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.

ISRAEL: The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock

I posted about my trip to the Temple Mount in Israel last month, but I also found these two great explainer videos from Religion for Breakfast that give a lot of good additional background on both the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, and why the situation is all so … prickly.

He also got to go on an extremely rare visit inside the Dome, normally banned for non-Muslims.

ISRAEL: How small it all is

One of the things that I stunned me on my trip to Israel was just how small and close everything is in the Levant. I think it’s particularly hard to vision for Canadians – we’re so used to having huge, empty spaces.

The whole of Israel and Palestine put together is only half the area of Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smallest provinces. At it’s narrowest, Israel is only 10km wide. From north to south, the country is just 400km long, not much more than the drive from Ottawa to Toronto – a drive I’ve done just to go shopping.

And yet, Israel has 9 million people, plus another 4 mil in Palestine. And about half of all this territory in uninhabitable desert. You can see it in the crammed housing in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the sky-high property prices in Tel Aviv, and from Israelis who don’t support the settlements into East Jerusalem and the West Bank but live there anyways, since it’s the only affordable housing around Jerusalem.

Not just holy sites in Jerusalem

It’s also why the conflicts are so difficult and intractable, including with neighbouring countries. There is very little room to maneuver. One evening, we went ATVing out into the desert in the West Bank (which was very fun and also very dusty).

We stopped at one point to take in the view. From where we stood, we could simultaneously see the individual towers of Jerusalem, the Palestinian city of Jericho, Jordan’s capital Amman, and the north end of the Dead Sea.

Jericho, in the valley, and Amman, up on the far hills

Our trip also brought us up to the Golan Heights. We stayed overnight at a nice little winery kibbutz that happened to be only 3km from the Syrian border. In the morning we went up to a lookout that gave a view into Syria.

Israel and Syira. The white buildings in the upper right are a UN camp.

We weren’t alone, as two UN officers were also using the lookout. They have a camp right on the Israeli side of the border – likely originally to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria (the vineyards below were the site of tank battles in the Yom Kippur War) but now used to track the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

We heard from several people that from the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 to about 2018, you could hear the explosions and fighting in Syria from the kibbutz, and even see puffs of smoke from the lookout down in the valley. It seemed like a shocking contrast between the peaceful mountain resort feel on the Israeli side.

Interestingly, this is also why Israel has been much more restrained in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine than other western countries. Russia has been supporting the Assad government in Syria and has little desire to see the Syrian Civil War spill over into Israel, which could turn into a much larger war and destabilize the whole region. Right now, Russia also (usually) turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian / Hezbollah-linked targets in Syria. So, while Israel is no supporter of the invasion of Ukraine, the home front is taking priority.

A few kilometres away is another lookout, this time into Lebanon, and a different flashpoint. This border is just as heavily armed, and was the site of a much more recent war in 2006 – one between Israel and Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, but deeply entrenched in Lebanon. While there is a ceasefire, it is no peace, and Lebanon is currently facing serious internal instability that could see things spiral out of control again.

The fortified wall is the border between Lebanon and Israel

Even with more stable neighbours like Egypt and Jordan, who recognize Israel and have diplomatic relations (unlike Lebanon and Syria), the proximity and conflicts in the region create from very weird international situations.

On the vacation part of my trip, I took a day trip to Petra, in Jordan. Our tour bus picked us up in Tel Aviv at an absolutely unholy hour (2am) so we could be at the Jordanian border by morning. But then, if the country is so small, why was it such a long drive?

We stopped for gas near the Allenby Bridge, a border crossing about 30km from Jerusalem and about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. If we crossed there, it likely could have shaved many hours off our drive (and let us sleep in!). But Allenby is meant to be the main crossing for Palestinians into Jordan and until recently, the only way for both Palestinians and Israeli Muslims to go on the Hajj. Non-Muslim Israelis cannot cross at Allenby, and there are limits on visas and entry for foreign tourists.

So, as we were on an Israeli tour bus, we instead drove 250 km south, all the way down to the Red Sea, where there is a border crossing that Israelis and foreign tourists can cross into Jordan normally. We then backtracked back north, just on the Jordanian side, to get to Petra.

