This Sunday marks the Easter Holiday in much of the world, and worshippers everywhere are marking the day with uniquely local traditions. As evidence check out this photo taken by Flickr user Aldaberto.H.Vega in Honduras. As part of Semana Santa locals lay out brilliant “carpets” on the streets composed of colorful sawdust and flowers documenting the Stations of the Cross. The Gadling team liked the eye-catching visuals of the scene so much that fellow blogger Meg Nesterov used almost exactly the same image in a photo during Easter 2011. Seems like quite a sight to see, whether you’re a practicing Christian or simply curious about the world.
There’s been a shocking archaeological discovery in Israel. Nails from the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ have been found!
Well, no, probably not.
The claim comes from Israeli Canadian documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, the Washington Post reports. Jacobovici has done several documentaries on Christian subjects and came across an archaeological report from 1990 mentioning the discovery of nails in the tomb of a man named Caiaphas. For those who know their Bible, this is the same name as the Jewish high priest who plotted to arrest Jesus and then gave him to the Romans. The name is right, the date of the tomb is right, so the nails must be those from the Crucifixion, right?
The Post quotes Jacobovici as saying, “There’s a general scholarly consensus that the tomb where the nails were found likely belonged to Caiaphas. Nails at that time were a dime a dozen, but finding one in a tomb is exceedingly rare.”
Actually neither of these statements is true. The Post quotes an Israeli archaeologist as saying that the inscriptions in the tomb aren’t clear as to the occupant’s identity, and I myself have seen Roman nails turn up in tombs. They were pretty common objects, after all.
The timing of this announcement just before Easter and just before Jacobovici’s next documentary comes out (titled “Nails of the Cross” to air Wednesday on the History Channel), adds to the suspicion that Jacobovici is fooling either himself or us.
There’s also the question of why a Jewish high priest would take the nails of someone who he thought was a false prophet to the grave with him, or even how he got them in the first place since it was Jesus’ family and followers who removed Jesus from the Cross.
In the view of this former archaeologist, this story is more of the usual sensationalism masking as science that fills so much of the media. A bit like the spurious discovery of Caligula’s tomb.
Never fear. There are plenty are saints’ relics in Rome, including enough nails for a dozen Crucifixions. Gadling’s own David Farley has even written a book about the Holy Foreskin, which you can also visit in Italy. Actually there’s more than one relic claiming to be the Holy Foreskin, but that’s another story. . .
[Image of Roman nails courtesy user Takkk via Wikimedia Commons. These are not the same nails that came from the tomb mentioned in this article.]
It’s Christmas, when the Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. The Muslim world celebrates too because in Islam Jesus is considered a prophet.
Christianity has spread all over the world. One of the best things about travel is the different world views it exposes you to, and one of these insights is that religious artists have created Jesus in their own image. Europe has a white Jesus, Africa has a black Jesus, and Latin America has a Latino Jesus.
So what did Jesus really look like? The Bible is a bit sketchy about his personal appearance, but being a Levantine Jew he wouldn’t have looked like the Nordic hippie we’re familiar with in the West. He probably looked a bit more like this picture above, which is in the 16th century church of Ura Kidane Mihret on Lake Tana, Ethiopia. Brown skin, dark eyes and hair. . .this is what most people in ancient Judea looked like.
Ethiopia became Christian in the 4th century, and is the second oldest Christian nation after Armenia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has built incredible houses of worship all over the country, including the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, stone buildings dug out of the bedrock.
For more on the fascinating culture that produced this image, check out my series on travel in Ethiopia.
Those of us who travel to Bethlehem soon discover the huge gap between our happy Sunday School expectations and the heavy realities of visiting the West Bank in person. It’s not such an easy place to get to, though world interest makes Bethlehem far more accessible than say, Ramallah or Jericho.
Out of 133 destinations rated in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveler, the West Bank’s little town of Bethlehem ranked the lowest. Sad but true, travel experts consider the birthplace of Jesus Christ to be the world’s worst travel destination, one that’s surrounded by a giant concrete wall with difficult checkpoints and generally tangled in a political rat’s nest.
Still, for those in search of a geographically-correct Christmas, Bethlehem offers a nice dose of nostalgia served with a serious side of political pondering. It’s also a bit of a circus, like Las Vegas with Franciscan monks and machine guns. In such a place, it helps to have a guide. In lieu of a bright star shining in the east, behold ten hints for helping you navigate the dark streets that shineth:
- Check the border situation constantly: security in Israel varies wildly. Peace or violence in one location does not pre-determine security in other locales, especially in Bethlehem. CNN, BBC, and US State Department travel alerts are interesting but rarely compelling. Instead, ask around in country. Learn to listen beyond the bias and get the inside scoop as to which entry points are ‘hot’ and which ones are getting less traffic. Which brings us to the next point:
- Plan a window of extra time: crossing into the West Bank is always a gamble. In some cases, you may not even make it, so don’t write “Bethlehem” into your travel planner between 10:00 and 12:00. Instead, plan a range of days and hope that your first attempt is successful. If not, try, try again.
