A visit to the Holy Sepulchre with Nizar Halloun, tour guide and journalist in Jerusalem
The Holy Sepulchre is probably the most fascinating site of the Holy Land. However, many tourists and pilgrims get the impression of a very chaotic and crowded place, with people shouting, pushing, and where it is difficult to find a moment of silence to meditate.
Nizar Halloun, tour guide and journalist in Jerusalem, had the same feeling before he fell in love with this church. “The Holy Sepulchre was a very tough place for me; crowded, chaotic, it is like Babel. Everybody is talking in many languages, everybody is pushing. It is a bit tough.” He changed his mind after working in the church for the Custody of the Holy Land. “I had time to come here and work on projects related to my job. I stayed here many nights. I was inside in periods that it was extremely silent. That’s how, in a short time, I fell in love with the place. It’s a very complicated love relationship. You have to understand it and appreciate the silence of it before learning to love it.”
We have to love the Holy Sepulchre for what it is
“The Holy Sepulchre reveals itself in layers,” he says. It is like the Edicule, before you get to the Tomb, there are different layers. Even the actual Tomb is covered with a marble structure. He never thought that one day he would see that last layer uncovered before his eyes. It was during the restoration of the Edicule, when he was working for the Custody. It was very late when he received a call asking him to go back to the Holy Sepulchre. Although tired, he went back thinking what would be that important. When he arrived, he was told that the Tomb was going to be opened and that they wanted him to take a picture. He thought that they would not let him in, as there were many check points before getting inside the Edicule. But no one stopped him, so he went in. There he was, alone, and the Tomb opened before him. He was so shocked and moved that he couldn’t take the picture. The marble structure was removed, and he could see the rock in which the Body of Christ had laid dead before he was risen.
The silence among the crowds
Halloun’s aim as a guide is to prepare the pilgrims for “this peak moment of the Holy Land.” “Because when you come to the Holy Sepulchre, the highest moment is when you are kneeling down inside the Tomb.” He tries, “to build the whole pilgrimage as a mountain, and the peak of the mountain is the Holy Sepulchre.” Before visiting the church, he prepares them, “for this chaos, but I also try to pinpoint these moments of silence and importance of the place. You need to make the place your own and each part of it your own; fall in love with the place on your own. It’s a very personal experience that each one needs to make it happen for themselves.”
It is difficult to find the silence among the crowds, but, “there’s this holiness that emerges from these thousands of people that visit the Holy Sepulchre. I would also like to have silence, but I also love that the site has this personality that is built by the thousands of millions of people that are coming here to pray or not. And we have to love the Holy Sepulchre for what it is. When you love a person, you love him or her for who that person is, you are not trying to change them.”
The church had been closed a number of times this year because of lockdown restrictions. Local Christians and local tourists still visit the Holy Sepulchre when it is open. However, the crowds are missing now. Last year, the country had a record number of visitors, more than 4 million tourists from abroad. That number literally dropped to zero since the March lockdown. For tour guides and all the people making a living in the tourist industry, the situation is desperate. “We know it won’t last forever, but still, from here to one year, we don’t see the end of the tunnel,” states Halloun. They have been through tough times before: “We know how to behave in wars, but this corona came and shut down everything. It was completely different.”
He got his tour guide license just six months before the first coronavirus lockdown. “I was blessed to have these six months. Being in the field, being in contact with many groups, being blessed by the people. You receive a lot spiritually speaking, from the questions that they ask, from the human encounter. It’s a rich job.” Many sectors of the economy have gone online as a consequence of the situation, but a trip to the Holy Land is not replaceable like that: “The whole experience of the Holy Land is coming. Pilgrimage has this meaning of coming, touching, seeing, meeting, tasting, smelling, hearing…” When people can finally come to visit, “we will have to get used to new regulations.” Masks, touching the minimum, washing the hands, “things that are part of our habits now.” However, Halloun thinks some regulations will be difficult to enforce, like the ones regarding the touching and kissing of holy places, because people travel “thousands of miles” for that.
The precious thing
Halloun thinks that the Holy Sepulchre replicates our reality, “it’s chaos, but it’s a very important thing.” Maybe now, due to the global crisis, we can relate to this more easily than before. Our life and what surrounds us can be chaotic, but, as in the Holy Sepulchre, you can, “find the beauty, this pearl, this precious thing among a very chaotic environment. Sit and try to find the silence and be with Christ. That’s the most important thing.”
“It keeps calling you back,” says Halloun as we leave the church behind. It is true, this place is unlike any place in the world. It has a magnetic power. As he said, “if the world has one place, one home, it is the Holy Sepulchre.”