Despite its religious significance, despite the hoards of pilgrims of all faiths who besiege it with a fervor that would make you wonder why there is any unrest in the world at all, and despite the countless millions of holy trinkets that embody the faiths of nations, the essence of the Holy Land was epitomized for me in one short piece of text, prominently displayed on the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

It wasn’t drafted by a great scholar, a famous theologian, or a savvy politician. It wasn’t the product of years of discourse or months of negotiations. It wasn’t designed to clever or witty or tweetable. It simply tells a story.

I’ve prayed to my God as long as I can remember. I’ve asked and been disappointed and then relieved as prayers went unanswered. I’ve asked, been happy and then disappointed when what I thought I wanted wasn’t what I wanted at all but I was stuck with it anyway. It took many years to realise that despite my prayers, I get what’s given to me for a reason. Mine is not to second guess or even to figure out the reason why, but rather to accept my part in the divine plan and make the most of it. Everything happens for a reason.

Now, I’m well aware that sort of talk might cause some to retreat behind crossed index fingers and reach for the clove of garlic; others might go as far as to question my frame of mind. For one that can occasionally appear to have a brain in her head, it might defy belief that I could be so willing to believe that while the waters ahead may be unchartered, I have a map and a guide and complete faith that I’ll arrive eventually to wherever it is I’m supposed to be, with whomever it is I’m supposed to be with, whenever I’m supposed to be there – and not a shred of scientific evidence to back up that assertion.

As a child, I learned to pray by rote. Nowadays, my prayers are more like conversations. Open conversations. At times argumentative, at times truculent,  at times weary, always grateful.  While I might think I know what’s best for me, I’m rarely right. And when, piece by piece, a plan is revealed, I can either delight in the process or sulk … because it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. And I can sulk with the best of them. I’ve had plenty of practice.

My method of prayer might be unorthodox. I’m not overly concerned with religious propriety. I constantly remind myself that the Catholic Church, like all religions, is a  man-made institution and therefore far from perfect. I don’t agree with many of its teachings and mostly observe its rituals out of habit; it has little bearing on my relationship with my God. But faith I have, in spades.

I’ve long-since struggled to encapsulate what this faith means to me and how it manifests itself in my life. I’ve struggled to make myself understood when it comes to explaining rationally why I believe. I’m the last one you’d want in a debate on creationism vs evolution. But when I read this piece on the wall in Bethlehem, something clicked. If I went to the Holy Land seeking affirmation, this was it.

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It may seem like I’m a little obsessed with the wall around Bethlehem and perhaps I am. Oddly enough, it was the non-religious aspects of the Holy Land that intrigued me most. The Golan Heights, the Dead Sea, the Wall. What that says about the state of my religion is anyone’s guess. I’ve been trying to figure out why a church-going Catholic might have had difficulties in the holiest of holy lands and have come to the conclusion that the pundits were right. I must be of the pick’n’mix variety. But I digress.

Back to the wall.

IMG_8525 (600x800)IMG_8545 (800x600)In addition the graffiti, there are posters depicting snapshots of the lives of those who live there. They tell their own story. I’ve posted a few here, those that resonated most, and can’t help but believe that any one of them would touch the hardest of hearts.

IMG_8452 (589x800)IMG_8456 (600x800)IMG_8460 (600x800)IMG_8497 (600x800)IMG_8505 (600x800)IMG_8499 (600x800)IMG_8510 (600x800)IMG_8521 (600x800)I hope so, too.

 

Nabi Mosa mosque is said to be a sacred place for Muslims because it is here that the prophet Moses is supposedly buried – mind you, that, like much else in the region, is subject to debate.

IMG_8226 (800x595)IMG_8215 (600x800)The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well travelled by Mediterranean Arabs on their way to Mecca. Nabi Mosa is situation at what would have been the end of the first day’s walk. Nearby Mount Nebo is where Moses was thought to be buried back then – his ‘move’ to to Mosque is thought to be a matter of invention. The current building was completed in the late 1400s and restored by the Ottoman Turks in 1820. It’s now home to a treatment centre for addicts.

