Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday, March 12 in the Holy Land

Friday, March 12; Herodian, Museum, Bethlehem

Many apologies.  I hoped to post lots of great photos to better chronicle this trip, but Internet connections make that impossible.  When I get home, I'll set something up, either on the blog or maybe Picasa.  So for now, only words, no images.

The Herodian, Herod the Great's mountaintop fortress with his palace at its base.

Herod built this steep fortress at the site of his victory over the Parthians.  At that sight were two hills.  The lower hill was the preferred location, so Herod had the other hill dismantled shovel by shovel and moved to the top of his fortress construction. 

The hill dominates the landscape and can be seen on the highway from Bethel to Jerusalem and from the Mount of Olives where Jesus remarked, "If you have faith, you can move this mountain" or "You can tell this mountain to be thrown into the sea."  If he was talking about the Herodian, his words might carry some interesting interpretations.  His word might be a revolutionary statement against Herod.  It might also be an expression about the kind of faith that perseveres, one step, one shovel at a time, until a mountain is moved. 

The upper palace was a fortress.  In the lower palace includes the remains of Herod's palace, featuring his enormous swimming pool, with an island in the middle.  (Swim-up bar, quipped one of our travelers.)  In his younger days Herod was a remarkable athlete and an excellent swimmer.  He drowned several of his enemies in this pool.  There was one story about a new High Priest who was becoming very popular because he was young, beautiful and talented.  Herod invited him to the palace, took him swimming.  It was the High Priest's last swim. 

Apparently, Herod was an insecure man who felt threatened by anyone who might challenge his authority or his imagination of himself.  In some ways he was like Henry VIII.  Brilliant and athletic in youth; late in life, corpulent and riddled with disease.  In those latter years Herod was too heavy to walk and would be carried around by litter bearers.  One day at the pool, a man carrying him slipped, and Herod fell into the pool, g0ing under water.  He stayed under for quiet a while.  No one moved to help or rescue him.  The onlookers waited anxiously, silently to see if he would drown.  After a long period of time had elapsed, one man exclaimed, "Yes!" and Herod immediately popped up from the water, pointing to him crying, "Kill him."  Herod had been watching the whole time to see if anyone would celebrate his death.

Herod was not born to royalty.  His father Antipater had been the Prime Minister for the Hasmoneans.  When the Parthians invaded and conquered Israel, they effectively cut the Roman Empire in half.  Herod went to his friend Marc Anthony and asked him to raise an army; Anthony agreed.  Herod then went to Rome and offered to the Senate to run the Parthians from the region if he would then be named King of the Jews.  After Herod was successful, the new king married a Hasmonean princess, Marian.  She was beautiful, and Herod was completely besotted over her. 

Things later appeared dicey for Herod when Octavius Caesar (Augustus) defeated Herod's good friend Marc Anthony.  Herod stashed his family in the fortress at Masada and went to Rome.  He walked right up to Augustus, knelt and said, "I was a friend of Marc Anthony, and I served him faithfully.  Now I serve you, and will do so with equal fidelity."  Caesar was impressed with Herod's moxie, and they became good friends.  Augustus raised two of Herod's sons in his own home in order to prepare them to be kings. 

But back home things didn't work out so well.  It should have been a triumphant return, but Miriam had learned that on his departure, Herod had left instructions that if he were killed in Rome, his wife and family were to be executed.  From that moment, Miriam made Herod's life miserable.  She would insult him in public and treat him with utter scorn.  He would then become angry, decide to kill her, then look, and love, and forgive her. 

There was much palace intrigue between Miriam and Herod's sister Salome, for they hated each other.  One would find conspirators to accuse the other of some infidelity, and Herod would execute the accused consort.  Then Herod would learn it was a lie, and he would execute whoever made the false charges.  But Miriam finally went too far when she had an affair with Salome's husband, and an enraged Herod had her killed.  He then went into a six month depression.  His behavior became so unstable that his mother-in-law began to conspire, saying that he was crazy, and since she was the daughter of a king she could better serve as monarch.  When he learned of her scheme, Herod executed her, and his depression lifted immediately, But he was always cruel from that time on, and his last ten years was a troubled and troubling reign. 

