Jul 112011
 

Dome on the RockWe were especially privileged on our trip to have with us some excellent guides and thanks to the scholarly contacts of one of them we had an invitation to visit the mosques which now sit atop the Temple mount in the old town in Jerusalem. The most famous is perhaps the Dome on the Rock with its stunning golden dome blazing in the sun. (Although, I suppose it might be more correctly named a shrine rather than a mosque.)

But this is just one of three significant mosques on this site. Another is the Aqsa Mosque, the main site for Friday prayers. This sits on the southern edge of the Temple area and above another mosque – Solomon’s Stables. The story is that when the Moslems gained control of the site they were so impressed by the Temple remains that they assumed Solomon must have had supernatural help to build. The ‘stables’ – a huge colonnaded (not sure if that’s the correct architectural description) area under the site – must have been where Solomon stabled the Djinns needed to move the massive blocks of stone. The irony being that the huge blocks were a legacy of Herod the Great, not Solomon.

The three mosques are not generally open to idle visitors. Nevertheless we were allowed access and were able to photograph what we wanted. In some respects Solomon’s Stables is the least impressive of the three – at least in the sense of ornamentation or fittings. But it is an absolutely enormous space (the photos – the ones of the space with the red and silver-striped carpet – simply don’t do it justice), stunning in its size. The Aqsa mosque is also an enormous space and has some beautiful features. It was fascinating to watch the birds wheel about inside, so large and airy it is. In the photo album, it’s the building with the red, chequered carpeting.

Sadly, the Dome on the Rock was undergoing extensive repairs and refurbishment so the area above ‘the Rock’ (believed to be, variously, the site of the Holy of Holies, or where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, or where Muhammad left the earth) was shrouded in scaffolding and panelling. There are some photos of the interior though showing some of the beautiful features.

But all of this can be looked up in a guide book or online and you’ll find a lot more information and better photos than I can ever provide here. The Haram is a beautiful place, with tree-shaded walks and beautiful architecture. It also houses a project which is restoring ancient manuscripts through very skilled and painstaking work. Groups sit around studying the Quran – and it was noted that there were many more study groups of women to be seen now.

But the place is at the heart of the disagreement between Jew and Arab. For each, the site is central to their faith (albeit not of the highest importance in Islam) and, as such, is crucial to their identity. Giving up the site would be like denying who you are. I think it’s this that Western culture doesn’t ‘get’. Listening to groups of US Jews being guided to the Western Wall, it was clear that so much of their personal identity is wrapped up in their national identity which, in turn, is wrapped up in their faith identity. And core to that is the holy site of the Temple. It is from there, that the sense of identity flows. One is left with the impression that without agreement on the Temple area there will never be agreement on any other aspect of the relationship. And it’s difficult to see how the issue of the Temple can ever be resolved.

For many Westerners, it’s just ‘a place’. Places have no true importance. Of course we have emotional attachments to places – just think of the hurt and anguish caused by a suggested union of two congregations here. But, ultimately, a place is just a place; a thing of bricks and mortar, of wood and tiles. Certainly for the (Western) Christian faith, a believer’s identity is not in a place, but in the person of Jesus.

But I wonder if we also miss a little something in our poor understanding of the Jewish or Muslim faith (and perhaps even the Christian faith). When we place our identity entirely in a person, we can overly personalise our faith. We forget that Jesus was not an individual, but a person of the Trinity, and so inherently part of a community. When our faith is too ‘personal’ we cease to be a part of a community and our ‘identity’ is diminished. Furthermore, that community has a place, both in the sense of its own place in wider society, but also a place where it can gather as a faith community. I think that when we know our ‘place’, within a faith community and within a wider community, then we can more fully serve and live our faith, for we understand its place in our life and in the life of those around us.

