A tale of another Jerusalem. How the virus changed the city I know

Giacomo Pizzi24 July 2020

The Jerusalem that I see in these months is very different from the Jerusalem that welcomed me three years ago, at the beginning of my journey as a volunteer in the Pro Terra Sancta Association. The lively and colourful streets of the Old City, which had so fascinated my curious look as a young European for the first time in the Middle East, are now empty and silent. There are no colours of the fabrics, the flavours of the spices, the voices of the vendors ready to attract tourists to their shop, bewitched by the warm and enveloping chaos of the souk. There are no pilgrims in prayer who step by step climb the Via Dolorosa, retracing the paths that two thousand years ago Jesus walked with the cross.

The Holy Sepulchre, from the centre and mirror of humanity, is empty, as empty as it was found by the women who rushed to the tomb to anoint Christ with oils and aromas. A privileged and evocative vision that few over the centuries have been able to witness, a calm that leaves time for reflection and prayer, but that takes away what for me has always been the unique charm of Jerusalem: its people. The multiculturality and the possibility of seeing the world pouring into the streets of this ancient city is what has always struck me. To see humanity become history every day, as it was in past centuries for Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders and Ottomans, is for me the great mystery of Jerusalem and the people who live there.

Since the spread of the pandemic everything has changed, in Jerusalem as in the world. The absence of tourists and pilgrims, which has continued to grow in recent years, is felt not only in the atmosphere of the cities, but above all on an economic level. All activities related to the tourism sector are at a standstill.  Many people are at risk of losing or have lost their jobs.

The Pro Terra Sancta Association has always included in its projects a focus on responsible tourism. As a member of the Italian Association for Responsible Tourism (AITR), it seeks to promote an experiential and sustainable tourism of the Holy Places linked to the Custody of the Holy Land and the projects carried out in the area. When at the beginning of March the Holy Land closed its doors to tourists and pilgrims, as Pro Terra Sancta, we had to rethink alternative ways of getting the Holy Land into the homes of all those who are deeply connected to Jerusalem.

Through films, images and stories of the places and celebrations we made the Holy Land known to friends and supporters at the time of Covid-19. A series of very popular online meetings gave voice to many people who work in the Holy Land every day and did not stop during the pandemic. Carla Benelli spoke about the progress of the “Bethany Hospitality” project, despite the difficulties due to blockages; Vincenzo Bellomo brought to the screen the strong discomfort of those who live in Bethlehem and the actions taken to counter the crisis and help those most in need; we spoke about Syria and Lebanon with the friars of the Province of St. Paul, migrants with Father Luke of Rhodes, schools with Father Mario and the Custos Father Patton who wanted to send a message of hope to all the faithful.

The common denominator of all these testimonies is a great strength of spirit, nourished by a great faith in Providence, a precious teaching which I will treasure when this health crisis is over. Facing challenges by reinventing myself is what the work in a non-governmental organization has taught me the most. Putting creativity at the service of others to find new ways to help based on need. An example? The Italian course for foreigners at Guesthouse Dar Mamilla. The new guesthouse had to stop its activities too soon due to the absence of tourists. The premises of the guesthouse, at the moment unused, seemed to be the ideal space for the course. About twenty people of all ages, taking advantage of a period of downtime, have accepted our proposal, driven by the desire to learn and acquire new skills. A successful symbiosis waiting for better times and the return to Jerusalem that we all know.

Camilla Cantore