Tag Archives: Jerusalem

Walls and Windows: an initial reflection

I spent most of April in Israel and the West Bank, perhaps my favourite part of the world, and also one of the places I find the most confronting, confusing, challenging and heartbreaking. There is so much I want to share but so much I am still processing and so much I don’t understand. So much that I want those who live there to be able to share for themselves. It’s difficult when people ask for highlights to try to summarise what stood out. But looking through my photos from this trip, I was struck by the preponderance of these two images: walls and windows. Perhaps exploring them will capture something of all that I am reflecting on.

Walls represent barriers, boundaries, and demarcations. They stand for keeping people in and keeping people out. They often divide. Each one tells many stories, all with at least two sides.

Windows represent visibility, perspective and viewing. They are there not so much to be looked at as to be looked through.  Each one invites reflection, and the opportunity to look at things from a new angle.

Ancient city walls

Walls have been part of human history for millennia. This gate, built by the Canaanites in the second millennium BCE, is what remains of the oldest wall I saw, one which it is probable people like Abraham would have passed through.

It’s at a site called Tel Dan, where there are also these ‘newer’ Israelite city walls – dating to the 9th century BCE.

At Megiddo, excavations lay bare the layers of various city walls built over thousands of years in this city which was destroyed and rebuilt 25 times.

At the entrance to the city are the walls of the fortified city King Solomon built.

At Masada, the remains of walls built to protect a desert mountain fortress still stand.

And inside the ruins of Herod’s palace, parts of the walls of an opulent bathhouse can be glimpsed.

Jerusalem Walls

The Old City of Jerusalem can certainly be called a city of walls – it is surrounded by them and contains within it one of the most famous walls in the world. The current walls around the city were built in the Ottoman period, dating to around 1540 CE. In places like this, you can also see the remains of much earlier walls.

The city’s main northern entrance is the impressive Damascus Gate, built on top of a gate dating back to Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century CE.

On the other side of the city, the Zion Gate bears bullet marks from the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

Within the Old City are remnants of much older walls, including the broad wall built by Hezekiah in the 8th century BCE.

And inside the newly excavated Kishle, remains of a wall built during the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence in the 2nd century BCE.

And of course, in the heart of Jerusalem are the remaining parts of walls of the Temple built by King Herod in the first century BCE. This is the Temple Jesus visited, taught at and pronounced judgment upon.

The Herodian stones are massive and impressive, up to 13 metres in length.

The closest part of the wall to where the Temple was forms a centre of Jewish worship and patriotism in the Old City, commonly called the Wailing Wall. Thousands gathered to received the priestly blessing during Passover.

Thousands more came to celebrate national pride on the country’s Independence Eve.

Spending time at the wall to welcome in the Sabbath is a pretty amazing opportunity to see something of the celebration and joy that Jewish worship can encompass – in a multitude of different ways all at the same time.

The plaza in front of the wall is divided by a different kind of wall, separating men from women, leaving mothers to stand on chairs craning to look over as their sons undergo their coming of age ceremonies.

One of my favourite Jerusalem walks is up on top of the Old City walls, where it is usually quiet and you can look down into the city upon all these things and ponder the stories they tell and the values they signify.

And you can also look outside the old city and in the distance catch a glimpse of the most modern of the major walls in this land … the Separation Wall.

The Separation Wall

Israel started building this wall in 2002. It is actually only a wall when it surrounds towns. For most of its length it is two barbed wire fences with an exclusion zone in between.

The Israelis say this is a security barrier to protect them against terrorists.

Many Palestinians call it a racial barrier or apartheid wall.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice found that the wall violates international law and in response the United Nations passed a resolution 150-6 (with 10 abstentions) condemning it and calling on both sides to meet the obligations they had already agreed to under the ‘roadmap’ to peace. I find it difficult to comprehend that my country was one of the six.

Politics aside, it’s hard to overestimate the psychological effect  growing up inside a wall like this has on children.

Frustrations and heartbreak are expressed by locals and visitors alike in graffiti and art all along the wall.

Famously, UK artist Banksy has painted various iconic images of subversive peace on it.

He also founded this establishment that bills itself as “the hotel with the worst view in the world.”

Inside is a small museum examining various perspectives on the impact of the wall.

Most mornings, those workers who have the right permits line up in this corral to cross the wall from Bethlehem into Jerusalem. Unless of course it has been closed for some reason – which seems to only be for those who live and work here, not tourists. Even when it is open to all, crossing a checkpoint with ease when most around you are questioned and searched is certainly a humbling experience.