IMG_8227 (800x600)To give the local Muslims something to celebrate while their Christian counterparts were celebrating Easter, the Ottomans instituted a seven-day religious festival called Nabi Mosa. Thousands of Muslims would gather in Jerusalem and make the trip to the mosque where they’d celebrate for  days before returning home. When Jordan took over the administration of the West Bank after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the festival was more or less cancelled.

IMG_8237 (800x592)IMG_8236 (800x594)In the shadows outside the mosque lies an old cemetery. The ground is rock solid and I can’t begin to imagine how anyone would dig a grave. This probably accounts for the raised grave sites. The inscriptions meant nothing to me and I can’t find any account of it anywhere so it’s difficult to tell how old it is. Graves seemed to be scattered around rather than laid out in any particular order reflecting the chaos that seems to be so innate to life in Palestine.  and in the heat of the sun, miles from anywhere, the place had a serene and saintly feel to it. We were the only ones at the monastery and I was the only one in the cemetery. For the first time in days, I felt like I was communing with something other than commercialism. And I actually took the time to pray.

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IMG_8151 (800x599)Billed as the oldest city in the world, Jericho was one of the few places that saw little action during the two intifadas (Palestinian uprisings, 1987-1993 and 2000-2005)  As a result, the Israeli presence is notable by its absence.  Translated by the Canaanites as the Moon, in Syriac the name Jericho meant scent and odour. Today, the city is known as both The City of Palm and The Garden of God. Ruins discovered here date back 10 000 years, depending on whom you listen to.

I’m a little annoyed at myself that I didn’t find the sycamore tree which the tax collector Zacchaeus climbed to get a better look at Jesus when he entered the city. But then, that’s always a reason to go back.

IMG_8193 (800x600)IMG_8180 (800x497)We visited the city to see the Monastery of the Temptation perched on the side of the Mount of Temptation. This particular Greek Orthodox Monastery allows women in … which was a relief.

IMG_8158 (800x600)To conserve time rather than energy, we opted for the 5-minute cable car ride rather than the 30-minute hike up a steep path. The monastery is built over the cave in which Jesus is supposed to have spent his 40 days and 40 nights being tempted by the devil. The cave is tiny – with barely room to stand up inside. The hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have trooped through it have left their mark. It was mentioned as far back as 326 when Helena of Constantinople identified it as one of the holy sites she visited on her pilgrimage that year and the present monastery was built at the end of the nineteenth century.

IMG_8187 (800x600)IMG_8189 (600x800)Interestingly, it was the first holy place that actually felt any way holy. I touched the actual rock on which Jesus is supposed to have sat during his fast and wondered, not for the first time, why we are so obsessed with tangible things. Why do we need rocks and relics and statues and churches? Why isn’t it simply enough to be in the place that it all supposedly happened, to commune with spirit that’s present, to soak up the memories and take time to reflect onIMG_8196 (592x800) what has been.

I’m as guilty as anyone of taking photos and perhaps not spending more time in silent contemplation, but this monastery, like so many other places I visited, didn’t allow time for rumination. It’s like being on conveyor belt – with priests pulling you in one end and pushing you out the other. And yet perhaps because of its situation, perched as it is on the side of a mountain, this monastery felt just a little closer to heaven, to what I had expected of the Holy Land.

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For years, local builders had been helping themselves to the spoils of what has since been discovered to be an eighth-century desert castle. Hisham’s palace lies about 5 km north of Jericho in Palestine’s West Bank. It amuses me to think that houses built in the area prior to the excavation in the 1930s could well feature pieces of the palace.

IMG_8131 (800x599) I like old books, old furniture, old buildings and old people, but there’s something about archeology that doesn’t quite do it for me. Yes, of course I can appreciate that so much has survived the ages and I can appreciate the glimpse such finds offer us to the past. But I rarely get excited about unearthed ruins.

IMG_8129 (800x600)IMG_8132 (600x800)Hisham’s palace, while beautiful in a weird sort of way, has been firmly categorised as archeological in my mind. I wandered the grounds (which are eerily 260 metres below sea level) and saw the ancient carvings. I admired how the Rosetta stone had been put back together. And I gave due credit to the inventive signage on display. I recognised the importance of the place in terms of history and have since read that the Global Heritage Fund, in its 2010 report Saving Our Vanishing Heritage, has included it as one of twelve worldwide heritage sites most ‘on the verge’ of irreparable loss and destruction. And were that to happen, it would be a shame.

IMG_8138 (800x599)IMG_8144 (600x800)For me, though, its magic lies in its mosaics. It is here that the world famous tree of life was discovered, a mosaic depicting the mythical tree with two deer grazing peacefully on one side of it, while a third deer is attacked by a lion on the other side. Those images certainly gave me something to think about.

There are plans afoot to construct a 18-metre tall structure that will include walkways over the palace to shield the mosaics while at the same time allowing visitors to fully appreciate them. Work was supposed to start this year but I didn’t notice anything much going on.  Award-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor is the man heading up what he calls an ’emotional reconstruction’. Once the rest of the mosaic floors are exposed, it’ll be on my list of places to revisit.

It took a while for me to put my finger on what I was missing most – and then it finally dawned on me. Colour. The Judean Desert is practically devoid of colour. Jerusalem is built from the same brick – every building made from the same type of stone. Even old monasteries like St George of Koziba, which is located somewhere off the side of the road on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho, are of the same cast (and yes,  the road you see also features in the tale of the good Samaritan).

IMG_8063 (800x600)Built as it into the side of a mountain, it reminded me, somewhat bizarrely, of Popeye’s village in Malta. I think perhaps the heat was getting to me. Anyway, back in 614, the Persians passed through, killing the 14 monks who lived there. The Crusaders had a brief relationship with the place in the 1100s but it wasn’t until 1901 that  a Greek monk finished the restoration. And it was here, apparently that St Joachim wept when an angel told him that Mary had conceived.

IMG_8067 (600x800)The place is spectacular. Simply amazing. It wouldn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to envision Elijah in a cave nearby being fed by the ravens – which apparently is what drew the monks here in the first place. Accessible by foot, it’s open to visitors, who amongst many other things, can have a peak at the remains of the 14 massacred monks. We contented ourselves with a view across the gorge of the Wadi Qelt, lost in the majesty of it all. I think it’s one of those places better appreciated from afar (and I, for one, was glad we didn’t make 2 hour trek to the front door).

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Here are four words… immersion, submersion, aspersion, and affusion. When you read them, what one word comes to mind …. apart from ‘clueless’?  I had to think about this one for a while and although I did make an educated guess, given that I was standing on the banks of the River Jordan at the time, I couldn’t for the life of me explain the latter two. And I’m supposed to know this stuff.

They’re all methods of baptism. Immersion and submersion are self-explanatory. Aspersion is baptism by sprinkling. Affusion is baptism by pouring. Ya learn something new every day. And in Israel I learned something new every hour.

The bible has it that Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan. But… and in a region that is loaded with buts this might come a no surprise… the exact spot depends on your religion. The Catholics and the Orthodox church have one spot near  Jericho (relatively undeveloped) set across from a lovely church on the Jordan side of the river (it was rather amusing to see us taking photos of them and vice versa).

IMG_8098 (800x600)IMG_8104 (800x600)There was an Orthodox baptism going on with a strange ritual whereby the priest tied a piece of string to the cross and then threw it into the water, said some prayers and then pulled it out again. He did this three times.

There were two jetties. On one, the Orthodox lads were doing their bit while on the other, a Catholic priest was saying prayers with IMG_8086 (563x800)his flock. In the middle stood a couple of Israeli soldiers, young enough to still have their confirmation money. That’s one of the strangest things I’ve seen … kids, with guns nearly as tall as they are. Everywhere. Mandatory service is still part and parcel of life in Israel – three years for men, two for women. Interestingly though, the lambs are no longer going quietly to the slaughter. Profile 21 is a code used by the military to classify people not fit for service (physically or mentally) and rumour has it that there are increasing numbers of conscripts faking mental illness to get out of service. They have my sympathy. Honestly, some of them looked like they hadn’t begun to shave.

IMG_8112 (800x600)IMG_8092 (600x800)And, overlooked by these armed teenagers, pilgrims of all sorts made their way to the water, clad in the regulation white robes. The songs, sung in different languages, were haunting and the sanctity was palpable.

Upstream, the Protestants have a much plusher spot, landscaped, and reeking of money. And this, too, is said to be the place it all happened some 2000 and more years ago. I stopped agonising over the truth about lunchtime on the second day and decided that my sanity depended on being able to literally go with the flow and to stop analyzing.

IMG_8661 (800x600)IMG_8674 (600x800)Here, even the water is clearer. The banks of the river are lined with what’s called the Wall of New Life. Various countries around the world have erected plaques with the bible passage translated in their language. Everything from Hungarian to Hawaiian pidgin. I searched for one in Irish but couldn’t find it.

So, does it really matter which site is the real thing? Perhaps neither of them is. And in the grand scheme of things, it probably doesn’t make a dram of difference. I can’t help wondering though why the Christians can’t sit around a table and decide, once and for all, what’s what. Or just fess up and say that nothing’s for certain other than that it was somewhere in the River Jordan. Can it really be that difficult?

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I have long since imagined Bethlehem as a little mountain village with perhaps one main street, an inn, and a manger. I had a romantic notion that it would be devoid of traffic, its sanctity disturbed by nothing more than the sound of birds singing and the soft gurgling of running streams. Was I ever wrong.

IMG_7851 (800x600)Think Blackpool and add some religion. Hotels flaunting unimaginative names like the Manger Hotel Square or the Holy Family Hotel compete with stylized versions of American stalwarts. Souvenir shops offer all three grades of Olive wood – A (dried for at least a year), B (just dried – time not stated), C (not dried at all). Nativity sets are ten a penny, and as for the Baby Jesus… well, rabbits come to mind.

IMG_7854 (600x800)But what Bethlehem lacks in sophistication, it more than makes up for in friendliness. Everyone is in a good mood. Even the pairs of eyes peering out from the myriad black burkas seem to be smiling. The chap in shop we visited gave us coffee (all 27 of us!) and a rundown on what to look out for when making our purchases. Stallholders had that ubiquitous enthusiasm about their wares yet there was never pressure to buy. A car pulled up. The driver got out. He asked where we were all from. He then went on a good-natured rant for five minutes in which he showed how well versed he was in European politics, the religious beliefs of various American presidents, and the state of the universe in general. It seems that no one wants for an opinion. And he didn’t seem too bothered that we didn’t buy anything from the boot of his car.

IMG_7842 (800x600)IMG_7846 (600x800)It’s people-watching heaven. With so many tour groups from all over the world mingling with locals from all sorts of cultures and creeds, it’s in stark contrast with the monochrome palette I’d witnessed on the drive in to Jerusalem from the airport. And while the hustle and bustle would be welcome in other cities, it seems strangely out of place here. Perhaps my mother was right when she first introduced me to the ninth beatitude – blessed is she who expects nothing for she shall never be disappointed.

As I write I’m trying to decide whether I’m glad I’ve seen it for what it is or whether, given the chance, I’d turn back the clock and keep the vision intact. But, given the week of revelations that I’ve had, I’m grateful that this is all that’s on my mind right now.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

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With donkeys and goats competing for space with plastic bags and rubbish of all sorts, the Judean desert isn’t what you’d call pristine. Actually, what I’ve seen of Palestine so far leaves a lot to be desired in terms of cleanliness. There’s rubbish everywhere. People nonchalantly toss plastic bottles out of cars as if they were apple cores that would magically biodegrade. It’s hard to imagine why, in a region so dependent on tourism, that some bright spark in the Ministry of Tourism doesn’t do something about it.

Driving deep into the desert, where the only things growing are olive trees and scrub, what fences there are have trapped flying plastic and empty beer cans. Miles from anywhere, evidence of human carelessness abounds. It was putting me in a bad mood.

