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Holy Land Pilgrimage, Day 8: Close Encounters of the Three Religions Kind

This morning was quite alien to us - literally!

Yet another day where we were up and at 'em before God! We left St. George's Guest House at 6:30 am to spend the morning at a holy site for each of the three major religions present in Old Jerusalem: the Western Wall, holy to the Jews; the Dome of the Rock, holy to the Muslims; and St. Anne's Church and the pools of Bethesda, holy to the Christians.

First stop: the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. The wall was part of a retaining wall that was built as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple, begun by Herod the Great in 19 BC. Rabbinic tradition teaches that the current wall is built upon foundations laid by King Solomon during the time of the First Temple. The Western Wall is considered holy by the Jews for its connection to the Temple Mount, and Orthodox Jews afford the space in front of the wall the status of a synagogue. The wall has previously been known as the Wailing Wall, but after the Jews gained access to the wall after the Israelis gained control of the Old City from Jordan after the 1967 war, the preferred name is now the Western Wall. Supplicants to the wall are divided by gender, with the men obligated to wear yarmulkes or kippahs on the left side, and women, obligated to cover their heads, on the right.

Next, we ascended to the Dome of the Rock, which is literally at the top of the Western Wall, where Mount Moriah (where Abraham was set to sacrifice Isaac) has been intentionally flattened. The Dome of the Rock is the holiest site in the Holy Land to Muslims, and was initially completed in 691 AD by Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik, 50 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The rock marks the site where the Prophet Muhammad underwent the Mirraj, his night journey into heaven and then back to Mecca. Only Muslims are allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock, after the September 2000 visit to the shrine by Ariel Sharon and Israeli soldiers, sparking the Second Intifada, or Arab uprising. As such, Israeli Jews are not allowed to even enter the Temple Mount, except for the Israeli soldiers who maintain the status quo.

The geo- and religious politics of the Temple Mount are as confusing as they are fascinating. The Dome of the Rock was built on the site of the Roman temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, which had been in turn built on the ruins of the Second Jewish Temple, destroyed during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The original dome collapsed in 1015 and was rebuilt in 1022 - 1023, being one of the oldest existing examples of Islamic architecture. The rock that is housed inside is both sacred to Muslims and Jews, the Muslims believing that the rock is where Muhammad underwent his night journey to heaven and Mecca, while the Jews believe it is the Foundation Stone (where the world expanded into its present form), the place where God gathered the dust to create Adam, and the place where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac. A fundamental Jewish organization, the Temple Institute, wants to relocate the Dome of the Rock to some other location and build the Third Jewish Temple, heralding Armageddon and the Second Coming of the Messiah. Given the conflict in the Middle East, you can only imagine the friction that these overlapping, yet divergent, beliefs cause!

We took a small break to grab some freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and eat some freshly baked sesame bread, sprinkled with za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice mixture of thyme, oregano, marjoram, sesame seeds, salt, and sumac. (No, not the poison kind, you guys!)

We next made our way to St. Anne's Church and the Pools of Bethesda. St. Anne's is a Roman Catholic church that is located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and it commemorates the mother of Mary, Jesus's grandmother. The church itself is a Crusader creation, dating from sometime between 1131 and 1138 AD. St. Anne's is currently owned by the French and is administered by the Missionaries of Africa, also known as the "White Fathers" because they wear white robes! The church itself is dedicated to grandparents passing the faith on to their children and grandchildren, and is visited by both Christians and Muslims, as Muslims also venerate Mary! The church has some killer acoustics, so we gave a little concert while there - and we heartily apologize to those who had to hear our ragtag group!

The Pools of Bethesda are outside of Saint Anne's, and are mentioned in John's Gospel as pools where sick and infirm people would go to bathe, a place that was associated with healing. As such, we had a short healing service overlooking the pools!

After St. Anne's and the Pools, our group split for the first time since we got here! Some of us went to the Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children and the Israel Museum, while others took a day trip to Herod's fortress at Masada.

The Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children is an amazing center that was started on the Mount of Olives while the Old City was still under Jordanian rule. The Center provides services to Palestinian children who have disabilities, including cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorders. The Center is operated under the umbrella of the Anglican Church here in Jerusalem, and offers services such as occupational therapy, sensory therapy, speech and language services, physical therapy, and an inclusive school that services 450 students, 30% of whom have disabilities. The Center also runs a sheltered workshop for adults with disabilities, allowing them to handcraft beautiful woodwork, tile pieces, and baskets.

Those of us staying here in Jerusalem finished off the afternoon at the Israel Museum, famously known for a large-scale model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus and the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. It was magnificent!

Masada, Herod's fortification on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert and overlooking the Dead Sea, was built between 37 and 31 BC. Masada has a spot in the Jewish consciousness as the spot where the siege of Masada by Roman troops in at the end of the First Jewish-Roman War ended in the mass suicide of 960 people, the Sicarii rebels and their families that had taken refuge there for the duration of the siege. For a long time, Masada was the site where new members of the Israeli Defense Forces were inducted, due to its history.

As each of the three religions would state:

Shalom, Salaam, and Peace!


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