From Patmos to Jerusalem
The relationship between Patmos and Jerusalem, at first, may not seem like an obvious one. However, for anyone willing, and perhaps brave enough to really engage with the book of Revelation the two places seem intrinsically linked.
It is not easy to get to Patmos and it involved a serious lack of sleep and two days of travel by road, air and sea. For John however, it would have taken much longer, and his journey was as a prisoner, heading to a place of exile;
‘I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’ (Revelation 1:9)
The last years of John’s life are largely unknown, but it is clear from the text of Revelation that he ended up, as did other members of Jesus’ disciples, in what was western Asia Minor - modern Turkey. In many ways this area was the cradle of early Christianity and the springboard for the first missionary journeys into Europe - Peter, Paul and John were all involved with churches there. The seven churches of Revelation (Smyrna, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Thyatira, Sardis, Ephesus and Pergamum) were all located here and John may have personally visited them before his arrest. Indeed, it should always be remembered that the book of Revelation is essentially a letter written to the early believers in those regions;
‘John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia:’ (Revelation 1:4)
The purpose of John’s letter, then, was not primarily to theologise about the end of the world but rather to inspire hope in a Christian community that was, and would suffer persecution under the Roman Empire. The references to persecution fill the early pages of John’s letter and probably references the terrible Neronic persecution’s breaking out against Christians in AD 67 - Nero, seeking to find a scapegoat for the fire of Rome found an easy target in the early Christian church. To go to Patmos was more than a just a chance to see where John was exiled, it was also an opportunity to experience something of what his last journey must have been like.
The journey to Patmos involves a trip by sea up the western coast of Turkey, which could just be seen in the distance when travelling from the island of Kos.
It is a journey through a “landscape” like no other - small volcanic islands spring up from the horizon, one after the other, many of which are not populated and just appear as barren, rocky outcrops. As we travelled north, I couldn’t help but constantly turn my thoughts to the experience of John. What must have he been thinking as he was taken away from everything he loved, to a place he would probably never return from? It must have been a kind of death, and was a particularly cruel punishment exacted by the Romans. In some ways, even for me as a modern traveller, it felt like we would never get to Patmos, that we were heading somewhere unique, at the edge of the world - an appropriate place perhaps for John to experience his vision of “the end of the world”! Eventually, however, the island came into view and it slowly filled the horizon before we landed at the port town of Skala with its blocky, whitewashed houses gleaming in the afternoon sun.
The landscape of Patmos is dominated by low coastal areas behind which rise island peaks. The island felt unspoiled and it was not hard to imagine John stepping ashore to begin his exile. We scooted around the island, swam in the Icarian sea and constantly kept saying things like, “John probably did this” (not ride a scooter I hasten to add). Where John lived, and where John had his Revelation is unknown, although tradition has it that a cave (the cave of the apocalypse) on the hill above Skala was the location. The cave itself, in true Christian fashion, has a church built on it, and yet, unlike the historic locations of Jerusalem, there were few people there. The cave, whilst it had been converted into an Orthodox Church, remains an impressive granite space and it is not hard to see why it was perhaps chosen by John as a place to seek God in (he may have even lived there).
As I sat in that cave a lot of thoughts went through my mind, not least among them , ‘what on Earth was I doing, sitting in a cave on a remote Greek Island, so far away from my loved ones?’ – and, in a much more palatable fashion, I concluded that it was for the same reason as John - it was because of Jesus. Of course, I was not being persecuted and I hadn’t been sent there against my will, but I was driven by a desire to involve my life in some way with the life of Jesus and the life of those who had known him and walked with him. Beyond all the religious paraphernalia, I think that’s what I was reaching for, a sense of the history of the impact that Christ has made and how he chose a man in exile, to pen perhaps the greatest piece of Christian literature, and maybe the greatest and most enigmatic piece of literature ever penned. In the end, as I left Patmos, I felt like God had showed me, or reminded me, that holiness is not found in a place, a cave or a church, but in the lives of those who have been touched by Jesus. It is that touch that separates us, marks us as different and sets us apart as believers. In essence, it is as we approach him, in our hearts, that we find ourselves on holy ground.