At our crossing by the Red Sea

It was one more interesting real-life experience of the complexities of the geopolitics here. And as for the long drive, it was totally worth it. Petra is stunning.

ISRAEL: The Western Wall and Temple Mount

The day we flew in to Israel, our group poured off the 11 hour flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, got into a bus, and took a short drive up into the hills of Jerusalem. We were stupid with jetlag, but as the bus came around a turn, we all gasped – we could see the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.

Metre for metre, the Old City of Jerusalem is probably the most contested and controversial piece of land in the world, and the Temple Mount is quite literally at the centre of it. This is where wars have been fought, both historic and modern, and the competing religious and political forces pulling on this one place continue to make it a flashpoint.

The Temple Mount has the distinction of being the holiest site in Judaism, the location of the Second Temple, the very heart of Jewish life, religion, and identity, before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE as part of crushing Jewish revolts against their rule. To massively oversimplify history, Jews were later banned from visiting Jerusalem in 132CE, and Roman persecution through that time period led to Jewish communities fleeing in all directions, starting the diaspora. Unsurprisingly, this spot underpins the modern State of Israel and the idea of a return to rebuild their homeland.

The outline of where the Second Temple stood over the current Dome of the Rock.

At the same time, the Temple Mount is also the third holiest site in Islam (after Mecca and Medina), and what most of the complex is currently being used for. On the same site where the Second Temple stood is the Dome of the Rock. This beautiful golden dome is the site of Muhammad’s Night Journey, where he ascended to heaven to receive instruction on prayer from God.

The Dome of the Rock, right in the heart of it all

The religious importance of this spot is amplified by the tradition in the three Abrahamic religions that this is also the spot where Abraham almost sacrificed his son (Isaac in Judaism/Christianity and Ishmael in Islam), and even some traditions that this was the site of the creation of Adam.

The Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall) is the remaining piece of the Second Temple, and is a spot for Jews to pray and mourn the temple’s destruction. The wall itself isn’t holy, but for most of the time since the destruction of the Temple, this is as close as Jews were allowed to come – at times fully banned from the Old City.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jordan annexed the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem. After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel took control of Jerusalem and Jordan’s Palestinian territories. Jordan gave up claims to sovereignty over the West Bank in 1988, though they kept control of the Muslim sites on top of the Temple Mount as part of the 1967 “Status Quo” agreement with Israel, a renewing of older Ottoman religious authority agreements. The Jordanian Waqf continues of manage and control access to the top of the Temple Mount, while the rest of the Old City is under Israeli control and management.

The covered walkway for non-Muslim access to the Temple Mount

Non-Muslims are allowed up onto the Temple Mount at certain times, and both Israel and Jordan enforce a ban on prayer, particularly by Jews. Up until 2000, non-Muslims could enter the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, though no more. There’s also contested opinions among Jews if they should even walk on the Temple Mount for risk of standing on the site of the Holy of Holies, though it’s not a universal belief – there were several Haredi boys that went up with us.

While the Western Wall is busy, the Temple Mount is quiet and peaceful, with families picnicking. I went up on a tour given by my friend Pauline, a professional Israeli tour guide, and we had no issue accessing it in the non-Muslim hours. A couple of elderly Palestinian women from the West Bank came over to chat, and after learning I was Canadian, had a sympathetic joke at me braving the heat. It was a peaceful, friendly moment, and a change from the animosity and violence that frequently makes the news over this site.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Prosper Mayélé and Centrafrican Jazz

There’s some cool West African funk from the 70s and 80s, but before that, there was Centrafrican Jazz – kind of a “relaxed rumba” from the Central African Republic.

One of the biggest artists in CAR through the 50s and 60s was Prosper Mayélé and his Orchestre Centrafrican Jazz. Not only did Mayélé become one of the biggest stars in the country, but he founded the Groupement Orchestral de la République Centrafricaine, a musicians’ organization to support Central African artists, help them grow their careers, and get Central Africa a platform for its own music.

Continuing in the tradition of Central African musicians being “non-political” but still deeply tied to politics as a matter of survival, there are many songs that boost whoever the current government was – this one a paean to Bokassa, shortly after he took power in a coup in 1966.

