I sat down on a cold wooden pew, my fingers tracing the worn lines, the smell of wood and frankincense in my nostrils as my breathing slowed.
‘Pari lou is.’
A deep voice. I turned to my right and saw a huge white-bearded figure dressed in black, an olivewood crucifix around his neck. I looked at him, opened my mouth to speak, but couldn’t make the words come out.
He spoke again: ‘Sabah al khair,’ and, when I still didn’t reply, ‘Good morning.’ I nodded.
‘Welcome to our Church. I am Father Vahan.’
He smiled, his hands held together either in prayer or greeting.
‘Forgive me, but you appear troubled.’
I looked at the richly decorated altar and around at the classical images, glittering Madonnas and Christs on the wooden panels around me.
Olives, Page 191
The Levant is at the core of the three ‘Revealed Religions’, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The latter of these, in every sense, was born in Mecca and Medinah, but it was in Jerusalem Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.
As a consequence, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria are crammed with memories of these religions over the past two millennia and more. There are places sacred to each and to all three. There are places of syncretism and, of course, of conflict and sectarianism.
This is also the land of the Eastern Empire: Byzantium. I have long been fascinated by the ebb and flow of the Eastern and Western worlds as they flowed and clashed around the Eastern Mediterranean, the collapse of Rome, the rise of Constantinople and then the fall of the great city to the Ottomans. Behind it all, the thread of religion is wound around everything, but the Christianity of the Levant is very different to the somewhat pusillanimous, slightly embarrassed and rather, well, British version of Christianity I grew up with.
The Orthodox Churches of the Levant are rather richer than the protestant churches of England, it has to be said. As, indeed, are the Catholic ones – Eastern Catholicism is beholden to Rome but in aspects of rite and practice is notably more ‘eastern’. So Paul, wandering into an Orthodox Armenian church in Amman would be rather stunned by the splendour of it all even, as he is, beside himself with horror and self-doubt...