The Living Stones of the Holy Land

“…You also, like living stones, are being built into a temple of the Spirit” – 1 Peter 2:5

As I mentioned in my previous posts, one of the many things that excited me about this pilgrimage was the prospect of visiting Razzouk Tattoo in the Old City of Jerusalem. I first read about the Razzouk family from a friend who shared their story from some article found on Facebook. I was intrigued by the idea that for 700 years this family has been tattooing pilgrims in the Holy Land and was determined to make a visit when I next returned to Jerusalem.

In the preceding months before leaving on pilgrimage, I had surfed through Wassim Razzouk’s Facebook page to get an idea of what I might want to get. For me, any tattoo needs to have some sort of personal and spiritual meaning. I now have five tattoos and each helps tell the story f my life and faith. So when I saw the stamp of Saint George slaying the dragon I immediately knew that was the one for me.

Saint George, according to legend, was a Roman soldier of Greek origin and officer in the Guard of Roman emperor Diocletian, who was sentenced to death for refusing to recant his Christian faith. As a Christian martyr, he later became one of the most venerated saints in Christianity, and was especially venerated by the Crusaders. He of course is the patron saint of many countries including both Russia and England.

He has always had a place in my heart for several reasons and they relate mostly to my father and my memories of him. My father and I were very involved both in the Episcopal Church and in Scouting. The Scouting program created various religious medals for different ages and for many different faiths, and my dad made sure that I worked on my religious medals because being reverent is part of the Scout Law. There are also adult religious medals that are not earned but awarded for service to Scouting and the Church. Since we are Episcopalians, who trace their history and roots to…you guessed it England, the adult award is the Saint George Medal. My dad was nominated and received the award and medal with Saint George slaying the dragon at the center.

The Episcopal Saint George Medal

In 1999, when I first when on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I returned with an icon of Saint George slaying the Dragon for my dad because of the religious award. Finally, for me, the image of Saint George slaying a dragon is a reminder to me that through faith and prayer we can slay the dragons within us that seek to consume us. My father died unexpectedly in 2007 and so when I saw the stamp I know that was the one for me so that I can remember those stories, remember my father, and share them with my son.

Razzouk Tattoo in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Obligatory selfie in front of Razzouk Tattoo.
Pictures of Wassim’s family members who were also tattoo artists, with Wassim in the bottom right frame.
A collection of stamps with the oldest one being around 500 years old. Many of these stamps are older than America…I’ll let you sit with that one for a moment.
The stamp of Saint George slaying the dragon.
The artist ready and waiting for his canvas.
The stamp and the finished tattoo.

In my last post I mentioned that I might become famous in Turkey. Allow me to explain. When we had created the itinerary for the pilgrimage we had initially built in an extra day at the beginning for the group to recover from the flight, rest, and people could explore if they wanted. However, as soon as I was on the coach on our way to Jerusalem from the airport in Tel Aviv I was given the updated itinerary, only I didn’t realize that this new itinerary had changed from the last version we had been working with. I quickly realized that my appointment with Wassim was scheduled right when we would be at the Herodium. Now that was going to work for me, so I quickly Facebook messaged him to ask if he would stick around the shop until I was back and able to make my way to his shop. I was thinking that 7:00pm was my target time. He said he would wait but asked that if I could make it any earlier to just let him know.

Fortunately, we were done with the Herodium earlier than expected and since it was Shabbat there was literally no traffic on the roads. So we made excellent time getting around Jerusalem that yesterday. Our coach driver Omar kindly agreed to drop me off at the Jaffa Gate so that I didn’t have to walk from the east end of the Old City to the west end of the Old City; not that the Old City ids very big, but I wanted to be respectful of Wassim’s time and I really wanted to go! So, using my handy phone I found his shop without a problem and just needed to wait about 15 minutes for him to finish up the person he was tattooing when I walked in. As I sat there and talked with two older women, who I assume were related to Wassim in some capacity and I sensed that one of them was even his mother, another woman came bursting into the shop. She apologized for being two and half hours late, and for a quick moment I was thinking that she was late for an appointment and that she would take my spot. Now, I was feeling selfish in that moment, but I would have deferred since I was there and no longer in a rush. Then two more men walked in who were with her and then finally another woman. I was beginning to wonder what was going on here.

As it turns out, they are British film crew for a Turkish television station who was doing a multi-part series on Palestinian art forms and they were there to document and interview Wassim. Since I had chosen to get a tattoo using one of the old stamps Wassim asked if I minded them filming our session. Me pass up on a chance of being a part of this, I eagerly assented. Because this was now something that was being produced for a television, the nature of our session changed. We waited for them to test microphones and camera angles. We had to re-shoot different parts of Wassim putting the ink on the stamp and then applying the stamp to my arm. And then for the next twenty minutes or so, I prayed the Jesus Prayer on my prayer beads and allowed the crew to film Wassim at work. The hum of the tattoo gun, the pain from the needle quickly and repeatedly piercing my skin, and even the mixture of blood and ink are all part of the ritual. In that moment of prayer and pain, I was happy. There was no awkward banter between Wassim and I because we were being filmed and before I knew it, we were done. Wassim has done this particular tattoo so many times he knows exactly what strokes to make and when. Overall it was an awesome experience.

I was getting cleaned up and settling up with Wassim, he suggested to the producers that they interview me and ask me about why I came to Razzouk and what I chose that tattoo. And so I answered the questions of the Turkish host. I talked about how I was drawn to this place because of my pilgrimages to Jerusalem. I shared how I wanted to be a part of this pilgrimage tradition and take my place with the countless number of pilgrims who have graced this shop to mark their sacred journey. And I also shared how I believe that by coming to his shop, by supporting a Palestinian Christian, and then sharing my experience with the wider world bears witness to the resilience of the Palestinian people who are still managing to carry out their traditions and way of life despite the hostile and oppressive environment.

Christians here call themselves “living stones,” an affirmation that they are remnants of the first Christian communities in the Holy Land, with roots here since the Pentecost. Often when pilgrims group come to the Holy Land they are only interested in the “dead stones” that make up the ruins of many of the holy sites in and around Jerusalem. While this is good in and of itself, to see and connect with these holy sites, but perhaps as equally important is connecting with the people who still live, work, and worship in this land. It is all too easy to ignore the people and focus solely on the religious and spiritual aspects of pilgrimage, but by hearing the stories from the people who live in this Holy Land we then become part of the narrative. We can help provide a voice for the voiceless. We can share the stories of what is happening in this place, that is often whitewashed or just not reported by mainstream American media.

This, and frankly any pilgrimage, is more than just a personal spiritual journey. It is an opportunity to connect with others in the world and we being to see that, as the Gospel story for the Fifth Sunday of Easter tells us, we are all connected like branches to the vine. When something happens to one branch, it affects the others. And so we must continue to bear witness to the Palestinian people, to come to this sacred land, and help share their stories, because without these living stones who have carried on the Christian faith in this place for nearly two thousand years, we would not be who we are today. The stones of the Holy Sites have stories to tell, but so too, do the living stones who remain steadfast and hopeful even in the midst of suffering and pain.

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