Today, after several queues, checkpoints and scanners, we entered the Temple Mount, probably the most disputed piece of land on the earth.
We stood in the bright sunshine at the foot of the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, revered by Muslims. Under current rules, non-Muslims can’t pray in the area of the Mount. There are Muslim guards who wander around with their walkie talkies hissing and watching for any non-conforming behaviour. We covered our shoulders and did our best not to do anything that would offend anyone. But still a couple in our group got told off for holding hands – men and women aren’t allowed to touch in the compound and another for sitting on a step. We were apologetic and the response form the guard was always the same:
“This is a holy place.”
As we were ushered out of the Temple Mount as it shut for prayer, passing through yet more checkpoints, the rocket warning sirens went off. Even though there had been another stabbing at the often tense Damascus Gate last night, I didn’t worry about an attack, mostly because the Israeli soldiers didn’t bat an eyelid. But the sound chilled me.
We walked down to the Western Wall which many may know better as the Wailing Wall. Pilgrims and local Jews queue to pray at the wall, the only remaining section of a part of the Second Temple and their holiest site. People travel from all over the world to tuck their written messages to God into cracks in the stones.
I stood quietly and observed women (genders are segregated at the Wall) read scripture, pray individually and in groups, cry and beam smiles as they prayed and worshipped.
This is clearly a thin place between heaven and earth where many meet, and would like to come to meet God, so I placed my hand on the wall, to add my touch to the millions of other believer’s hands that have been there before me, and will be there after me and maybe in a little way to those who can’t be there. It was only a small gesture but it was a moment of connection with me, them and God.
This is a holy place.
Underneath the Church of St Peter of Gallicantu on the slopes underneath Temple Mount, a church said to be the site of Caiaphas’ house where Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed, there is a cave. Bishara, our guide told us this is where many believe Jesus was held the night before his death. The walls of the cave were cold and hard, smoothed by generations of pilgrim’s touch, much like the Western Wall.
I’ll address the whole ‘did it really happen here’ thing which has been the centre of quite a few conversations this week, but today, what was sobering wasn’t the feeling that this represented where Jesus was held, but our guide’s request that while stood in the cold, moist, still air we remember those across the world in prisons.
I thought of the young Palestinians, mostly men, in Israeli prisons for ‘crimes’ such as throwing stones, young men who miss out on their education, become workless and another generation loses hope. I looked up at the small hole in the ceiling through which a prisoner would be lowered or raised – there were no doors to the cell.
This is a holy place?
Tonight, our speaker was from Musalaha, an Embrace partner who work across the globe to spread what they have learned here in the Holy Land about reconciliation. Salim spoke about the obstacles, including theologies, that make the situation here seem intractable.
He then spoke of how Musalaha use the geography of the land, the desert, as athe base of their ‘ministry of reconciliation’ which he started 25 years ago by taking a group into the desert where power and distrust is removed through quietness, shared goals, removal of power and building of relationships. The “I’m more of a victim than you” mentality is challenged when you all face the same problems at the same time. Those who have been dehumanised on both sides of the conflicts become people again in the desert.
This is a holy place.
Surprised: Makloubeh! Again! Yum!
Delighted: The geography of the land – being able to put the history to the land, working out directions, distances and relief which brings so much of the Bible to life.
Upset: The sirens.