Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter in Jerusalem

Spring is finally here in Jerusalem and it is gorgeous! (Actually, the spring weather here is more like summer weather at home in Vancouver and so I am quite content). Yesterday halfway through our Ancient Near Eastern Studies class, our professor took us outside to the lawn overlooking the city and invited us to sit down and take in the view. While we sat on the grass among pretty purple and red poppies he told us how lucky we were to be here in Jerusalem during the springtime and for Easter. (Yesterday of course was Good Friday.)

Easter in Jerusalem is beautiful – the weather has warmed up and flowers are blooming. I can even smell that sweet smell of spring in the air that is like pressing your face up to a fresh bouquet of flowers.

While we were taking in the sights and sounds and smells, Professor Seeley reminded us how symbolic everything was. Spring is a time to celebrate life and so is the Easter holiday. Though at Easter we solemnly remember Christ’s sacrifice, we also rejoice in the resurrection and the knowledge that he lives, which is very easy to do when we are absolutely surrounded by new life.

And really this experience is not something that can be duplicated. For example, yesterday my friend pointed out to me that from where we stood outside, we had a view of Calvary (both possible spots actually) where at that very hour so many years ago, Christ would have hung on the cross. And to our left was the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ would have prayed the night before. It all took place right here! I still can hardly comprehend it.

Then at three o’clock yesterday as I was outside studying, the church bells began to ring loudly from the Augusta Victoria Tower behind our building, signalling the hour of Christ’s death. You know I didn’t get any chocolate this year or go on any Easter egg hunts, but experiencing this time of year in Jerusalem will make all my Easters to come far more meaningful.

Tomorrow we are going to wake up very early and make our way to the Garden Tomb so that we can participate in the sunrise service. After that we will be boarding a bus and heading off to Galilee for ten days. And so, with that, I should probably go to bed, but I hope that everyone reading this has a wonderful Easter!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Palm Sunday, and a little town called Bethlehem

On Sunday, I joined a Palm Sunday processional with Christian pilgrims from around the world. Together we walked from Bethphage to Jerusalem to commemorate Christ’s entry into the city the week before he was crucified. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and sunny – even hot – and as we gathered to start the processional Palestinians sold palm fronds to carry as we marched. Among our group at least, it became somewhat of a competition to see who could find the biggest branch. Mine was not very large, but it braided and crinkled, and I thought it looked unique.

There really were a lot of people, many of who had come to Jerusalem for Easter and to participate in the walk. It was fun to try and pick out as many languages as we could. I heard Russian, French, Polish, Spanish and English among others. Some groups wore bright yellow caps to recognize each other as many tour groups do, and others just blended in as we did. But no matter what language or denomination, it was special to be with thousands of people who have a similar belief in Christ.

The walk, which takes about half an hour under normal circumstances, probably took about two hours with the crowd. We walked down streets that were sometimes narrow and all I could see around me were people’s heads and palm branches – that’s the trouble with being short – however as we rounded a corner and the road sloped down I got a glimpse of the beautiful Dome of the Rock and the Old City as well as the throng of people snaking towards it.

The processional was definitely a joyful one, just as it would have been joyful when Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people welcomed him as their Messiah. Our walk ended at Saint Anne’s church, which is along the Via Dolorosa and we mingled and danced to the live music that was being broadcast over loudspeakers. Someone described it as a Christian version of Woodstock, which I thought was rather accurate (minus the drugs of course). Nevertheless, my Palm Sunday experience in Jerusalem will be one that I will never forget.

After celebrating the last week of Christ’s life on Sunday, today we went back to the very beginning in Bethlehem. We weren’t sure at first if we would be allowed to go to the West Bank because there have been strikes in response to the four political leaders that were recently killed in Bethlehem, but security decided we would be safe.

We started by visiting Bethlehem University with our Modern Near Eastern Studies teacher, Professor Adnan Mussalam who works there. Bethlehem University is fairly small – just under three thousand students – but it is internationally accredited and serves both Muslims and Christians. My favourite part of our tour was a question and answer forum with four of the students. It was definitely eye opening to get their perspective and to hear what daily life is like in Palestine. For example, for those who have to commute from say, Hebron, it can take up to two hours with checkpoints, which are always unpredictable. Overall, though it was clear they have grown up under occupation, they say they have to be optimistic.

