Classic Ellis: Hello, Jerusalem, 1999

There are bananas growing on the side of the Mount of the Beatitudes and Australian stringybarks a few feet from where Jesus said blessed are the meek, and they that mourn and the peacemakers, and everywhere low hills and trees that Streeton might have painted overlook the lovely flat clear silent lake that is Galilee and the rumpled grey-green mountains above it that prove, under sonic booms, to be the Golan Heights. In Tiberias, a holiday town now like Surfers Paradise, you can eat, lightly grilled, in waterside cafes what is now St Peter’s Fish, as the Saviour did not so long ago, and feed the scraps to grimy, sly, shrill tiger cats, starved and fractious around your ankles, demigods no longer as they were in Cleopatra’s day.

In the Negev Desert barramundi grow in fish tanks twice as fast, because of the filtered sunlight, as they do in Australian rivers, and delicious cherry tomatoes because of the brackish underground desert water that mysteriously, triumphantly encourages new sweetness. Camel milk when slightly altered becomes delicious long-lasting icecream, and cures, it seems, diabetes and maybe, touch wood, AIDS. Parachute-drops from low-flying aircraft of sterile fruit flies in swarming millions mate with females uselessly and so, as in Australia, bring down their pestiferous numbers. Anguished efforts to build tick gates throughout Israel, an agricultural necessity, fall on deaf governmental ears. So does camel milk for diabetes, because it is not kosher.

Jericho, the world’s oldest town, has a casino now. Armageddon is a flat inviting ever-fertile plain. The rail bridge Lawrence of Arabia blew up is broken still, and unrepaired. Nazareth is a grimy traffic-jammed honking nightmare of pizza parlours and pawnshops and hoons on motorbikes, worse than Parramatta Road. By the road to Cana there is an open sepulchre millennia old with a round white stone you can roll across it, as in the Bible, and an echoing amphitheatre where, our stern guide swears, Jesus may have watched the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, which performed year round. Galilee is shrinking, a few feet each year now, because of global warming. It is most of Israel’s water, and soon may not be there.

A Chinese bishop sings Mass at dawn inside what some believe is Jesus’ tomb itself, and in the ancient gloomy church that overarches it, a bored little altar boy, like Toto in Cinema Paradiso, wiggles and dozes and sneezes out censer smoke till the whole choir chokes with stifled laughter.

A didgeridoo is played in a Jerusalem street of fashionable cafes. In the kosher Mexican restaurant I ask a waitress who looks like Sophie Lee if she is from Australia. No, she says, from Belarus. An Arab taxi driver has never heard of the Mount of Olives. A female Holocaust survivor-guide at the museum reveals her name is Eva Braun.

This is the world’s most multicultural nation. Every day a hundred more assisted migrants, teenagers mostly, preceding their unconvinced parents, from Latvia, the Ukraine, Ethiopia, begin an absorption process that includes learning Hebrew, three years of college, and three years in the army in a time perhaps of war (here it is always perhaps a time of war), and a desert country’s resources are further stretched, more so when, as they must, they give up the Golan Heights that so many died for. It is not easy. Three politicians ask my fellow traveller Mike Rann and me how a referendum works, for a referendum, Rabin vowed alas, then Barak after him, must approve the final shameful surrender of the Golan. It won’t get through, we tell them comfortingly, and Barak will thereby be toppled, and all hell return as it always does to the Promised Land. And so it goes.

It is most multinational on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, an embattled Palestinian satellite of Jerusalem with army checkpoints, body-searches, a long night walk up a dusty Arab boulevard with a wartime feel, empty of cars and full of young men with tommy guns to hear black American gospel singers, an Italian diva and a local half-dancing choir sing thrillingly Oh Little Town of Bethlehem under spangled trees in Manger Square, where Checkers, an Arab equivalent of McDonald’s, has just opened. The pum-pum of what seems to be mortar fire and the squeal and thud of rockets intersperse the diva’s rendition of Silent Night, Holy Night and it is explained that firecrackers end each day of Ramadan, coincidental this year, alas, with Christmas when I almost, but not quite, dive for cover. It is so unfortunate, complains a desolate shopkeeper, that the two million expected have not come to this safest of towns tonight because of beat-up stories of danger by CNN, and the likes of you.