Jul 022011
 

The Scots Hotel, TiberiasOur long roundabout route to get to Tiberias did have the bonus of a lovely dinner and a comfortable night in the Scots Hotel. The hotel is not without its own controversy within the Church of Scotland. It is, unashamedly, up-market and represents a very significant investment on the part of the CofS. There are many who question its value and place within the CofS. I don’t intend to (or wish to) rehearse all the arguments here, but I will say that, in one respect at least, it serves as a very challenging witness to the businesses around it. The hotel prides itself on its ‘equal opportunities’ employment policy and, in a country and political situation where discrimination is rife, that stands out. Is that enough to justify its continued support? Probably not, but it does intend to do much more to be a visible presence in the area. It already supports small community enterprises through its purchasing options, for example. In a country and climate where there is a very real risk (and reality) of ‘de-humanising’ the ‘other’, such visible witness is not to be under-estimated and is to be applauded and supported. But it does put the CofS in a very vulnerable position. At this year’s General Assembly, some concern was expressed at the Church’s refusal to support a boycott of Israeli goods due to the risk of being declared an ‘illegal organisation’ by Israel. It would be places like the Scots Hotel which would suffer under such a declaration. The politics of Israel and Palestine are nothing if not complex, challenging and far-reaching. Continue reading »

Jun 132011
 

Day 4 saw us up bright and early – well, early, but probably not too bright. The reason for the early start was that we had a lot of ground to cover. We were travelling from Jerusalem to Tiberias on the Lake of Galilee, via Masada, Qumran and a quick dip in the Dead Sea.

MasadaAfter a trek through the impressive, but somewhat featureless desert to the East of Jerusalem, we arrived at Masada. Masada means ‘rocky promontory’ and this particular ‘Masada’ had a rather civilised cable car to take us to the top. That didn’t stop some of the more adventurous members of the group from walking up the ‘Snake Path’ – presumably so-called because it snakes up the 400-odd metres of precipitous cliff-face to reach the top. The top of Masada is more or less flat and is home to various ruins. Even at this height it is only 33 metres above sea level.

Its primary attraction lies in the history of those ruins. At one end of Masada lie the multi-tiered remains of Herod’s Palace (one of many dotted around the country). As a country retreat for a rich and famous despot it has few equals. That Herod is the Herod the Great of Biblical fame, although there had been fortifications on the site from around the 2nd century BC.Model of Masada

But what makes the place so famous is that it was also the site of a 2-year siege. After Herod’s death, Masada was used by the Romans, but in 66AD it was captured by the Jews in their first revolt against the Romans. The Romans first dealt with the Jews in Jerusalem (resulting in the destruction of the Temple in 70AD) then turned their attention to the remnants. Held by fewer than 100 defenders, Masada held out for 2 years under siege, finally succumbing in 73AD. The Romans breached the wall by building a massive earthen siege ramp on the western side.

According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, the remaining Jewish defenders, rather than be killed by the Romans, chose to commit suicide after first dispatching their own family members. The oath, “Masada shall not fall again” is part of the swearing-in oaths of the present-day Israeli army. Kind of sums up so much, really, and is a remider of just how much history influences a culture and people.

QumranQumran was the next stop. Despite its somewhat unassuming and even bleak appearance, Qumran is probably one of the most significant sites in the history of Biblical studies. It is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Useful not just for their confirmation of ancient Biblical texts, but significant for the differences they contain, the scrolls were under the safe-keeping of and Essene community – a community which lived by a ‘rule’, not dissimilar to the way communities of monks would live. Property was shared and other distinctive ‘rules’ were followed. Again, like later monastic traditions, not all such communities followed the same set of rules and differences existed.

The focus on communal living and care for one another has given rise to speculation that Jesus’ teachings were widely influenced by such ‘rules’, but there is no great evidence to support that and Jesus’ teachings contain significant deviances from what is known of the Essenes. Perhaps a greater link could be made to another Biblical character – John the Baptist. Again, though, it is more a matter of speculation than any hard evidence existing.

