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Graham's Sabbatical 2008

Welcome to my Sabbatical journal. Here is where I will be keeping a record of my travels and discoveries for you to read. Please feel free to leave a comment for me. If I have time and can get online I'll reply, but this may not be possible if I'm at sea or swanning about in the Sinai!

Diary Entries

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Location: Jerusalem, Israel

This is the last post from Tantur. I've checked in online, the bag is packed with all but my toothbrush; tomorrow we leave for the airport at 4.00am

Today, John and I went into Jerusalem intending to go to the Rotary Club at the YMCA, but their meeting was cancelled. Instead, we had lunch at the Three Arches and returned to prepare for our departure.

I can't believe it's all but over. No more mosaic floors and ritual baths, no more of Norbert's Holy Communions in strange places at weird hours (I think he was trying to attain critical mass), no more calls to prayer by the muzzein in his minaret, no more bored border guards at the check point, no more tempting offers of postcards or olivewood rosary beads, no more Taybeh beer (support local Palestinian industry!), no more Fr Michael getting the time for breakfast wrong, no more four shekel rides on the 124 Arab bus from Bethlehem to Golgotha...

The last temptation is to prolong the experience, but as Fr Michael put it at prayers this evening, echoing Jerome, "What is important is not that we have been to Jerusalem, but how we live after being to Jerusalem."

Bedtime for this pilgrim. Shalom!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Location: Jerusalem, Israel

Today is our last field trip: to Ein Kerem, reputed to be the birthplace of John the Baptist, and where Mary went to meet Elizabeth, John's mother, to talk babies (and angels and husbands acting funny...)

The Church of the Visitation is unnerving; it's so Mary-centred, it's positively Oedipian. The frescoes depict Mary being offered churches, kingdoms, etc, with men of various stations in submission to the Blessed Virgin and her priestly acolytes. I cannot help thinking of J M Barrie's Peter Pan, with Wendy seen as a mother by both the pirates and the lost boys. Mary herself has a muted airbrushed sexuality in the frescoes, created in the early 1950s in a style that is a mixture of the Hulton Press (Eagle, Girl, etc) and art nouveau figurines. Most disturbing of all, one of the figures depicting Biblical heroines includes Jael, who gave Sisera a terminally splitting headache with a mallet and a tent peg. Look out, guys - they're after us...

There were also some cute mosaics on the floor, depicting inter alia a tortoise ("the turtle moves...") a jellyfish, a hare and a cactus (!); and outside a very neat bronze group of Mary and Elizabeth's meeting. These I liked.

But most of all, the serenity of the convent of the Sisters of Sion, where the peaceful garden and the simple chapel stole my heart. The Holy Land does this to you: you despair at the tackiness, mendacity and outright superstitition - and then something like this creeps up from behind and spiritually mugs you. Tantur has been great fun, but should I return to Isarel, it will surely be to the guesthouse here at the Sisters of Sion.

This afternoon we met with Fr Michael and Sr Bridget to evaluate the past month, and our overwhelming feeling was that it has been a great experience, well beyond our expectations.

The party in the evening had a feeling of muted sadness as we realised that the first of our number would be returning home in the morning. However, Stephen lifted our spirits with the traditional Maori war dance, which brought crowds of anxious people from the floor below, wondering what all the stamping and shouting was about. We should have got him to teach it to us earlier, so we could all do it outside the Bethlehem check point and put the breeze up the surly soldiery!

Monday, 28 July 2008

Location: Jerusalem, Israel

This morning was our last lecture. Some have been a little difficult as those taking them seemed unsure of our background and previous knowledge; but not today. Ophir, who had previously led us on two field trips, gave a utterly fascinating talk on how the Jewish people use the Bible, or more specifically, the Old Testament. It was littered with jokes and aphorisms and commentary on the contemporary Jewish scene ("How many Orthodox Jews does it take to change a light bulb? None - it hasn't gone out yet!) I have greatly enjoyed the wealth and width of his knowledge on stones, scenes and people, leavened with a healthy spiritual and political scepticism.

