By Peter C. Moore

Traveling around Palestine in 1959 opened up new vistas for me as a young, budding theologian studying at Oxford University. I had rented a Vespa motor scooter, and with Bible in hand, explored the back roads and sometimes mountain trails of the Holy Land.

 

The photos I took, and the memories I still cherish, have stayed with me for decades. I told and re-told the experiences I had tracing the steps of Jesus back when Israel and Jordan faced one another across a no-man’s land, and when Jerusalem was a divided city.

A lot changed after the Six Day War in 1967. Israel suddenly won — not only the West Bank — but Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights. Shortly afterwards, Israel gave Sinai back to Egypt when Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel. But Israel retained the right to rule the rest while allowing the Palestinians a measure of autonomous rule in what is now called the Palestinian Authority.

Today a wall of partition, or defense as the Israelis call it, separates this Palestinian Authority from the rest of Israel. Jews and visitors can travel freely, but there are checkpoints and other difficulties for Palestinians who want to travel back and forth. That wall and the Israeli settlements that are built on “occupied” Palestinian land remain among the most contentious issues bedeviling those seeking to bring about peace in this troubled region.

But this is not an article about politics, however important they are. It is about the adventures of a now semi-retired clergyman who has recently returned to Israel after a gap of 55 years.

As I think back to 1959 when I was all of 23, certain memories flood the mind. I recall the hitchhiking female Israeli soldier who, after sitting on the back on my scooter for a half hour, proposed marriage to me. Her gesture had absolutely nothing to do with romance and everything to do — I thought — with obtaining a green card.

I recall snapping a candid picture of a brightly dressed Bedouin woman only to see her turn and come at me with sticks and stones. Then there was the Muslim boy, perhaps 10 or 11, who was working in a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. I asked the owner if I could take a photo, and the boy nearly created a riot in his efforts to prevent me. I’m sure he knew exactly why I wanted such a photo.

I also recall mistakenly meandering across a small footbridge at the headwaters of the Jordan, only to discover that I had accidentally strayed into Syria. I vaguely made out men in the distance with what appeared to be guns aimed at me. Fortunately, none fired.

You can imagine, then, my excitement, when after this sizeable gap of 55 years I was invited to be the chaplain to a men’s pilgrimage this May. While during the intervening years I had been to many countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Turkey, Dubai and Yemen, I had not returned to the Holy Land since 1959. I jumped at the opportunity.

I’m not sure why I expected the Holy Land to be more or less as I had remembered. But I did. I assumed that the holy sites would not have changed much. Nor would the Old City of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley and the hills of Galilee would not be anywhere other than where they had been decades ago.

But what I hadn’t bargained on was finding many significant changes.

The Judean wilderness, while still hot, dry and deserted now looked strangely lonely to me. The walkways through Jerusalem’s Old City were still filled with shops selling sweets or trinkets (now mostly made in China), and groups of pilgrims, like ours, could be seen at almost any time of the day walking the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus took as he carried his cross to the place of crucifixion. But much of the Old City looked dirtier and run-down.

The Western Wall, once referred to as the “Wailing Wall,” was still a place of prayer for Jews and visitors. But now it was flooded with crowds of eager prayers, whose earnestness was almost palpable. The Temple Mount, where the gilded Muslim shrine The Dome of the Rock centuries ago had replaced the Jewish Temple, was much as I remembered it. But now, Muslim guards police it and carry loaded semi-automatic weapons. Woe betide a tourist wearing so much as a cross around the neck, or pausing to offer a silent prayer.

Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were first found in 1946 and whose ruins once housed an ancient monastic sect awaiting its Messiah, was very little changed. However, a B- rated introductory film had been added to the site. The Jordan River, where John the Baptist had baptized Jesus near Jericho, was its usual muddy green. We renewed our baptismal vows there, some of our group even insisting on full immersion. But this time the river seemed even narrower and less impressive. Of course, most of its water has been siphoned off for various irrigation projects on both its Israeli and Jordanian sides.

I noted even more radical changes. Israel had done wonders agriculturally. Trees had been planted, greenhouses dotted the landscape, vegetables were growing on the 20 percent of the land that is arable, and orange and lemon groves graced the hillsides and valleys.

Tourism had vastly increased. Today it brings in $11.5 billion a year to Israel and is served by many new glitzy hotels and vastly improved roads.

