It didn’t take long. I reclined, alone, in the ever popular Coptic Guest House in Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter. David Abulafia’s heavy tome on the Mediterranean Sea began bobbing above my head. It sank to my chest, then to the floor. Overwhelmed by the obscurities of Luwian hieroglyphs and two weeks of pilgrim responsibilities, I slipped beneath the waves, a human Akrotiri. I was exhausted. Darkness fell.
The rat-a-tat-tat of a snare drum brought me back again. It ricocheted off crumbling masonry walls and zipped by my head. I shook out the cobwebs and ran for the door, grabbing my camera on the way out.
In the narrow intersection between al-Battikh (or “Watermelon”) and Ethiopian Monastery streets, a drum major stood. He spun a knobby baton dangerously close to a gathering crowd. Children were hoisted. Windows were thrown open. Elderly nuns waved their iPhones. Something was about to begin, and, for whatever reason, the Watermelon intersection was the chosen locale.
The major counted down to the appropriate moment and suddenly, the rat-a-tat-tat turned into a barrage. Snarers snared, bassests based, teeth rattled. Down the street were rows and rows of drummers, smartly dressed in Boy Scout uniforms. Unleashed, they beat their cylinders furiously. As the rear guard was around the corner and could not see the leader, the attempt to keep the corps together was impossible. Nonetheless, the baton wielder gave it a valiant effort; he twitched oddly every now and then and waved in ever larger, more desperate arcs, hoping retrieve those lost in the dark.
I should have suspected something was up. Earlier in the day when I entered the Old City, clusters of scouts and glowing parents were loitering in the vicinity of Casa Nova. Banners and flags, the residue of Pope Francis’s recent visit, dangled everywhere. The older boys stood aloof in packs of their own, white capes draped from their shoulders. A scarlet Crusader cross marked the center of their backs.
Now, whatever had occupied their afternoon was over. It was a time for . . . music. The major gave another shout and a troop of bagpipers slid into key. They squealed out a few measures of prelude, stamped their feet, and the march began. The crew in tartan puffed and pumped their wounded instruments. I am certain that in a forgiving space, the musicianship of the pipers might have been more keenly appreciated. In this urban canyon of stone however, it was difficult to discern if several tunes were being played simultaneously, or, if a single tune was simply bouncing here and back again, offering the listener multiple opportunities for enjoyment. Bagpipes can be that way.
The crowd was euphoric. They cheered as the pipers passed. The squad of lost drums finally swung into view, as did a a squad of cubbies in blue. This younger scout variety had no instruments, but grinned for the cameras in a way that suggested they were happy to contribute to the mêlée by force of presence alone.
I waited. On the heels of the cubs came the Virgin. Her statue was hoisted by means of poles. Her porters were selected young women and men, again, in full scouting uniform. Flowers adorned the portable dais of this Christian “Ark of the Covenant.”
Mary passed with a frozen smile. Cameras flashed. The band played on, marching off to another corner of Jerusalem’s Old City.
When at last the noise had abated, I asked an older woman what the parade was for.
“Maryam,” she grinned.
The crowd disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Metal hinges squeaked, shutters were closed. The street was dark again, left to the miserable cats.
I went back into the Coptic guest house. My hostess, a nun draped in black, appeared in the courtyard. Still curious, I inquired of her as to the nature of the parade.
She didn’t know. “It is not our holiday.”