Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jerusalem's Holy Sites

This morning, we woke up early and went to see the two sites most revered by Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem, the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.  All the women in our party wore clothes covering their arms and legs, as well as head scarves, to show respect for the traditions at both places. 
Western Wall (photo by Missy)

The Western Wall is part of the wall that surrounded the Second Temple during Roman times.  It is the closest place to the Temple's Holy of Holies where Jews are able to pray today, and is considered one of Judaism's holiest sites.  A tradition exists for people to put prayers on small pieces of paper and to stick them in the cracks of the wall.  (Jane found out that one Rabbi is responsible for taking all the papers out twice a year and that he buries the prayers as sacred things on the Mount of Olives.)  A barrier divides the wall into two sections, one where men can pray and the other where women can pray.  When entering the area, yarmulkes were provided for gentile men to wear.  Today was one of the days when they set the wall up for Bar Mitzvahs.  Most of the people on the men's side wore black, with black hats, white Jewish prayer shawls, and phylacteries.  About 15 feet up the wall, a bush was growing out of the wall with birds landing in it.  I couldn't help but think of Psalm 84: "The sparrow has found her a the side of your altars."  Jane said that on the women's side, many of the women were dressed up in high heels and their finest dresses as they looked over the divider to watch their sons' bar mitzvahs.  I prayed at the wall for a bit, then laid a paper with prayers on top of hundreds of other prayers in a large crack in the wall about five feet off the ground.

The Dome of the Rock (photo by Missy)
After the Wall, we went to the Temple Mount which houses the Dome of the Rock.  This meant another trip through security (and on the ramp from the Wall level to the Temple Mount level, we passed about a dozen clear-plastic, body-length, riot police shields).  Compared to the bustle of activity at the Wall, the Temple Mount was fairly quiet, with only a few tour groups milling around and a number of imams teaching about a dozen students.  (This calm was due to our coming between prayer times.  They estimate that tomorrow, for a Friday in Ramadan when the political situation is calm and many Muslims are allowed to come to pray in Jerusalem, 400,000 will come for prayers.)  The large courtyard on the Temple Mount was approximately where the Second Temple's Court of the Gentiles would have been.  The Dome of the Rock is a breathtakingly beautiful building with a gleaming gold dome and colorful blue and green mosaics covering the outside.  When Muslims first took Jerusalem (without bloodshed according to one source), a small wooden building was built on the site that Mohammed was believed to have ascended into heaven and received the Koran.  Although it was the site of the Jewish Temple, nothing had been rebuilt there since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. At the end of the 7th Century, when Islam had conquered the former Eastern Roman Empire and acquired their architectural capacity, they built the Dome of the Rock as a place for pilgrims.  El Asqa Mosque was built next to it as a worship site.  The Dome of the Rock site/Temple site is also believed to be Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac (Muslims believe he was sacrificing Ishmael).  Non-muslims are not allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock at this time in retaliation for something that former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon did at the Temple Mount that offended the Muslims.   

After visiting those two sites, we visited three churches.  The first was the Church of St. Anne, built over a cave where Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is believed to have been born.  The church was rebuilt in the 1800's and has excellent acoustics.  Our group sang "Seek Ye First" together there.  Next to the church are the ruins of the pools of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a lame man in John 5.  In one spot, we could go down a flight of stairs and look down about 20 feet to the an excavation of a corner of what would have been the pools during Jesus time.  Looking down at a place Jesus had been was quite powerful.  (Most of the current city is 16-20' above where it was in Roman times.)

Altar of Church of Mark's House (Greene photo)

The second church was the Church of Mark's House.  The church is built over the excavated upper room, where Jesus ate the last supper with his disciples, appeared to them after his resurrection twice, and where the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost.  The church is a Syriac Church, an ancient Christian group that still speaks and worships in Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke.  They also have an icon of Mary and the infant Jesus that they believe was painted by St. Luke the evangelist on deerskin.  The altar was gorgeous, as was the church itself, although it was fairly small and would be considered more of a chapel by us today.

The Upper Room (Greene photo)
The woman who provided the tour of the church said that the Holy Spirit is still performing miracles in that place.  She went on to describe a wonderful Pentecost experience that happened to her this year.  During the Pentecost service, she prayed for God to cleanse her heart and to experience something like Pentecost herself.  Shortly thereafter a Russian Jew came to the church and she had an hour conversation with him, she thought entirely in English (she speaks Aramaic as her first language, as well as Arabic, English and some Italian).  Three months later, the man returned, but would only speak Hebrew to her, and got mad when she would only speak English to him.  She couldn't figure out what went wrong, so she prayed for someone that could translate for them.  Then a friend who spoke English and Russian appeared and he translated.  It turns out that the man could only speak Russian and Hebrew, and he thought she had spoken to him the entire time in Hebrew.  He had become convinced she was now pretending not to speak Hebrew so she could close the church early and go home.  Her friend said that he had come quickly with his wife when his wife said the woman at the church was in trouble and needed them to take an expensive taxi and get to the church immediately.  Our guide recognized then that her prayers for an experience of tongues like on Pentecost had been answered.  Many of us in our pilgrimage were profoundly touched by the witness of this woman, and we prayed a long time in the church, before the icon, and downstairs in the upper room where such momentous events took place in the lives of Jesus' first disciples.

After lunch we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (also known as the Church of the Resurrection), which is over the sites were Jesus was crucified, taken down from the cross, buried, and rose from the dead.  The Church itself contains multiple chapels belonging to six different Christian groups, and has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times for various reasons.  Today's visit was during the crowded part of the day, and we mostly walked around as a group and got explanations of what things were and how they came to be.  Later in the trip, we will come back early in the morning when it is quieter.  We will do the stations of the cross which include a number of stations in the Church, and have an opportunity to pray there more and go to its holy sites (today we saw them, but didn't wait in line to go to them). 

From the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we walked through the Old City to get back to the hotel.  We were able to pass both the meat market today and the spice market.  The spice market smelled much better.

Photo note: Since our camera is not synching with my laptop as anticipated, I can't include the photos Jane or I took.  All of today's photos are by Missy Greene.  More can be found on her facebook page.

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