ST. GEORGE’S MONASTERY, West Bank — Gathered in the chapel of this outpost in the Judean Desert last week, the Orthodox priests chanted “Lord, have mercy” in Greek, in a service of blessing for a new road that makes the venerable building accessible to the growing number of tourists willing to dare a visit to the troubled Holy Land.
As far as the Palestinian Authority is concerned, the priests may as well have been speaking, well, Greek. Because the road was built by Israel over land the Palestinians consider their own, officials in Ramallah condemned the priests’ participation in the road’s inauguration ceremony.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad “expressed surprise” that the Orthodox priests joined the director-general of the Israeli Tourism Ministry Tuesday at the monastery, which clings to a cliff side over Wadi Qelt, a deep canyon running down to the Jordan Valley. Another Palestinian minister said the monks’ presence “gave a deceiving impression” about the status of the land around St. George’s.
Like other stretches on the rocky road that still clings to the misnomer “peace process,” the Palestinian protest will fade like a mirage in the desert surrounding St. George’s. More important in the end is the (literally) concrete path laid out for pilgrims to visit one of the most important and most beguilingly beautiful sacred sites in the Holy Land.
Archbishop Aristarchos, the secretary of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem and the leader of the brief prayer service, was diplomatic in his comments, when asked about Palestinian complaints over the road.
“This is a monastery of prayer for peace in our region, for peace in the Holy Land,” Aristarchos said. “The road brings full access for pilgrims who are messengers of peace to the Holy Land.”
The $500,000 road cuts over from the main Jerusalem-Jericho highway in front of the entrance to an Israeli settlement. It snakes around dusty dunes and dry wadis. To the east, the view is hazy down over the Jordan Valley to the mountains rising in the Hashemite Kingdom. After a 10-minute drive, visitors arrive at a parking lot.
The ride used to take over an hour in a four-by-four vehicle or considerably longer for hikers.
Tourism in Israel is at record levels, according to the Tourism Ministry, mainly fueled by pilgrimages. This year 3.1 million visitors came to Israel, which is higher than the bumper year of 2000, when the visit of Pope John Paul II brought a boost. After the papal visit, the violence of the intifada made for a six-year tourism nightmare in which most people were too scared to come to sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem.
About two years ago, I noticed an increase in the number of tour buses pulling up at the tiny Greek Orthodox monastery on my street. Hunched Greek ladies wearing black shuffled toward it, cooing at my son as I took him to play in the park next door. Presumably these friendly old crones were in no physical condition to make it through the desert tracks to the monasteries in the Judean Desert.
That’s a shame, because the desert outposts are very important to the history of Christianity in the Holy Land and it’s why Archbishop Aristarchos will surely not sweat the Palestinian protests about the new road too much.
St. George’s stands on the place where Christians believe the Prophet Elijah secluded himself. A bird brought him food. It’s also where Joachim wept with joy when he heard the news that his wife would give birth to Mary, later to be the mother of Jesus.
Built in the fifth century, St. George’s was destroyed by Persian invaders in the seventh century and not fully reconstructed until 1901. The monastery is made of the same khaki limestone as the cliffs on which it nestles. The only splash of color is the turquoise dome of its chapel.
St. George’s is home to some gory relics. In its chapel, visitors can view the bones and skulls of priests killed by the Persians, kept in silver boxes. In a side-chapel, a Romanian monk who died in 1960 has been preserved. His brown, mummified face leers with a full set of teeth through his glass casket.
After the prayer service, nuns brought out baklava, juice and fruit for the guests. Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, a senior official in the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, tucked into a sandwich on brown bread.
“It’s very important for pilgrims to come to make us local Christians feel supported,” he said. “We’re the living stones of the Church in the Holy Land.”
The people who travel the new road are more important than the authority that built it.