Near the wall are a number of ‘refugee camps’ – but quite unlike what that name might suggest to many. Established just after 1948 and still under UN agency control, Aida camp, for example, is a rabbit warren of streets and apartment blocks home to five and a half thousand people in an area of 0.1km2.

Its residents use parts of the wall as memorials to children killed in fighting with wall security forces.

It is hard to see hope here. Surely there must be a better way forward. This kind of wall grieves me and I believe it grieves my Father. The founder of the Bethlehem Icon School painted this beautiful commission on the wall, a symbol of grief from this town’s most famous mother.

Windows

I have no solution to offer to this mess. And it wouldn’t be my place to offer one anyway. All I can do is share what I have seen, heard, and felt. But if there are any glimmers of hope I see in this place it is from the people I met who live there and are seeking to find and walk in ways of reconciliation, restoration, and peace. To me, in this place of walls, they are like windows.

I think of this window in Jerusalem from a church called Dominus Flevit, meaning the Lord wept. It looks over the Temple mount and remembers the place where Jesus paused to weep over this city. It causes me to ask where He is pausing and weeping today.

Or this window in Nazareth picturing Mary receiving the most surprising news of God coming in a completely unexpected way. It causes me to hope that just because we can’t think of a way forward doesn’t mean there isn’t one. God can still bring Peace in unexpected ways.

Most frequently, I found myself struck by many of the modern, abstract stained glass windows we saw in various churches in this land.

And the way each one reflects light in its own unique, often surprising, way.

From Nazareth to Bethlehem, Jerusalem to Galilee, I found myself drawn to the ways they let in and refract the sunlight.

The same sunlight, yet each has its unique beauty depending on its shape, colours and position.

To me that is a beautiful metaphor of what it means to be people of peace. People of light. People of faith.

And I met people like that in this land. People whom I continue to pray will find unexpectedly beautiful ways to shine light in the darkness.

A particular favourite of mine are these windows in a church at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee. They are made of very thinly sliced alabaster. I am attracted to their incredible beauty, but I’m also intrigued by their very existence.

Windows made of stone. Who imagined that possible? And is it therefore possible that there might be a generation in this place who are able to imagine the impossible and even somehow turn walls into windows?

 

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Today would be a good day to walk the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem

I’ve realised that in my Monday travel reflections, I have actually been avoiding writing about some of my very favourite places to visit, because it is so hard to capture in a few words and images why I love them so much. One such place is Jerusalem. Definitely one of my favourite places in the world, I’ve been there on four different trips and I certainly plan to go back again in the future. In particular, today I’m thinking how lovely it would be to walk through the stone streets of the Old City. I won’t be able to capture all I love about it, but I’d like to at least make a start!

Mt Scopus view over Jerusalem

What do I love about the Old City streets?

I love the beautiful Jerusalem sandstones themselves. If stones could talk … what tales they could tell! And yet, silent as they are, they testify to the creativity and ingenuity of those who have come before, and to the inevitable passage of time.

Tower of David

I love the history. Imagining all those who have walked these streets before me. Allowing stories from ancient and more modern times come to life in the place where they actually happened.

Roman Cardo

I love the layers. The remnants of ruined houses from the Roman era frozen in time beneath the pavement.

Burnt House

Walking through the tunnel built by Hezekiah that lies beneath the foundations of the city itself.

Hezekiah's Tunnel

The archaeological excavations of sites where Jesus visited and spoke.
Pool of Bethesda

The jumble of streets with steps and twists and corners and hidden delights.

Old City street

Walking on the rooftops with their paradoxical mix of satellite dishes and ancient stones.

Rooftop Walk

I love the walls. Walking atop the city wall, circumnavigating the city just as David, Nehemiah and so many others have done before.

Walls

The ancient Israelite wall unearthed below the current street.

Hezekiah's Wall

The Western Wall. The remnants of the glorious Temple of Herod, a place for prayer and contemplation every day …

Western Wall

… and for an amazing celebration to welcome in the Sabbath evening.

Western Wall Sabbath

I love the markets. The hustle and bustle of shopkeepers selling artefacts and trinkets and the foods of a number of different cultures.

Old City shop

And getting up early enough to walk through the streets before the shops open and the tourists descend.

Old City shops opening

And I love seeing people’s faith in practice. Orthodox Jews mingling with Israeli soldiers, seeking ways to respect their shared traditions.

Crowds

Muslims gathered to study in the grounds of the Dome of the Rock.

