JERUSALEM – Orthodox Christians visiting the Holy Land often return home with more than just spiritual memories. Many drop by a centuries-old tattoo parlor in Jerusalem's Old City, inking themselves with a permanent reminder not only of their pilgrimage but also of devotion to their faith.
The same Jerusalem family has been tattooing pilgrims with crosses and other religious symbols for hundreds of years, testament to the importance of the ancient ritual. While Catholics can get a written certificate of their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Orthodox Christians opt for a tattoo, a permanent reminder of their visit.
In contrast to the bustling streets of the Old City outside, the Razzouk parlor is quiet, with only the buzz of an electric needle zigzagging across a pilgrim's arm.
Pilgrims said the pain of the needle is worth the sacrifice.
"The pain I feel is like the pain that Jesus Christ felt when he was on the cross with his crown of thorns," said Etetu Legesse, a nurse from Ethiopia, as a scene depicting the crucifixion was etched on her triceps.
Another Ethiopian woman wailed a song as an image of the Virgin Mary was tattooed onto her arm.
"I'm singing, God, I'm thinking about God; he died for us on the cross, that's why I'm singing," the 35-year-old woman, who gave her name as Mebrat, said.
Anton Razzouk, the family's 72-year-old patriarch, says the business can be traced back to a Coptic ancestor who traveled by camel and donkey from Egypt to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage about 300 years ago and decided to stay.
Today, the Razzouk business is the oldest tattoo parlor in the Old City catering to Christian tourists. Razzouk says that up until the 1950's his father's business was unchallenged and that he was the only one in the Old City, though a handful of competitors have sprouted up since then.
The art form was passed on from father to son and countless pilgrims have returned home over the centuries with the markings. Razzouk said his father, Jacob, tattooed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as well as hundreds of allied troops stationed in the region during World War II. He said the markings remind the faithful not to sin.
"A tattoo on the hand is the best certificate of pilgrimage because it stays there forever. It stays until the person is dead. It stays with him until the grave," said Razzouk.
Whereas Judaism and Islam prohibit marking the body, for Orthodox Christian denominations like Armenians, Syrians, Ethiopians and Copts, tattoos are both decorative and a sign of faith. Roman Catholicism does not ban tattooing, but the practice is not as common.
Razzouk says he tattoos 300 to 400 pilgrims each year. His service is so popular that the family often goes to nearby hotels to tattoo travelers as well.
Designs include crosses in different shapes, as well as elaborate Virgin Mary and crucifixion motifs. Orthodox pilgrims traditionally get them done during Easter after wandering through the Old City and praying at the Holy Sepulcher Church, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Tattoos cost between 20 and 100 dollars, depending on how elaborate they are.
Orthodox Christians, who follow the older Julian calendar, marked Easter at the beginning of May. Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations that observe the newer Gregorian calendar held their Easter celebrations at the end of March.
The shop is unassuming, with a simple sign reading "Tattoo & Change." To supplement their income, the family runs a money-exchange business and sells a variety of religious objects and books, from crowns of thorns to rosaries, as well as crosses and tour guides.
Razzouk can rest assured that his family will carry on the tradition. He has been training his son Wassim, 40, to take over the family business. On a recent day, Wassim was busy tattooing customers. Anton's 10-year-old grandson Nizzar has also shown interest in the business.
"A lot of people, when they sit down to make the tattoo, say that they've been waiting for this all their lives," Wassim Razzouk said.