We've reached the culmination of the travel component of the MESP semester. Yesterday we came across the Israeli border from Jordan, after spending a couple days in Amman. We heard from a couple speakers and spent an afternoon at the Dead Sea. It is ridiculously salty, but the mud and sand make great exfoliants. We had fun doing our own skin care.
Let me back up and talk about Syria also. On Thursday last week we crossed the border from Turkey to Syria, which took a while, then spent the night in the city of Hama in northern Syria. (This city was almost completely obliterated in 1982 by the government of Syria because it was seen as housing Islamic militants. It has since been rebuilt, but the legacy of the destruction and despair continue.) The next day we went to the Krak de Chevaliers, an old Crusader castle in the hills of Syria. It was so cool. We climbed all over, and I think most of us reverted back to about age 8. After the castle we visited Maaloula, the only Christian Aramaic-speaking village left in the world. (Aramaic is the language that Jesus is thought to have spoken.) We visited a few monasteries and churches, and heard the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic - so beautiful. Then we drove to Damascus, where we spent the next three days. We stayed in a monastery in the Christian quarter of Damascus, not far from the Old City, so everyday we walked to the Eastern Gate and did some shopping. There was lots of beautiful things in the Old City, and amazing chocolate-filled croissants that melted in your mouth if you bought them hot. (I've decided that America has failed at bread, and the Middle East has stolen my heart for its baked goods.) In Damascus we also heard from a couple working for the Mennonite Central Committee, who told us about Biblical nonviolence and putting that into practice. I really appreciated hearing from them because I have thought seriously about working for an organization like MCC. We also toured the house of Ananias in the Old City, where Paul was converted to Christianity, and went to the U.S. Embassy to hear about U.S.-Syrian relations. On Monday we drove to Amman, then Tuesday was our Dead Sea day.
Yesterday we entered the Holy Land. The border crossing took a while because Israeli security is very tight, but we all made it through without too much trouble. Crossing into Israel from Jordan actually meant crossing into the West Bank, and so we drove on an Israeli-controlled road until we got to Jerusalem. On the way we passed many settlements on the hills, Palestinian towns (such as Jericho), and Bedouin camps. We're staying at the Austrian Hospice in the old city of Jerusalem, right on the Via Dolorosa, which is the route that Jesus carried the cross to Golgotha. We walked around the city last night, passing by the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and David's Tower. The view from our roof is amazing; you can see the Christian quarter, Muslim quarter, Armenian quarter, and Jewish quarter from a distance. Today we heard from a pastor of an Anglican church (supposedly the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East) who talked about the Jewish roots of Christianity, and also a representative from an Israeli human rights organization working in the Occupied Territories. A few of us walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during our lunch time, which is widely considered to be the holiest site in Christianity. It is the site where Jesus was crucified and buried - the church is built on the rock of Golgotha. There are places in the church where you can reach down and touch the stone, and the slab of stone where they laid Jesus after he died is one of the first things that you meet when you walk in the door. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an interesting phenomenon. Hundreds of tourists crowd in, touch the stone where Jesus was laid, praying and laying religious objects on it. There are icons and gold decorations everywhere, and the atmosphere is rather overwhelming. It seems gaudy and honestly, not very spiritual. Many Protestants prefer the Garden Tomb as the place where Jesus died, which I want to visit sometime soon. It is just a tomb in a garden, very simple but apparently it feels more spiritual for those of us who don't particularly appreciate icons or gaudy decorations. Tomorrow we're having shabbat dinner with Jewish families after we visit a synagogue, and then on Saturday we're crossing into the West Bank, where we'll see Bethlehem, including the "security barrier" that Israel has constructed between many parts of Israel proper and the West Bank. I'm really excited to visit a refugee camp and see how the Palestinian situation really looks.
This is the most fought over piece of land in history, and from what I've seen so far, it's mostly a barren desert. But when the authority of God intersects with modern nationalist ideals and a powerful state, conflict is inevitable.