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‘The ways deep, the weather sharp’: A journey in the Magi’s footsteps

A detail from The Magi Journeying (c 1890), by James Tissot

As a child I found it hard to believe that the world east of Bethlehem was real at all. This was a region where fire might fall from Heaven on the prophets of Baal, or angels appear overhead, or seas divide and then close again over your head.

The atlases and encyclopaedias in which I buried myself were concerned mostly with our islands and the Empire, or what had until recently been the Empire. In them, even continental Europe was misty and exotic. I would later be faintly surprised to find that legendary cities such as Prague and Moscow actually possessed the banal characteristics of any other place: pedestrian crossings, suburbs and traffic police.

The Holy Land was the uttermost east, and what lay beyond it was a cloudy region of desert and mountain, a place of dreams and myths. When I finally travelled to Jerusalem, I was unsettled by seeing the name of that city on motorway signboards, and absurdly tickled to discover that it had a somnolent railway station. I toyed with the idea of asking for a day return to Gomorrah, or Armageddon, to see what would happen. Perhaps there was a service to Babylon or Nineveh.

Of course there wasn’t. But in an odd way, the lion-coloured wilderness that reared up behind the Mount of Olives and then fell away to the Dead Sea beyond was still the beginning of a worrying unknown zone. This was the landscape of the prophets, where one lived on locusts and wild honey, and on pure thought. “What went ye out into the desert to see? A reed, shaken with the wind?” (Matthew 11:7). Simply to venture to Bethlehem itself (on my first visit, an easy drive out of Jerusalem, alas no longer so easy) was to get Scripture hopelessly mixed up with geography.

But the Wise Men had not come from the West, as I had. They had come from the East. It is their journey which Lancelot Andrewes described so marvellously in his sermon preached before King James I on Christmas Day 1622, a sermon which TS Eliot plundered for a poem almost everyone has heard at some stage, without knowing its origin. Eliot does not seem to have been quick to acknowledge his source:

Last, we consider the time of their coming, the season of the year. It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.

This was nothing pleasant, for through deserts, all the way waste and desolate. Nor secondly easy neither; for over the rocks and crags of both Arabias … their journey lay … exceeding dangerous, as lying through the black tents of Kedar … to pass over the hills of robbers, infamous then and infamous to this day.

For Andrewes, who had grown up in a more poetic world than we can imagine, this story was comparatively matter-of-fact. The places and the people were, to him, real and recent. This persists in odd pockets of the world, to this day. If you go to the country around Isfahan in modern Iran, you will find people who will tell you that the Three Wise men began their journey nearby at Kashan, a town in a part of Persia where front doors still have two different knockers, a large heavy one if you are calling for the men of the house, and a light, thin one if you wish to summon the women to the door. This, too, is a strange and not quite earthly place, riven frequently by earthquakes, with deserts and mountains so jagged and strangely coloured that you could easily think yourself on some other planet.

And it was once my great good fortune (though I did not think it so at the time) to make my own westward Christmas journey, starting east of Bethlehem, through Lancelot Andrewes’s rocks and crags and bandit-infested hills. I had been sent to Baghdad, another place that once belonged in storybooks, to write about the capture of Saddam Hussein.

On the way there, sunk in gloom and resentment at an unwanted task, I had left the normal world of pre-Christmas Europe at Vienna airport. Its cheerful bars were full of relaxed pre-Christmas boozers anticipating holidays, while I was pondering the long, weary drive through a Martian emptiness, from Amman in Jordan all the way to Baghdad. There was nothing about this assignment that appealed to me. I was worried that I would not be able to get home in time for the feast.

There were vaguer, lurking fears too. The stretch of road between Amman and the Iraqi border was notorious for crashes. The motorway beyond was dramatically cratered by American bombing raids, compelling detours into the sand and scrub. Baghdad was not especially safe, and the danger of being stopped and robbed on the way there or the way back was real. One heard of it happening to colleagues quite a lot. And this was not one of those places where one could retreat to the Westernised luxury of a modern hotel at the end of a difficult day.

But in the end, after my work was done, my return convoy turned up on time for our pre-dawn departure. We were a small caravan of GMC trucks travelling together for safety, and we were across the tree-lined Euphrates at Ramadi (then still undestroyed) and into the desert before the thin, weak sun was up to illuminate the damp expanses of wasteland.

With every hour that passed, Christmas and, since you mention it, Christendom grew closer. As a boarding school veteran, I had always associated the feast with long, bleak journeys, by clattering steam trains in the 1950s and early 1960s, the low light and menacing skies adding to the thrill of anticipation. Scott Fitzgerald, in one of the best passages of his odd, overrated novel The Great Gatsby, wrote of “the thrilling returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and the sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow”. I knew exactly what he meant, even though there were no sleigh bells and no frosty dark, and this was no train, but a tough old desert truck in which I sat reading Dorothy L Sayers and imagining myself in Fenchurch St Paul as the floods approached, and as the familiar denouement of The Nine Tailors approached once more.

How incongruous it was to look up and see the wasteland of western Iraq around me. And yet not so much. Because I was travelling the way the Wise Men had come, more or less, and soon I would be crossing from the region of myth, legend and parable into the greener, sharper-edged world – which would itself be a desert if it had not been for those myths and legends, which are of course truer than anything we now see or read or hear. And I arrived at evening, not a moment too soon, finding the place.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday