Thursday, 5 February 2015

A few days with my forebears in faith

Over the past few days I have been trying to become better acquainted with the different ‘quarters’ of the 'Old City' of Jerusalem. Yesterday and today it has been the turn of the Jewish Quarter. It is not a part of the Old City that I know very well, and thus it is a place that I have always felt that I needed to be more careful in – specifically with regard to my attire and behaviour. I have also been careful as to when I have visited – ensuring it is not the Sabbath, for example. I think, on reflection, it is about my seeking to be courteous and polite. It is true that there is a particular part of the Jewish Quarter that is home to more Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and the Guidebooks recommend that this is certainly not an area to drift into in a car when it is the Sabbath as you are likely to get stones thrown at your vehicle. As I have walked around over the past few days though, it is possible to see where to be or not to be – just as it was in the Muslim Quarter (ie anywhere near an entrance to the Temple Mount that was not the official entrance during the official hours available to non-Muslims for visits).

I have visited six particular sites over the past two days: the Jerusalem Archaeological Park & Davidson Centre, the Hurva Synagogue, the ‘Alone on the Wall’ Exhibition, the Burnt House, the Herodian Quarter/WohlArchaeological Museum and the Western Wall Tunnels. In visiting each of them, I have journeyed through the history of this city and the people who have lived here – with particular reference to the Jewish people.

The Jerusalem Archaeological Park & Davidson Centre abut the Temple Mount and Western Wall – quite literally. I can quite understand why the Muslim authorities are so sensitive to the excavation work that is going on as it right against the foundations of the Temple Mount. Regardless of who one thinks should have ownership of the Mount, the work that is going on will mean that one group will feel either that the other is seeking to interfere with what is rightfully theirs or impede access to what is rightfully theirs. The work that is going on at the base of the Mount (hidden underground and away from sight, it is true) presents in microcosm the very problems that are at the root of the underlying anxiety that rests in the air of the City of Jerusalem: ‘You have what is mine and I want it back’ vs ‘You want what is mine and I am not going to let you have it’. I believe these statements, although quite simplistic, are at the heart of the conflict between Jew and Muslim. It’s not just about the Temple Mount – it is about the whole of this land. Christians don’t even begin to have look in with regard to the dispute over ‘land rights’ – they are a faith group that is diminished by both authorities in the land (and in the city in particular) and many Christians have left Palestine and Israel because it is such a difficult place to be.

The Archaeological Park is a site in the open air, and one wanders around the stones realising that some of them are almost two thousand years old. Some parts have been uncovered for some time and, with their uncovering, new insights have been gleaned into the way in which the Temples of our Jewish ancestors (First and Second Temple periods) were built, decorated, used and revered.

Some of the stones are massive – seriously massive. Imagining how they were quarried, and then brought to the top of this mountain – and how long this took, with building and decorating added on is seriously mind-boggling. Just walking around this place, knowing that my forebears in faith walked in this place too, I find really moving(Jews as forebears of Christians). They came to worship in this place, just as I travel to worship in my church or in a church here in Jerusalem. Worshipping God is important to me, therefore I make an effort, I put time aside, I find others with whom to share the space and time so that we are a community and household of faith together.

In the Burnt House and Herodian Quarter, the visitor is transported back in time to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple – 70AD (or CE if one is using current time denotors). The charred remains of homes are visible, indicating the torching of the city, and in the Burnt House, the remains of a severed arm were discovered during the excavations of the area carried out in the years just after the Six Day War of 1967. Underneath the ground of the area surrounding the Hurva Synagogue (itself a building rebuilt twice), excavations during this period revealed many homes and gave up stories to connect us in our present day to the days of those in times past.

Stone vessels indicate that one of the homes belonged to a family who took ritual cleanliness seriously. Not for them clay or wooden vessels that could be tainted, rather, for their household the vessels must be of stone that could not be tainted in any way.

In another house, the remains of perfume bottles were found, with pessel and mortar for crushing the ingredients that would be used to release the scents. Glass objects, sealed underground for two thousand years, revealed following only after a period of intense bombing, a period that led the Jewish Community here to ask how its past could be honoured, whilst its future be developed (and ensured). These two places in particular give vivid insight into the past, and some small insight into why emotions related to this City of Jerusalem run so very high for all who live here. Honouring the past – and those who lived, fought for and died here – of all faiths – whilst developing the future is a complex business.

I have come away from each of these six experiences – individually and as a whole – inspired, moved, challenged, confused. However, this is what faith does, this is what thinking does, this is what being truly alive does – and I am glad for it. My, how I pray there were a way forward that enabled the people of this city to live in peace and free from harm.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,
they shall prosper that love thee.
Psalm 122: 6

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