Inside the Basilica of Annunciation in Nazareth, it was quiet, especially considering that there were at least a hundred tourists present. The tourists came from many countries including the U.S., Germany, Poland, China and Japan. They all had one thing in common: they were Christians travelling in an organised biblical group. There is a lot of this kind of tourism in Israel. The route that the biblical tourists follow takes them to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.
The Basilica of Annunciation was built between 1960 and ’69, with funds provided by the Catholic Church; it’s a modern construction. The basilica isn’t actually a true basilica – like the traditional half spherical domes one sees in old churches. Rather it’s an immense cone, at the top of which is a lantern shaped skylight.
I sat on the bench seats amongst the pilgrims and took in my surroundings. For me the church was a fine example of modern architecture. For the believers, it was a sacred place.
I was impressed with how quiet the believers were. Hardly a whisper could be heard.
The basilica was built on the place where according to the believers Mary was told by the angel Gabriel she would conceive the son of God. This was referred to as the ‘annunciation’. As an atheist, it was difficult for me to give a story like this much credence.
But it did set me thinking about the angel named Gabriel.
I had a framed poster of a painting featuring Gabriel.
I had purchased it years ago during a visit to the Prado in Madrid.
The poster was printed in order to advertise the latest exhibition in the Prado; copies of it could be seen all over Madrid. I loved the poster as soon as I saw it. Beneath a high quality reproduction of a medieval era painting of the angel Gabriel appearing before the virgin Mary were the words: ‘Fra Angelico – La Anunciacion – Museo del Prado – Madrid.’
It was a perfect souvenir for a tourist.
At the end of my visit to the Prado I asked the people at the information counter if I could have a copy of that poster – they gave me two copies and one of them was sent to Australia where it was framed and hung on the dining room wall of a small suburban house on the south coast of Adelaide.
‘La Anunciacion’: a taste of classical Europe in the antipodes.
I thought about it whilst sitting in that fine basilica in Nazareth.
Gabriel was kneeling before Mary. He had short golden hair and was wearing a long pleated robe. His wings, too short to ever lift such a richly clad figure, were brown grey. Mary, very much a medieval mother, had her head bowed. A beam of golden light, shining from behind Gabriel was shining on her face.
The copy of the original painting was very high quality and it was a beautiful painting, a work of art which could even stir the heart of a sceptic like me. When I looked at it, I felt an almost mystical appreciation for the idea of God and for the way in which this idea had inspired great artists to attain sublime heights.
With the medieval image of Gabriel before me, I remembered that I had read about him recently in a book by the British historian Tom Holland called ‘In the Shadow of the Sword.’ Holland was one of my favourite historians (along with Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson). There was something I had read about Gabriel which was important, but I couldn’t remember what it was exactly.
Gabriel…what was it again about Gabriel?
About a hundred meters away from the Basilica of Annunciation was a mosque.
The mosque was on an open square in the centre of old Nazareth. It was the first thing I saw on arriving in Nazareth and getting down from the bus. The mosque was a small one and there were no minarets. The imam in charge was a hardliner. My LP guide reported that a year earlier, he had allowed some of his parishioners to cover the square in anti-Christian slogans written in Arabic.
Outside the mosque there was a cloth banner in English which read:
‘I am indeed a slave of Allah. Allah is my Lord and your Lord so worship him and him alone.’
Earlier in the day – a Friday – I had noticed that there was something going on at the mosque. Men had appeared from inside the mosque carrying rolled up carpets. These they unrolled over the square, one after the other, like something out of the Arabian Nights, until most of the square was covered in deep red carpet. A small table was placed in front of the carpets and a large flat screen TV on the table. Loudspeakers were connected to the TV. There were cables everywhere. The whole operation took about an hour. On the TV screen came an image, a still photo, of the great mosque in Mecca. It stayed there. Nothing much happened. Something was going to be broadcast and I wanted to see what, but I got impatient. That’s when I head to the Basilica just up the road.
Up until comparatively recently, Nazareth was a Christian town. For centuries it was a popular destination for Christian pilgrims from all over Europe – an ancient version of the biblical tourists who appear today. It was not only where Mary conceived Jesus but also where Jesus grew up and learned his trade as a carpenter. Even today amongst the maze of narrow alleyways of old Nazareth, there are old stone work buildings which were originally hostels built to accommodate the constant stream of pilgrims. Some of the Christian pilgrims who came to the Holy Land were highly unsavoury types: the Crusaders for example. On their way across Europe, the Knights of Christ indulged in the time-honoured sport of Jew-killing. Whole communities of Jews were wiped out in Southern Germany and Eastern Europe. Leaving a trail of blood behind them, the Knights arrived at their destination and then proceeded to massacre Moslems – and also, more Jews.
Today Nazareth is a Moslem city. Roughly 70% of its inhabitants are Moslem Arabs, 25% Christians and 5% Jews. In the last decades, the demographic effect of high Moslem birth rates has put an end to the Christian heritage.
I left the Basilica and went out a side door where there was a long ‘L’ shaped wall shaded by a canopy. Here there were also throngs of biblical tourists. Along the wall were 30 large panels – mosaics and painted relief works – representing the theme of Mary and her baby Jesus. Each panel was made by Catholics hailing from various countries from all over the world. The images were very different from one another and each one, very beautiful in its own way. From all the images of Mary and Jesus, I really liked the one from Korea.
