ISRAEL: The Holy Land / The silliest religious conflict of them all

Israel is, of course, jam-packed with religious sites – it is the Holy Land. There’s Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Druze, and many more. Sometimes they overlap or are shared (or not, as in the Temple Mount), and some of them are in direct competition with each other.

I’m not really religious, and I was raised Protestant, so to me Bible stories were intended mainly a moral or a metaphor. I didn’t grow up with any devotion to sites or relics, so for me, the idea that many Biblical stories are set in real locations in Israel that you can visit was hard to get my head around. (This is the polar opposite to Jewish readings of the same stories in the Torah – it’s a story of their own people in their own land.)

We went to the Garden of Gethsemane on our first day – it, and the Mount of Olives, where it stands – are not just real places, but contested East Jerusalem sites within eyeshot of the Old City and the Temple Mount.

The “young” olive trees of Gethsemane, not even a millennia old

Likewise, the Sea of Galilee is not just a real place, but it’s a real lake – beaches, restaurants, and Wayze warning of of a fender bender. We stopped at the Catholic monastery at the site that’s held to be the “Pope-ing” of Peter by Jesus – families were zipping by on skidoos, and the shoreline has risen due to dams on the Jordan River downstream (it’s killing the Dead Sea, though.)

Deeper down along the Jordan River, well into the West Bank, is the site of Jesus’ baptism. There are Christian monasteries on both sides of the river, but one bank of the river is under Israeli control, and the other Jordanian.

There was the truly weird “only in the Middle East” sight of Christian pilgrims being guarded over by Jewish soldiers on one side and Muslim ones on the other – though it’s not a particularly tense site, as it was about 43C, and everyone wanted to mainly sit still and quiet in the shade.

You can just see the red of the Jordanian flag on the other side

There were also religious sites that were contested, not over ownership, but exactly where a certain event happened. Up Mt. Carmel in Haifa, there’s the Cave of Elijah – where the Prophet Elijah is said to have hid from Queen Jezebel’s wrath. The catch is, there’s two caves – one mid-way up the mountain is a Jewish site, which Druze and Muslims also recognize … but about 200m up the mountain is a different cave in a monastery, this one held to be the site by Christians.

The Franciscan monastery above the Christian site of Elijah’s Cave

It’s not just between religions where these locations are contested, but inside religions. I took a day trip to Nazareth by bus – again, a very weird thing to me that Nazareth is just a place you can take a bus to. One of the biggest Christian pilgrimage sites in Nazareth is the site of the Annunciation. However, there’s not just one site where it’s held to have happened, but two …and they’re along the same street.

There’s a Greek Orthodox site, with covered in ornate hand-painted murals. Then there’s the Catholic site, with the most oddly heavy, industrial architecture I’ve ever seen in a church – it felt like it would do better as a nightclub in Berlin than a church in Israel.

Of course, Jerusalem is the epicentre of all these religious conflicts – I wrote a bit about my trip to the Temple Mount (and there’s more background on the sites here). These conflicts over religious sites run so deep and can be so bitter, but none is more ridiculous than the control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

This is the site where most Christian denominations hold that the Jesus’ crucifixion and burial happened. Both sites are inside the church, only a few metres apart.

But unlike most of the other Christian holy sites, the church isn’t controlled by one Christian denomination, but six – Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Ethiopian.

They have a centuries-old “status quo” agreement, originally set by the Ottomans, and upheld by the British, Jordanians, and now Israelis. It gives each denomination their own section of the building, and all common areas are held jointly, with any upkeep or changes to be done with unanimous consent.

However, these denominations don’t particularly like each other, and getting unanimous consent to even pick up garbage or restore a painting is nearly impossible. Apparently if a lightbulb needs changing, it’s easier to quietly tell the Jerusalem police, who will then do it at night, rather than come to an agreement between the denominations. Even the keys to the front door are held by a Muslim family, to avoid tension over who controls access.

This tense situation has led to actual brawls among monks, usually over something small, like moving a chair over a “line of control” to get out of the sun, or one monk not being present for a procession.

There weren’t any brawls when I went, but the Catholic monks doing an afternoon service were going at triple speed – maybe if you stand around too long, it’s also a provocation. It’s a ridiculous way to run what is supposed to be an immensely holy site, and even more so since it’s all members of the same religion.

But my biggest highlight was getting to see the emblem of the worst of religious tension, the silliest damn religious conflict of them all – the immovable ladder. It’s a simple wooden ladder, probably forgotten by a worker, but it’s been sitting on the outside of the church since around the mid-1700s. Nobody can come to an agreement to move it, and even when it was once stolen, it was then returned to its exact spot.

It’s the stupidest thing, and I love it.

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