Touching stones in a segregated city

I spent the whole day wandering around Jerusalem Old city and found it amazing how many different groups and sects of religions all claim a piece of it. There are so many ‘quarters’ and little mixing between the communities, but if you think this kind of segregation and tension is bad the history is so much worse!

But anyway, onto how I spent my day. My guide was Rosie, a lady from England who has lived in Israel for many years now as a ‘Messianic Jew’. She is a friend of my parents, and kindly showed me around and introduced me to her friends, answering lots of my probing questions about her life very graciously.

First we visited the Garden of Gethsemane. You walk around the garden, and by this I mean literally around it, you can’t walk through: it consists of about 25 ancient olive trees with clods of earth beneath them and a fence around them, then there is the footpath, with churches and walls encircling. The trees reminded me a bit of Sherwood’s Major Oak because they were so hollowed with age. I paused for a moment to touch a stone smoothed by many hands, hoping for a connection with the who Jesus sweated drops of blood. We went into the church there, where there is another stone – so maybe I got the wrong one.

Then we walked down away from the crowds and into a dry, deserted sort of valley, where we found an ancient-looking temple labelled ‘Tomb of Absalom’, and were attracted to a young man playing a wooden flute under a tent. He offered us tea, so we accepted and sat down with him to talk. He told us that he is paid by a nearby monument to play every Monday for people’s enjoyment, and seeing as he doesn’t have another job, it is great for him. He completed his military service with the IDF (Israeli army) two years ago and hasn’t found his main job yet. He told us a lot about his Indian flute and how his music-making differs from the Western style of having sheet music to read from.

After a while we bid him goodbye and continued around the city wall to the ‘Dung gate’, where a different music was dominating: the Muslim call to prayer from the Dome of the Rock mosque. I like this plaintive sound, but it was soon mixed with the more exuberant sound of celebration at the Western Wall – or Wailing wall. Mondays are the day for celebrating Bar-Mitzvahs, so we saw parades of the ‘Torah’, singing and dancing, and a mini sort of Can-Can that the men do behind the 13-year-old boy, holding one another’s shoulders and singing. Women aren’t allowed in the men’s area, so Rosie and I approached the women’s area to pray and touch the stones.

We then made our way through narrow alleyways, past Arab stalls selling touristy nick-nacks and beautiful crafts of all colours and designs, and then found ourselves on the Cardo. This used to be Jerusalem’s main market street, now it has slightly more upmarket underground stalls. Rosie showed me the Armenian quarter and then we stopped for lunch at Christchurch, Jerusalem’s first protestant church. This was a haven for Rosie when she first arrived in Jerusalem, and she had many friends in the restaurant where we ate, so we joined a table to chat with them. We both chose to eat ‘large salad’ and it was brilliant: loads of humus, salsa, pickles and gerkins, cabbage salad, lettuce salad, tomatoes with avocados: delicious!

After lunch we had a look around the church itself, and the tranquil gardens where I was impressed with seeing loads of lemons on the trees. The museum attached to the church had some old models of historical Jerusalem, and the guide at the museum was very happy to tell us about it. So we got some history, and then talked a bit of religious ideology with another Messianic Jew from America who now lives in Jerusalem. I felt really uncomfortable when the Six-day war (a preemptive attack by Israel in 1967 on its Arab neighbours Syria, Egypt and Jordan) was hailed as a ‘miracle’ and part of God’s blessing for Israel –  I simply don’t believe in a God who takes sides in wars. And when the West’s arrogance and need for repentance over the treatment of the Jews over the centuries was raised, I found myself speaking up for Muslims too – surely the atrocities committed by the Crusaders needs including if we are repenting of genocide? This conversation was my lowest point in the day, but I’ve come here to listen to people and I really want to understand these views.

Afterwards, Rosie and I walked back through the sheikhs, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the main show if you are Orthodox or Catholic, and is where Jesus was crucified. The lighting is dim, the mosaics spectacular, the crowds pressing. Women were kneeling before a stone which they rubbed with their hands, scarves, and icons bought at the markets (to consecrate them in some way?). I was dazzled by it, loved the dozens of hanging lanterns, the beautiful gold icons, the many candles.

St Anne’s church was a huge contrast: refreshingly spacious, light and airy, with few visitors. This is a plain, protestant kind of church with an incredible echoey acoustic that everyone was hailing, but I’m not sure most musicians would cope with that kind of reverberation! We were there at the same time as an American group who were enjoying the echoes, singing together ‘Amazing Grace’ and more. In the grounds we found the pool of Bethesda, and explored the ruins a little, pretty much alone. It was a peace-filled discovery in a busy city.

We finally made our way up to the Garden tomb, where Protestants think that Jesus may have been crucified (at Gordan’s Golgotha, or place of the skull because there is a skull shape in the cliff). I felt really peaceful here and could have stayed longer. As a postscript to the day, Rosie and I decided to visit the Jerusalem prayer centre, as it was on the way back. My highlight was the story about a man who composed a hymn while on the boat to America to find his wife who had survived a different boat journey, but during which their four children had died.

On that cheerful note (actually the hymn is surprisingly cheerful and trusting in God for someone in those circumstances), I’d better sign off. Bethlehem tomorrow – Jane is taking me through the checkpoint.

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About sophiehebden

Science writer and editor, I mostly write about space and fundamental questions in physics.
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4 Responses to Touching stones in a segregated city

  1. SWH says:

    “I simply don’t believe in a God who takes sides in wars.” As a Christian I find this statement perplexing. God clearly does take sides in wars. I don’t see how you can read the Old Testament any other way? Some truths of the Christian faith are hard to swallow but they are truth nonetheless.

    What happened in ’67 WAS miraculous. There’s no other word for it. Why should Israel triumph in such circumstances? Its borders were indefensible, its army was tiny. It was attacked by 5 huge Arab nations with far more resources. Israel had only existed as a nation for 20 years! It was young and inexperienced. And yet it triumphed. There’s a clear agenda here – look at the wars. Arab nations have tried to exterminate the Jewish state time and time again. And time and time again they have failed. No wonder people point to a God who calls himself “The God of Israel” and promises to neither slumber nor sleep when looking out for the “apple of his eye” – the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

  2. Keith Hebden says:

    It’s army wasn’t tiny but it was a surprise to the Israeli military that they made such huge incursions. To interpret every military success as proof of moral rightness is an odd way to set your moral compass. It rather suggests that anyone who successful causes someone else suffering has, by doing so, proved a God given right to do so. Very odd.

    While it is true that Arab nations have at times persecuted Jewish minorities and created Jewish refugees in huge numbers their can be no doubt that the aggression against the Palestinians was and is overwhelmingly a US-backed Israeli-settler project aimed at nothing short of genocide. If that’s your God you’re welcome to him. And please don’t forget that the prophets had a lot to say about the “apple of his eye” when they acted unjustly to others and crushed the poor.

    • SWH says:

      Keith I never claimed every military success was a proof of moral rightness, you are putting words in my mouth!

      It’s quite simple – you start with the Bible and work out from there. If you don’t accept the Bible as our primary authority then we can’t debate this as we’re starting from completely different places. But if you do, then check out the verses and you’ll see where I’m coming from.

  3. Karin says:

    Would that have been “It Is Well with My Soul”, Sophie? I’m not sure if it shows great trust in God or a lack of fatherly love for his four daughters. I haven’t heard it in a while.

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