Well, today our Christian and Muslim group was granted special access to the two principle buildings on Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif as it is called in the Islamic world. The two buildings we were secreted around were the Dome on the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Dome on the Rock (exterior: top; interior: left and middle of the triptych) is an extremely ornately decorated octagonal building surrounding the rock from which Muslims believe the Prophet ascended to heaven. In Jewish thought this rock is the Foundation of the World, the centre of all things and first point of creation. This was a holy place, quiet and prayerful despite extensive restoration work under way. Muslim Prayer space is generally very open – all that is needed is a carpet to kneel on and an indication of the direction of Mekkah.
The al-Aqsa Mosque is a much larger rectangular and aisled building facing the Dome on the Rock (interior: bottom). Two insults were pointed out to us by our guide one of which he is pictured standing alongside (right of the triptych). This is a cabinet of the remains of American made weapons that have been fired at worshippers on the site. I couldn’t help but catch a hint of irony in his voice as he described America as “the king of democracy”. The other “insult” was a corner of the Mosque that the Crusaders turned into a church in the twelfth century.
Our Muslim colleagues described a sense of deep sadness that this holy site has become a source of deep dispute. To them it would seem most fitting that all faiths were free to worship here. But in an Israeli State that is so fearful for its own existence and future it looks for now as if mistrust is the dominant force.
Looking south east across the Sea of Galilee from a point only a short walk from Jesus’ home in Capernaum. Ibrahim said to me here, “No matter what has been built around us, this landscape here is what Jesus saw. Nobody can take that away.”
The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth has been a bit of a challenge today. The two top-most pictures are inside – upstairs and downstairs. Upstairs is a magnificent church with a large nave. It was packed with worshippers. Today is after all the Feast of the Annunciation. Downstairs and visible through a well in the main church poor was a crypt containing the remains of a troglodyte home thought to have been that of Mary and of Jesus’ childhood. It was all most beautifully done. A light and well ordered church with good space for worship and free of tat. Just how the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem could have been. The Nazareth Church is looked after by Roman Catholics, the Jerusalem and Bethlehem ones by Orthodox. But somehow the Orthodox churches engaged me at a spiritual level and the church at Nazareth did not. The home of the childhood Jesus and possible place of the Annunciation felt just like a museum and engaged me as such. I may need to review my assessment of what it is that obscures the Gospel and what reveals.
Also pictured above are two Muslim colleagues reaching in to the Sea of Galilee, Shafique on the left and Ibrahim on the right. Between them sits a bird from the ancient mosaic floor of the Church of the Multiplication. The natural environment of the Sea and the birds on the floor of the church were a strong reminder of the world in which Jesus lived, rich and teaming with life in the water and the air.
Underneath are pictures of the Church of the Beatitudes (uppermost) and the church at Capernaum built directly over Peter’s Mother-in-law’s house where Jesus is thought to have lived for some time (bottom). It is perhaps in the simplicity of Capernaum above all places that we have felt, Muslims and Christians alike, we were in the footsteps of Jesus.
Well, today was the eve of the Annunciation so we went to Bethlehem after Hebron. The Church of the Nativity may be built upon the site pictured on many Christmas cards but it does not bear anything like their beauty. It is possibly true that the stable of Jesus’ birth was not beautiful either but it was undoubtedly simple. This church has neither beauty nor simplicity. It looks like the worst religious ornaments shop you could possibly imagine. Everything about it is chaotic and faded. The two images in the centre of this post above may just give you a flavour. The one on the left is the grotto with a star marking the spot where Jesus is thought to have been born, the one on the right is a picture of the nave from the iconostasis. Even so, there is undoubtedly something powerful that connected with my sense of faith when I spent a moment kneeling down in this little space.
The lowest of the pictures is of one of the Muslim participants in our Sharing Perspectives Course, Zahra Imame, trying to make sense of the grotto. This underground room was one full of questions for Christians and Muslims alike. Maybe in the long run that is no bad thing. The Church of the Nativity is no Christmas card but it does make you ask real questions.
The fourth of my pictures of Bethlehem posted at the top is of the town outside the church. This impoverished Palestinian place stands in stark contrast to a church too full of silver and gold and ancient art. I wonder what Jesus would have thought?
Hebron is a difficult place, or at least it was for me. This is a very broken town. It’s streets bear the obvious signs of brokenness and war.
At the heart of Hebron are seven very significant tombs – or at least their representations. In the Cave of Macphela thought to be under Hebron lie, according to the Bible, the remains of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Joseph. As patriarchs, Abraham the father of them all, these figures unite the three faiths that call themselves Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But here at their tombs there are all the signs of human divisions.