Even the Christian sites had been altered — most with new churches where in the 1950s only crude excavations and run-down Byzantine chapels stood. For example, a church built in the shape of a huge ship’s hull now hovers over the spot in Capernaum where St. Pater is believed to have lived. Another new enormous basilica, the Church of the Annunciation, reminds visitors that Nazareth is the place where the Virgin received the message of Jesus’ coming birth. Fortress-like in its style and designed by renowned Italian architect Givoanni Muzio, it now is the largest church in the Middle East.

Totally new to me was the archaeological site of Sepphoris, a Roman city just four short miles from Nazareth. Sepphoris was the capital of Galilee in Jesus’ day, and some speculate that Jesus and Joseph might have worked on some of its buildings. They certainly knew this sophisticated urban metropolis with its impressive theatre and mosaic-filled houses that existed virtually at their back door — though it is never mentioned in the Gospels.

Then there was the Sea of Galilee. Just 13 miles long and 7 miles wide, this lake is today Israel’s largest fresh water reservoir. Through the centuries, it brought refreshment to endless caravans plying the trade routes from Damascus and beyond to Egypt. Jesus knew of its strategic importance because he moved the center of his ministry there to Capernaum that sits on its northwest shore.

Of course, we had to swim in the lake (though called a sea), as we also floated in the Dead Sea. Later, out on Sea of Galilee in a boat, I viewed with some envy a group of windsurfers taking advantage of the region’s afternoon breezes and wished I could join them.

Our group spent two nights at a new four-star guesthouse on the Mount of Beatitudes run by a Catholic nun with an infectious smile and a ready laugh. Some of us rose in the morning to see the sun awaken; later, we all enjoyed a quiet Eucharist in a simple outdoor chapel. There we pondered the greatest sermon ever preached: the Sermon on the Mount.

Back in Jerusalem and following our Galilee sojourn, we were plunged again into the maelstrom that is modern Israeli politics. As Frank Jacobs put it in a 2012 article in the New York Times, “talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the conversational equivalent of tap-dancing on quicksand: the harder you try, the deeper you get stuck.”

One of our hosts, the Dean of St. George’s Cathedral, who is a Christian Israeli Arab Palestinian (try that combination on for size) attempted to explain the complexities of the Jewish state. What became apparent to us was that with the mushrooming numerical growth of Arabs in the Palestinian Authority, combined with the low Jewish birth rate, Israel in a few short decades will have to choose between being a Jewish state or a democracy. I noted that, even at The Hebrew University that I visited with a friend, one finds a growing number of Arab students.

No trip to the Holy Land is complete without a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Presided over by five different ecclesiastical bodies that unfortunately don’t always get along, this edifice was first constructed in the third century on the site of a pagan temple. Later it was finished in the fourth century and rebuilt by the Byzantines in 1048 (with the permission of the Muslim Caliph). Christians still throng to this church that covers both the well-researched site of the crucifixion and of the resurrection of Jesus. Our visit afforded us time to meditate on the significance of this place on earth where spiritually the world turned on its axis and hope burst forth into a sad and dreary land.

I suppose my overwhelming impression, looking not just at the sites but at the people who crowd Israel’s streets and come for a wide variety of reasons, is that almost all forms of orthodox religion are staging a surprising come back. Despite Israel’s aggressive secularism, pilgrims and local residents dressed in the telltale signs of religious allegiance are everywhere. On our plane from New York were a couple of dozen Hassidic Jewish men wearing black coats and hats and sporting uncut curls dangling from their ears. There were also priests, monks and nuns in various robes. There were Muslims wearing burkas, groups of Muslim youth from Michigan, and of course Christians of various stripes walking the streets. My friend, a professor at Hebrew University, told of no fewer than 30 different congregations of Messianic Jews in Jerusalem alone — to one of which he belongs.

Clearly, secularism does not have all the answers on a personal level. As valuable as secularism may be in limiting the aims of extremists who wish to mold society into their image, in the end it offers little to hearts and minds that are in serious quest for the living God.

Peter Moore is a graduate of Yale and Oxford, and former dean of Trinity School for Ministry. He is the associate for discipleship at St. Michael’s Church, Charleston, and lives with his wife in Mount Pleasant. His website is petercmoore.com.

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