“One of the monks described to us how unbearable life was under the Turks, and how glad he was to see the British enter Jerusalem”

A Reading soldier describes his experiences in Palestine.

MORE ABOUT PALESTINE

By the kindness of Mr Ernest Francis we are able to give further interesting extracts from letters recently received from our friend Private E. Layton Francis of the London Scottish Regiment.
Writing from somewhere in Palestine our friend says:

“I have much of interest to describe to you again, as during my travels I have visited Bethlehem and been on guard in the Church of the Holy Nativity. Bethlehem is situated on a hillside about six miles from Jerusalem. The streets are very narrow and covered with cobbles, and in many places beams run across the street overhead to stop the houses falling in.

The entrance to the Church is just a small hole in what appears to be a castle wall. Inside there is a huge hall like the body of a church; the roof is supported with forty four pillars, and numerous highly coloured lamps hang from it. The whole building, which covers an immense area, and is evidently very old, comprises three churches – Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek. The Roman Catholic church is about the same size as St John’s [presumably Reading St John, now the Polish Catholic Church, in Watlington Street]. It is a beautiful church and has a very fine organ. The actual spot in which it is said that Jesus Christ was born is, as is usual out here in the East, a cave below the level of the church. It is cut out of the natural rock, and a cavity is shown where the wooden manger used to lay. The manger itself was supposed to have been sent to Rome. Of course there is a lot of valuable tapestry round this spot and several very beautiful pictures. There are numerous lamps hanging from the roof filled with olive oil and with floating wicks, some of the lamps always being alight. One of our posts was by the side of the manger, and here I used to sit for two hours at a time. There is so much here of interest to describe, and it is all so wonderful that a letter is not sufficient. I long for the time when I can tell all about it myself.

Since we commenced this stunt last October, I have been right through the Judean Hills and down on the plains below. The Judean Hills end abruptly and there is no gradual sloping away, but like cliffs, with a fertile plain stretching away to the Mountains of Moab, and the Jordan rushing madly on its career into the Dead Sea. The banks of the Jordan are very steep, and the stream is tremendously strong. The Dead Sea stretches away looking as calm and smooth as a pond.

Seen from a distance Jericho looks a pretty little lace with white houses and red roofs, with the white minarets showing through the green trees. Having seen this part of the country one can understand such terms as “The Promised Land” and a “Land flowing with milk and honey”. Halfway down one of the hillsides overlooking the plain, there is a beautiful monastery built into the rock. This is the Monastery of the Temptation, and the hill is the traditional spot where Christ was tempted of [sic] the devil. Some excavations at Jericho have laid bare the foundation of the old walls and the ruins of some of the houses.

Another place of interest I have seen in the Pool of Bethesda. This is considered one of the most authentic spots in the Holy City. The Pool is some way down, and is reached by a flight of stone steps. Above the Pool there are the remains of an old Crusaders’ Church, with the porchway, altar and crypt still standing, although in ruins. One of the actual pillars of the five porches, which at the time of our Lord gave entrance to the Pool, is still to be seen. The story of the miracle is written up in 75 different languages including Welsh, and Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Near by is a very beautiful Roman Catholic church, the Church of St Anne. The church belongs to some order of White Monks. One of the monks, who spoke very good English, described to us how unbearable life was under the Turks, and how glad he was to see the British enter Jerusalem.”

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, May 1918 (D/N11/12/1/14)