I did not know what to expect as I travelled to Jerusalem but I felt certain that it would challenge any fairy tale notion of donkeys and dusty streets. As we flew into Tel Aviv and the lights of Israel began to appear below, my overwhelming thought was ‘wow, it’s a real place!’ After over thirty years of reading about this little piece of land and all its history, it seemed unreal that it actually existed. The following morning, after sleeping in the airport (or trying to sleep), we took the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and after leaving our bags at the hostel headed straight for the Old City.
It is hard to describe my feelings as the walls of the Old City came into view - it felt personal and a little familiar, but also a little intangible and unreal. We walked up to the Jaffa gate and entered the walled city. The Old City is a crazy arrangement of tiny streets and the odd plaza crammed into one square kilometre. The main thoroughfares are lined with markets, selling every religious artefact possible, but also Turkish coffee, bread and Middle Eastern sweets.At almost every corner you were confronted with a building, or space of religious importance – which in reality felt like a confusing mess of conflicting traditions all squashed into the same space. Of course, some spaces hold extreme significance and without really intending to go there directly, we found ourselves at the Western Wall - the most sacred site of the Jewish faith - once again, seeing the place for real was hard to comprehend, and even though it was early in the morning it was crowded with worshippers, above whom, on the Temple Mount the golden Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque towered.
We had not planned it, but it was Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles, and we’d arrived in Jerusalem during the last few days of its celebration. This made the city busy and slightly frenzied. Nowhere more so than at the Kotel (the Western Wall) - this last remnant of Herod’s temple complex has become the focus of the Jewish faith and on the day, we had arrived it was the focus of an incredible outpouring of prayer, passion, pain and religious zeal. Young children stood, loudly and confidently, recounting prayers in Hebrew, whilst old men sat deeply engrossed in the words of a prayer book. Many clutched a lemon like fruit called an etrog and a single palm branch called a lulav, which they waved before the wall.As I pushed forward to get to the wall I felt like an intruder, but after having thought and read so much about this place I wanted to get to the wall and pray. As I put my hand on the wall, I didn’t feel like I wanted to pray for myself, and so I simply said to God that I was bringing myself, my family, my church which had sent me, my county and my nation to Him - it felt like that was my offering - in fact the Feast of Tabernacles is the one feast that Gentiles were invited to, and in the book of Zechariah 14:16 it says;
‘Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.’
It seemed like a good moment to be there.
For someone who is a historian, my attention soon turned to the walls and the ruins around me. I found myself picking out the now blocked Barclay Gate and the synagogue built inside Wilson’s Arch (these were the original gates into the Temple Mount). I also got really excited by a big pile of stones below the ruins of Robinson’s Arch further along the Western Wall outside of the Plaza area – these were the very stones thrown down by the Romans in AD 70 when the city and temple were destroyed. I spent hours walking around the archaeological digs currently going on in and around the Temple Mount, snapping lots of ruins, all representing a different phase of the city’s history.
(I believe an understanding of what happened in Jerusalem in AD 70 is a key to understanding what the book of Revelation is about. Removed from its historical context the book feels like a jumbled collection of crazy, horrifying visions that make little sense, or worse are used and in a heavy-handed way are applied to our world by those who have little understanding of their meaning. That John’s revelation coincided with the Roman destruction of the city and temple in AD 70 brings so much life and meaning to the text - as the old Jerusalem falls a new Jerusalem is seen as descending from heaven.)
It was not just history that was evident everywhere, there was an air of tension across the city and armed soldiers were posted on famous streets such as the Via Dolorosa - the street Jesus is supposed to have walked along carrying his cross to the place of execution. It was hard in many ways to think of Jesus in such a setting, it all seemed so confused and intense, like a powder keg about to explode, but perhaps it wasn’t so different from the explosive atmosphere in Jerusalem during Jesus’ last few days. Away from the crush of the main areas, it was easier to picture Jesus in the city - as I sat on the southern steps, outside of what would have been the gate called Beautiful, in the baking hot sun, I could imagine Jesus sitting here with his disciples, the healing of a man, or the early disciples gathering to pray.