Party time! Come the evening, we trooped into Bethlehem, somewhat confusing the check point guards, who are not used to 20 plus boisterous Christians on pleasure bent; and overpowered the taxi drivers, who realised that by now we all knew the ropes. The restaraunt was as Mexican as you get in Palestine, and incredible value. Some foolhardy souls elected to walk back to the check point, but older, wiser (and wearier!) individuals taxied. Needless to say, the wise virgins got home in good order with a bit of hassle from the Israeli security people (Were we as surly and rudely indifferent to civilians in Northern Ireland, I wonder?); but the foolish got magnificently lost, and eventually made it back to Tantur in the early hours.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Location: Jerusalem, Israel

Today was a busman's holiday, as last Sunday I had been invited and had agreed to take part in the service at St Andrews, where this morning I led the prayers. A good omen was that Fr Michael, the Rector of Tantur, was going into the city for a meeting, and so we had a lift door-to-door: we being Alexandra and John who came along to give moral support.

This Sunday was a smaller service, even though it was communion, but the welcome and interest was as warm as ever. I think I'm going to miss the "Scottie".

We're all becoming aware that our time at Tantur is coming to an end, and final plans are made for shopping expeditions and visits to places that have escaped our curiosity. I have no outstanding business, so to speak, and welcome the opportunity to think back over what has happened. Meanwhile, some of us are going into Bethlehem for dinner on Monday evening - Mexican of all things!

Adios, amigos!

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Location: Jerusalem, Israel

Free day and an early start for me - into the Old City and West Jerusalem to do some catch-up jobs.

First - the faithful Arab bus 124 to the Herodian Gate and through to the Ecce Homo church and convent. What they have there is the Lithostratus, some slabs of a limestone pavement almost certainly from the old Antonia fortress, on which had been scribed some games that the Roman soldiers played to while away the time. These had been lifted and re-used to cover some water cisterns; and it could well be (no pun intended) that these were the kind of games played as the soldiers gambled for Jesus' clothes before his death.

The church there was gentle and peaceful, a respite before throwing myself into the masses of pilgrim tourists cascading down the Via Dolorosa. Trying to side-step the Gaderene rush, I over-shot the Holy Sepulchre, but retraced my steps and took some photos inside which I had previously missed. The Mary Magdala side chapel was as calm as before.

Heading for the Jaffa Gate, I bumped into Stephen and Teresa who were doing a bit of present shopping. We parted company at the Jaffa Gate, where I left the Old City and walked into West Jerusalem. I hadn't taken a photo of the stupendous YMCA building when I had lunch there, so that was dealt with, and then across the Tyropoeon valley to the "Scottie", St Andrews Scottish Church and guesthouse, where I'm taking part in the service tomorrow. Another photo, and then back to the Hebron Road for the bus to Tantur and lunch.

Chill out this afternoon, sort out the prayers and iron some trousers for tomorrow.

A good day.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Location: Bethlehem, Israel

Lecture in the morning; the second on Islam. Then after lunch a walk down the hill from Tantur, through the human bagatelle that is the checkpoint in the wall and a 40 minute wait, and then a quick bit of souvenir shopping. I resisted the urge to purchase a carved olivewood Last Supper of Biblical proportions. There really isn't anyone I hate that much... (Actually, there is, but I think he might like it, which would defeat the object of the exercise.)

Journey back through the check point and up the hill for a much-needed cup of tea.

Change and chill out...

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Location: Jerusalem, Israel

Today, a morning at the Mount of Olives. Fortunately, we started at the top and worked our way down!

We began at Bethphage and a Latin Franciscan church and monastery commemorating Jesus' beginning his ride into Jerusalem. A nondescript church with some Tuscan frescoes.

The Mount of Olives is also where Jesus took his final leave and ascended, and is marked at three places: Latin, Orthodox and Muslim; we looked at the Muslim shrine, and saw the footprints supposedly left by this giant leap.

