Monday 30 September 2013

A Botticelli Annunciation

We saw this today (it is on loan to the Israeli Museum) and these pictures only capture a fraction of the impact.

Sunday 29 September 2013

St Nicolas still at large

We worshipped this morning at St Nicolas', Beit Jala, the Orthodox Parish Church for a large mainly Christian village which is almost a suburb of Bethlehem.  The 1930s building is on an ancient site with a cave in which St Nicolas stayed and close to recently uncovered Christian mosaic which, because they include crosses which were soon banned from floors, date very early.

They spell 'Nicolas' correctly (just as we do at St Nicolas', Great Coates) and have all ages attending, praying, coming in and out, moving across to kiss icons or light candles, joining in chants and so on, so much so that children moving about or making a noise isn't a problem to anyone; 'children can rush about as much as they like in my Father's house,' we were told, 'it is only in a stranger's house that they must sit quietly and respectfully'.

I was particularly taken with this modern icon of St Nicolas'.  He is said to have punched a heretic at one of the early great Councils as a result of which he had his Gospel book and his Bishop's stole taken away so that he could not operate, but Jesus provided a fresh Gospel book during the night (see top left) and Jesus' mother provided a new stole (see top right) so he was restored to his position.

But the main feature of the icon is miracles attributed to his continued presence and protection, including this detail (bottom left in the previous picture) of Israeli shelling being diverted away from the church; notice the three priests with an icon of St Nicolas in the centre with worshipping women on the left and men on the right.

And this detail (bottom right in the original picture) of olive trees stoning the Persian invaders in the Seventh Century; notice the people sheltering near St Nicolas' cave with his icon in it.  The previous post mentioned the long continuity of use at the Church of the Nativity which is the result of the rareness of it having being spared Persian destruction (the Persians recognising people like themselves in the representation of the Three Wise Men there).

Finally, I wanted to include this picture from the church wall, with the Palestinian ship sailing the rough waters of Israel's independence in 1948 which took most of their land; the white shape is the same as the map of the whole land with Beit Jala at its heart and Moslem and Christian cooperation at its head.

Saturday 28 September 2013

Church of the Nativity

Looking one way towards the church...

... and the other way towards the Mosque, where Friday prayers were still going on and large numbers of men were standing around outside listening to the sermon over the loudspeakers.

Entering through the famously low door way through which one has to stoop (although note the size of two earlier doorways)...

... and finding oneself inside the oldest church in continuous use in the country.

Being reminded of the place Bethlehem has also in the story of David...

... and of Ruth.

Thursday 26 September 2013

St Peter in Gallicantu

The name of the church comes from the Latin for chicken (gallus, not something I knew) and for singer (cantor, a word still in use): chicken singer; rooster' song; cock crow.  We are on the traditional site of Peter's denial, and thus also of Jesus' detention.

A roadway of steps rising from the valley floor below does go back to the period.

The caves below the church do make a convincing setting for the prison.

Much survives from the Byzantine church on the site including this quotation from Psalm 121: 'may the Lord preserve your coming in and your going out'.

The modern church has these statues; the site is almost in the shadow of the Temple which stood in Jesus' day where the two domes are in the background are.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Christian Zionists

These American evangelical Christians praying together were in the Old City yesterday to join those Israeli Jews who take part in annual Feast of Tabernacles marches as a celebration of the return of Jewish people to the Land of Israel (they would each write Land with a capital L).  They are yet another thread in the complex web which is this place.  They are Christian Zionists, that is a variety of Christian fundamentalist for whom the restoration of the people of Israel is a biblical requirement and an essential prerequisite to the beginning of the Second Coming of Christ.  The slogan on the back of their shirts is ‘We stand with Israel’. 

They are not a trivial thread in the tapestry, and some of them even work as volunteers in the Jewish settlements which form colonies in Palestinian areas of this land.  Their opinions are common among the very large numbers in the Bible Belt and elsewhere in the United States.  Their funding for projects here is said not to be small.  Their influence on Government there is said to be one reason the position of the Palestinian people of this land appears to have so little official support.

I suspect few of the sentences in this post are subtle enough to do justice to this phenomenon, but it is worth also recording how often we have been reminded that much of more staid British establishment Protestant views were Zionist through the nineteenth and the early twentieth century (not believing in the return of Jews to Israel as an essential prerequisite to the Second Coming, but certainly regarding it as a biblical imperative) and how this was one element in creating the context which made Jewish immigration and an eventual Jewish state political possibilities.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Far from home

The top picture was taken after the service this morning in the Anglican Cathedral (where it turns out the particular kneeler had been embroided by someone from St Giles', Scartho), and the bottom one was not.