The two sites are visually stunning. Sitting in a desert land, it isn’t hard to imagine how difficult life might be at particular times of the year. Being at the mercy of the life-giving rains meant that Masada, in particular, had some ingenious water storage schemes. The heat is intense, perhaps because of the land sitting below sea level. When you consider settlements like Qumran then it may have been only sensible to ensure such communal-living was ‘formalised’. It ensured that the community was equally supported from the resources available. And the presence of so many scrolls indicates that the community was far from primitive. Life may have been harsh and even basic, but the community was no illiterate bunch of savages. This was an educated and dedicated group of people who understood the significance of the manuscripts they had in their possession.

The day also included the somewhat bizarre experience of going for a swim in the Dead Sea. Actually, swimming is not recommended. The very high levels of salts makes the water extremely unpleasant if you get any near your mouth, but that same dense solution means that you bob around in a most strange manner. You can practically sit on the stuff. Still, it made the swim in the Pool at the Scots’ Hotel in Tiberias all the more welcome when we eventually arrived.

Jun 132011
 

[Note – I got out of sync. Hebron was actually day 2. What can I say? I was tired.]

Yad Vashem Holocaust MemorialThe visit to Hebron was a difficult one. Witnessing the effects of Israeli settlements on a Palestinian community was difficult. Seeing some of the ‘propaganda’ used to justify the existence of settlements was frustrating and caused a degree of anger.

But it never takes much in Israel to be reminded that the picture is enormously complex. Not every Jew agrees with what is happening in such places. ‘Settlers’ are not always representative of the wider community and culture. Indeed, they are often the more idealistic ones who have, often, been encouraged to return from other countries to reclaim their ‘birthright’. It is not a simple Jew v Moslem debate.

Added to this mix is the very recent history concerning the way Jews have been treated and how global events have manipulated and influenced the present state of affairs. There are many countries and governments complicit in present, unsatisfactory situation.

Perhaps one of the most emotive events in recent history is the Holocaust and it is a memorial to this event that Yad Vashem stands. The photograph shows the end of the main exhibition hall. Its triangular construction represents the coloured triangular patches of cloth which were sown to garments, in combinations, to represent the ‘crime’ of the wearer. The exhibition hall is just one part of the memorial though. The memorial park itself is huge and houses gardens of remembrance for various groups and ages. There is, for instance, a memorial garden to remember the children who suffered and died in the Holocaust.

There is no doubt that a wander round Yad Vashem is thought-provoking and not a little uncomfortable. The exhibition is exceptionally well done without ever coming across as grisly or voyeuristic. It is, nevertheless, extremely hard-hitting and it’s no wonder that it is a site visited regularly by Israeli conscripts. Near the beginning there is a potted history of anti-Semitism and not just in a Nazi context. It’s a stark reminder of how persecution and hatred of a group can become systemic and unquestioned. Then, only when blatant atrocities are committed are such things questioned. I would hesitate to suggest that such a style of presentation is intended to develop a ‘victim’ complex and to lay a guilt-trip on everyone else, but it certainly leaves a taint in the mind and a bad taste in the mouth.

What is unquestioningly powerful though is the collected testimonies of survivors and victims. Seeing the emotions on the faces of survivors speaking their story to camera and reading the words of diaries and letters and even journals and poems cannot leave anyone unmoved.

Strangely, though, it was not these that had the greatest impact on me, harrowing though they were. There is a room in the exhibition which holds records. The room is cylindrical, maybe 12 metres across and 6 metres high. You walk into a central, raised viewing platform. You are surrounded by box files. These are the records of those who died and were presented at the Nuremberg trials. Seeing millions of lives condensed to plain boxes of paperwork was deeply affecting. It was, in a sense, soul-less. These records are an inadequate witness to the millions of victims. In and of themselves they are just bits of paper – in that sense soul-less. And yet, what they represent is the destruction of human life on an unprecedented scale, made worse by the fact that this was not simply a by-product of war, but a deliberate targeting of and attempt to exterminate specific groups of people (and, of course, not simply Jews). The very soul-lessness of the room and the records was a stark reminder of how dehumanising the treatment of Jews and other targeted groups was. When all someone is is a label, a coloured classification, then a paper record is all they are.

