I follow the voice obediently. Match my steps accurately with each pause and soak in every instruction. The tone suddenly dips from sprightly to sullen, and asks me to walk right behind the altar and into a bare room. The voice urges me to walk to the slim window at the back of the room that overlooks the cobble-stoned street behind the church. Across from where I stand is a building with a large glass window. In there, a voluptuous, red-lipped, ebony-complexioned lady signals at men passing by. Above her window, a neon sign with the word “Sexy” flickers. Hers is the first window in a warren of alleyways lined with brothels. The voice, with an air of definitive triumph, corroborates that I am standing inside a longstanding icon of tolerance. The church and the brothels have shared this address for centuries.
I’m at Oude Kerk (Old Church) in De Wallen, the belly of Amsterdam’s red light district. Earlier that morning, I had arrived at the base of the church to check if there was a guided tour to the oldest building in the city. I was in luck. There was one, and that too, to the top of the tower. From here, the eye was continually delighted with a view of the Amstel River fragmenting the sprawl of red-roofed gabled buildings on one side. On the other side stood two more churches, government buildings and the intensely busy red-light district — the glistening canals playing hide-and-seek between them. The wooden steps creaked under the weight of seven more travellers and the guide, Arthur. “Treat this only as an orientation. You’ve got to spend at least an hour inside the main church,” he prodded.
On top of the tower, the wind almost plucked the hair off my scalp, but the view was heart-stopping and worth the climb. I spotted the Prostitution Information Centre (PIC), the second most important building of Oudekerksplein, and the square surrounding the church. I made a mental note to visit later. The tower is oddly treated as a postscript to the main event. “It deserves much more attention,” I thought to myself. In 20 minutes, we made way for the next group that needed to heave up the narrow passage.
I swung around the tower entrance and reached the main church that was founded in early 1200s, but was finally consecrated in 1306. I plug in my audio guide and step in. The voice is that of a popular local actress, keeping the spiel witty and light-hearted. Over the next hour, I realise how the church has always been a symbol of diversity, accepting an assorted milieu that characterises society in Amsterdam till date.
It’s a 180-degree swipe of my neck, from where the church organ is placed, to the facing altarpiece right opposite. I notice that I cannot avoid walking on the tombstones engraved with names of many well-known figures, their years of life gathered in brackets. After all, the church was built on a graveyard. Composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, who died in 1621, rests here. So does Saskia van Uylenburgh, Rembrandt’s wife. It is said that on March 9, every year, the early morning rays illuminate her tomb briefly.
I walk, with my jaw constantly dropping while taking in more anecdotes and statistics. But, it’s the wooden stalls of the choir that turn wonder into a loud giggle, breaking the stoic silence. Each stall has a carving that illustrates a Dutch proverb. I spot one with a man defecating coins, brazenly depicting, “Money doesn’t come out of my behind.” Quite bold for a church, but by now, it’s established that this was not only a religious anchor but also a melting point for locals: women, fishermen, beggars for shelter and, later, even a registry for marriages. The church welcomed prostitutes, to help them cleanse their sins. So much so, that right outside the church lie two statues; a bronze relief of a hand caressing a breast and a statue called Belle with an inscription that reminds one to “respect sex workers all over the world.”
Before I leave, there is one section that keeps me wedged to the church. A stunning photography exhibition themed on homosexuality is displayed at the left side of the altar. More than 50 images by artistes is radically in contrast to what one might expect in a church, but they are oddly in harmony.
I spend some time on the windowsill of PIC, waiting for it to open to get a coffee and maybe chat with former prostitute Mariska Majoor, who is the force behind this centre. The foundation informs the visitors about the business and effectively caters to the curiosity in return for a complete understanding and respect towards the profession. Unfortunately, the PIC remains locked for the rest of the day. I wander about for the rest of the day, sampling Oudekerksplein’s other pleasures — canals, coffee shops and an inimitable, inclusive DNA.