We then went over to Nativity Square where we visited the oldest standing church in the Holy Land, built in the traditional spot of the grotto or stable where Christ was born. To be honest, at first I was a little bit disappointed. The church is very orthodox in style and when we went down to the grotto I felt nothing. They mark the spot where Christ was born and where the manger was but I couldn’t help but feel sceptical that that was the place. On the other side of the church is another small cave that felt a little more authentic and we had a chance to sing a few hymns – Christmas carols actually – and that made it a little bit better. I had also passed a mass and heard the congregation singing hymns, and I realized that it wasn’t so much about where the exact spot was where Christ was born, but that his message was still very much alive and that people are still coming to know him.

To conclude our day, we went to a little shepherd’s field where we ate our picnic dinners and then heard the Christmas story in approximately the same place the shepherds would have been when the angel appeared to them and declared to them glad tidings. Then shivering, because it was very chilly at night, we sang Christmas carols by starlight on a Judean hillside – not an experience many people get to have. Normally I refuse to sing Christmas Carols out of season, but tonight was well worth making the exception.

We had to buy some palms for Palm Sunday! I didn't win the tallest palm contest, but looks like Dave came close.

I made some new friends, including a priest from Tanzania who is here studying the bible.

A nun singing as she walked in the procession.

A crowd of Christians.

Look closely and you can see Jerusalem in the background.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Visiting Jordan

For those of you who have heard about the shooting at the yeshiva in West Jerusalem and are curious about our security situation, we are currently on “lockdown” at the Jerusalem Center until further notice. Our security and administration will assess the situation on a day-by-day basis and let us know when they feel it is safe for us to once again roam the city by ourselves (in groups of at least three that is). However we are still allowed to go on approved outings. For example on Friday we went to Eilat to go snorkelling in the Red Sea (which was lovely) and tonight we are still going on our tour of the Cotel Tunnel (an archaeological tunnel underneath the Western Wall). So we are safe – and we have plenty of homework to keep us busy in the mean time – but we are praying for the peace of Jerusalem.

On a happier note, last week we went on a four day trip to Jordan and so now I can cross another country off my list of places to see before I die. As in Egypt there were many ancient sites to see and activities to do, so here is my list of highlights:

1. Touched the River Jordan. As usual my River Jordan experience would not have been complete had I not got my fingers wet. For some reason just looking in not satisfying enough – I could see as much by watching a documentary – but by actually touching the River Jordan or the rocks of the Great Pyramids my experience becomes tangible. Luckily my Ancient Near Eastern Studies professor feels the same way and he secretly encourages us to touch as much as we can, though today he told us that paintings were off limits. But to get back to the point, I did dip my fingers in the Jordan River and stand on its banks at the place where it is very likely that Christ was baptized by John the Baptist. Almost everywhere else in Jordan it was brown, but by the river it was green, which is somewhat symbolic I suppose.

2. Stood at the top of Mount Nebo. The view we had from the top of Mount Nebo was the same one Moses had when he had his first glimpse of the Promised Land. Unfortunately for Moses he was not allowed to enter the land of Canaan himself. From that point we could see straight across the Jordan River valley to Jericho and even to the mountains near Jerusalem. Overlooking the desert, the land didn’t exactly look like a land of milk and honey, but luckily I have also seen the green valleys of the Shephelah.

3. Followed the footsteps of Indiana Jones. Unfortunately this ancient Nabatean city carved into rock – one of the world wonders – is best known for its appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Nevertheless it was exciting to walk through the ancient gorge and view the magnificent carvings, which showed Greco-Roman and Egyptian influence. One of my highlights of Petra – and maybe the whole trip – was my donkey ride up the mountain to view the monastery. That was five dollars well spent if you ask me. Donkeys are such sorry looking animals and at first I was scared I would break my donkey’s back but it carried me all the way to the top of the mountain. I walked back down and on the way I stopped to barter for jewellery and talk to the cute little Bedouin kids. And finally to end my Petra adventure, I got to ride a horse like good ol’ Indy himself.

4. Wrestled on the banks of the River Jabbock. This was where Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord and with the Lord’s help was able to prevail. Naturally we all had to take pictures wrestling on the banks of the same river. Unfortunately the photos will have to suffice because this time we were expressly warned not to even touch the polluted water.

5. Visited the ruins of Jerash. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what Jerash was until we got there, but I discovered it to be an old roman city in very good condition compared to others. We explored the ruins, which included temples to Zeus and Artemis and got to play in an old Roman theatre. We then paid eighteen dollars to watch a gladiator show in the old Hippodrome. They demonstrated army formations, staged a few gladiator battles, and rode chariots around the stadium. To be honest, it was a little over priced and I would have to say that watching Ben Hur is more exciting, BUT I was in Jordan and I had fun.

