My brother Ben and his wife, Agi, were invited to spend the Christmas just past in Jerusalem. Our nephew is living there for a while. Ben and Agi were invited to a banquet in Bethlehem and midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity. On Christmas day they went to the Dome of the Rock in the old city of Jersulem. I’ve asked if I can share with you the email Ben sent me on Christmas day and my brother has agreed to that. Agi is an excellent photographer and she’s shared some of her photos with me so I can show them to you. Both Ben’s story and Agi’s photos really make me want to go there next Christmas!
We spent a very interesting Christmas Eve in Jerusalem and later in Bethlehem. We were guarded by heavily armed, very serious-looking men the entire time we were in the West Bank. Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, is in pretty dire straits but the dinner was incredible. Then we walked from the restaurant to the Church of the Nativity for midnight mass which was also really something. The Archbishop of Jerusalem was presiding, and there were six or eight bishops there as well. There are quite a few Christians among the Palestinian people, so there were about 10,000 people in and around the church on Christmas eve. The service went on for two hours. Mahmoud Abbas and his entire cabinet were there. For me the most interesting part was the walk from dinner to the Church, because we walked as a group for the better part of a mile through the center of Bethlehem. To be honest, it was scary as hell. Since it was Friday night, there were young men hanging out everywhere, and a lot of them were not happy to see us. Our PA security guys were all over, pushing people out of our way, scanning the rooftops, checking people’s hands. Never have I seen so many submachine guns in my life. At one point our group got too spread out so we had to stop and wait for the others to catch up. I kept Agi very close, and kept looking for rocks or bottles to fly our direction, but we got to the church without any incidents. We spent Christmas day in the Old City (of Jerusalem). We entered through the Jaffa Gate (the City Wall is completely intact), and immediately felt like we were transported back in time several hundred years. Almost all of the streets in the center of the Old City are covered, so you have the sense that you’re inside a giant bazaar. The streets are quite narrow, and there are thousands of small shops on both sides, with men who are VERY eager to engage you and sell whatever it is that they’re selling. You can’t throw a rock (not a good idea in any case there…) in any direction without hitting a mosque, a synagogue, or a church – Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic – they’re all jammed in there together. The Via Dolorosa is a very narrow street; since we were there on Christmas Day, there were groups of pilgrims praying at the Stations of the Cross, while kids on scooters whizzed by them and people were haggling over trinkets right beside them. Jerusalem is quite the ecumenical city!
We were lucky to make it up to the Dome of the Rock for a few minutes before we were kicked out. Non-Muslims are allowed inside the compound twice a day for a few hours, but the line was so long, and the security people were so slow that only a fraction of the people waiting in line actually made it before the hour was up. Also, a Jewish group were staging a demonstration and tried to take Israeli flags into the compound, but they were turned around by Israeli security, so that slowed things down quite a bit. As it turned out, we only got to stay for about fifteen minutes before the imams started chasing all the non-Muslims through one of the gates back into the Old City. It was an amazing place. Interestingly, there’s a sign above the entrance where non–Muslims enter, warning all Jews that the Grand Rabbi of Jerusalem forbids Jews to set foot on the Temple Mount, not because it’s controlled by Muslims, but because it is a holy site in Judaism, and thus only accessible to certain Jews.
It was quite a remarkable place, and yes, you did get the sense that it was a holy place. The shrine itself is off limits to all non-Muslims, and all political and religious symbols are forbidden, though I did see a very elderly Orthodox rabbi surrounded by security guys walking across the square – he may have been there for a meeting with the imams. It was also the only place in Jerusalem where we saw Islamic women in hajibs or burkas. I generally see a lot more hajibs on campus here in Columbus than I did in Jerusalem!