You would be forgiven for asking yourself why there is need for another book about the Middle East and the Holy Land in particular. Hasn’t it all been written? There are innumerable books about the history of the region. There are travel books upon travel books. There are books about the politics of the region (and those politics are complicated). There are books about the wars and the conflicts. There are books about the food. You won’t struggle to find a book about whatever it is you want to know. There is the Bible itself, of course.
So, why An Irish Pilgrimage to the Holy Land? That is good question. But one that can be answered once you have picked it up and had a read. There is a lot of history in there. There is a bit of geography. It isn’t too heavy on the politics (and wisely so). There is some demographics. There is a bit of theology (but again, wisely, not too much). There is even a hint of ecumenism.
There is a good bit of religion as it is a book about a pilgrimage – with regular pauses for reflection on relevant passages of the Bible. Even if you are not a believer, these excerpts connect the places you are visiting with their place in the Biblical narrative.
It can be a book for one sitting. But it would mostly be a handy travel companion. Useful for helping you make your plans – to know what there is to see and do, and where. But you don’t need to be travelling to enjoy it.
The author, Michael Kelly, editor of the Irish Catholic, is no stranger to the written word. This comes across as you turn the pages. It flows well. The breakdown of the sections geographically, working from the region of Galilee where Jesus Christ grew up, wandering from Nazareth to the Mount of the Beatitudes. He then ventures in to the desert before reaching Bethlehem for a brief stopover. From Bethlehem, the centre of the faith of the Holy Land, Jerusalem is only a short taxi drive away.
And in Jerusalem, the flavour of the history of this wondrous place, is told with just the right amount of detail. If ever there was the case of ‘if the walls could talk’, the walls of Jerusalem would have the greatest stories to tell. And many of those are sad stories, summed up in the name Via Dolorosa which traverses the city on the Stations of the Cross, ending in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
But the journey does not end there. Beyond this sadness, there is the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, a reminder of the more recent horrors that man does to man.
All the placenames are familiar to anyone who has grown up in any of the three Abrahamic faiths. And even if you had not, they are places of historical as well as religious importance. Real places with real people and a real history. Much of that has been told through the faith of the peoples, their struggles historically, and this is not lost in Kelly’s book.
The addition of a brief overview of the people’s who inhabit the Holy Land (just after having one’s appetite literally whetted with a rapid run-through of the cuisine of the region) rounds off the book nicely, pulling together some of the questions that would be building up as the reader moves across the pages/region.
In a short book, it is impossible to cover all the history of the region. It is impossible to cover all the religion. And it is impossible to cover all the sites of importance in this historical land. Michael Kelly pulls all the different pieces together with just the right amount of detail so that you can carry this in your hand luggage as you board the plan for Jerusalem.
If there is anything missing in the travel companion, it is a few nice maps to orient the traveller in this compact land that is the Holy Land, and in the compact city of Jerusalem. Some sites are mere metres from the next, while others are a few score kilometres.
It can be hard to appreciate that so much history is packed into an area little more than the size of an Irish province, and that history has shaped the world that we live in today. And it continues to do so.
So, Michael Kelly’s is a valuable addition to the literature on the Holy Land. It doesn’t promise a solution to the problems of the Middle East. It doesn’t air grievances. It doesn’t sugar-coat either. It captures much of the beauty in the history of the place in an easy-to-read manner that makes the Holy Land a little easier to navigate.