This afternoon, we got out of the college and visited our first sites.
We began quite literally with an overview. We drove via tour bus about 15 minutes to a monastery on the other side of the city. There we climbed to the roof for an amazing view. We could see the whole city laid out in front of us like a map. Rodney explained the topography and geography of Jerusalem, with its several hills and valleys. He pointed out where the city walls were at various stages of history (they were quite different in Jesus’ time), and where the original City of David was (not on the Temple Mount, but lower down). Of course everything was dominated by the beautiful golden dome of the mosque on the Temple Mount. We also learned that Temple Mount is a Jewish way to refer to the site of Herod’s 2nd temple (the one Jesus knew). Muslims refer to it as the Haram esh-Sharif. So even to name it is to “take sides”. Herod’s walls still stand more than 2,000 years later, but little else remains from that time.
After Rodney’s talk, Mike gathered us for some prayer and reflection. He asked us each to share a word expressing our reaction to what we could see. Complex and multilayered were popular choices, and certainly reflected my feelings as well.
The bus then took us back to the Damascus gate, which is close to the college and where Connie and I explored yesterday. I should pause to explain that the Old City of Jerusalem is surrounded by a wall. The college is just about 3 blocks outside this wall. The wall has many gates, each with its own name.
Rodney had explained to us earlier that it is traditional for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem to begin by visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This church, first built by the Roman Emperor Constantine, covers both the site of the cruxifiction and the resurrection (i.e. tomb of Jesus). Rodney reminded us that while to Jews and Muslims, the Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharif is the center of the religious universe, for Christians the center of everything (legendarily the center of the world) is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
We got to the church by walking through the old city. I don’t even know how to describe the city inside the walls. It’s a labyrinth inside a maze. The streets are far too narrow for cars as they’ve been encroached on over the centuries. You mostly can’t see the sky as the buildings on each side almost touch each other above your head, or tunnel under other streets. There are fascinating things to see everywhere you look.
The church was just as complex, confusing, and multilayered as the city it is in. The church is controlled by six different Christian groups (Syrian, Coptic, and Orthodox among others) all of whom argue and negotiate about the upkeep and use of the building. Also, apparently our Christian fore bearers never saw a holy site they didn’t want to decorate. Elaborately. So my two words to describe this most holy site would be encrusted and dirty. Also crowded. There were different worship services going on, as well as many tour groups and pilgrims. We were glad for the audio earbuds. Rodney was able to help us see the 4th century bones under the Crusader, Medieval and modern accretions. It was amazing, though, underneath it all. We saw the actual rock of Calvary, which is enclosed in a glass case. We stood in a long line of pilgrims to take a turn venerating the dime-sized spot where the foot of the cross was said to be. It is now under an altar and surrounded by mosaics and silver-encrusted icons. I know I’ll be processing this for some time — and that I want to go back again. Rodney took us on foot for that purpose, that we can find our way back there when we have some free time to wander on our own. Our pilgrimage will also end there, as we retrace the events of Holy Week the last two days of the course.
Last blog post for today, but it has helped me to get my thoughts out! Tomorrow we visit Bethlehem.