Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The nation next door

On Sunday we returned from four days in the country of Jordan for my Physical Settings of the Bible class. I don't even know how to begin sharing about our time in the nation next door! I absolutely loved it. Jordan -- more fully, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan -- has a different feel from Israel in a lot of ways. The geography and topography are similar, but at the same time the land felt a little more open, a little more rugged... As a whole, the place seems a little less developed, a little less put-together (except for the booming capital city of Amman!), and just has a different personality.

The difference in demographics from Israel (here, a majority Muslim population and very minimal Jewish population) allowed me to see Arab culture in a more relaxed environment; in Israel, the sense of tension is perpetual, even if under the surface, but here, there was a deeper sense of uniformity, and the people were more comfortable and more open. This has its benefits and drawbacks, of course -- we've gotten used to casual advances upon and even mild harassment of women by the men in Israel; it's a norm of society here, however displeasing, and in Jordan I think I can say it was even worse. As a plus, however, we got a lot of joy out of watching the Jordanian children -- and sometimes even adults and friendly families -- who couldn't get enough of smiling and waving at us as our bus passed by...

Here's a little photo album of sorts that, hopefully, will provide a snapshot of our time in the Kingdom of Jordan...

This was the first stop of our trip -- it's a site called Tell Deir Alla (the biblical town of Succoth -- see Genesis 33:17). In ancient times, an international east-west route connecting both sides of the Rift Valley passed right along Succoth. Beyond the hill and the trees, you can see to the other side of the Rift Valley -- that's Israel! Usually, the "other" side of the Rift Valley for us is Jordan, so this was a first. 

This is at the top of Tell Deir Alla, where some excavation has been done. The most interesting find at this site to me was a text on plaster from around the 8th century B.C. that mentioned Balaam, the prophet in the Bible (Numbers 22-24) who was hired to come curse Israel but could only bless Israel. Interesting! We don't know exactly which people group lived there, or why they had a text concerning Balaam on their walls, and unfortunately, the text we have is badly fragmented (my class and I actually got to see part of the original in a museum in the city of Amman), but I was so impressed that anyone could make sense of the little pieces that had been salvaged. 

Here's a snapshot of a market along the streets of a small town... I mostly wanted to post this to marvel at the beautifully decorated trucks that we saw all over the country! Take a look at the green one on the right side of the photo. I don't know why they're like this, but it's a fun little touch...  

This photo is from a site called Gedara -- what's interesting to notice here (among many things!) is the difference in colors of the pillars. The lighter ones in front are more typical of pillars that the Romans constructed when they began to plant themselves in this land, but the ones in back -- a darker color -- are unique to the northern regions because they're made of basalt, the local building stone formed from volcanic overflow. In Israel, I've become more thrilled about different rock types than I ever imagined! 

This is the same site -- Gedara -- and from here, on top of the hill, one can see (looking northwest) the Sea of Galilee! The far side disappears into the haze and behind the hills, but wow, what a view... 

A little friend that we met at Ramoth-gilead, a site farther south -- well, not really a friend. I'm not so fond of scorpions as it is, but I was thankful that we came across a black one -- there are little white ones here that can kill a person in 8 seconds (well, so the rumor goes; a few hours is probably more realistic. Don't worry, Mum). To be honest, I've been nervous about encountering a little white one all semester, but God surprised me with a reassurance that I didn't expect -- later, on the bus that trip, I was having an unrelated discussion with some peers about the character of Satan in the New Testament, and we finally located a verse that someone was thinking of in Luke 10. I began reading, from the middle of the chapter: "He [Jesus] replied, 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you...'" My friends knew that I'd been nervous about encountering these unpleasant little creatures, and we all had a good laugh... I admit, I sometimes think little connections like that are cheesy or coincidental, but honestly, this was such a blessing! 

We spent our first night in Jordan's capital city of Amman -- a busy, busy place! This city in particular is a good reminder that the present appearance of things is not always the best indication of the historical personality or role, and I've learned that this is so important to keep in mind in this land. The city only started developing like this since the 1940's -- historically, it's been nowhere near this central or bustling. One would never guess.  

The next day in Amman: these are the remains of the temple of Hercules at "the Citadel," the old fortress area of the city (which used to be called Rabbah when it was the capital of the Ammonites). As my professor often says, when the Romans came they left heavy footsteps in the land -- footsteps like this! Incredible. 

In case you ever wondered what the oldest human statue looks like... I guess this is him. 
This is at Jordan's national archaeology museum in Amman, which is small but packed with absolutely incredible stuff. The caption reads: "The earliest statue done by man. Found at Jericho. Pre-pottery Neolithic period." WOW. There was a similar statue nearby from around the same time but with two heads... If you have an explanation, I'd be glad to hear it! I'm baffled.  