Dome of the Rock study group

Christian pilgrims walking the Via Dolorosa, following the footsteps of the crucified Lord Jesus.

Via Dolorosa sign

What have I learned from walking the Old City streets?

There is an incredible richness of tradition and history and faith in this city. A sacred place for the three of the world’s major religions, it has been a place of incredible prayer and devotion.

Old City view

Of course it has also been a place of terrible conflict and strife. As an outsider, the complex combination of historical experiences and current politics makes it hard to see how this can ever truly be a city of peace.

Western Wall Israeli soldiers 1

And yet … in the Old City itself, people of different cultures, languages and faiths work and live side by side. Ordinary people seeking to live their lives, even as the currents of world politics and religion swirl around them. They remind me once again of the common humanity we all share.

Old City Market

While as a Christian I believe that the story of Jerusalem (along with all other stories) ultimately finds its fulfilment in Jesus, I acknowledge that I can learn so much from people of other faiths and practices. I remember my own “good Samaritan story” – when I twisted my ankle quite badly one Friday morning on the uneven steps outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Christian pilgrims swarmed past me oblivious, the Israeli police paid me no heed, and the first Muslim shopkeeper I asked for assistance was afraid of compromising his faith by touching me on his holy day. Another Muslim stall-holder came to my aid, providing me with a cane and helping me hobble up the street to where I was staying. He told me why the first man had been reluctant to help, but that he believed helping someone in need was more important than following religious rules. I shared with him that Jesus told a beautiful story that very much said the same thing.

Mosque and Israeli flags

Psalm 122 calls its readers to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Is that because this city more so than any other needs peace? Perhaps. But it is also because this city was for the psalmist the place where the living God had revealed His very presence. The prayer was that His true shalom might be known as it radiated out from Himself and His people. In Jesus, God has revealed Himself once and for all to all people everywhere. No longer do we need to go to Jerusalem to meet with God. But I still pray that this place, so dear to the heart of His people throughout the ages, would continue to be a place where the hope of peace and wholeness that He brings may be experienced more and more.

Psalm 122 sign in three languages

Today would be a good day to be at the Garden Tomb

Resurrection Sunday. Easter. The weekend we celebrate the turning point of history, the fact that everything from then on is different, because Jesus was raised to new life. Although I’m sure actually being at the Garden Tomb just outside the current Old City of Jerusalem would be crazy busy at this time of year, today is a great day to reflect on visiting that beautiful place.

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The Garden Tomb is a peaceful oasis in the midst of the bustling city; a good place to sit and reflect on what happened, whether here or somewhere nearby.

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The traditional site of Jesus’ tomb and thus resurrection is inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, inside the walls of the Old City. But many have noted that it doesn’t totally fit the historical story, and looked for an alternative site.

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The Garden Tomb was discovered in the 1860s, and has many features which meet the description of the kind of tomb in which Jesus’ body was laid. It is hewn out of the rock, and has a channel in front for a stone to be rolled to close it.

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Inside there is a burial chamber as well as a weeping chamber for mourners.

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A large cistern and a wine press nearby indicate that this tomb was likely located within a garden in the first century.

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So, could this be the actual tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea in which Jesus was buried for three days? It’s possible. But unlikely.

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But it doesn’t matter.

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My favourite thing about this place has always been this sign on the door to the tomb. Jesus is not in this tomb, or any tomb. There is no need to locate a tomb for Him.

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Sure, it’s lovely to have a place to visualise what it may have been like, and to sit and reflect and remember. But the resurrection of Jesus isn’t about a place and time in history. It is about a reality that changes our very understanding of history.

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For many years, Christian apologetics focused primarily on the historical evidence for the resurrection. This is helpful and interesting, but if that is as far as we go, then we have missed the central point of what we are celebrating this weekend. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the breaking into our world of God’s kingdom and a whole new way of life. Because of Easter Sunday, everything is different.

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To say, “I believe in the resurrection” is to say so much more than that I believe that Jesus rising to new life was a historical event that actually happened two thousand years ago. I believe it was and it did; but to believe in the resurrection, to put my trust in it, is to choose to enter into the new life that it makes possible. It is to believe that that kind of life is available to everyone here and now, despite all appearances to the contrary.

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N. T. Wright says, “Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven, but to colonise earth with the life of heaven.” Resurrection life is life where miracles are possible, where justice is proclaimed, where renewal is experienced, where righteousness is lived out. It is the breaking in of heaven here on earth, and because of Jesus, it is available to us right here and now.