Chastened, we pass through the body-searchers and phone-confiscators to the Church of the Nativity where grim old cardinals, their faces like Spencer Tracy, Jim McClelland, Anthony Quinn and Edward G. Robinson in gorgeous garments under sandstone arches and a simultaneous television broadcast of a sickly, tottering Pope having trouble with his lines, reiterate in different chanted languages their joy in the Holy Birth. To this repetitious pleasure Yasser Arafat wisely comes late, his beauteous blonde wife preceding him into their front pew. It continues for three hours.

All around on the moved old faces religion seems redeemed, and however cantankerously executed, Christianity, schismatic, contentious, domestically tyrannical, seems to have a future, and here in the Holy Land at least, a proud engulfing place.

In the Old City most of all. In arched and cobbled medieval subterranean crowdedness, its olivewood rosaries and spices and mints and cakeshops, its hanging sides of lamb and ancient Arabs playing chess, its glowing Jesuses and 3-D images of the Saviour with piercing blue eyes, its family shops still selling suits after four hundred years, its running children and donkeys and uniformed teenagers with machine guns and lazy smiles, a labyrinthine city intricate as Venice but older, the feeling of eternal magnetism (Lord, I believe: help Thou mine unbelief) is always there. In Jerusalem, an old judge told us, God is only a local call away.

You stand on the Mount of Olives above the crowded, almost jostling graves of those Jews who hoped on these holy slopes to be resurrected first at the Latter Day, and look across at David’s City in sunset’s golden hanging dust, the late light etching its towers, domes, ramparts in a noble Arthurian way, and the slashes of red cloud rising like Gabriel’s wings over it, and you see why down millennia differing faiths would struggle and fight and die to possess it. Street lights under the ramparts come on, and headlights race round its massive walls, but it persists, a dream, a goal in the mind, ever there, ever beckoning.

Next year in Jerusalem? You bet.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Bob, this was written 14 years ago, thereabouts. Did you ever return?

    And, did you find the religiosity appropriate, consonant with the locale, or something else? Like, weird, or obsessive, or anachronistic and mindlessly ritualistic?

    As a relatively agnostic Australian with an arising influenced by both practising believers and non-practising deniers, you must have had some thoughts on what you experienced…

  2. Well the 3-D blue-eyed Jesus kind of answered it…

  3. i think i posted this a long time ago, but it fits here too…


    the sun goes down like a lump in the throat of an angry god

    the night comes slowly oozing in like thick black blood

    a billion stars in the sky like a billion bullet holes

    the moon in the east like a missing piece of the dead sea scrolls


    the pilgrims kneel in the church where they search for the holy grail

    the chosen crawl with their backs to the wall where they go to wail

    lives that are offered in the name of the prophet go to paradise

    every messiah throws his truth on the fire for the sacrifice


    in the land of zion there’s a hungry lion come out from his cage

    the beast will feast on the lamb of peace in a howling rage

    the hate and the fears of a thousand years of antiquity

    nobody’s clear how we get from here to eternity


    • ‘nobody’s clear how we get from here to eternity’

      Perhaps you might make an exception for the Essenes and Gnostics, for their practices tended to be clouded by adherence to the esoteric, did they not, and by virtue of such non-mainstream behaviour one may deduce a certain kind of seriousness in relation to the questions of evolution and immortality?

      From what we know of esotericism, it isn’t just a matter of secrets for secrets’ sake, no siree. Much more a matter of keeping the lipstick firmly where it belongs and off the pig’s lips.

      Mid-east ruse, blue hues
      rising, sons and fathers both
      suckered by a mad tale.

