Arriving in Israel in 1999 I was a bit thrown. The place was so modern! Tall office blocks, modern hotels, tarmac streets, taxis, and shops selling tourist’s trinkets all left the world I thought I had come to experience – the world of Jesus – seemingly far, far away. The nearest I got was the sea of Galilee where at least the hills remained largely undeveloped and I could catch a glimpse of the place as Jesus would Himself have once seen it. Yet I left wanting more, a chance to stop, to pray, to reach down into the earth and touch the holiness of the place which had seemed tantalisingly just beyond my grasp.
Eventually, nearly a decade later, I returned in 2008 and this time for an extended stay. I had come this time, not as a pilgrim, but as a volunteer iconographer, to help restore the interior of the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas in a small town just across from Bethlehem.
The church dated from 1925, and no one was very clear about what was on the site before. However, the main reason for the church was the cave in the crypt where St Nicholas reputedly lived during his extended pilgrimage to the Holy Land at the end of the 3rd century. However, apart from the cave the only sign of the ancient past was a fragment of Byzantine mosaic floor.
My work was repairing the extensive damage done to the wall paintings of the modern church. There were a very few old icons in the church, one or two perhaps as old as the 17th century, but I was told a previous Greek priest had ‘removed’ the more valuable ones away some years before. The icons of the iconostasis and on the walls were of a local style, a derivative of the Alleppo school of Arabic icons which was very popular in the area in the 19th century. What struck me about these was the close resemblance to some of the people who lived around the church – the high forehead, heavy eyelids, the complexion – and I realised that here was a form of iconography, while not very profound as a theological language, but nevertheless deeply rooted in the culture of local people.
Living among Arab Palestinian Christians I began to realise the continuity of the Christian communities which have survived despite war, persecution, pogroms, discrimination, vicious internal divisions and racial hatred. The holy places weren’t museum pieces but places where people across all the Christian centuries had met God in a most profound and life changing way, who had in turn made their own contribution to the holiness of the place. So, for example, St Nicholas, the real ‘Father Christmas’, who lived for just a couple of years as a hermit on the hillside opposite Bethlehem but whose influence upon the area was profound and enduring.
For example, among the Christian and Muslim population of the town, St Nicholas was truly a living father of the people, who intervened directly in the lives of its population. This might be dramatically, as during the Israeli war against Jordan in 1968 when, as the town was being shelled by the Israeli army, St Nicholas appeared above the church and deflected the shells into the nearby fields. That time not one person was killed and the only injury a twisted ankle. This was witnessed by the local Latin priest who was later to become Patriarch, and the pope sent an image of the saint in response to being told about the incident. Other stories abound about St Nicholas, for example his appearing during the night to a Muslim man in a faraway village to tell him his son, who was had been interned by the Israelis some years before, would return at midday the following day. When asked who he was, he simply said he was Nicholas, from Beit Jala and if he wanted to find him, everyone knew his house. His son duly appeared the next day, after many years of incarceration, and the man went to thank the stranger who had given him the news. Arriving in Beit Jala he discovered that hundreds of men were called by the name, and it was only when he was taken to the church by the sacristan and saw an icon of St Nicholas that he realised just who it was that appeared to him that auspicious night.
I took these and other contemporary stories and wrote a new icon of ‘St Nicholas, Father of Beit Jal\’ with these incidents drawn around the border and inscriptions not in Greek but in Arabic. This is now placed in the nave of the church and is much loved by the local population. Despite the media presentation of all Arabs as Muslim jihadists, Arabs have long established Christian communities with their own traditions, spirituality and culture. In Beit Jala, 100% of the population is Arab and 80% of the population is Christian. During Holy Week the whole place lives the drama of the Passion culminating in the fiesta that greets the Holy Fire, the ‘Nour’ from Jerusalem, on Holy Saturday when tens of thousands cram the streets, Scout bands parade and the bells ring out. It is a real Christian fiesta that would give any Spanish town a run for its money!
Yet the significance of St Nicholas reaches back to the very earliest times. I was frustrated that there was no information about the intervening centuries since St Nicholas spent his time there and the development of the village a century ago. However, there were anecdotes about the discovery of a Byzantine floor during recent road works but they were covered up. Others spoke about a monastery that had once existed there. However, when I visited Madaba in Jordan and could examine the famous Byzantine map on the floor of the church there that I noticed that, just south of Bethlehem, was a place called ‘Nikopoli\’, Greek meaning ‘city of Nicholas’. I knew that Lydd had been renamed Georgiopolis by the Byzantines in honour of St George who was buried there, and so it was reasonable to think that if a town had grown up around a cave associated with St Nicholas it would be called Nikopolis. For it to have made it to having a place on this map implied it was of some size or significance, which together with the tantalising evidence of the Byzantine pavement suggested that Beit Jala had a long and persistent association with their spiritual ‘father\’ going back centuries.
Who knows what churches had been built over the site of that cave, what icons had adorned its walls only to crumble under the dust of war and neglect? I realised my recent work was not simply repairing those done 80 years ago, but just another chapter in the worship offered there since the first Christian centuries. Those rather primitive Arabic icons I had come across were not the first to have adorned the shrine of Nicholas but just another expression of local devotion. Goodness knows what spiritual treasures had been lost in the intervening centuries?
This made me begin to reassess my initial assumption about the Holy Land and all the things that had got in the way of the time of Jesus. These centuries were important testimony to the faith which began in the Holy Land and which grew so strong and vibrant in the following centuries, and which had endured innumerable hardships to continue until the present. Rather than a nuisance, it was a treasure trove!
My next article will explore how my quest into the Byzantine inheritance of Palestine led me to the conclusion that Palestinian icon workshops made a unique and seminal contribution to Christian liturgy and art that brought about iconography as a distinct art form, one which is perhaps the most significant contribution of Palestinians to world history.
Ian Knowles is an Icongraphy specialist and he teaches a number of special workshops in the art of Iconography. These workshops are offered as part of specialized tours to the Holy Land. If you are interested in learning more about Ian\’s course please contact us at email@example.com or Ian at Ian@ambrose.plus.com