Downward and onward, the Church of the Pater Noster commemorates the many times Jesus retreated to the Mount of Olives for prayer and rest, alone or with his disciples. The walls of the courtyard and cloisters are panelled with the Lord's Prayer in different languages.

Further down to the Dominus Flavit Church, with its remarkable views of the city and the Temple Mount; here Jesus had paused on his journey and wept over its intransigence - hence the name (="Jesus wept"): the little church is shaped like a teardrop.

Finally we arrived at the foot of the Mount of Olives and the Church of All Nations, which lived up to its name by being crowded with pilgrims, tourists and hawkers. Nearby is the Garden of Gethsemane with some ancient olive trees.

Return to Tantur, our own mount of olives. It is set on a hill overlooking the Bethlehem road (and checkpoint in the wall dividing Israeli and Palestinian land), and is surrounded by its own olive groves which will soon be harvested. Olive oil was used in lamps, for medical purposes, and is still used today for anointing the sick and, of course, cooking.

Lunch time calls...

Monday, 21 July 2008

Location: Jerusalem, Israel

Fairly early start with Ophir to the city walls. First to the city of David, one of the earliest parts of the Jebusite city captured by David as he consolidated his control over the tribes of Israel. We then examined the fortifications and water supply created by Hezekiah that enabled him to see off later Assyrian invaders. This meant negotiating a water tunnel, not Hezekiah's (very wet!) but an earlier Canaanite one. Returning to the coach, we saw the Pool of Siloam under excavation.

Then to the western and southern walls: threading through Bar Mitvahs at the West Wall, I saw for the first time things I had described in my finals paper for my degree 33 years ago! Passing beneath the demolished Robinson's Arch, we trod stones that Jesus might well have walked upon two millenia ago, then to the blocked up Huldah Gates, which would have given pilgrims access to the long-gone temple.

Returning through the Jewish quarter of the Old City, the last visit was to Hezekiah's Wall, part of the ancient defences where the king probably confronted his Assyrian enemies and spurned their demands for surrender. Had this wall not held, then some very different people would be looking on its remains today, and we would be talking about the twelve (rather that ten) lost tribes of Israel...

A busy and physically demanding morning, but a rewarding one.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Location: Jerusalem, Israel

I decided to return to St Andrew's Church again. They were very welcoming last week, and I think it's important to support the home team, instead of swanning about as a theological tourist.

After the service (a good sensible one hour, not a two and a half marathon as at Christ Church!), we were waiting for our bus back to Tantur when we realised that there was no traffic on the normally hectic road to Bethlehem: and at the crossroads below us, police and military were holding up the traffic. Then a furiously driven motorcade appeared and zoomed past us. It was Gordon Brown, currently in Israel.

Miserable blighter didn't offer us a lift - he was going our way - that's six Labour votes lost...

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Location: Israel

Off this morning to visit Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem, known as the Shepherds' Fields, as this is where the shepherds were told of the birth of Jesus. There's not much field left now! But there is a very restful, light and airy Fanciscan church commemorating the event. Beit Sahour means "House of Whispering" as shepherds were notorious rumour-mongers; which seems rather appropriate to the story of their encounter with the angels. After all, if you wanted to tell the world that the Messiah had been born, who better to inform than a pack of gabby shepherds? Better than an Al Jazirah interview!

Then to Bethlehem itself, and a great opportunity to see some of the work done by the Lutheran Church through its local community centre called Diyar (Arabic for "homesteads") This is a consortium of three organisations, providing artistic and cultural opportunities for the community, a college providing further education for young people and health and well-being clinics. We met and were addressed by Rana Khoury, the vice president, and shown the impressive modern facilities contributed by the Finnish Lutheran Church.

