Long tradition of pilgrim tattoos a dying art in Jerusalem

Thursday, August 8, 2002

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM -- For 250 years the Razzouk family in Jerusalem's Old City has offered Christian pilgrims a Holy Land souvenir they can carry to their graves -- a tattoo.

Their simple designs of Christ on the cross, his resurrection, the Virgin Mary or elaborate decorative crosses in black ink have adorned the forearms of the likes of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and King George V of England.

"We print designs which are a certificate of pilgrimage," said Anton Razzouk, 58. "I do believe, like those pilgrims who tattoo themselves, that a Christian design on the arm is a pathway and a ticket to heaven."

In a house tucked away in the Old City's Christian Quarter, Razzouk and his sister Georgette, 60, are the last of generations of Razzouks to carry on the family tradition. They fear, though, that with fighting scaring pilgrims away, their tradition may die out.

A small collection of the family's olive-wood stamps, used to trace the tattoo on the arm of a pilgrim, are featured in an exhibition at the Tower of David Museum in the Old City. The exhibition focuses on styles of body decorations common to the Middle East such as henna, kohl and the pilgrim's tattoo.

While Judaism and Islam strictly forbid permanent body markings, tattoos with a religious theme are popular among Christians of Eastern origin such as the Coptics, Armenians, Ethiopians and Syrians.

Coptic priests in the Old City pull back the sleeves of their black robes to reveal dramatic tattoos on their inner forearms done by the Razzouks, while many other Arab Christians also sport religious designs on their bodies.

A researcher for the exhibition, Mordechai Levy, attests to the long history of tattoos in the Holy Land. "With a continuous tradition of 400 years, the custom of tattooing pilgrims has proven extraordinarily resilient," he said.

In 1680, Lutheran theologian Johannes Lundius wrote about Christians who made pilgrimages to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Jesus died, according to tradition. They sought marks on their bodies "because of the special sacred awe associated with the place and because of the desire to prove that they had been there."

The Razzouk family has had as many as 200 different tattoo stamps over the years, the oldest bearing the date 1749 in Armenian letters.

One of Razzouk's ancestors, Jersuis, a Coptic priest, brought the art he had learned from his forefathers in Egypt when he came to Jerusalem as a pilgrim in 1750 and remained in the Old City.

Razzouk recalled how pilgrims from all over the world would flock to Jerusalem at Easter and there would be lines outside the shop, with many singing and dancing.

He remembers one regular pilgrim, who had no room left on his arm for tattoos except the date of his visit, and others too poor to pay.

"My father didn't care for the money. He did it for the love of the art. Tattoos were in his blood," Razzouk said.

The family uses a secret mix of ink made from soot and wine, and an electric needle made from two metal door bells.

When Razzouk and his sister were in their 20s, their father started teaching them his art, making them practice on slabs of meat from the butcher, learning how to hold the skin and how deep to penetrate with the needle.

"To be a good tattoo artist you must not fear the sight of blood," Razzouk said.

He and his sister persuaded their father to give them tattoos despite his reluctance to work on people who were not pilgrims. Anton Razzouk has a small Coptic cross with the date 1943 on his upper right arm and Georgette an even smaller one on the inside of her left wrist -- both done by their father.

Georgette Razzouk, a teacher, does most of the tattoos while her brother, who runs a souvenir shop in the Old City, is in charge of maintaining the electric needle she uses.

"I love it because it is our family tradition," she said. "The tattoos are beautiful."

But the two fear that their art is in danger of dying out.

There are few pilgrims to Jerusalem these days and none of the younger Razzouks are interested in carrying on the family tradition.

"Business is very low now," said Razzouk. "I am afraid for this tradition ... we don't know what will become of it."

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