Monday, 22 December 2008

holy land reflections (1) - layers

Excavations at southern wall of Temple Mount

In the film Shrek there is a scene where Shrek, the ogre, and his faithful sidekick Donkey are discussing Shrek’s personality. Shrek explains that he is more complex than might at first appear, he has layers. One of the most striking features of the Holy Land and in particular Jerusalem is that it is a place of many layers. These layers are most obviously visible in the archaeological excavations where one can see the stratification laid bare. A good example of this layering is the dig at Jericho where in the first part of the C20th various archaeologists, most notably Garstang and then Kenyon, investigated the city walls and explored the relationship between the finds and the Biblical record. I commented on the site at Jericho on a previous post and there is a good summary of the site here.

Excavation at Jericho revealing stratification and base of a watch tower.

Another sense of layering can be seen at the religious sites which over time have been regarded as holy by various faiths. At these sites one can see different holy places built one upon another. In some cases as one faith replaced another so religious buildings were destroyed and the rubble used in the construction of another holy place on top. The best example of this I saw was at the Temple Mount where excavations have now revealed the street level of the Second Temple (538 B.C. – 70 A.D.) and Roman (70 - 325 A.D.) periods. At this site are also remains from the Byzantine (325 – 634 A.D.), Umayyad (660 – 1073 A.D.), Crusader (1099 – 1187 A.D.), Ayyubid (1187 – 1229 A.D.), Mamluk (1250 – 1516 A.D.) and Ottoman (1516 – 1917 A.D.) periods. Another example is at the Cenacle, traditionally considered the site of the Upper Room where the Last Supper was celebrated. This site is now the remains of a Crusader church which became a mosque and then synagogue. It is an important site for Jews as it is considered to be the site of the Tomb of David.

As a result of this layering of holy places a great amount of sensitivity and restraint needs to be exercised by the various communities. I was particularly impressed at the church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant in Abu-Ghosh to see the way in which the church was modestly decorated out of respect to Judaism. Judaism regards it as an important religious site; Abinadab’s house where the Ark resided for twenty years before David moved it to Jerusalem. This sensitivity has not always been evident and on occasions the consequences have been explosive. One of the most infamous examples was Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Dome of the Rock as part of an election campaign in September 2000; the consequences were a battle between Palestinians and the Israeli security forces. Inevitably there are conflicting accounts of this incident and the motives of those caught up in it but it serves to highlight the way in which a site, regarded as central to Judaism and Islam and as special to Christians, carries many layers of history and significance.

My personal impression of the situation is that each of the religious communities is on the whole sensitive to the others and seeks to live with an uneasy accommodation. Where else in the world can one see so many sites of religious significance literally on top of each other? One of the most amusing stories I heard was that when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem they thought the Dome of the Rock was actually Herod’s Temple and so didn’t destroy it but placed an altar there and converted it into a church! Had they realised it was a mosque it probably would have been reduced to rubble nearly a millennium ago.

Chapel of the Finding of the Cross: Church of the Resurrection.
A third type of layering is evident at Christian sites where over time different churches have been constructed, reflecting successive periods of the Holy Land’s Christian past. At the Pool of Bethesda the excavations reveal evidence of a large Byzantine church and then a Crusader church built on its foundations. However, the best example is the Church of the Resurrection constructed on the traditional site of Golgotha and the Tomb of Jesus. The site, a quarry outside the city walls, was initially covered as part of Hadrian’s reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Venus was built there. Following his conversion, Constantine ordered the clearing of the area and the construction of a church, though his mother Helena gets the credit for the work. Three interconnecting churches were built and completed towards the end of C4th.

The church was damaged and rebuilt in C7th and was a protected Christian site under Moslem rule until C10th when it was badly damaged by fire during a riot and then in 1009 A.D. its destruction was ordered by Al-Hakim. All that was left were those parts of the building that could not be easily destroyed or removed. An expensive rebuilding project took place in the C11th and was completed in 1048 A.D. by Constantine IX. It comprised a large open court with five small chapels and the original basilica remained in ruins. In the mid C12th the Crusaders began to refurbish the church site and brought it together under one roof. Franciscan Friars renovated the church in C16th but it was badly damaged in another fire at the beginning of C19th. Further renovations have taken place since then and include the restoration of the dome in the mid 1990’s. As I have mentioned in a previous post, some of the church, including the Edicule, are desperately in need of restoration but it seems that the controlling denominations can’t agree on what to do.

Cultic shrines at Caesarea Philippi.

There is one more sense of layering that I was aware of during my time in the Holy Land. It was a real privilege to read the scriptures while visiting sites traditionally associated with those passages. The geography and history of these places gave me a fresh appreciation for, and understanding of, the text. Whether it was standing on the shore at Galilee, looking at the cultic shrines at Caesarea Philippi, walking on the Street of the Cheesemakers beside the Temple Mount, looking across at the Old City from the Mount of Olives or sitting quietly under an olive tree in Capernaum, it was as if I began to experience passages of scripture in 3D. Moving about these places grounded my reading of the Bible and at times challenged the images I had previously formed in my mind; it helped me to discover new layers in very familiar stories and incidents.

One of the tasks pursued by Biblical scholars for many decades has been the attempt to strip back the layers of the Bible to get to the real or historical Jesus and to uncover the writers and communities behind the scriptures. Personally, the rich experiences of visiting the Holy Land and reading the Bible while there have underlined the need to accept, appreciate and enjoy the many layers of the land, the places, the traditions and the Bible; to embrace the complexity and diversity and to dig deep rather than be content with the superficial.

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