White limestone buildings gleaming in the sunlight, narrow, winding streets that force a motor coach to negotiate tight turns and steep inclines, minarets, crosses, stars of David atop all manner of houses of worship, signage in Hebrew, Arabic and English — and a used car lot, a Tempur-Pedic mattress store, McDonalds. These are all sites we St. John’s parishioners making our pilgrimage to the Holy Land beheld today in and around Jerusalem.
A late 19th-century Anglican cathedral close, St. George’s, is our home for most of our time here, all of us ensconced in tidy, comfortable rooms surrounding an inviting outdoor courtyard. Communal meals and group gatherings occur in large spaces beneath Gothic-arched ceilings. Iyad Qumri, our tour guide (“I am an Arab, a Palestinian and a Christian”) helped us take the plunge into the complex, multi-layered history that confronts one in whichever direction you look. Our day began with a breathtaking panoramic view of the Old City from atop Mt. Scopus.
Next, we boarded our motor coach (Omar is our obliging and skillful driver) to ascend the steep escarpment that is the site of Herodium, where the hugely unpopular king created his final resting place. We hiked to the top and then followed Iyad deep into the bowels of the vast burial mound, which included an extensive tunnel and cistern system. Fairly recent archeological digs have revealed an outdoor amphitheater, and a grand staircase leading to the supposed entrance to King Herod’s tomb. All the walking and stairway climbing produced big appetites, which was opportune because lunch was a feast. Iyad knows a Palestinian family who operates Orient, a small restaurant near Herodium. We were invited to witness the owner preparing a clay oven in which he roasted heaping amounts roast chicken, potatoes, carrots, and onions. As if that wasn’t delectable enough, we filled our plates with silky-smooth hummus, olives, tabouli, two types of bread and poured glasses of THE BEST fresh lime-mint drink ever quaffed by thirsty Episcopalians. Bravo and thank you, Orient staff!
“What are you leaving behind and what are you hoping to take with you?” Iyad asked each of us to answer that query this morning. No surprise yearnings for a spiritual encounter, insight into Christ’s life, better understanding with Biblical history were all mentioned by pilgrims. That we are passing through a place that has given rise to unquenchable love, fervent devotion, and centuries of communal worship and pilgrimage is undeniable. Yet as we heard this afternoon from Iyad and a local Palestinian Christian professor, the beauty and life-giving force of faith embodied by Jerusalem must be considered alongside the profound misunderstanding, frustrations, and distrust of the other that have sadly defined life for so many who live in Israel, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. It’s both fascinating and a challenge to view the Holy Land through that lens. Ours is a complicated journey.
Top: The Gothic tower of St. George’s Cathedral can be seen in the middle of the photo about a third of the way from the top.
Middle Carousel: Photo 1: A meal prepared expressly for our pilgrimage group by Orient restaurant staff. Photo 2: Our host at the Orient restaurant preparing the zarb meal in his clay oven. (from Sara McGanity).
Bottom: Signage that greets Israelites and Palestinians as they enter and exit Area A of the West Bank.