Saturday 21 September 2013


Jesus' journey in and out of Jerusalem from his friends' home in Bethany was along an obvious route covering the short distance up and down the hill between the village and the city; it is clear that this is the journey he made twice a day in the last week of his life.  He would not be able to make that journey today. This picture was taken this morning from the slope of the hill (it is 'the Mount of Olives') facing away from Jerusalem towards the village now separated from the city by the security barrier; there is no crossing point anywhere near.

Friday 20 September 2013

Tel Gezer

Half way between Tel Aviv (on the coastal plain) and Jerusalem (in the Judean hills, towards which this view looks), thus in the strategic area in between which has been most fought over through history.

First recorded at least 3500 years ago, this narrow Canaanite gateway remarkably preserves the mud bricks of the time.

Such 'high places' being also worship sites, these Canaanite standing stones being of a type perhaps indicated by what Exodus 24.4-6 records of Moses' use.

Another gateway, this time dated to the tenth century BC, which is exactly when 1 Kings 9.15 indicates Solomon had a building project here.

A small olive press: the depression on the left is where to place the olives for crushing so that oil can flow through the lip in the centre into the hole on the right.

A large wine press: the far area is for the grapes (with a central depression for gathering the remaining skins and so on) and the nearer depression is for collecting the juice.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Sukkot today

I've spent a chunk of today on another poem.

That we might see the stars

You shall take the fruit of majestic trees [citron], branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees [myrtle], and willows of the brook... you shall live in booths... so that your generation may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.               
                                                                                          Leviticus 23.40-43

Begin with richness in the mouth                             
like date-palm fruit, let sweetness speak,                
let each truth, each re-telling, make

guest-ready all our shelters, each                             
blest with fare citrus-sharp, with air                         
zest-laden, word and deed made one.

If flavour’s source is lost, still let                      
goodness be pressed, like myrtle crushed,
to anoint, to scent even those

who wander willow’s watercourse,
wild waste without wisdom’s whetting,
wilderness without what work wafts.

Sukkot (Feast of Booths) 2013

That we may see the stars.  Booths have to be built in such a way the stars can be seen through the roof.

Richness in the mouth like date-palm fruit; let sweetness speak.  The palm’s fruit tastes good (although it does not have fragrance), so it represents the sweetness of teaching of the Torah.

Make guest-ready all our shelters.  Those who live in booths during the feast welcome neighbours and biblical figures to eat with them there.

Fare citrus-sharp... air zest-laden; word and deed made one. The citron fruit tastes and smells good, so it represents both the sweetness of the teaching of the Torah and the attractive scent of the good works of those who follow this teaching.

Flavour... lost..., goodness... pressed, like myrtle crushed, to anoint, to scent.  The myrtle’s ‘fruit’ is a fragrant essential oil (although it has no taste), so it represents the attractive scent of good works on their own.

Willow’s... waste... wilderness... without wisdom... without... work.  The leaves of the willow neither taste good nor have fragrance, so it represents those without either Torah or good works who are nevertheless included among God’s people.  There is also here a hint of people returning to the desert, or at least to the habit of murmuring about things like its rare water sources, rather than celebrating their being led out of it.

The poem, of course, is written in a way which could be read beyond its Talmud and Sukkot terms of reference.  It could be an invitation to pay attention to the Christian Bible (or to another place of inspiration), from which appropriate living might emerge.  This appropriate living might survive in a culture which has begun to lose the original moorings and might still ‘bless’ those who neglect, abandon or even, perhaps, never had them.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

The City of David

The site of the original city of Jerusalem is not the site of the present ‘Old City’ of Jerusalem.  I finally got this fixed in my mind on a wonderful field day yesterday.

The Bible tells of a city which was founded by David almost exactly three thousand years ago, which was besieged by the Assyrians in the eighth century BC, which was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC, and which was then rebuilt by those who eventually returned from exile in Babylon. 

This city occupied a spur of land which projects south of the much later mediaeval south wall of the present ‘Old City’.  The spur looks a bit like a ship, with the deep Kidron and Tyropean valleys falling away either side of it.

This spur looks like an obvious easily defensible place for early Canaanite (generally) and Jebusite (specifically) settlement, with an essential water source at the Gihon Spring.

It matches what we would expect David’s city to look like.  The photograph was taken looking roughly south, so the modern Old City is behind us.  It is taken from the chief building uncovered on the ‘deck’ of the ship, with the Kidron Valley beneath the ‘port’ side.  From here a King could certainly see anyone bathing on the roof of a neighbouring house!  The Bible says that David bought the land behind us from a Jebusite for the eventual building of the first Temple, and the present Temple Mount is indeed the immediately neighbouring land within the Old City behind us.

