January 21, 2015
Today was an early start so that our group could get up to the Temple Mount. While the Western Wall (or “Wailing Wall”) is in the jurisdiction of Israel, the Temple Mount is under Palestinian control. This means that pilgrims going up to the mount must walk through an Israeli check point much like an airport security screening. No weapons or Christian (or Jewish) prayer books or bibles are permitted on the Temple Mount. No Christian symbols, such as crosses, should be visible.
After crossing through the check point, we stopped under a tree for an orientation presentation by Ghustan. The Temple Mount is one of the most important religious sites in Old Jerusalem. It is venerated by Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Jewish cosmology says this is the place from which all the rest of the earth was expanded or made by God – it is, quite literally, the center of their universe. Jewish tradition and Scripture identify it as the place (Mt. Mariah) where Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac. Among Muslims, it is considered the third most holy site in Islam and is revered as the Holy Sanctuary where Mohammed mystically journeyed to Jerusalem on a winged horse of lightening before ascending into heaven. Christians know it as the location of the first and second temples, the latter being the temple Jesus knew in his lifetime – where he was presented as a child, where he turned over the tables of money changers just prior to his death.
The First Temple Period is associated with King Solomon, who is said to have built the Temple at this location in 957BC and subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Second Temple was constructed between 538-516 BC, expanded by Herod the Great in 19 BC. The Second Temple was an economic center as well as a religious one. The construction of the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock occurred after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 637 CE. Completed in 693 CE, The Dome is one of the oldest Muslim structures in the world. Its sanctuary covers a large exposed expanse of rock, beneath which is a cave known as the Well of Souls. However, no non-Muslims are currently permitted to enter the mosques here.
The al-Aqsa Mosque is located on the far southern side of the Mount and faces Mecca. The Dome of the Rock is in the center of the 36 acre complex. The Mount also includes a basilica, the Royal Stoa, constructed by Herod to provide a focus for commercial and legal transactions. There is also a small dome known as the Dome of the Chain, a location believed to be where a chain once rose to heaven. There is a ritual fountain for purification, used before entering the sanctuaries. There is also a rectangular building known as King Solomon’s Stables, which was built by Herod but used by the Crusaders during the period when they controlled the Mount.
Towards the end of our tour of the Temple Mount, we could hear the sounds of a group of people yelling. Apparently, there was a protest taking place which included some fifty Muslims near the Muslim school located on the Mount who were upset by the presence of Jewish men who had come up to the Mount (this is unusual for Jews to do, since the more conservative sects do not want to risk walking on the location of the Holy of Holies, the exact historical site of which is unknown). The protesters were trying to get the Muslim police who patrol the Mount to come over and intervene. With some concern that the situation could escalate, Ghustan hurried us off the Temple Mount area and into the suk.
After a few moments of walking, we arrived at the Western Wall. Also known as the Wailing Wall, this section is all that remains of the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The Jewish people believe that third temple will be built here. As you can imagine, there is quite a lot of historic and current tension between the Jews and Muslims about the custody of the Temple Mount.
The Western Wall is a site that is very important to the Jewish people. As a worshipping area, the wall is divided into sections for men and women, with a partition between the two areas. The men’s section takes up the lion’s share of the wall, nearly ¾ of the available wall, and the men have an enclosed heated section as well. The women cram themselves into a smaller section (no heated space). It is popular to hold bar mitzvahs in the men’s section. Mothers who want to view their son’s ceremony must stand on the plastic chairs of the women’s section to peer over the partition at the proceedings. It’s common for the women to throw candy into the event as a symbol of blessing.
Even though there’s a partition between the men and women, I snuck into the women’s section in Rachel’s interior coat pocket and was able to put my forepaws on the wall as she placed her hands on the wall for prayer. The sounds of women weeping were close all around us in the press of the crowd. After prayers at the wall are complete, it is a practice for many to back up away from the wall so that one does not turn a back to it. When you’re up close to the wall or touching it, you can see small bits of paper on which prayers have been written that visitors have poked into the cracks between the stones.
After our time at the Wailing Wall, we boarded our bus once more and headed out to Ramallah, the political center of the State of Palestinian located in the central West Bank approximately six miles north of Jerusalem. Of course, to get there meant crossing through several check points before arriving at the city center. Known as a Christian city, the relationship and cooperation between Christian and Muslim Palestinians is very good. The name Ramallah is Arabic for “Hill of God.”
After some time of driving through the busy city center, we arrived at our first destination – a meeting with Iyad Rafidi at the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah. Iyad is the director of the school. As a Christian private school, the school has much to offer to the whole community and is largely considered one of the best schools in the area. The school believes that fulfilling its Christian mission comes through serving the Palestinian community in all its diversity, regardless of religion, race, gender, abilities and socioeconomic status of the person. The school also seeks to educate Palestinian generations to become active citizens who participate in developing a humanistic and democratic society, enhancing religious and national heritage in Palestine, and promoting mutual understanding and tolerance among religions and cultures.