I find this difficult to write about. Words are inadequate to express such outrage and to draw contemporary parallels would be to open a floodgate that would, it seems, be overwhelming. And yet, even in such bleakness, there was hope. Another exhibit room records many of the acts of those who did speak out, who did put themselves in danger to stand up to the oppressors. Many were people of faith; many were great humanitarians; many were simply supporting friends and neighbours.

There is, of course, a supremely contentious lesson to be drawn from such a visit. When you read of Jews being excluded from areas of towns and cities, when they are not allowed to walk in certain areas, when they are treated as something less than human, it is difficult not to draw contemporary parallels. I don’t feel brave enough to dive into them here. Nor do I claim to have any kind of deep understanding of the complexity of issues involved. Yet, in my naivety, or simplicity, I can’t help but wonder…

Maybe it’s best not to go too far down that road, but rather, consider its impact on what our response ought to be. It’s easy to condemn, or point fingers, or play the ‘blame game’. It’s easy to get sucked in taking sides, seeing everything as black and white. I find the work of EAPPI and others of that ilk to be an enormously powerful way forward. They stand in witness to the humanity of all and call for that humanity to be recognised and respected. Unravelling the historical, political, religious and cultural issues surrounding the situation in the middle east is beyond most of us. But acknowledging the humanity and worth of others is eminently within our capabilities. And it is something which doesn’t just have application in places like Israel and Palestine, but can find a place much closer to home too.

Jun 122011
 

In case you’re wondering, the recent Israel trip didn’t stop at day 3. It simply transpired that processing everything we had seen and then putting together a condensed version of it for a blog post was just a little too ambitious to do on a daily basis. However, I do hope to get some more thoughts up soon.

In the meantime, I have uploaded most of the photos I took. I still have to stitch together a number of panorama shots, but the main ones are there. You can check out the latest albums from the Photo Albums link above or go directly to the albums if you want access to higher resolution photos.

Just as an intimation of what’s still to be blogged, the rest of the days were:

  • Day 4 – Yad VaShem – Holocaust memorial
  • Day 5 – Masada, Qumran, Dead Sea, Tiberias
  • Day 6 – Around Galilee, Caesarea
  • Day 7 – Haram Ash-Sharif (Dome of the Rock, Aqsa Mosque, etc), Mount of Olives
  • Day 8 – Jaffa, Tabeetha School
Jun 052011
 

Hebron SoukA visit to Hebron was never going to be an easy one. It epitomises, in many respects, the key issues for Israel and Palestine. Hebron is a fair sized city, predominantly Palestinian, about 25 miles south of Jerusalem. It is one of the most densely populated in the west Bank and is divided into two areas, the larger under the control of the Palestinians. But within this zone there are a number of Jewish settlements under military protection. There are approximately 500 settlers, with a military force of between 500 and 2000 soldiers (depending on tension levels). This within an area housing 30000 Palestinians.

The settlement areas highlight the imbalance of power. It is the Palestinians who are prevented from particular areas, including some of the main roads. Access to their houses is through dirt tracks and neighbours gardens. A Palestinian brave enough to take to the main road risks being shot – it is easier to minimise the ‘risk’ by assuming everyone is potentially hostile and to shoot first. There are no questions later – it’s military law in force. In fact, even the Jewish settlers go around openly and well-armed. As we wandered down a deserted street, the Palestinian shops all closed and unoccupied because it is a no-go street for them, we were brought up short by the distant sound of gunfire, followed soon afterwards by the unmistakable sound of an ordnance explosion. Our guide for the day reckoned it was probably from the nearby military barracks as the tension levels were low at the time.

Our walk through that part of Hebron was to take us to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The site of the tombs of Abraham (and his wife Sarah) and his descendants Isaac and Jacob. As we approached a checkpoint nearby we noted that the road was divided (unevenly) by a concrete barrier. Jews were allowed to use the broader lane, wide enough for cars; Palestinians had to use the narrower side. We opted to walk on the Palestinian side and also chose the mosque side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. A single building covers the site, but it is split in half – one side a mosque, the other a synagogue. In one sense, completely understandable given the common reverence for the Patriarchs. Yet the irony was not lost on us. Having visited the mosque, where we were made welcome, visiting the synagogue was not an option. Again, we had made our choice.