- Hire a Palestinian taxi driver with Israeli license plates: When it comes to straddling a tumultuous border, get the best of both worlds: A Palestinian driver with Israeli papers (and driving a car with Israeli plates) is pre-cleared and faces far less hassle when crossing back into Jerusalem. They will also be much safer escorts for you while you are in the West Bank. Again, ask around and seek trusted insights from insiders.
- Avoid big bus tours: though safer in principle, taking a tour bus into Bethlehem is often a recipe for a painful wait at the border in either direction. Add fifteen minutes for every olive wood sculpture of the baby Jesus in your backpack. If possible, travel ultra-light (passport, camera and a bottle of water) and in small groups.
- Visit the Church of the Nativity backwards: the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ is anything but peaceful, with all the wailing Russian Orthodox pilgrims and nit picky clergy who voraciously guard their little corner. Take a second to relax your religious connotations and realize that you are in a major tourist destination with crowds like those at the Empire State Building or Dollywood. Visiting the church in reverse order–saving the Grotto of the Nativity for last–can help you skip some of the longer lines.
- Don’t go on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day: I know, I know, that’s kind of the point, but know that it will be a Christian madhouse. Try going instead to visit first thing in the morning of December 24th, otherwise (insert joke about there not being any room in the inn, ha, ha.)
- Dinars or dollars: shekels have very little use in the City of David and most ATM’s disperse Jordanian dinars. Get some cash before you enter, or use US dollars. Again, the lighter you travel, the better.
- The Shepherds Fields of Bethlehem is a hoax: What? You mean the shepherds that saw a star shining in the sky and then heard angels singing, “Glory to God”–they weren’t actually hanging out on that specific hilltop that happens to be a ten-minute drive from the Church of the Nativity? No, sorry. The chapel and twisted olive trees are a nice reminder of a cool event, but it’s a Victorian-era invention for tourists like us.
- Bring a bible: The Book of Luke is probably the best and only guidebook to take with you. The book never gives false information about restaurants, opening hours, or directions, and offers some great context about the town itself.
- Keep apolitical: It sounds way obvious, but a trip to Bethlehem is not the time to show off your cocktail conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Be assured, no matter what you say, you will offend least one person. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would put his foot in his mouth in Bethlehem, so better to shut it. Talk about the weather and delve deeply into your clueless tourist persona–on this border, it’s the safest way to be.
Striking a balance between being informative and being entertaining is one of the most difficult aspects of non-fiction writing. And when it comes to travel writing, it becomes even more challenging. The author needs to educate readers about people and places while also keeping them engaged in his own personal story. Thankfully, travel writer David Farley has done just that and managed to go the extra mile of writing a truly enjoyable, educational and funny chronicle of his time in Calcata, Italy searching for Jesus’ foreskin. Yes, you read that correctly. He was searching for the lost foreskin of Jesus and details it in his new book, An Irreverent Curiosity
Along the way, he met a wide array of locals, each quirkier than the last. He deceived priests at the Vatican, befriended a woman who talks to birds and managed to put a tiny village back on the map. I recently sat down with Farley at a bar in New York City to discuss his adventure, how he ended up being called Gary Coleman and what it’s like to be known as “the foreskin guy.”
Mike Barish (MB): I’m sure everyone asks you this, but it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. So why Jesus’ foreskin?
David Farley (DF): Why not Jesus’ foreskin? Who had actually thought of Jesus’ foreskin until you heard of it the first time. The first time I heard “Holy Foreskin” with those two words in succession to each other I thought it was some sort of foreskin fetish magazine.
MB: At the beginning of the story you talk about how you wanted an adventure, but you didn’t know exactly where you wanted to go. What made you want to uproot yourself, head to a tiny Italian village and search for the lost foreskin of Jesus Christ?
DF: Just out of habit of not really staying in one place at one time. Before that in the last 10 years, I had moved around so much from Santa Cruz, Prague, San Francisco, Paris, Rome, and a few years in New York. I just started to get antsy again, so my wife and I both were thinking about moving somewhere for awhile but didn’t know where. She had been reminding me about Calcata because we went there on a day trip when we lived in Rome, and it was such a fantastical place with all these crazy bohemian types there. It looks like a classic medieval Italian town, but once you start wandering around, you see that there is an absurd amount of art galleries and people are dressed in saris. You start talking to people and they start speaking about this weird energy that comes from the rock and stuff. Then I came across the story of the Holy Foreskin, and that’s when I realized that it was interesting enough.
MB: In towns of that size [Author’s note: Calcata has app. 100 people], you often encounter two types of people: those who are very excited to have an outsider and those who are incredibly distrustful of the interloper. Overall, was Calcata inviting or suspicious towards you?