6. Bought some cheap DVDs. A strange thing to add to my list of highlights I know, but I think for many people this was definitely a highlight considering how many movies were purchased. Word got around the group that a little shop in Amman sold pirated movies (this is not illegal in Jordan by the way) and I think every body paid them at least one visit. Personally I only purchased five movies – others probably bought close to twenty. I would be interested to see how many we bought collectively. We gave them good business anyway and now we have something to do during lockdown!

Touching the River Jordan.

A little Bedouin kid trying to sell me a rock for a dollar at Petra.

I rode a donkey up a mountain to see this monastery at Petra.

At the Jabbock River we weren't allowed to touch the water so we re-enacted the Bible instead. But really Russell is beating me up because I'm wearing that silly blue pouch.

The rest of my class dancing in a Roman theater at Jerash. It almost looks like a pagan ritual.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Getting both sides of the story

** Unfortunately being a student and a traveler means not having very much spare time and since budgeting my time wisely has never been a forte, I haven’t been able to update my blog as often as I would have liked. So I apologize. **

One of the purposes of our Near Eastern Studies program here in the Holy Land is to educate us on the current conflict here – in addition to our biblical studies – by exposing us to each of the different narratives, both Israeli and Palestinian. Before we left to come here, our program director Jim Kurl said that he has been coming here for many years and he still can’t seem to take a side. He concluded by asking us to be open-minded, and that has been my goal. What I am finding is that it really is impossible to take a stand on one side over the other. Every time I have insight into a new narrative I find the pendulum of my opinion swinging back and forth.

For example, we recently visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial here in Jerusalem. As the museum walked us through the Jewish experience from pre WWII through the terror of the Holocaust and concluded with the story of Zionism and the creation of a Jewish national homeland, I couldn’t help but sympathize. In fact it was very emotional to watch a video of children singing Hatikva, the Jewish national anthem while I was standing on the soil of a real Jewish state. And yet, in that moment I forgot that before Israel was Israel it was Palestine, and the Palestinians who still live here, no longer have a state of their own.

The media in North America tends to be rather biased with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the picture we get of the Palestinians is not very favourable. But here at the Jerusalem Center, it is the Palestinians who are our neighbours since we live in the Palestinian east side of Jerusalem. The majority are very friendly and welcoming and a number of students have been invited into people’s homes for meals.

Every now and then we have speakers visit our campus to give a forum and so far we have heard from the American perspective, the Israeli perspective and just recently from the Palestinian perspective. It was very interesting to listen to Dr. Sabella, an elected member of the Palestinian Parliament speak to us. What he focused his talk on was helping us understand that Palestinians are real people concerned about getting on with their daily lives and that what they want is peace. He also stressed that Palestinians are very educated people, which I have noticed myself. The little kids who live across the street speak Arabic but they study Hebrew, English and French in school. Already they speak more languages than I do (which is not hard since I only speak one).

Unfortunately Dr. Sabella was not very optimistic about a resolution to the conflict, which by the way he stressed was political not religious. He said at the moment they just don’t have the right ingredients for peace. Finally he said, “If you want to work for a better world, you need to understand both sides.” And that is what I am trying to do during my stay here in this conflict-riddled land.

I believe that in order to understand both sides it is necessary to move beyond talking merely about political ideologies and get to know the people, who they are and what they believe. This week I had several chances to do that. On Thursday night we celebrated Ramadan – at least we simulated a Ramadan meal since it isn’t really Ramadan. We had a speaker come in and talk to us about how Muslims fast from dawn until sundown every day of the month. But it is more than just abstaining from food – rather it is a way to develop discipline as they renew their contract with Allah. It was nice to learn more about the spiritual aspect. After the speaker we feasted on traditional food and then learned a traditional Palestinian folkdance.

Following our night of Muslim feasting, I went to a Friday night synagogue service the next evening. Our Jewish studies teacher had kindly arranged for us to attend. We dressed in our Sunday best, and the boys wore yarmulkes out of respect, and we made it there just in time as the sun was setting. During the service, which consisted mainly of hymns from the prayer book (sung in Hebrew of course), the men and women sat separately. It was very nice to finally get to participate in a synagogue service. It would have been nicer if I had been able to sing along, but alas, I cannot read Hebrew (yet).

I guess what I’ve discovered so far is that it’s not necessary to take a firm stance on one side over the other, but as Dr. Sabella said it is necessary to understand both sides of the story. I hope to continue to do that through first hand experience.

Me and my little Palestinian friends.

Ramadan feast - and the reason I am getting fat.

Me and my friend Lyle of Arabia.

Heading out to the city.

Dave and I after synagogue. We thought we fit the part quite well.