Our route back to the city centre took us through a souk and the picture above is one part of it. The wire mesh is not a convenience for hanging things from, but an absolute necessity. The buildings above are part of the Jewish settlements and it is common for the settlers to throw their rubbish and rocks down into the souk. Such is their contempt for those who do business there.

Our guide for the morning was a young woman volunteering with EAPPI – a World Council of Churches initiative to help and highlight what is happening around such settlements. The volunteers serve for 3 months and there job is simply to observe the checkpoints. It seems that the Israeli military is somewhat less inclined to be so oppressive when there are international observers with cameras around. It doesn’t mean that EAPPI, and the many similar groups, don’t get harassed themselves, but it does help the overall situation.

IMG_6110.JPGThe afternoon brought us to Bethlehem. If there’s one thing about the Holy Land, it’s that if there is the hint of a ‘holy’ site, there’ll be a place of worship on top of it. But there are also the commercial opportunities to be had. I have to say that Bethlehem seemed to have some of the most tackily named tourist shops we have come across so far. John the Baptist Souvenir Shop or the Christmas Bells restaurant, every opportunity is grasped to link with the relevant site. I can’t help but wonder though if the heavily-pregnant Mary might have found the going easier if there were escalators to hand to get her to the stable room.

Jun 032011
 

After an afternoon catching up on some rest, a smaller, ‘intrepid’ group set out to walk down to the City of David and, from there, walk back up to the Old Town, through the Dung Gate, meet the rest of the group and then find a vantage point to view the gathering at the Western Wall as the Sabbath approached.

It was a lengthy walk and we took a wrong turn which extended our wander. the City of David is an Arab part of the city and can be an area for trouble. Our word of warning was to answer only in English so as not to be mistaken for Jews, getting caught out with an incorrect reply to a greeting. It was an uncomfortable walk, with an ever-present sense of tension. I’m sure we were probably quite safe, but we were definitely under scrutiny. We were of particular interest to an Israeli Police patrol driving through, getting hard looks from the police officers. I guess we were a potential source of discontent from the locals. It was a definite sense of relief that we arrived back at the main walls and went through.

Earlier in the day we had found a good vantage point to view the Western Wall from and we made our way there. It was occupied by a group of American Jews on a trip ‘home’. We did manage to squeeze past to get to the part overlooking the Western Wall,but it was fascinating to listen to the various speakers addressing the large, all-age group of Jewish Americans. One of our group observed that it was in the best tradition of a more evangelical CU or SU group. It’s fascinating to observe, and slowly begin to get to grips with, the whole issue of identity being so bound up in faith and culture. Western culture has largely compartmentalised many of these things.

Observing the Sabbath gathering was also an experience. Perhaps a little irreverently I couldn’t help but think of a good-natured football crowd, with the different groups and clothes and chants. Again, there’s that whole issue of identity – faith, and its expression, is not simply something you ‘do’, but who you are. An interesting lesson for Western Christianity which still seems very tied to the ‘do’ model.

Jun 032011
 

We arrived in St. Andrew's Church of Scotland, JerusalemJerusalem at around 4.30 this morning and, after an all too brief catnap, were up and breakfasted at 8.oo am. I think it’s fair to say the the group looked tired, but all weariness was soon forgotten as we set off for a morning exploring the Old Town of Jerusalem within the city walls.

It is, without doubt, a fascinating place, with its narrow lanes crammed with market stalls and shops. There’s all the tourist tat, of course, but you soon find the ‘real’ shops, selling everything and anything. The spice shops announce their near presence with pungent aromas, and do the herbs and fruit sold from stalls or by individuals sitting to the side of a densely packed alley. And for those who are selling goods which do not announce themselves, their voices vie for attention, making the place seem strangely reminiscent of the, now gone, Barras in Glasgow.