... This is when I'm thankful to be living when and where I'm living -- actually, the practice is still used in some less developed countries around the world. Wow. 

This is Gerasa, later named Jerash -- there's a reason it was nicknamed the "city of a thousand columns"! This place was simply huge and had enough sights to fill an entire day. It was a Decapolis city in the early A.D. years -- i.e. one of ten Greco-Roman cities that dominated the area south and east of the Sea of Galilee. Not all of the sites we visited in Jordan were sites of biblical events, but they're still of enormous cultural significance. 

You never know what you'll come across in Jordan (or Israel, for that matter) -- here, at the Roman theatre in Jerash, we stumbled upon some Arab men performing with drums and bagpipes! One of my JUC peers, a percussionist, jumped in to join in the performance; you can probably tell which one he is. ;) 

A traffic jam, Jordanian style! This we did not expect to come across while traveling through the countryside! (the town was having some sort of fun get-together, complete with an inflatable Spiderman slide. Awesome.) This alone might explain why our bus drivers are our heroes by the end of each field study -- in my entire time here, we've never hit a single thing. They have maneuvering skills that I could never even hope to attain!

A glimpse out the bus window as we were traveling along... Most of the young kids got a thrill out of waving and grinning at us as we passed by (and also chasing after us to wave us on our way -- don't miss the little one in front!). We figured that several of the areas we managed to squeeze through didn't often see buses of visitors, which might shed a bit of light on their excitement! 

Walking to Petra in Jordan! This one is not a biblical site, though the people who lived here -- the Nabateans -- were not unknown to the people of the Bible, as they played a crucial role in the trade routes in the Arabian desert. The rock here -- sandstone -- is just incredible. 

The famous shot of Petra, the "rose-red city half as old as Time"... I think I heard myself gasp in amazement before my mind realized how amazed I was! 

"The Treasury" at Petra -- this was Indiana Jones' destination (though we weren't allowed to go inside to check out any treasure!). The structures at Petra were carved right into the cliff face -- absolutely amazing. Facades like this one actually functioned as tombs -- honoring ancestors had a definite importance in Nabatean culture.

A smiling friend at Petra! We got plenty of offers to ride these guys, often for more money than we cared to spend... 

An incredible view at Petra -- we were thankful to have arrived early in the morning, before the clouds broke and the sun came beating down... At the end of the path just left of the center, you might be able to make out a tiny dot of a person standing at the edge of the cliff -- at 6'7", that's the tallest member of this semester's JUC class... And if Steve looks that small, you know it's a big place! 

Amazing rock. In about the center of the photo you can see a small enclave -- a window-like area. Several of these dotted the cliff faces at Petra -- little homes for the gods and goddesses, so to speak. 

From the inside of one of the tomb areas in Petra. Massive, massive, massive. 

A furry friend at Petra. In addition to the camels, we were bombarded with offers to ride these guys, too, but we opted to hike instead. And hike we did -- by the end of our six hours of tramping around Petra, we were totally exhausted.  

A little boy waiting to advertise the postcards in his hands -- all around Petra, the natives had little tents set up with trinkets and souvenirs to sell to the tourists, and the kids were in the sales business, too. 

Okay, last picture of Petra, I promise! Another rock-hewn structure -- this one's called the Monastery. Who knows why -- it was also a tomb, I was told. 

A stark contrast to the environment of Petra! This is a black iris, Jordan's lovely national flower. It's a bit rare, and we were pleased when our professor stopped the bus on a lonely road so we could hop out and snap some photos. 

This is a fun one! Called the 'Madaba Map' (only part of it is shown in the photo), it's a 6th century A.D. mosaic map of the land of the Middle East. The oval section in the center of the photo depicts Jerusalem -- the straight line running through long-ways represents the 'Cardo,' the main north-south road of all Greco-Roman cities, and around it you can see white pillars with dark spaces in between. Halfway down the Cardo, looking a little upside-down to us with a yellow dome, is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre! Wow. The mosaic makes up part of the floor of what is now St. George's Greek Orthodox Church. 

