There’s something special about Jerusalem. I mean, I knew I was in the Holy Land before, this amazing place where David ruled and Jesus walked and Muhammad made his Night Journey, but some mysterious Jerusalemite quality keeps making me realize it afresh over and over again as we’re here.
Like this one moment today when we were passing by the Wailing Wall to get to the Dome of the Rock. There were several bar mitzvahs happening at the wall, complete with kicking music throughout the entire procession to the wall, and women craning over one side of the wall to witness their boys become men:
In the midst of a rousing chorus of the Hava Nagila as rendered on clarinet and djembe, the Muslim midday call to prayer started playing, blasted from the minarets of nearby mosques) The sound of prayers being chanted in Arabic met and merged with the sound of Jewish celebration as we stood at the boundary between the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. It’s so strange to think that even though the sounds of the two faiths mingle and coexist, Jews are forbidden to pray on the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock sits (so are Christians, for that matter). Such careful boundaries have been constructed between Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem, by both parties–it was funny and sad and beautiful and ironic to listen to voices of each faith meeting without passing through checkpoints.
And there was the moment when we were in the Jewish Archaeological Park, standing on an ancient market street beside the Temple wall, and our guide reminded us that Jesus most certainly walked on the same stones we were standing on two thousand years ago.
Moments like that, which bring to life this history that surrounds and saturates everything here, up to and including the present moment.
The “present moment” piece was particularly brought to life for me when we visited the Augusta Victoria hospital this morning. Ooh, but before we get there, I have to show you this camel.
We witnessed this very camel taking the cigarette from behind that very camel-handler’s ear, holding it casually in its mouth, and then spitting it out on the ground just seconds before the man reached up in order to smoke it. It was the most amazing display of passive-aggressive plotting that I have ever seen in an animal, and confirms my hypothesis that all camels are fantastic strategists, and could easily escape domestication if only they could be convinced to give a shit.
This particular camel begrudgingly gives rides to people from the overlook on the Mount of Olives, which was our first stop this morning. It was really beautiful.
From the overlook, we went to Augusta Victoria Hospital. Cards on the table, I don’t know the detailed history of this place. But I do know that it is currently run by Lutherans, (possibly?) as a partnership between the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. The place started out as a fancy royal compound for one of the last Ottoman rulers of Palestine, back during the turn of the 20th century. Then I think it was taken over by the British during the Mandate period, and during the War of Independence, ended up on the Palestinian side of the line dividing Jerusalem. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, all the hospitals were on the other side of the line. So Augusta Victoria was converted to be a hospital for Palestinians.
It continues to fill that role today, although with more hospitals available, it’s had to specialize in order to survive. Augusta Victoria is the place to go if you have issues with cancer, nephrology, gastroenterology, ear/nose/throat issues, and a couple of others things I can’t remember.
The representative who met with us was refreshingly frank about the issues you face when you’re a hospital geared to serve Palestinians, but exist in a city that’s difficult for many Palestinians to access. To start which, most of your staff has to go through checkpoints travelling to and from work.
Then there’s the little fact, which I hadn’t heard before, that Israel bars access to Jerusalem from Palestinians of a certain age (i.e.: young adults). This is a particular problem if, for example, you live in the Gaza Strip and your child has been diagnosed with cancer, because the ONLY hospital that can treat that is Augusta Victoria. Palestinians often work around this by sending grandparents with the children, and instead of commuting back to Gaza, 90 minutes away, the family stays near the hospital compound, so that if the checkpoints are ever closed, the child doesn’t miss a treatment. The LWF helps out with this by building a housing compound where they can stay. P.S.: If you’ve ever given money to an ELCA congregation that gives to global mission, then you’ve helped with that.