Look carefully at the middle picture in my vertical triptych above. The green silk is the edge of the tomb of Abraham as seen from the Synagogue forecourt. If you look through to the green grilled window beyond this opens directly into a Mosque – or rather, from the Mosque it give opportunity to see the tomb of Abraham. Now make out a grey frame filled with bullet proof glass alongside the tomb and between the windows. This is a most powerful symbol of fear between two cultures. The glass was installed by the Israelis after a Jew named Baruch Goldstein broke into the Mosque in 1994 killing 29 Muslim Palestinian worshippers and injuring 125 more. The glass stands in fear of reprisals and so a symbol of unity between world faiths points more sharply instead to fear.
Still, the Mosque and the Synagogue continue to share the tombs in some uneasy fashion. You cannot walk from one straight into the other but have to take a great circular walk around the outside passing through a check point and a security scan. The two places of worship stand within a wall built by Herod the Great to enclose the site over 2000 years ago. It is the only place in the Holy Land with any credibility as a last resting place for the Patriarchs. Whilst it houses a Synagogue and a Mosque there is no Christian Church here. The Christian Church does not have a feast day commemorating the Patriarchs and so no Christian worship takes place on the site. Christians are, however, allowed to enter both Mosque and Synagogue – Jews and Muslims cannot do so. Top of the triptych is a panoramic image from inside the Mosque itself. The pitched roof construction on the left is the Mamluk built tomb of Leah and on the right that of Isaac.
The most holy place in all of Judaism lies at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount, or as Arabs call it ‘Haram al-Sharif’. This is as close as the Chief Rabbinate of Israel will allow Jews to go to the site of the Temple above in order to prevent them from standing on Holy Ground unawares. It has become a powerful place of prayer. Here men and women are segregated and the women’s section was very much busier than the men’s. But to a twenty first century western Christian’s eyes it was startling to see so many men openly and emotionally praying in public. The place seems to capture something of a sense of Jewish oppression however. I am not sure this was a place that people brought their prayers of thanks to God, only those of sorrow, but I may be wrong.
Water is power in this part of the world. Our walking tour of Mamluk and Ottoman architecture in Jerusalem brought this home. Dr Nazmi Jubeh reckoned that before Roman times the city only had capacity to provide water for about 1000 residents. The Romans introduced a system of cisterns and the Ottomans brought clay pipes. Dr Jubeh is pictured above in front of one of six water fountains for drinking and ablutions installed by the Sultans. At face height there is an Arabic inscription in huge letters reminding whoever should use the fountain that it was “Sultan the Great, King three times over” (… and many more titles) who had it installed.
Sunday morning worship began at 6:00am at the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre) with many churches worshipping in their own tradition at the same time. Pictured above:
Ethiopian Coptic priests celebrating at their shrine attached to the north of the aedicule containing the tomb of Christ.
A tourist kisses the ground under an altar built on Golgotha where Jesus’ cross is thought to have stood whilst a Roman Catholic Mass is celebrated in the adjoining Chapel of the Eleventh Station of the Cross.
A Greek Orthodox priest waits whilst the Patriarch prepares to worship at the tomb – the Patriarch’s preparations took some considerable time – out of view but with much loud singing.
It is easy to hear the competing sound as an auditory turf war. This appears to be a feature of the Holy City. But it is also the sound of people from around the world praying and maybe this helps explain what we see in the streets.
The Church of the Resurrection, as it is called by eastern churches, or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as it is more functionally called by western churches, stands on holy ground. It embraces two sites only 30m apart that were recognised by fourth century Emperor Constantine as the most likely places of crucifixion and burial (and of course, resurrection) of Jesus. Both Jesus’ death and burial were on open ground outside of the city wall but now this site is enclosed and filled with religious paraphernalia. A painted ‘cardboard’ Jesus hangs from a cross adorned with a silver crown surrounded by candles. And it seems to obscure a story of tears and loss and pain.
30m away from the gallery in which the cross stands on a rocky mound are the remains of a tomb encapsulated in an aedicule and surrounded by scaffolding and 7m high candle sticks with fluorescent light bulbs on top. It is a far cry from any form of garden but still there is a sense that this is where the events of Christ’s passion happened so crowds throng to share something of the space.
Votive lights bear testimony to real prayer being made in this place of chaos and confusion where many Christian traditions hang their symbols.
With Muslim friends we have been unpacking the Holy Land as the fifth of the Christian Gospels – but it really is quite difficult to read.