And finally, the last stop of the last field study of our Physical Settings of the Bible course: the traditional location of Mount Nebo. In the last chapter of Deuteronomy (34), Moses climbs Mount Nebo and God speaks to him. My professor had told us that on a clear day, you can see all the way across the Rift Valley to the towers on the Mount of Olives (there are three tall and distinct ones), the hill on the east side of Jerusalem. I'd hoped for a clear day in order to see across the vast river valley, and was initially disappointed that there was such a heavy haze that hot afternoon. As it turned out, however, it made for the best lesson: when the Israelites approached the land from this direction, whether they had a clear day or not, they couldn't see what was before them -- that is, the land and their future, tied together. They had no idea what was in store -- only that their God was leading them into an unknown land and was going to care for them. Their future was -- our future is -- a haze from which God beckons. My lesson of the day, then -- and a good lesson to end the course with -- was, in the words of my professor, to whom I am grateful for many lessons: walk into the haze. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Steps of the Franciscans

It’s Holy Week in Jerusalem! For the Western Church, that is (the Eastern Church celebrates one week after the Western Church this year). Accordingly, I thought I should probably post my Palm Sunday update before Easter Sunday arrives... :]    

Palm Sunday was a delightfully busy day; I was able to celebrate at two morning services – Catholic and Anglican – and by taking part in the procession down the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, an annual event that commemorates Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. The combination of the three kept me -- and a number of my JUC peers! -- on my feet from 8 in the morning to 5 in the evening, and here I’ll provide a glimpse of just one…

Three friends and I awoke in time to arrive at the Catholic Palm Sunday service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- a note on the Holy Sepulchre, before I go any further: it’s perhaps the most magnificent church in the Old City in terms of history and general grandeur; originally built in Constantine’s time, it’s seen several stages of destruction and repair. It’s a particularly encouraging symbol of a step in the direction of Church unity: here, Eastern and Western Christians share the space for services and worship (wow!). Back to Palm Sunday, though: my friends and I weren't the first to arrive -- as we made our way to the outskirts of the crowd gathered by the Franciscan chapel, hushed voices and shifting feet marked the atmosphere of anticipation. The Franciscan chapel is next to the traditional place of the burial tomb of Jesus Christ, which is actually inside the walls of the church. A towering monument marks the location, and above it is a massive domed ceiling with a window at the top that allows sunlight to stream in from above. Here's a look at it:

Within ten minutes, the Franciscan priests filed out and the service began. The richness of liturgy and incense filled the church and sent echoes bouncing off the massive stone walls surrounding us. The priests, robed in red and white and bearing palm branches, began to process around the tomb of Christ, with those holding staffs and flickering candles leading the way. The deep voice of the organ joined in, and the crowd parted to let the line of priests through. When they had passed, a woman hurried over to our side and shared a bunch of olive branches (quite plentiful in this land!) with a man on my side. He took some and passed the rest around – and so I acquired my own little sprig of olive. The congregants had begun to follow in the steps of the Franciscans, and my friends and I joined in. At each Hosanna! (‘Save now!’ – the expression that the people used to usher Jesus into Jerusalem those many years ago), each palm and olive branch was waved high in the air, remembering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

As we processed around the tomb, I realized that while I was swimming in a mass of strangers and foreign languages, the sense of unity in the place was incredible. I looked around and found that I could see -- albeit only partially -- into the souls of people I didn’t know; the radiance on the Franciscan priest’s face, the anticipation of the expression of the man beside me, and the smile of the silent woman across from me each revealed such deep authenticity that they didn't seem so much like strangers at all.

As we continued around the monument, the faithful drumbeats of the priests’ staffs on the old stone floor as they walked echoed in the church and in my mind, and I thought about the richness that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions of Christianity have preserved. It’s incredible to think about the years and years of accumulated practice, rehearsed hundreds of thousands of times, and again played out here, one more time. Part of the beauty that I find in such tradition is its holistic nature – that is, how fully it incorporates both physical and spiritual aspects of our humanity. Here, we worshipped with our eyes, taking in the sight of palm branches held high above the crowd and the faint morning light through the window high above; we worshipped with our ears, listening to the liturgy and the organ and faithful beat of the priests’ staffs; we worshipped with our sense of smell, the incense reminding us of our prayers and praises rising to heaven; and with our lips, if we knew the Latin or Italian (several of us did not, but we could join in with the Hosannas, or even in the liturgy if we happened to glimpse a copy of the text held by a neighbor beside us!); and with our fingers, as we waved our own palm and olive branches; and with our feet, as we walked together, remembering the procession of people who accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem. 

The rest of Holy Week here has been something of a blur, involving a number of other services and events in anticipation of Passover and Easter, a lot of research as those once-distant deadlines are beginning to draw near, and not quite enough sleep! It's worth it, for sure -- we all figure we can catch up on sleep later. (: For now, though, I wish each of you a meaningful Good Friday and a rich & joyous Passover! More photos from Palm Sunday below...

Above: Palm Sunday morning at Christ Church, the Anglican church just a few minutes' walk from JUC. They make good neighbors!

Above: Palm Sunday procession down the Mount of Olives toward the Old City of Jerusalem. On the right just over half-way up the photo are the walls of the Old City, and to the left of them, the modern road weaving its way around. 

Above: Remembering.