Whilst I’m not particularly religious, I do have a fascination of religious cultures across the world. I guess my interest started when I studied Hinduism and Judaism at A Level and travelling around the world where in some places religion is the main factor in family life, you can’t help but not ignore these ways of lives. This is not by any means a conversation starter about religion (maybe try me over a few beers…) but more so how lucky I have been to visit some of the greatest religious sites that some people only dream of making a pilgrimage too once in their lifetime. I have always travelled to places because they have interested me, but it’s hard to ignore when religion is so prevalent in many countries around the world.
I have been to the places I learnt about at Sunday School when I was a small child – the birth place of Jesus, the Gardens of Gethsemane, The Mount of Olives, Mount Nebo where Moses looked across the Promised Land, where John baptised Jesus and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified. Other sites have been the Wailing Wall, the Blue Mosque, the incredible mosque in Casablanca, the Tomb of the Patriachs which is now half synagogue, half mosque. Taken part in Shabbat rituals, visited many a wonderful ornate Hindu temple and Call to Prayer is still my favourite sound, even being woken at sunrise with the local muezzin trying to out cry the neighbouring mosque. I’ve visited countless monasteries across Asia, seen tens of thousands of Buddhas (mainly because one cave in Myanmar had 8,000), seen Buddhas small, gigantic, reclining and in many different forms. I’ve walked kora’s around many religious sites in Tibet, learnt about the Dalai Lama, seen sky burial and water burial sites, even a cremation in Kathmandu. The list is endless! Whether you believe in something or not religion really is a focal point in so many people’s lives.
Anyway, what was supposed to be a short introduction…..
This Easter weekend I’ve been lucky enough to visit Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It’s largely known for the ending point of walking the 900km Camino Way but during Holy Week they fill the streets with multiple processions depicting the Passion of Christ. What a sight to behold!
On arrival in Santiago the first stop is always the magnificent Cathedral. I made it in time for the 7pm Pilgrim’s Mass but disappointed to find out that the botafumeiro is only swung on Fridays…. except for Good Friday. Seeing this sight was my main reason to come to Santiago so needless to say I shall be back!
Despite my disappointment the Easter processions have more than cheered me up, if at times they have seemed quite terrifying with the cloaked and hooded men! After stepping outside of the Cathedral, people were gathering on the streets. Being the respectable English person I am, I of course joined them with absolutely no idea why! Then the sound of the drums came, a slow beat, a brass band, all musicians in cloaks and hooded masks. Then more cloaked and hooded men carrying on their shoulders a float with the biggest ornate statue of Mary set amongst flowers and candles. They slowly sway side to side to the beat of the drum whilst taking a little step forward along the processional route.
There are four processions on Good Friday. Up early and out to get a prime spot like an excited kid on Christmas or rather Easter… but it was pouring with rain and no one seemed to be around. They had moved the procession inside the Cathedral and even though it took me quite a while to realise this the services last quite a long time so I was able to catch some of the purple hooded men drag a cross to the alter. Afterwards being the tourist I am I managed to weave my way through the queues, out into the rain and catch up with the short parade happening outside.
Still raining so the 6pm one was just outside the tiny little church at the starting point. Luckily I had visited the Tourist Office earlier in the day who pointed me in the right direction. Everything is in Spanish and all I know is “Ola” and “cerveza, por favour”. The 8pm precession was in the much larger church next door. Managed to bag myself a fourth row seat and grateful that the rain was pouring and this one was kept all inside. The statues were of Jesus laid down in an open casket carried by ten red hooded men. Followed by the very ornate Mary, carried by the blue hooded men. Followed by women in funeral clothing and the church leaders. The concert band played a very eerie version of the funeral march as the carriers slowly rocked and swayed to the beat. It was just incredible, if a little frightening, but I will always have this memory of a little old man, just a member of the public, walking behind Mary for the full hour, slowly round and round the church. Every time the procession stopped for the Priest to speak he just looked up at the statue.
Four hours of church services, all in Spanish…… Whilst it’s been a long long time since I’ve spent that much time in a church, with the dedication of the congregation and the marvels of the Passion of Christ statues, I’m very glad I came.