      • Canguru you are familiar with the work. Tell me, you say you remain at the periphery. You glimpsed it, nibbled a bit, but seem to have suffered indigestion. What happened to the apprentice?

        • Living traditions require appropriate transmission, as you’d know, and apprentices who lose or desert their teachers cannot expect other sources of transmission to seamlessly emerge.

          And this particular acolyte’s chief features proved insurmountable, more’s the pity.

          There was no indigestion as such, more a refusal to contemplate the offering or contrast with the meagre fare on other tables.

          One might argue, life got in the way, as it did for Soloviev. All is ruins.

          • All true, yet it is said once the Genie is released from the bottle stuffing it back in is nigh on impossible.

            What starts as a curio turns into a duty yet periods of inertia can serve to mask this truth.

            Defeatism fortifies it.

            I know that of which you speak Canguru. I have run the gamut of despair.

            Lost opportunities, decisions regretted, favourable circumstances wasted or misused and teachers discarded. They are all part of my story. They shook me to my core and left me as a shell. The only inhabitant a ball of self-pity.

            And yet. And yet….

            No salient feature when known is insurmountable.

            No chain of events more significant than what we imagine them to be.

            In the end the teacher is both within and without.

            Our obstacle is our attachment to our song and the force of renewal springs forth when we relinquish it.

            This I have seen. It is something I have lived.

            Time is a fallacy.

            The possibility to work ever-present.

            Put aside the internal rhetoric and contemplate this small offering.

            Cheers, Graham

            • Thanks for the carefully chosen words, Graham.

              ‘Tis true, ’tis true, ’tis true.

              The cross, the horizontal, the vertical.

              Batting Leonard Cohen back to you, with his rendition of ‘Anthem’, in London, 2009.

              • I don’t know if you’ve seen the Mt Baldy doco Canguro, on the same page as Anthem - where Cohen admits that his mental illness got that bad he couldn’t stand upright?

                Just underlines the fact that no-ones got the real answers. Some people just seem to have a better knack for happiness than others that’s all.

  4. Whilst we’re on the Jerusalem subject, something I wrote 2001:

    Easter Sunday

    Barren heart shivers in the plague’s tension
    No temple grows where fire harrows smoulder
    The body arches up to its three-crossed master
    Death’s cold bed makes the soul’s arrow quiver.

    Across nomadic sky stream of plasma thicken
    From fugitive plateaux winds whisper Armageddon
    By Grand Central Station she lay down and wept
    Now her dragged dead fish sinks to lowered heaven.

    On the cornerstones of Prague orphans brave failure
    Above the heads of Rome an actor craves redemption
    Yet this seat of redemption succours only favour
    So the dragged dead fish is never resurrected.

    That vagrant on his tree is slowly choking carbon
    Beggars near Jerusalem oppose resuscitation
    Shadows of contempt rake the bars in Rio
    As the needle thieves of Sydney repossess their angel.

    Under cover cops offer rides in old Jakarta
    Civil wars’ contagion underscores their suspect reason
    Moscow cons appropriate the spruce of dark Chicago
    While the Lhasa dragon’s turnpike reinflates its toll.

  5. If you went looking for Golgotha, the hill where Christ was supposedly crucified, you will be sadly disappointed.

    The Archbishop of Pisa arrange to ship most of its soil rocks and all back to Pisa, in the 12th Century.


  6. Tony Abbott
    Peter Costello
    George Brandis
    Barnaby Joyce
    Julie Bishop
    Teresa Gambaro

    All of these used thousands of taxpayers money to attend weddings. ANd they had the gall to get on their high horses to fling mud at their opponents.

    95% of people surveyed want a full enquiry. The rotten party?? Liberal.

    • Despite their high incomes, they still cheat the system. They should be made to work for the dole, the whole lot of them.

    • Aw, fair’s fair! They fought tooth and nail by fair means and foul to get their trotters back into the trough.

      Surely you cannot think to deny them the fruits of their Liberal?

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