Currently around 150 students study in the new building, in good conditions. However, around 535 students study in two 38 year old buildings, in poor conditions, with leaking windows, old furniture, an inefficient heating system and a worn out electrical system, etc. The school hoped for years to follow up with partial maintenance, yet problems persisted, due to the age of the buildings and its facilities. Engineers recommended undertaking a comprehensive maintenance, which involves changing the whole water and drainage system, electricity and heating networks. The school is currently seeking funds for this major project.
The very best coffee and cookie we had were served in hospitality to us during our visit here. The children were friendly, and we were able to see something of the preschool as well as the grade school areas. However, we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked, because we needed to be on time for an important meeting at the offices of the Palestinian National Authority.
The PNA (or PA) was the interim self-governing body established to govern Areas A and B of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a consequence of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Following elections in 2006 and the subsequent Gaza conflict between the Fatah and Hamas parties, its authority had extended only as far as the West Bank. Since January 2013, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority began to refer to the areas of it’s jurisdiction as the State of Palestine in official documents, after the United Nations voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member UN observer state.
The politics of the Palestinian Authority take place within the framework of a semi-presidential multi-party republic, with the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), an executive President, and a Prime Minister leading a Cabinet. The current structure of the PA is based on three separate branches of power: executive, legislative, and judiciary. The PA was created by, is ultimately accountable to, and has historically been associated with, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), with whom Israel negotiated the Oslo Accords. The PLC is an elected body of 132 representatives, which must confirm the Prime Minister upon nomination by the President, and which must approve all government cabinet positions proposed by the Prime Minister.
I’m giving you this background so that you understand why, in order to meet with a representative of the PLC, our group was hosted for a meeting at the PLO headquarters in Ramallah. Due to the efforts of Bishop Greg, our group had the privilege of meeting with an amazing woman — Dr. Hanan Ashrawi.
Dr. Ashrawi is a Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar. She was an important leader during the First Intifada, serving as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East peace process, and has been elected numerous times to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Dr. Ashrawi is a member of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s Third Way party and is the first woman elected to the Palestinian National Council. At this time, she serves on the Advisory Board of several international and local organizations including the World Bank Middle East and North Africa (MENA), United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the International Human Rights Council.
Dr. Hanan Ashrawi is also an Anglican Christian, though not actively participating in church per se. However, she is a passionate advocate of many human rights and gender issues and is the recipient of numerous international peace, human rights and democracy awards.
In our meeting, she was very articulate about the current situation in Palestine and relationship with Israel, and she took several of our questions. Rachel had the opportunity to ask her what legislative efforts might be in play currently in support of Palestinian autonomy. Dr. Ashrawi was quick to point out that due to restrictions and issues within their domestic governance, their help and hope is in the international community’s support.
After our meeting concluded, Rev. Sarah Monroe had Dr. Ashrawi sign a copy of Ashrawi’s book that Sarah had brought with her. Meanwhile, Rachel asked an aid to Dr. Ashrawi for some business cards to distribute to our group. The aid invited Rachel to follow her up to Dr. Ashrawi’s offices, where Rachel was able to get a stack of business cards to distribute. However, ongoing to the elevator to take it back down to the ground floor (to re-board our group bus), who should happen to step into the elevator but Dr. Ashrawi herself – off to another meeting.
Our next stop was lunch, but oh! What a lunch! After our group settled into our seats, an international interfaith assembly of religious leaders came into our restaurant for their own luncheon. This prestigious group was led by none other than the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. It’s a good thing that only the salads had arrived at our table, because our meal came to a total stop as we stood to applaud the arriving dignitaries and greet them individually as they made their way into their banquet room (which happened to be near the end of the table where Rachel and I were seated).
On our groups last full day in Jerusalem, the Presiding Bishop and her group were moving into St. George’s College for their stay. So, some of us ran into them all again when we walked back to the college during free time.
Our bus driver, Nihal, did a hero’s job of navigating the bus through the market district of Ramallah as we made our way out of the city, through the check points, and back to Jerusalem.
This day was such a joyful contrast to the day before that our group was is high spirits for our afternoon tour of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. We toured the huge model of the first century city of Jerusalem before viewing the exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Shrine of the Book) and archaeological and art wings of the museum.
There were some things in the archaeological exhibits halls that Rachel had only every studied in books – to see them in person was a remarkable experience, including relics from ancient Levant, Akkadia, Sumer, Assyrian, Persian, Egyptian, Babylonian, NImrodian, Canaanite and Herodian cultures. The collection also included two ossuaries of some import – an ossuary associated with the High Priest Caiaphas and an ossuary engraved with the name “Jesus, son of Joseph,” which caused great public interest and scholarly debate when they were each discovered.
If any of the museum security had been watching Rachel on their monitor screens, they would have laughed at the way she exclaimed and clapped her hands to her face as she passed from exhibit to exhibit with rising astonishment at the amazing and rare antiquities they have in their collections. The experience made her want to go back into anthropological research, but I reminded her that she’s a priest now and has other obligations to date.
At the end of a superb and astonishing day, Rachel and I boarded the bus one last time for the day and headed back to the hotel for dinner and sleep. It was our last night in Jerusalem, and we felt both full and fulfilled in many ways.
Here’s to celebrating the history, freedom and creativity of squirrels!