There can be no doubt about it: Mary and her baby Jesus is an image which has been a real winner for the Catholic Church. It summons up the ideas of compassion, love and caring in a way which moves millions of people. Memories came back to me of the huge ashram complex I had visited a few years previous in Southern India devoted to Mary. It was a city unto itself, a city replete with hotels and hostels and restaurants and shops; a city dedicated to Mary and baby Jesus. Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims – most of them Hindus – flocked to the Mary ashram where they bowed down before kitschy statues of Mary and bought kitschy prints of Mary and trinkets and bottles of holy water. They crawled on all fours over the ground in obeisance and watched officially blessed movies about the wonderful woman Goddess. ( http://serioustravelblog.com/2015/08/07/our-lady/)
At some point whilst I was admiring the images of Mary and Jesus, a loud high-pitched screaming began.
Putting two and two together, I realised it must have been an imam on the TV in the square who was delivering a sermon.
He screamed and ranted and yelled. It was an unpleasant sound and it was so loud. The TV imam was apparently pretty wound up about something.
Even deep inside the Basilica I could hear the TV imam. That was the point of course. To make sure the TV imam was amplified so loud that even in the deepest precincts of the church Silence had no chance.
The old and familiar theme: intolerance.
Robbed of my silence, I thought I’d better go and take a look at what was happening in the square. ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’
I arrived there to see about 50 men seated on the carpets. On the TV was an old man with a turban and a long white wispy beard. He could have been an ascetic. I was really surprised. It was incredible that such an old man could find the energy to keep up such a burning rage. How could his vocal chords withstand such sustained screaming?
He just went on and on.
I wondered where the broadcast was coming from: Saudi Arabia?
A mosque somewhere beyond the borders of Israel?
I was hungry and went into a nearby café.
The café was large by crammed side street standards. It went back some way from the narrow front. There were tables and chairs. On the walls there were old photos of Nazareth when it was a village and some pieces of embroidered cloth. The café reminded me of a place somewhere in Cairo and I’m not sure why; there was a feeling of oldness covered over in a veneer of freshly painted walls and a newly installed counter.
I don’t think that the screaming imam would have approved of the Moslem family who ran the café. The mother and daughter had short hair and were not wearing headscarves. The café sold wine – Israeli wine – which I believe the father and his mates, who were sitting at one of the tables, were enjoying to a perhaps somewhat excessive extent. They were doing a lot of laughing. The teenage son who served me found it difficult to drag himself away from The Call of Duty.
I ordered hummus, salad and pita bread – and a glass of wine.
The hummus in Israel is the best in the world. It’s another thing entirely to the muck which is sold in the supermarkets in the West. Everyone in this country, in spite of their differences in religion or race, is addicted to the hummus and it’s easy to see why.
And I have to say, the Israeli wine I drank seemed pretty reasonable. If it hadn’t been made in Israel, it could have been sold anywhere in the world.
My meal finished I walked outside.
The sermon was drawing to an end and the men were prostrating themselves on the carpet. I read the sign again: ‘I am indeed a slave of Allah….’
On the way back through the maze of ancient alleyways to my hotel I passed lots of little stalls. There were posters everywhere for candidates competing in the local elections. Of course I didn’t know what the issues were but that didn’t stop me from forming an opinion about who I wanted to win: the only woman candidate. She had short hair, no headscarf and big plastic glasses. She was a better bet for getting the Moslems somewhere positive than the likes of the wispy bearded TV imam.
I got lost in the Byzantine maze of back alleys. The problem was: I wasn’t concentrating on where I was going.
My thoughts were elsewhere.
I was thinking about the angel Gabriel.
After I finally found my hotel, I got out the book by Holland and checked the index in the back for ‘Gabriel’…..
Gabriel was a popular angel.
Not only did he convey the news to Mary that she was going to conceive the son of God, but the very same angel turned up 600 years later in a cave outside Mecca in Arabia. There he materialised before a middle-aged merchant who had fallen asleep in a cave. His name was Mohammed. Gabriel had a message for Mohammed which came straight from God (the Arabic word for God being ‘Allah’).
It was a long message.
Two centuries later it was written up as a book called the Koran.
Gabriel….but the very same angel had appeared before the ancient priests of Judaism at least 200 years before the birth of Christ and 800 years before Mohammed.
The angel Gabriel was a Jewish angel.
Which underlined something else: both Islam and Christianity evolved out of Judaism – the first monotheistic religion in the history of the human race. Now considering this, one would have thought that the followers of these three religions might have been able to live in peace, appreciate the things they had in common. On the contrary – for centuries they had waged war on one another. A Jewish angel had sown the seeds for two religions which each in its own way had done its best to destroy the Jews.
You can write many stories about the human race, an infinite number of books both fiction and non-fiction, but never will you reach anything like an end to the mystery of what it is to be us.
An angel named Gabriel.
A town called Nazareth.
Three ancient adversaries, a long and bitter history behind them, forced into an uneasy coexistence in the same small country called Israel.
Whether the world’s best hummus was going to be enough to keep the peace was a debatable issue.