We spent a fair bit of time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a sprawling building which lays claim to the sites of Jesus’ death and burial, as well as some other places of religious significance. it’s quite a place – at once gaudy, yet magnificent; a place of obvious veneration, and yet also a place which, at times, can spark a riot.

Our walk around took in views of the Dome on the Rock, the Aqsa mosque, the Western Wall (wailing wall) and so many other sights of historical significance. We walked through the ancient city gates and stood on paths laid down countless generations ago.

It’s difficult to describe the feelings such places engender. There is the sense of history made real, a greater appreciation of where events (probably) took place (and, perhaps surprising, is their proximity – it’s not a huge place) and a growing realisation that our Westernised faith is, in a sense, the tip of an iceberg. Well, maybe not the tip – more probably just one little jaggy outcrop.

I also struggle to express my reaction because, in many ways, buildings don’t do much for me. Yes, I like to look at them, appreciate their art and architecture, but it’s ‘just’ a building. Where it becomes more real for me is where it connects to people and many of the buildings we saw today didn’t rally connect me with people. This might sound a little strange, given the history of the people, but I struggled to connect this morning, and not just because of the tiredness of travelling. It might also sound strange from someone who loved the visit to the archaeological dig below St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. But, in that instance, it plotted a history of worship on a site, from pagan hero worship through to the Christian Cathedral today – and, for me, that was a story of people sensing something of God and attempting to express their worship.

It was only as we were returning to St. Andrew’s Scottish Guesthouse for lunch that there was an extra spark. Looking across the valley we could clearly see the path of the Separation Wall as it snaked its way across the countryside. In that strange juxtaposition, gazing past the ancient city walls to this new concrete barrier, the sense of a people’s history and story began to come together. Buildings are all very interesting, but when the ancient history clashes with the contemporary we realise that there is an enormously complex story to hand. And that is a story of people, with all its challenges and history and prejudices.

Just as a little aside, the photograph is of St. Andrew’s Church and Guesthouse. The valley in the foreground is Hinnom, or Gehenna (otherwise used as a reference for hell). It was suggested that the Church of Scotland is perched precariously above Gehenna. Depending on your views of the recent general Assembly decisions, you can decide whether it is teetering towards or away from the brink.

We’re having an afternoon to catch up on our rest, after our long travel time and then heading out to observe the start of the Sabbath at the Western Wall. That’s for another post later I think.

Jun 012011
 

The title should, arguably, be T-2 given that we won’t actually be arriving in Israel until very early on Friday morning, but we do set off tomorrow and that’s what counts. So T-1 it is.

I was looking up the places we’ll be staying and they have guest wi-fi, so the laptop will be coming with me and I’ll try and post something each day, if I can (and I’m awake).

Virtually everyone I have spoken with who has been to Israel, however briefly, have all spoken of the impact it made on them. Whether it was the sense of stepping into history or the challenge of the separation barrier, there was something that left an indelible impression.

So, I’m not really sure what to expect. Indeed, I am going with no expectations and simply will wait and see what strikes me each day and even each hour of each day. I’ve also been encouraged to keep an audio diary (for future radio show use) so I’m hoping that the ‘pressure’ to reflect on what I’m seeing and doing will not become the overriding sensation and that they will, more naturally, flow from the experiences.

There’s a bit of me that acknowledges that the trip is, in some respects, ‘external’ to my faith. I don’t need to see the places or walk the paths or experience the history in order for my faith to be ‘real’. But it’s an opportunity to add ‘colour’ to that which we read of in black and white. It’s also an opportunity to share some of that experience with others who are on the same journey and I find that more exciting in many ways. And all the more exciting because it is that shared experience, not simply a second-hand description of a place, an event or a conversation.

One thing I can be sure of though – I suspect I will have enough material to see me through Guild talks and kids’ addresses for the foreseeable future.

Time to finish packing.