In the early evening we walked east to the Mount of Olives, via the garden of Gethsemane. Whether or not it was the actual garden of Jesus’ betrayal I don’t know, but the eastern slopes of the hill on which the Old City sits are filled with Olive Groves and it is easy to imagine Jesus, somewhere here, being arrested at night. It is 400 steps to the top of the Mount of Olives, and the hillside is full of graves - the white block sarcophagi gleaming in the sunlight might well have been what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of Pharisees as being like ‘whitewashed tombs’.The vista from the Mount of Olives over the Old City was worth the climb and as I stood looking out at the city, I found it impossible to grasp how much history and intensity could be contained in such a small part of the world.
On the morning of the following day, we hired a car and drove to the Dead Sea, which certainly lives up to its name. Perhaps the most stunning part of our whole journey was the drive through the Judean mountains to the east of Jerusalem. The landscape is harsh, barren and a lot more mountainous than I had imagined. It was here that Jesus faced his temptations and all my preconceptions of what that experience must have looked like were changed. Driving south along the Dead Sea was a truly special experience, the sea sitting far below sea level had an unearthly, but incredibly beautiful appearance. Stopping at the oasis of En Gedi we then headed north to the Sea of Galilee (after Ian swam in the Dead Sea) along the Jordan Valley. Again, the Jordan Valley was a surprise - it was much wider than I imagined and as we drove along it the equally mountainous kingdom of Jordan could be seen, stretched out on the other bank. On the way we stopped at a place by the river where people were getting baptised - at this point the Jordan was very narrow and Jordanian soldiers stood on the opposite bank. The river was full of bulrushes and there must have been a hundred spectators watching the baptisms. A group of Russian Orthodox Christians were dancing and dunking themselves in the water with a joy that was contagious (Ian joined in with both the dancing and dunking). Our arrival at Galilee was late in the day and we sat on the shore, as the sun began to go down, with our feet in the water - fishermen were casting their lines nearby and it was impossible not to think of the adventures of Jesus and his disciples on this lake.However, unlike Jerusalem, it felt unspoiled and close to how it might have been in Jesus’ day. We set off back to Jerusalem as the sun set over the Judean mountains.
The last day in Jerusalem was Shabbat - and the city was a lot quieter. The Western Wall was still crowded but I felt less welcome and was told to put my camera away. I wandered through the Christian quarter and visited the bullet-marked Zion Gate (I managed to visit all the city gates), the centre of the fall of the city in 1967 to Israeli forces. Indeed, it felt hard to get away from the blood-soaked history of Jerusalem. Some areas of the city felt safe, but others felt tense and difficult. Later in the morning, I walked down around the City of David, and ended up in the Valley of Hinnom, looking up towards the Golden Gate in the distance. It was an incredible sight and I imagined the scores of worshippers throughout history who must have shared this view as they went up to the temple. The ascent back nearly killed me and I spent an hour recovering whilst looking out over the Kidron valley at the tombs of the kings.I finished the morning sitting outside of the Damascus Gate, pondering all I had seen before heading back to Tel Aviv – which was an utter contrast.
And so, six flights later, having travelled by car, motorbike, boat and by foot, I’ve had time to reflect on my experience. The little island of Patmos and the Old City of Jerusalem have somehow ended up being part of my story, a piece in the puzzle of my faith and journey with Jesus – it was a life-changing experience for sure, but, that being said, in a strange and unexpected way it reaffirmed my belief that God is not a God stuck in history or limited by place and that he does not inhabit dead stones, but living ones, and because of Christ we do not need to visit a cave or a wall to meet him;
‘"The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,"’ Romans 10:8