For a Christian, it is truly astonishing to visit the Holy Land and get a sense of the physicality of the places where Jesus walked and preached and worked miracles.
Galilee, green and ethereally beautiful, is especially moving. It is all so human in scale. Violently expelled from his home town of Nazareth — “a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country” — Jesus moved 20 miles to Capernaum, a Roman administrative centre on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. There he called Peter, John, Matthew and other disciples. He began to mix in a cosmopolitan milieu, and his fame spread widely. One day he walked out a mile or so, followed by great multitudes, and delivered the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps standing at the foot of a hill and talking to the crowds gathered above him. Migdal, whence came his faithful disciple Mary Magdalene, is five miles away, and the cliff over which rushed the Gadarene swine six miles in the other direction. Sadly, we were unable to visit the site of Jesus’s baptism at Bethany, because it is in Jordan. But from the main A90 road through Jericho, we could see the church marking the spot; it was only two or three hours walk from there to the bare mountain where Jesus fasted 40 days and was tempted by the Devil.
Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem are no less moving for being so painful — today as in Jesus’s time. It also becomes clear that Christian pilgrims are following a template set out by St Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, 1,700 years ago: she established the location of the sacred sites (probably accurately). Even then the place was overwhelmed by pilgrims. The agreeably irascible St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin in a cave next to the church of the Nativity, snarled at some fourth-century British pilgrims: “You can get to heaven as well from Britain as from Jerusalem.”
We were deeply moved by the Western Wall (right, top) in Jerusalem, where in the intense devotion of Jewish worshippers one comes close to the bedrock of our shared faith: “I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”
Here Jews are as close as they can get to the Temple, now covered by the Muslim Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, the focus of regular unrest. I could not help feeling that if Israel is expected to make sacrifices for peace, these two buildings, neither of them as central to Islam as the Temple was to Judaism, might also be given up.
But that will not happen. It is sobering to experience at first hand the intractability of the impasse between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. Our redoubtable tour guide Samir, a Palestinian Christian resident of east Jerusalem who remembered the 1967 war, gave due credit to Israel for vastly improving public services and thus the lives of Palestinians. But when I asked how peace might come, he laughed uncomfortably and said: “Only when Jesus Christ returns.”