DF: I expected it to be really distrustful, especially because I was coming there to speak about a relic that I thought was a taboo subject. It wasn’t taboo at all, and Calcata is really welcoming. Pretty much everyone there was really welcoming of me there and really curious about me at the same time. It really went beyond my expectations. I really thought that some guy from New York showing up who claims to be a journalist, is mentioning writing a book about his time there; I thought that a lot of people would be really suspicious of me. Maybe they were, but maybe I just didn’t realize it.
MB: You were confronted by some priests at the Vatican while you were attempting to research the Holy Foreskin. When they asked for your name, you panicked. Why did you tell them that your name is Gary Coleman?
DF: Because, first of all, I was just talking about Gary the night before with an actor who spends his weekends in Calcata and who was in the Italian production of Avenue Q, which in Italy is called Viale T. He was just telling me that there is this part where they say, “I’m Gary Coleman,” and that’s one reason. I thought that was really funny. Then he told me when Diff’rent Strokes aired in Italy in the 80s, and if you were of a certain age everyone knew who Gary Coleman was and the famous phrase: che cosa stai dicendo, Willis (What you talking about, Willis?). I thought that was really hilarious. I even thanked him in the first book that I co-edited, Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories. He’s in the acknowledgments and gets a big thank you.
MB: Some of my favorite parts of the book are your interactions with the Vatican and other scholars and how you always tried to come up with a diplomatic way to bring up the Holy Foreskin so as to not be laughed out of the room (or aggressively dismissed from the room). On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being Martin Luther and 10 being Martin Lawrence, how much of a sense of humor does the Vatican have?
DF: From my experience it would have to be a 1. They are an ancient institution that is having trouble keeping up with the modern world. So you get people like me coming in asking questions about this ancient relic that used to be part of the institution of Catholicism and the church, and they don’t know how to deal with it. If it were 500 – 600 years ago and I came in asking about the Holy Foreskin, they probably would have invited me in to lounge on their sofa and ask all the questions I wanted to about the Holy Foreskin. Now, of course, things have changed.
MB: In your recent WorldHum article, you talk about how there were mixed reactions to you writing an New York Times article about Calcata. Now you have a whole book about the town. Are you persona non grata, persona quasi grata? What is your relationship with the town and the town’s people now?
DF: Some people won’t be happy with it. I didn’t say anything intentionally bad about anyone in the book, but you never know how people are going to react to the way things are mentioned or characterized in the book. I think Calcata is a special case because the village was abandoned and the people there who still live there, these artists and bohemian types, felt like they saved the village because they did have it taken off of the condemned list. They feel really protective over it. So it is particular to Calcata that anything you write about, people are going to kind of react to in a certain extreme way just because it’s like they’re looking after their child or something like that.
MB: Part of
the story is that a German soldier during WWII had the foreskin, brought it Calcata, and that’s how it arrived in the village. The only real interaction that people have with Nazis and Catholicism up until now is in Indiana Jones. Were you at all concerned that had you laid eyes on the foreskin that your face would melt?
DF: That wasn’t my concern, but my concern would be that my hands would become numb, because if you remember from the story, that everyone was trying to untie the sack that held something in it and their hands would become numb. They needed a woman of complete purity to open it, and they found a seven-year-old girl named Clarice, to do it and she opened it. So not being a man of complete purity, I think that I wouldn’t have much of a chance of touching the Holy Foreskin without my hands or another part of my body becoming completely stiff.
MB: To me, one of the most wonderful parts of the book is that it is about you wanting to shake yourself out of your comfort zone and go on an adventure. What advice would you give to people who are maybe thinking about uprooting their lives? How do you break that inertia and say I’m going to do it?
DF: Right. I actually don’t have any practical advice for that except just to say the annoying answer is just to say that you have to do it. I’ve done it 3 or 4 times in my life already where I’ve just moved somewhere for that reason just to welcome the unfamiliar, uncomfortable. At times it sucks but in the end you become a much better, wiser person for that. You really just have to have the courage to do it. Changeability changes your world.
MB: J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye and never released anything after that. He’s known for The Catcher in the Rye, which not a bad way to be remembered. Now, heaven forbid writer’s block attacks you or no story catches on the way searching for the Holy Foreskin does, have you come to peace with being the Holy Foreskin guy?
DF: No, I haven’t. I was at a party a few months ago on the Upper West Side and somehow it was at one point where the topic of circumcision came up. As soon as it did, everyone looked at me, and I said, “What?” I knew why they were looking at me, but it was just kind of funny that just circumcision, nothing to do with historic circumcision or Jesus’ circumcision, but just circumcision in general made everyone look at me. So it would be nice in a weird way to write something else that I might be known for other than Jesus’ foreskin. I hope that I do, but until that happens, I will just be Mr. Holy Foreskin, I guess.
David Farley’s travel writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and National Geographic Adventure amongst other publications. He also once showed Gadling what’s in his pack. His new book, An Irreverent Curiosity, is in stores now.