IMG_7687 (800x600)IMG_7724 (600x800)When we switched to a smaller bus to navigate the windy roads to the Mar-Saba monastery, I could feel my blood pressure rising with the temperature. Closer to the ground, I was closer to the detritus. And then, when we got there and were told that only men were allowed inside, I was fit to be tied. It’s the twenty-first century, people.

Saba himself, the chap who may or may not have founded the places in the fifth century AD, came from Cappadocia. He lived in  cave near the present site of the monastery for about 10 years and, when he was 45, he established what’s known as a Laura – a cluster of caves or cells of hermits residing around the central monastery. (Even his mother wasn’t allowed inside…) A second account by one James Kean, says that it may have been founded by Saba’s teacher –  St Euthymius. Seems like the region is awash with either/ors, mights and maybes.

IMG_7715 (800x600)IMG_7693 (800x600)So when the men go inside to see the heads of old monks, and the body of Saba himself, and God only knows what else, the women content themselves by writing out petitions which they hand in to a monk (Greek Orthodox) on duty at the entrance and in return receive some oil and a postcard. I’m all for tradition and I know I’m on record as saying that the feminist streak in me is small enough to go unnoticeable, but for some reason, this upset me hugely.

IMG_7721 (800x600)IMG_7723 (600x800)IMG_7732 (580x800)That said, it didn’t seem to bother anyone else. Reputedly one of the oldest monasteries in which monks still live, it’s about half way between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, overlooking the Kidron valley. With tour buses disgorging passengers every 30 minutes or so, the place was awash with people from all over the world. Folk groups brought their guitars and sang from the cliff side. One female choir pitched up outside the doors and sang the same tune over and over and over again. Perhaps that was their sweet revenge!

IMG_7714 (800x600)No matter what I might think of it being so exclusive, the place itself is nonetheless impressive, standing as it does in the middle of nowhere. It’s been around for eons and despite repeated invasions, it’s stood the test of time.IMG_7710 (800x600)

I can read the book or see the movie. I can’t do both. Well, I can, but any time I have, I’ve been disappointed. Nicole Kidman in as Ada Monroe in Cold Mountain? Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard in The Beach? And I won’t even mention what’s his name as Jack Reacher!

I was brought up on The Bible. I used to read a passage every night. I know the ins and outs, the characters, the plots … and being in Bethlehem is a little like being on set; being in the movie rather than watching it.

IMG_7639 (800x646)The Shepherd’s Field is home to a grotto marking the place some think the angel appeared and told the three shepherds of the coming of Christ. The modern church – The Church of the Angels – was designed by Antonio Barluzzi, known as the Architect of the Holy Land, back in 1954. It’s a lovely space. Built to suggest the open sky under which the angel appeared, to my uneducated architectural mind, it captures the essence of the moment.

IMG_7644 (800x600)The church has three frescos: one where the angel announces the birth of Jesus; a second of the shepherds in adoration; and a third of their return to Egypt.

IMG_7647 (589x800)IMG_7642 (800x599)Mind you, there’s said to be a 300-year gap in the literature – or at least in the documenting of where these biblical happenings actually happened – IMG_7641 (800x600)so this, like many other spots in the region, is subject to debate. Whether or not the angel appeared in Beit Sahur is under question. That said, it certainly doesn’t take from the beauty of the place.

Underneath  is a cave that was in use a church by the Greek Orthodox until 1955. And from the side of the excavations we could see some Israeli settlements in Palestine. Quite strange to see them nudging their way in and I have to wonder why the Palestinians don’t just build on the land instead.

IMG_7666 (800x586)IMG_7665 (800x600)There are about 1.5 million Palestinians with Israeli passports living in Israel. When I asked how this went down with those who have stayed at home, I was told that it’s not an issue. They might earn their money in Israel, but they spend it in Palestine. Here, they like the US dollar. The ATM offered me Jordanian dinar (?) and the street vendors are happy with shekels. Seems like money is money… I should try to see how far I’d get with some Hungarian forints.