Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self

A Visual Essay

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as any pilgrim or tourist visiting it quickly discovers, is a massive, maze-like structure, or, really, assemblage of structures, including the Tomb of Christ and of Golgotha but also numerous other chapels, rooms, and other elements. Somewhat closer investigation starts to reveal the multiple layers of construction and use, going all the way back the first century AD (and probably further, since the Tomb was located in the side of an already old quarry outside of the Herodian walls of the city). While the names of prominent men and women are often attached to these various architectural layers, beginning with Constantine and his mother Helena, the traces of far humbler pilgrims to the great church are also visible, if one knows where to look. Yet, as I observed on my visits to the church earlier this year, the steady streams of pilgrims and tourists, clergy and tour guides, pass right by these fascinating reminders of the centuries of pious visitors who have traveled- often over great distances and in difficult circumstances- to venerate the empty Tomb of Christ.

The largely Crusader-era main entrance to the church, with entrance and front facade giving little indication of the size of the church’s sprawling interior. The pious graffiti is most abundant around the doors near the center of the picture.

Covering the columned framing of the great doors to the main entrance to the church are perhaps hundreds of instances of ‘pious graffiti’- prayers, names, dates, and short texts carved into the stone by pilgrims. Deeper inside the church, in a stairwell leading down to the Chapel of St. Helena, sunk within the living rock, are hundreds of neatly carved crosses left by Crusaders, also as pious graffiti marking and memorializing their pilgrimage. While in the modern world such defacement is looked down on and even seen as criminal, Continue reading “Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self”

For the Good Turf. Digging.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney, ‘Digging’

Why Does It Exist, This Need For Sharing?

11 October

I wrote to you impelled by the need to share the emotion aroused in me by your talent, which affected me like the sound of sad, sublime music. Why does it exist, this need for sharing? I have no idea and neither have you, yet we both know perfectly well that in some way it is burned into the human heart, that there’s no life without it and that it contains a great mystery. After all, when you write your books you too are merely responding to this need, and what’s more- you abandon your whole self to it completely.

I’ve always read a great deal- and kept many diaries, in common with all those whose lives are unfulfilled- and I still read widely, I’ve read your work before, but not very often, I mostly knew you by reputation. And now this latest book of yours… How strange! Somewhere, somehow, a hand puts pen to paper, a soul reveals a tiny particle of its secret existence by the tiniest possible hint- for what can words express, even words such as yours!- and suddenly there’s no space, no time, no differences of fate or circumstance, and all your thoughts and feelings are mine, are both of ours. Truly, there is but one universal soul on earth. And doesn’t that make my impulse to write to you understandable- to communicate my feelings and share something and complain a little? Aren’t the works you create and the letters I write to you one and the same? For you too are trying to reach someone, to express some kind of feeling, when you send your lines through space towards some invisible person. You know, you too are complaining- more often than not, only complaining!- for our complaints are synonyous with that cry for understanding which is so fundamental to every human being: how often it occurs in songs and prayers, in poetry and outpourings of love!

Perhaps you’ll answer me, if only briefly? Please answer.

Ivan Bunin, “An Unknown Friend,” 1923, translated by Sophie Lund