Prosper Mayélé was successful enough in his career that, while he was favoured by the regime, he still came up as a threat to President Bokassa’s ego, and was conscripted in his late 30s into a military orchestra. He outlasted Bokassa’s government, and lived to a ripe old age, passing away in 1997.

There is an absolute wealth of Centafrican jazz and rumba from the 60s and 70s on a Youtube channel run by Jean-Claude Mayélé Gérard (I think a family member), and it’s truly a historic musical treasure trove.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique (2011)

I keep on coming back to la Françafrique, France’s direct selection of African leaders post-independence and ongoing involvement to this day in the politics and economies of former French African countries, but Bokassa 1er, empereur de Françafrique is a great study of it.

It’s a short documentary in French, using archival footage and interviews, on France’s support for Bokassa, the context of his much-mocked coronation, and France pulling the plug and removing him in Operation Barracuda.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Sango

Common indigenous languages of Africa – Source

Sango, alongside with French, is the official language of the Central African Republic. This is unusual in sub-Saharan Africa, as many countries only have an European colonial language as their official language (like Togo, Gabon, or Mozambique) since it’s an effective lingua franca and prevents favouring one local language over another.

But in CAR, Sango has official status on the same level as French – mainly because almost the entire population speaks it, and it doesn’t “belong” to any one ethnic group. Sango is a creole, based originally off Ngbandi, but had been used as a trade language along the Ubangi river long before French colonization.

The Lord’s Prayer in Sango – Source

When the French founded Bangui as a trading hub on the Ubangi, Sango became the de facto language of the city, leading to a growing population that spoke it as their first language. While census data is spotty today, it remains a common first language in Bangui, and around 90% of CAR’s population can speak Sango as either a first or second language.

French still remains a prestige language and the language of higher education (as it is in the rest of former French Africa, including north Africa), and that also affects spoken Sango – the more formal the situation, the more French loanwords people use.

Parler sango avec Hermine has good Sango language lessons in French – with Central African context and clips to boot:

She also uses Central African songs as ways for learners to pick up Sango in context, including Idylle Mamba‘s music:

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Podcasts

Along the Chari River on the northern border with Chad – Source

A mix of podcasts I’ve been listening to this month on the Central African Republic – some English and some French. There’s a lot of reporting on conflict in CAR, but there’s also some good podcasts and interviews out there by Central Africans.

The Talking Point: Looking at Central African Republic (CAR) – (En) A South African podcast from 2019 that gives a good overview of CAR’s history that sets it in the larger regional context, looks at la Françafrique, the competition between French and Chinese interests in CAR’s natural resources, and current political dynamics. So much of CAR’s post-independence political history is a process of balancing outside interests – France, Russia, China, South Africa, Chad, and more – and this podcast helps make sense of it.

Elo Africa: Au coeur des conflits en République Centrafricaine – (Fr) A Gabonese podcast interviewing Bernice, a young man who fled as a child from CAR in the early 2000s because of ethnic violence. Bernice is Yakoma, a small ethnic group from the south of the country. The previous president, André-Dieudonné Kolingba, was Yakoma and had heavily favoured his own ethnic group for government patronage – when he was removed from power, the Yakoma faced attacks and persecution. Bernice speaks about his experience as a refugee, his education in Cameroon, his return to Bangui as a young man, and the current political situation there.

Smart Peace: Central African Republic – (En) CAR has been called the “world champion of peacekeeping” as it has had a non-stop revolving presence of French, UN, African Union, and EU peacekeeping missions. NGOs and peace organizations are trying various tactics to build stability – Smart Peace is a project by Conciliation Resources that looks at facilitating local solutions to peace. This podcast adds further detail to the reasons of CAR’s instability – instead of looking at big leaders or movements, they look at communities and how individuals navigate instability and build their own networks in the absence of institutions.

Juridiquement Vôtre: L’année 1236, la Charte de Kurukan Fuga – (Fr) Dr. Jean-François Akandji-Kombé is a Central African law professor, currently teaching at the Sorbonne in Paris. He has a series of podcasts, some on law and citizen engagement, some on Central African current events, and some on African legal history. This really fascinating podcast is on the Kurukan Fuga, the 1236 constitution establishing the Empire of Mali. It’s one of the oldest charter of rights, from the same era as the Magna Carta, and is noteable for setting out women’s rights (including political participation), laws on sustainable hunting, and inheritance and status rights. Dr. Akandji-Kombé frames it as an reclamation of African history and using this history to build a more stable legal tradition for African countries, and as a counter-argument to a narrative that constitutionality is a foreign import.

