By Henriette Chacar and Nisreen Salem
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A few steps from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a small opening leads to an underground cistern where clerics have found the perfect place to practise chants ahead of the holiest day in the Christian calendar.
As Eastern churches prepared to mark Easter one week after the Roman Catholic celebration, Barakat al-Masri stood deep underneath Saint Helena's Coptic Orthodox church, chanting hymns in Coptic and Arabic.
The cistern is not much to look at, but al-Masri, the cantor at the Coptic church, says the sound it produces is unique.
"There’s an echo,” the 35-year-old Egyptian-born student of Coptic languages and music told Reuters at the bottom of a winding subterranean staircase in the build-up to Holy Week.
“Many people come here and record themselves singing because the sound is as if you are in a studio, perhaps even better.”
“The Coptic melodies are some of the church’s treasures. They have been passed down to us from our ancestors as early as the first century,” he said.
"I record here as much as possible."
The cistern is named after Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, who was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity.
According to historical accounts, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built in the fourth century, after she visited the site and proclaimed it to be the place where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
Saints and some of the first Christians relied on water from the cistern during the construction of the church, “making the water holy,” said Jerusalem tour guide Bashar Abu Shamsiyeh.
The water channels that used to fill it are closed now, and the cistern is no longer in use, he said. But the church keeps it open for visitors, even though it is off the usual tourist trail.
“This is the first time anybody brings us here,” said Gabi Rahil, 70, a Palestinian Christian originally from Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.
“They could use lights,” he muttered as he walked down the slippery, dimly lit, stairs before realizing his voice was echoing.
“I was expecting some small well or something. I wasn’t expecting an underground cave,” said Kyna Finch, 25, a tourist from Britain.
“It seems like a very special, peaceful place, removed from the hustle and bustle outside,” she added. “We saw a lot of people coming this direction and so we decided to check it out.”
Jorge Cases, 36, a tourist from Spain, said he discovered the cistern by accident.
“I’m surprised I hadn’t even seen it pop up anywhere while reading about and researching (this trip),” he said. “It’s a pretty magical place.”
He tested the echo to the beat of water dripping from the ceiling, first by humming, then clapping, then whistling.
“It’s better that I don’t sing,” he said.
(Reporting by Henriette Chacar and Nisreen Salem in Jerusalem; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Andrew Heavens)