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Gifts of the Ages

[whitespace] souvenirs Picture This: Religious experiences run neck-and-neck with shopping experiences when some tourists hit the Holy Land.

George Sakkestad

In search of religious epiphanies--and the world's tackiest souvenirs

By Kelly Luker

IN RETROSPECT, it's hard to remember what moved me to sign up for a group tour to the Holy Land. I wanted to see where Jesus walked, of course. The itinerary promised that and more. We would sail the Sea of Galilee, take a dunk in the river Jordan and stand on the Mount of Beatitudes. This was no ordinary guided tour--this was a pilgrimage, designed for the priest and congregants of a local Episcopal church.

An ancient ritual, the pilgrimage was considered the crown to a religious life. As the Muslims still trek to Mecca and Hindus to the Ganges River, Jews and Christians historically would find a way to make at least one visit to Jerusalem. In secular times, this holy call has been supplanted by somewhat more earthly beckonings. I still remember the sense of wonder that overcame me in Seattle when I stood on the steps of the very first Nordstrom department store ever built. (Six floors of retail! That is a shopping experience.)

Awe-inspiring though the shoe department was, my soul hungered for a little more. So it was that I found myself bound for Israel and Jordan, looking for--something. A religious awakening. A spiritual renewal. The world's tackiest souvenir.

Happily, all three could be found in the Holy Land. There is nowhere in the whole wide world more perfect for someone with a deep hunger for the sacred and a shallow need for shopping. Apparently, I'm not alone in this somewhat schizophrenic lust. Jerusalem was clearly designed for folks just like me.

In a section known as the "Old City," less than a mile wide, the traveler can find some of the holiest spots on earth. There is the Western Wall (once known as the Wailing Wall), which is the last vestige of the Second Jewish Temple and a place of supreme sacredness for Jews. For Christians, there is the Via Dolorosa--where Jesus walked his final steps to the crucifixion. For Muslims, there is the Dome of the Rock, a church built around the spot where Mohammed ascended into Heaven.

In between each of these sites one can also find approximately 700 souvenir stands, crammed with aluminum crucifixes, cheap T-shirts and bottled holy water. While the three religions have enjoyed a couple of millennia fussing and fighting over whose God is better, it is heartening to see them all join together in the spirit of commercialism. Ethnic and religious diversity blends seamlessly to offer endless mementos of this holy pilgrimage.

While others will treasure their memories of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I will be gazing fondly at my 3-D picture of Jesus that turns into Mary when you shift it back and forth. This, then, is how I will remember much of my trip--not just by churches but by tsotchkes. So follow along, as we tour the gifts of the Holy Land.

THE TOUR BEGINS in Jordan. The first important site is the Ford of the Jabbock, where Jacob wrestled with "The Angel." Tour leader Father Steve Ellis reads that passage from Genesis and thousands of years drop away. A polluted stream that runs through this no man's land is again the land of spirits and forebears, angels and metaphor. No souvenir stand.

We move on to Jerash, an ancient Roman provincial capital that is still well preserved--cobblestones wear the grooves from chariots that clattered over them two thousand years ago. Remarkable detail of fishes carved into columns and fountains. First cool souvenir: a tour-group photo of us in the Coliseum taken by the tour guide's cousin, who promises us a good deal. I look like Jabba the Hut, but purchase it anyway.

The next day takes us into Israel and on to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This is the region where Jesus began his ministry and where he walked on water. Got a photo of me eating "St. Peter's fish"--a fish that suspiciously resembled crappie--for lunch.

After taking a motor launch across the Sea of Galilee, we visit the Mount of Beatitudes, then the spot where Jesus was described in the Bible as multiplying five loaves and two fishes to feed five thousand folks. First of my religious awakenings, with the dawning realization that this was not a metaphor--Jesus actually did it. Grabbed a handful of postcards but kicked myself for not getting that decorative plate with a mosaic illustrating the miraculous multiplication.

It's on to the traditional site of baptism in the Jordan River and the first superstore for tasteless mementos. Elbowing our way through throngs of evangelists gathered at the river, we watch giggling housewives and teenagers get dunked below the muddy waters. Take a pass on the "I was Baptized in the River Jordan" T-shirt, but grab the "Spiritus" hand cream. Watch jealously as a fellow tour member scores an authentic replica of the Crown of Thorns.

Friday brings a long day of traveling as we motor south from the Sea of Galilee and fertile fields of Canaan to Jerusalem. There is a stop at Megiddo, where 20 civilizations have been destroyed and rebuilt. It is also a archeological dig that the James Michener novel The Source is loosely based upon. Already read the book, so nap and miss that particular shopping opportunity. Fellow members forgive my earlier pique of jealousy and bring me back a few postcards.

George Sakkestad

FINALLY, WE ARRIVE at Jerusalem--crossroads of three religions. We begin in the outer city, visiting the Garden of Gethsemane, the Tomb of Lazarus and the site of the Ascension. Each spot is packed with other tour groups from around the world. Second of religious awakenings, as I shut my eyes and listen to the "Our Father" simultaneously prayed in a dozen languages. Olive-wood geegaws are big here, so I load up on charming carved animals.

Friday: While the rest of the tour heads off to the Dead Sea, I get a head start on exploring the Old City. This is the intersection where God and Mammon ultimately collide, luring rubberneckers like me to the tacky remains. Hawkers line the narrow streets from one religious landmark to the next. Throw the Vatican into a blender with Tijuana's Avenida Revoluçion and you'll get a good flavor of this piece of real estate.

There is something a teensie bit jarring about genuflecting at the Seventh Station of the Cross (where Jesus fell the second time on the way to his crucifixion), only to be tapped on the shoulder by the Seventh Station Souvenir Shop vendor. Bought the T-shirt that says "My friend walked the Stations of the Cross and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" for Sue and the "Uzi Does It" T-shirt for my brother. Can't pass up the genuine polyester Bedouin gown for Mom.

Return to the Old City with the rest of the tour the next day. Have third religious experience upon discovering that the priest can outshop even me. You go, Father Steve!

The tour wraps up back in Jordan with a visit to Petra. A city carved into magnificent many-hued rock, Petra offers little in the way of religious significance. But it serves an immeasurably important purpose as the last tourist stop before heading back home. Camel-bone necklaces, hand-loomed rugs and sand paintings are scooped up in a frenzy of last-minute shopping. Proving once again that there is a God, I find that plate representing the multiplication of loaves and fishes at the very last souvenir stand. Amen.

Granted, there may be pitfalls in designing a holy pilgrimage around a whirlwind guided tour-cum-shopping trip. One might have wished for more than four minutes to ponder the birthplace of Jesus before being hustled on the tour bus and speeding off to the next gift shop. One might have wished to embrace this experience with the quiet and solitude that the Desert Fathers enjoyed, instead of being jostled and annoyed by endless crowds.

And as much as one loves a good deal, one might even have wished that they'd clear out that wall-to-wall crap so one could focus on the Bigger Deal.

However. Beneath the hucksters and clutter, the Spirit is alive and well. It dances between the rocks on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It shines through the stones of the Western Wall rubbed smooth by millions of hands over thousands of years. It laughs over our silly arguments over who owns It and cries over all the blood we've spilled to stake our claim to It.

It can be seen and heard if one knows how to listen and look beyond the $2.99 specials. Sometimes that Spirit shone brightest in the massive crowds of Muslims, Christians and Jews who gathered to worship at this little corner of the planet.

Loved the T-shirts and postcards, but bottom line: Been there, done that, got the point.

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From the April 28-May 5, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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