We moved to Manger Square for those few of us who had not yet made our own way to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. I slipped away to the Franciscan church next door (much quieter!), and then to the Bethlehem Peace Centre, where there was a wonderful collection of crib scenes from around the world. My favourite just had to be the Australian one, set at an Oz gold rush town - the three wise men were a Chinese coolie, an Indian labourer and an outback priest!

Bussed back through the checkpoint for lunch and a fascinating lecture on Islam and Arab culture; our speaker was late because his bus had been stopped and searched at the checkpoint.

That's life in Bethlehem...

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Location: The Negev, Israel

Another early start for our field trip to the Negev, an area of arid land that merges into the Sinai to the south of Israel. Negev means "dry" in Hebrew, and it was certainly going to live up to its name.

Water bottles filled and sun screen liberally applied we set off, and passing the Dead Sea, we stopped first at Tel Arad. A tel is a mound created by building a new city on top of another, where one has been destroyed or deserted. Slicing into them, archeologists can go back in time, using a spade as Doctor Who would use his Tardis. Tel Arad began as a fortified city of the Canaanites who opposed Joshua and the Israelites' incursion into Judea in the 3rd millenium BCE*. The city declined for some unknown reason, and from the 11th century BCE* the Israelites rebuilt it. It remained inhabited during Persian, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine rule, until it declined and was destroyed in the 8th century CE*. It had controlled copper trade into Transjordan and Sinai. Busy little place...

Then on to Mamshit, and the remains of a city on the crossroads of the important and lucrative incense trade, which had continued from the 1st to the 4th century CE*, but the city did not survive the Arab conquests of the 7th century CE*. In 1936 under the British Mandate, a police station was built for camel-mounted patrols to monitor the movements of the nomadic Bedouin tribes and prevent attempts Zionist Jews from settling. The other link with the British is that two British archeologists, Woolley and Lawrence (of Arabia) mapped the site in 1914.

After a packed lunch in welcome shade, we moved to Tel Beer Sheva, probably the longest excavated of all the tels. It marks the southmost extent of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah ("from Dan to Beersheba") and is situated at the junction of two streambeds that served as transport routes. The city was founded in the 4th millenium BCE*, fortified and flourished until its destruction by fire and then the Assyrians in 701 BCE*

It became militarily important from the Persian period, though a new settlement began nearby taking the name. The Turks fortified the tel during the First World War, but were defeated with the last successful cavalry charge in modern war when attacked by the ANZACs.

We are now pretty expert on tels, and noted how they have controlled commerce, communications and power in this part of the world; and also how they could withstand seige and assault by careful storage of supplies and provision of water in these arid conditions. To finish the day, we donned hard hats and descended into the well, cisterns and water tunnel at Beer Sheva.

* Politically correct archeologists no longer use BC and AD; it's BCE (Before the Common - or Christian - Era) and CE (Common Era)

Live with it...

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Location: Jerusalem, Israel

A quietly adventurous day! I made my way into West Jerusalem by taxi (hang the expense!) to attend the lunch meeting of the Rotary Club of Jerusalem. They meet in one of the more impressive buildings of the city, the YMCA (pronounced "Yim-ka") which comprises accommodation, swimming pool and auditorium as well as a restaurant. The building was designed by the architect of the Empire State Building in New York, and has a very art deco feel to it. The club was surprising small but very welcoming; we exchanged club banners, so I can show off when I get back to my own Rotary Club in Stratford!

Did my best to miss the afternoon lecture and succeeded; just as well as Roland and I were taking evening prayers, so I had plenty of time to change and get things ready.

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Recent Messages

From Charles Norman
Dear Graham,
The spiritual essence that is you has entered my Christmas Eve as welcome as the angels and shephers in Bethlehem. Tantur, not just the place, nor the program, but the people, were and remain indelible. Thank you for the gift of communication. I cherish it.
My appointment as College Chaplain at Lafayette will terminate June 30, 2011. I will enter retirement or semi retirement as I will have reached the advanced age of 75. Leaving this post will be quite an adjustment, but the time is ripe. Oremus pro invicem.