The rep emphasized the the LWF wanted a fair and just solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, one that serves the best interests of both sides. But he also made it clear that he thought that the hardships imposed on Palestinians by Israelis were unreasonable and unjust. In addition to the scenario above, he also mentioned the barrier that divides Israel from Palestine, and pointed out the view from the Mount of an Israeli settlement just over the ridge, where the barrier clearly cuts across Palestinian territory to include and Israeli settlement. The rep described the size of the settlement allotment, which is much larger than the current settlement, and told us that the building that continues in Israeli settlements has convinced most Palestinians that the Israeli government is doing its level best to make the two-state solution impossible.
He also talked a bit about the declining Christian population in Jerusalem, which I want to write a little more about later when I’ve done some more research. But again, the rep made it sounds politically motivated: most Christians are Palestinian, and so making it so difficult for them to live in Jerusalem that they choose to move further into the Palestinian Mandate works out pretty well for the Israeli government.
FYI, he also recommended two organizations for further reading/research/activism: Peace Now, and Peace Not Walls.
So then, on that happy note, we went to the church of Dominus Flavit (Jesus Wept), and then to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Ok, so we went to two of them. Neither of which may have been the real location of Jesus’ agony. First we visited an olive grove, which was a lot more private, a lot more devotional, and probably a lot more accurate in terms of what the Mount of Olives perhaps looked like in Jesus’ time. And gosh, I hate to burst your bubble, but the whole “garden” thing is actually not biblical, but traditional. Jesus went to Gethsemane, but the Bible doesn’t say anything about a garden. So we had devotional time in the olive grove, and that was not only really nice, but just as viable a devotional site as the place that’s actually called the Garden of Gethsemane.
The “Garden of Gethsemane” had all the really cool old gnarly olive trees, though, which are considered silent witnesses to Christ’s prayer in the garden.
And it also has the Church of All Nations, which is really beautiful and has windows of alabaster instead of glass:
Oof. We gotta zip ahead, folks, I’m fading fast here. After the Church of All Nations, we left the Mount of Olives and went to the Temple steps, where Jesus taught and stood on that street where Jesus walked.
Then we went to the Dome of the Rock. This is that building with the golden roof that’s the most eye-catching part of any picture of Jerusalem. It’s a Muslim structure, but it’s a shrine, not a mosque. It’s meant to preserve the rock which was God’s starting point at the creation of the world. The rock is also the traditional site where Abraham bound Isaac, and it’s said to be the exact place where, in Islam, the winged horse sent by God to Muhammad brought the prophet on what’s called the Night Journey, and the spot where Muhammad ascended to heaven to receive the Qu’ran. It’s also built on the site of the Temple Mount–the location where the first and second Temples were built by the Jews.
From here we walked back through the Muslim Quarter back to the Jewish Quarter, where we saw ruins that are possibly David’s palace. But friends, I was not able to properly appreciate, because I was far too excited about what happened next: HEZEKIAH’S TUNNEL.
Hezekiah’s Tunnel was built in 701 BCE by…guess who?!…King Hezekiah of Judah, who was expecting an imminent siege of Jerusalem at the hands of the big bad Assyrians. To defend their water source from being a point of weakness, Hezekiah rerouted it into the city. He took the Gihon spring, and made a tunnel to connect it to the Siloam pool, just inside the city walls. No one is quite sure how this was managed. We know that tunnelers started on both sides, which was unheard of at the time, and met in the middle. No one knows how they knew where to go. And lemme tell ya, after enjoying the twists and turns roundabout the middle bit of the tunnels, and seeing evidence of false starts, I don’t know that those poor tunnellers knew where to go either.
But they found their way eventually, and so did we! Only about half of our group went down, but it was a very adventurous half. We even turned off our flashlights at one point to see what it was like for the blind man whose eyes Jesus smeared with mud before telling him to wash at Siloam. And we sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Yay.
There is still water flowing through the tunnel, which was about mid-calf height most of the way through the tunnel, but got as deep as mid-thigh at one point. The tunnel had surprisingly high ceilings in places, but in others was probably no more than 4 ft. high. It was an adventure–it was FUN.
And then at the end we got to go to the hotel and change into warm dry clothes, which is the secret of every good adventure.