something we did not. Perhaps it was their confidence, their life dedication to religion which we found so attractive. The others held back, peeking at these men holier than us, unsure how close we could get before the small man who directed us to the sides would speak up.

We followed a group to see the Altar of the Crucifixion, where headscarved Russian women crossed themselves and knelt. There’s much contention as to whether this is where Jesus was crucified. It’s probably not, since the Bible says the burial happened outside the city walls, which were likely farther away than half a mile from the Temple Mount. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps holiness comes from thousands of years of absorbed energy, from hundreds of thousands praying to a specific site, venerating it and focusing their energy on it, not because it necessarily is sacred ground, but because they believe it is sacred ground.

After covering every area of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher it was time to leave. We walked to the New Gate, stopping on the way to bargain for fresh squeezed pomegranate-orange juice. On the way home my feet began to hurt. The backs of my forearms were cold. The shadows began to lengthen. The streets were quiet in preparation for the end of Shabbat. After the twenty minute walk back to the hostel, Alena and I separated to nap; we’d meet Sasyok later.

As I lay on my top bunk with the window open, I heard distant screams, soccer match screams. I remembered Josh at breakfast talking regretfully about the “good sport” he was missing in England today. He from England, me from Brooklyn. Here I was on a bunk bed in Jerusalem, in the Middle East. I zoomed out like Google Maps and imagined being a red dot in the middle of Earth, thousands of miles away from home. I remembered Brooklyn’s dull spring sunshine, biking through Boerum Hill. I remembered being a child in my Bay Ridge apartment, sitting in that same sunshine. Multitudes of experience, the Neolithic homo sapien, Jesus, Daniel Adler. It was all so rich, so holy. Tears came to my eyes. I tried to cry, failed, and eased into sleep, my head feeling a lot better than when I woke this morning.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s