Its earliest datable and identifiable finds link it with its defence against the Assyrian siege.  The Bible records Hezekiah’s monumental work diverting the water of the Gihon Spring from the more vulnerable Kidron  edge of the spur of land (to the Tyropean edge where the far side had by now been incorporated into the site), and we waded a long distance in the dark yesterday through the tunnel which he had cut through the rock for this purpose.

Later finds can be linked directly with administration going on here ahead of the Babylonian invasion, including a seal for a document which carries the same name as a scribe who appears in Jeremiah.

So this original site and the ‘Old City’ interlock like a Venn diagram, with the Temple site being the overlapping area.  One circle is the original Jerusalem (‘City of David’) including the Temple site.  The other circle is the ‘Old City’ of both the Temple site and later housing to the north and west of it eventually enclosed by mediaeval walls.

But, perhaps the subject for a different post, long before these mediaeval walls were built, the Temple Mount was remodelled several times, so that it is almost unrecognisable.  Herod quarried and built until the Temple stood on a substantial new platform – the surviving ‘Western Wall’ (or ‘wailing wall’) is not part of the Temple at all but part of this platform.  The Romans destroyed the Temple and much more than this in 70 AD and later rebuilt the city on a different ground plan.  The later Moslem rulers actually filled in the top of the Tyropean valley to bring housing up to the edge of Herod’s platform.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Ein Karem (Revised)

I suppose this Blog is really only my own notepad, although people in small numbers are obviously welcome to look over my shoulder.  It is rare that any particular post is widely read, and, when one page is, this is usually because someone elsewhere on a better read part of the internet has linked to or recommended the page; I have never discovered why a post in 2009 with couple of pictures of statues of the Virgin Mary in Brugge continues to be by far the most visited page.  

Anyway, I notice that the page with the poem I posted a few days ago has been visited by 150 different people, and have not traced how they have come to look.  So, here is a picture of the view of part of Bethlehem from our balcony in the early light this morning, and here is the latest revision of the poem with which I am happier but with which I will not doubt continue to tinker.

Ein Karem

Our characters as
Jacob’s blest children
stain, mark, colour and
illuminate threats,
from devouring by
lone wolves, to drowning
in deluges of
unstable water,

above a village,
gobbled up and cleansed,
replete, and washed smooth
by pilgrim prayer streams,

where once a school girl,
two periods missed,
fled to her cousins,
her greeting startling
their yet unborn son
with the first hint of
a beast at his throat
and of the endless
tides of innocents
to be swept away

Sunday 15 September 2013

Yom Kippur

The public face of the country closes down for the Day of Atonement, and cars are not meant to be on the road (although a few are), so a group of us walked for an hour into Jerusalem down the middle of the main Hebron Road, through the Jewish Quarter where every synagogue was packed and over flowing, and reached the Western Wall ('wailing wall') shortly before the end of the fast.  It was my first sight of the Western Wall, and an uncomfortable combination of Jewish devotion, gawping (the huge number of photographs which were taken just at official sunset did not reflect the Rabbi's public notices asking for respect in not doing so), and the amplified sunset calls from the Mosque above.  We found a pleasant place to eat outside afterwards, where the group pictured above was also gathering to continue prayers.

Saturday 14 September 2013


In the space of fifteen minutes last night, Deborah picked these five stone cubes from the surface of the grounds here in part of a field turned over to provide water channels around the olive trees; interestingly, at the same time, my eye failed to pick out any.

Like the coloured tesserae used to construct mosaics, these plain ones would have been used to make a floor, probably for an olive press of something similar, at an earlier stage of the inhabitation of the hill top on which our institution in which we are staying was built in the 1970s.

Others have picked many of these out before, and this cross, which hangs in one of the corridors here, is an artwork created with some of them.

Friday 13 September 2013

Ein Karem

There is far too much going on to record a flavour of each – we had Jonah this morning and we will have Sennacherib this afternoon.   And on 9th and 10th September just some of what we had was a visit to the Aida Refugee Camp (home of some Palestinians displaced from their villages as long ago as 1948), the Chagall windows in the Synagogue at the Hadassah Hospital (showing by turns Jacob’s blessing on his mostly difficult children), and the traditional site of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth at Ein Karem near by (one of those cleared villages, now a prosperous edge of Jerusalem community), all of which I did try to bring together for myself thus:

Ein Karem             
The clear characters
of Jacob’s blest sons
set, stain, colour and
illuminate  threats,
from the devouring
of one vicious wolf
to the deluge of
unstable water,

above a village,
gobbled up and cleansed,
replete and prayer full,

where once a school girl,
two periods missed,
fled to her cousins
where she startled their
own yet unborn son
with the first hint of
a beast at his throat
and of the endless
tides of innocents
to be swept away.

Thursday 12 September 2013