Continuing the Ecclesia Houston tour with Breaking Bread Journeys… after a morning of free time recovering from our epic road trip the day before, we started the day with a visit to the beautiful Church of St. Anne, built between 1131 and 1138 on top of the site believed to be the childhood home and perhaps the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The church possesses mesmerizing acoustics, and this makes the church a pilgrimage site for soloists and choirs, of which we got to hear a few from around the world singing praises in various languages. We contributed our own song as well!
Our tour guide Bassam shared some very interesting facts about the unique nature of the church:
Unlike most other Crusader churches, St. Anne’s was not destroyed after Saladin’s 1187 conquest of Jerusalem (Saladin led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states). In 1192 Saladin converted the building into a madrasa (Islamic educational institution), known as al-Madrasa as-Salahiyya (of Saladin), as is still written in the Arabic inscription above the entrance to the church.
During the renewed Muslim rule of Palestine, Christian pilgrims were only permitted inside the grotto after paying a fee. Eventually, the madrasa was abandoned and the former church building fell into disrepair. In 1856, in gratitude for French support during the Crimean War, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I presented it to Napoleon III. It was subsequently restored, but the majority of what remains today is original. Currently St. Anne’s belongs to the French government (thus the French flag that flies atop the church) and is administered by the Missionaries of Africa, commonly called “The White Fathers”, for the color of their robes.
The church is located right beside the archaeological excavation of the Pools of Bethesda and its collonades mentioned in the 5th Chapter of John’s Gospel. Pastor Chris Seay read to us this Gospel account of the crippled man who had been waiting 38 years to be healed in the pool which was known at the time to have healing powers (“a heavenly messenger would come to stir the water in the pool. Whoever reached the water first and got in after it was agitated would be healed of his or her disease”).
And I thought about how this crippled man had kept his faith all those years, believing that he could be healed if only he could get in the pool at the right time. And the passage indicates that Jesus knew of this man’s longsuffering spirit in waiting for so many years. I think perhaps that’s why he chose to heal him, to underscore how great this humble man’s faith was. Look at the results of his faith: a visit from the son of God himself, and he was instantly healed. May we all have even half the faith and patience of this man.
A definite highlight of our week was meeting up with Chefs for Peace, a non-profit, non-political organization founded in Jerusalem in 2001 by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs committed to exploring cultural identity, diversity, and peaceful coexistence through food. Chefs for Peace realizes food— its preparation, sharing, and enjoyment— is a powerful means of creating a bond with others and revealing that which is valued by all faiths: food, family, and friends.
We met the chefs at the Damascus Gate on Thursday along with the founder of Chefs for Peace, the Armenian, Jerusalem-born chef Kevork Alemian. They then took us on a tour of the old city to buy the ingredients we would be using to prepare our dinner!
After shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made, the chefs took us for lunch at a restaurant known for their falafel and hummus, Abu Shukri, which is located by Stations of the Cross 5. They explained to us the different styles of making hummus and how to eat the various appetizers served.
After a visit to the spice market, we then made our way to the hidden gem of Zalatimo’s Sweets. In a small room with just an oven, a refrigerator, and a few tables, Mr. Zalatimo and his relatives serve up the greatest pastry that the Old City has to offer, an Arab treat known as a mutabak (from the Arabic for “folded”). The flaky phyllo dough type creation is the only food served at Zalatimo’s, and ordering is simple: “with nuts” or “with cheese.” The shop also includes another treasure: one of the original entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is now sealed off and no longer used.
Afterward, we visited a famous photography print shop, known as Elia’s Photo Service. The photo prints this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by their late grandfather Elia Kahvedjian, an orphaned refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. He and his family are featured in the National Geographic film “Jerusalem: Within These Walls” to represent the Armenian Quarter. The photos, which had been hidden away since 1947 by Elia as he thought they were of no value, were rediscovered by the family over 30 years ago and now serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. For a fascinating article on the importance of the photographs, you can read here. Several of the group bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item.
We stopped by Samara Tours, where co-owner of Breaking Bread Journeys works running her decades-old family tour business. As it was Valentine’s Day, Christina and her co-workers had an unexpected gift of roses for each member of the group!
After we literally ate our way through the Old City, the chefs invited us to learn how to cook with them at the Bulghourji Restaurant in the Armenian Quarter, and then we ate some more.
Next, after a walk through the Jewish Quarter and another visit to the Western Wall, our tour with Breaking Bread Journeys took us through the tunnels revealing archaeological finds deep underneath the Old City. The Tunnel Tour is in such high demand that you must book it two months in advance. We learned that much of the city was raised from a small valley centuries ago by arched supports, and it is under these arches that many of the tunnels were excavated. We saw the ancient gates to Solomon’s Temple and learned that one stone of the temple’s western retaining wall (which our group was able to see and touch) weighs an estimated 570 tons. To put this weight into context, the heaviest stone in the Great Pyramid of Giza, found in the “King’s” chamber, weighed 80 tons.
Last but not least, we ended the night with a visit to Palestinian Christian Wassim Razzouk’s tattoo studio. The Razzouk family has been in the tattoo business in the Old City for over 700 years. It has been a longstanding practice for Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem to get the Jerusalem Cross tattooed as a commemoration of their pilgrimage. Several of the members in our group did just that. To learn more about the fascinating history of the Razzouk family business, you can read an article here.