The Incident at Nabi Samwil

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The mosque-shrine of Nabi Samwil, now split between Muslim Palestinians who use the above-ground mosque, and Jewish Israelis, who control the tomb-shrine itself. The figures atop the structure are members of the IDF.

i. I am standing, a few miles north of the Holy City, on a rise of ground that slopes off to one side towards the Jordan River, on the other towards the Great Sea. Like every rise of ground in this angry and holy land, it is covered over by a vast sea of the past and present commingled and churning. When the Crusaders crested this hill they could see the walls of their goal, or so the story goes, though today we can see only the ever expanding sprawl of modern Jerusalem, rising and falling over hills where a few decades ago there were only olive trees and flocks of sheep and goats and little villages. But we are not looking out over the rolling hills that spill out, east and west, from along the invisible Green Line that divides—in theory at least, one that that grows less relevant day by day—Israeli and Palestinian territory. We are watching, my friend and I, in transfixed anger, a momentary act in the interminable drama that plays out on this hill and in so many other places in this land, day after day after day, the long ugly drama on endless repeat. As the sun sets over the great corrupting sea to the west, I find myself right in the thick of that drama, feeling emotions to which I am unused and which terrify me even as they shoot through my body and heat my blood. I clench my fists, fight back hot tears, fight back the urge to pick up a stone and crack someone in the head. Instead I curse under my breath, tell M. that I am going back to the car, and hurry down the hill to the rental, parked precariously on an incline. I climb inside, grab the wheel, and weep angry tears. M. follows close behind and we drive off in bitter silence, processing what we’ve seen and felt and how very ordinary it is for this land.

ii. I was staying for several days in an Airb&b rental on El-Wad street, one of the main arteries of Jerusalem’s Old City, in an apartment being rented out by a French archeology student whom I never met. M. was staying there as well, while taking Arabic lessons. We had spent this particular day taking a break from the Old City and its tensions, the strain of soldiers on every corner with heavy weaponry slung in front, the constant watch of cameras on every other rooftop, perched above the street, the heaviness that percolates through the air, the loud silent confrontation of the settlers’ bristling rooftops. I could not then and cannot now imagine what it must be like to live here as a resident, to have this be your reality every day and night. After a week it was too much for me. Perhaps you adjust. Perhaps you bottle it up until it snaps. During my stay I wondered more than once what I would do were I in the place of a Palestinian Jerusalemite, or an Israeli settler. I don’t know, but I can speculate, and it’s not very pretty.

After picking up our rental car, at an agency down the street from the King David Hotel of lore—every block, every stone here has some world-historical significance, it gets old really, and I’m a historian—we cross through the Separation Barrier into the West Bank, then through another checkpoint, past a settlement, eventually winding down to Ein Prat National Park, our main destination for the day. Like almost everywhere else here it goes by at least two names—in Arabic it’s Ayn Farar, close, but not quite the same, as the Hebrew. Unlike most places around this city, though, it is an island of calm and coexistence. Apart from a couple of Japanese tourists who arrive as we are leaving, we are the only foreigners. Israelis and Palestinians—more of the latter than the former, at least today, it seems—are enjoying the cool waters of the springs and creek cutting through the desert, or are out hiking along the steep wadi, or enjoying a picnic in the eucalyptus groves planted during the British Mandate (growing alongside the ruins of a Byzantine church, in the shadow of a still functioning monastery inhabited by monks of Eastern European extraction…). There are no guns or uniforms or political slogans in sight. The settlements that cling to the ridgetops in this part of the West Bank are invisible, having receded behind the crags lining the wadi. We climb into caves used by late antique hermits, trail gazelles up a hill to a village site dating back, so they say, to the late Neolithic, sink into the marvelous papyrus reed jungles that hug the course of the stream. The conflict is far away, and here, at least, we feel as if there are possibilities open beyond merely tracing new permutations in the never-ending struggle.

iii. We spend the rest of the day exploring, down to Jericho, motoring into town past the languid Palestinian Authority checkpoint, get a bite to eat, and try to find an Umayyad ruin. We end up by the Jordan instead, at a site claimed to be where St. John baptized Jesus, but which today is dominated by a looming Israeli military instillation and mine-seeded zone, a parking lot full of tourist buses, and gaudy new churches across the holy river on the Jordanian side. It’s a strange and vaguely disturbing scene, and I remark that I feel like I’ve scene it all in a dream. Continue reading “The Incident at Nabi Samwil”

Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self

A Visual Essay

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, as any pilgrim or tourist visiting it quickly discovers, is a massive, maze-like structure, or, really, assemblage of structures, including the Tomb of Christ and of Golgotha but also numerous other chapels, rooms, and other elements. Somewhat closer investigation starts to reveal the multiple layers of construction and use, going all the way back the first century AD (and probably further, since the Tomb was located in the side of an already old quarry outside of the Herodian walls of the city). While the names of prominent men and women are often attached to these various architectural layers, beginning with Constantine and his mother Helena, the traces of far humbler pilgrims to the great church are also visible, if one knows where to look. Yet, as I observed on my visits to the church earlier this year, the steady streams of pilgrims and tourists, clergy and tour guides, pass right by these fascinating reminders of the centuries of pious visitors who have traveled- often over great distances and in difficult circumstances- to venerate the empty Tomb of Christ.

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The largely Crusader-era main entrance to the church, with entrance and front facade giving little indication of the size of the church’s sprawling interior. The pious graffiti is most abundant around the doors near the center of the picture.

Covering the columned framing of the great doors to the main entrance to the church are perhaps hundreds of instances of ‘pious graffiti’- prayers, names, dates, and short texts carved into the stone by pilgrims. Deeper inside the church, in a stairwell leading down to the Chapel of St. Helena, sunk within the living rock, are hundreds of neatly carved crosses left by Crusaders, also as pious graffiti marking and memorializing their pilgrimage. While in the modern world such defacement is looked down on and even seen as criminal, Continue reading “Pious Graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Pilgrims’ Prayers and Traces of the Self”

Verses From Jerusalem

If I forget thee O Jerusalem—but how much do you, O Jerusalem, forget? Here
Is what you forget: all the lives lived and buried under your warm old stones, and
Stones that lie buried under newer stones, that give way to older cold stones,
Fenced and labeled, dead stones, an inner bark exposed to the air, the sap dried.
You forget too much, and not enough, O Jerusalem. If I forget thee—but how
Could I? You are lodged in me like the new old name of God lodged in the tongue
Of the mystic from Buffalo roaming your streets,
Like the crosses and the names sunk in the threshold of the holy Tomb.
Will you forget me after the dust of my feet has risen up into your air
And fallen east over the ridgetop settlements, over the bright waters of En Prat,
Over the high concrete walls, over dead forgotten cities in the desert,
Over Nabi Musa’s stark domes, over sad black tarps in the nomad camps?
What is the skill of your right hand, O Jerusalem? Gathering stones,
And in another time or in the same time, scattering them. Yet, in your left hand
Is remembering, rising up like scents in Suq al-‘Attarin, all your names
And the names within names in the many tongues
Pooling in your left palm, ephemeral, eternal,
But the right hand, it does not know what the left hand has.

 

Tourist Guides of Jerusalem, Circa 1641

The guild [of Jerusalem tourist guides] had ten members, one of whom was the head; it was very zealous in guarding their vested interests. They apparently had ample reason to be anxious: in 1641 it was reported to the kadi that unauthorized guides were meeting the pilgrims outside Jerusalem’s walls and showing them around holy sites, their faulty knowledge not withstanding. Moreover, other individuals were selling the visitors figurines made of clay, allegedly taken from the cave situated beneath the Dome of the Rock and representing historical figures—claims that were baseless factually and harmful financially. Thus the kadi instructed “stock ‘Abd al-Qadir,” the head of the guild, to stop anyone who tried to behave in such unauthorized ways, and if necessary, bring them to the court where they would be punished. All guild members were to be equally treated by the head, but each guide was to be left alone to handle his own customers, without interference by others. The head was also to stop any sales of the kind just mentioned, as well as insist that each of the staff of the Temple Mount stay within his allocated area and address the visitors there, while refraining from showing them around other areas. However, if high-ranking individuals wished to vist these places, their tours should not be conducted by ordinary guild members; only handpicked top staff of the Temple Mount (the deputy shaykh al-haram and the deputy nazir) could guide them there. And finally, no one was to be allowed to intercept the pilgrims outside the town gates and monopolize them.

Amnon Cohen, The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 79-80.