Reportage Afrique – Centrafrique : la course aux chenilles dans les forêts de la Lobaye – (Fr) A short trio of episodes through RFI’s Africa bureau on caterpillars as food in CAR – the first is on gathering them in-season, the second on the supply chains to get caterpillars to market and the risk of deforestation, and the third on cooking with caterpillars and their place as an effective and environmentally friendly source of protein – and a beloved one. I liked the smoky flavour of dried ones when I made yabanda, but I’d love to try them fresh!

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Tempête sur Bangui by Didier Kassaï

Didier Kassaï’s Tempête sur Bangui (Storm over Bangui) is a shocking graphic novel on several levels. It’s an autobiography of his experiences of the 2013 civil war in the Central African Republic, as Séléka rebels overran the capital and toppled the government. Kassaï recounts the chaos, the violence, and the confusion on the ground through the eyes of Bangui’s residents. It truly is a graphic novel.

However, what is particularly shocking is how Kassaï draws Africans. While non-black characters are drawn in a realistic style, all the black characters – including Kassaï himself – are drawn like old “sambo” racial stereotypes.

Kassaï explains his artistic choice as a stylistic one, and connects it to the deeper ligne-claire cartoon tradition from France and Belgium. (He draws Africans in a realistic way in his other works).

“I believed this war had no face. I couldn’t recognize any of my countrymen and women back then because everybody was spreading messages of hatred, so I gave them only eyes and mouths.”

– Didier Kassaï, “This is what it’s like to be a cartoonist in the Central African Republic

But there’s something more to this – it’s a style that is instantly shocking to Western eyes, and hearkens back to Tintin in the Congo. That’s not without reason – CAR was treated by France the same way the Congo was by Belgium – divvied up as personal property for Europeans to exploit. France and Belgium left such deep lasting damage to central Africa that countries like CAR and the DRC have struggled with chronic instability and violence since then.

If you wanted to read even further into Kassaï’s artistic choice, you could make an argument that drawing Africans as a faceless stereotype shocks Western readers because it exposes that many people do see Africa as a faceless victims, rather than real individuals with their own autonomy and lives. The whole continent is often treated as an amorphous whole, and the essential humanity of the people living through events like CAR’s civil war are overlooked in a way that they aren’t for conflicts in other parts of the world (say, Ukraine).

Tempête sur Bangui is meant to shake you up, and it does.

It’s only published in French, though there’s a well-translated excerpt in English at Words Without Borders.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: What’s going on?

There’s over the last few decades in the Central African Republic there’s been fighting between Séléka (a coalition of northern Muslim rebels) and Anti-Balaka (mainly Christian anti-Séléka rebels). Things were starting to get a bit more stable in recent years, including holding elections and a major UN peacekeeping presence. However, as of 2021, former enemy rebel groups were forming alliances and actively fighting the government together. Here’s a short recap from the BBC last year on the rebel insurgencies in the Central African Republic:

The current situation is part of one larger story of instability. This history video below gives the best overall look at CAR’s history – France modelling the colony on Belgium’s Congo, WWII and decolonization, the optimism of first President Barthélemy Boganda‘s anti-racism and social policies, and his untimely death …which is where everything seems to really start to go wrong, including Bokassa’s Empire. Over the last 50 years, it’s been a confusing series of coups, crackdowns, French interventions, juntas, sectarian violence, UN interventions, and near-constant insurgencies.

There’s a ceasefire on right now that’s only partially successful, with the CAR government only having meaningful control over Bangui. The Central African Republic is an incredibly fragile state – poverty and colonialism gave the country a difficult start, and since then, it’s been grinding instability and violence.

There have been real efforts for peace and democracy, however, but it’s a slow, awkward process with many setbacks – not helped that CAR hasn’t captured the world’s attention the same way neighbours Sudan and DR Congo have.