6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 7

Christian gloom

There was one depressing aspect of a recent visit to Israel, and it lay in comparing the Christian Holy Places with those of the Moslems and Jews. The old city of Jerusalem is now in splendid repair, and the Israelis are clearly carrying out with expertise and care their excavation and repair of the Temple (which work was the trumped-up occasion of the Arab attack on them at UNESCO). One approaches the Wailing Wall across a sun-swept expanse of courtyard and one enters the dim Temple on the left: everywhere there are Jews of all ages, praying continuously. The scene is one of simple and intense piety. Beyond the Temple Mount there are the two great Muslim mosques. The interiors are, of course, splendid, the floors draped with splendid carpets, the walls a pattern of magnificent mosaics, everywhere an impression of ease and space and dignity. Here the worshippers were fewer, but quite as impressive and dignified. On then to Bethlehem and the Christian church which occupies the site of the inn and the stable. Here all is cramped, musty, stinking with incense, filled with begging, down at heel priests and guttering candles. Gloom everywhere is unrelieved, the ornamentation shoddy and the altars a mess of tatty pseudo-Byzantine. The tradition one hoped to find alive and strong was clearly strangling itself. As we came out my equally disappointed companion said to me, "And I expected to be impressed."