Herod wanted to be loved and accepted, but his subjects never accepted him.  Though Herod observed the Sabbath and ate Kosher, he was never accepted as truly Jewish because his father was Jewish and his mother was Gentile.  Jewish identity passes through the mother.  Nevertheless, Herod's Temple was a stupendous accomplishment, and was the largest earthly structure ever built exclusively for the worship of God. 

Today we first visited the Herodian, Herod's mountain fortress.  We began at the recently discovered tomb of Herod.  I think it was discovered about three years ago and is just now being excavated.  Sometime back in history it was desecrated and Herod's body stolen or destroyed. 

From the top of the mountain is a 360 degree view.  We could clearly see where the cities end and where the Judean wilderness begins.  It was also easy to see in several places the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories.  For that reason, there are armed watchtowers, guards, tanks and other military vehicles.

Herod lived mostly in the lower palace.  The upper was a safe house.  His biggest rival was Cleopatra, and they both incurred jealousy over the other's relationship with their mutual friend Marc Anthony.

Our guide imagined that if the story of the visit of the Magi were historic, it would be easy to think of the sages seeing this imposing mountaintop and think that a great king lives here.  They might have first visited this palace to inquire of the new king.  If so, it would not have been out of character for Herod to have killed all of the young male children in nearby Bethlehem. 

Yet Herod is among the most notable builders of all time.  During most of his reign, his kingdom enjoyed prosperity, largely fueled by Herod's "stimulus package" of royal construction.  In fact, when the Temple was completed in Jerusalem, there was a significant employment and economic crisis.

Within the mountain complex are an incredible series of tunnels and cisterns.  Many of the tunnels were built during the Bar Cochba rebellion.  We walked into an enormous water cistern which collected rainfall for the fortress.

After visiting the Herodian, we had to pass through the Israeli checkpoint between Palestinian Bethlehem and Israel proper.  We experienced another 20+ minute delay, and two armed soldiers marched through our bus.  The newly expanding "Wall" and the checkpoints are choking off movement, economic opportunities and discouraging tourists and visitors to Bethlehem and the other Palestinian territories.  That seems to be their purpose.  We've been fascinated by the graffiti on the Wall and on buildings nearby.  "Imagine if we were Loved."  A drawing of a camera with the caption: "Hope, Love, Peace.  Here we should only shoot with cameras."  A dove with a flack jacket and crosshairs on it's chest.  A Statue of Liberty with its pockets emptied."

From the top of the Herodian, it was stunning to see the fenced and armed Jewish settlements throughout the Palestinian areas.  According to a frequent traveler here, these are high density villages that are on lands taken from the resident Palestinians without compensation.  Whereas apartments in Jerusalem are very expensive, settlers in these new communities have much of their rent subsidized by the government.  Displaced Palestinians are often resettled into refugee camps under fairly primitive conditions.  They stay there to assert their right to compensation for the taking of their property.  If they leave the refugee camp, they lose any claim for compensation.  So they stay.  Yet no one, I am told, has yet to be compensated for their seized property.

Israel is a socialist state, according to our guide.  All of the property is owned by the government or by a national trust (I'm not sure of the name).  That arrangement allows the Israeli government to exercise centralized authority over property matters.  One reason Jerusalem buildings are so uniformly white is because by law all buildings must be made of Jerusalem limestone. 

We ran into a control issue when we visited the Museum that houses the scale model of Jerusalem and the Shrine of the Book.  The government wants all tour groups to be guided by Israeli guides.  The organization we are touring with includes scholars who have led groups for many years – archeologists and Biblical scholars – but because none of our leaders are Israelis who have credentials from the organization that oversees Israeli guides, our tour leaders were unable to speak to us openly during the visit to the museum.  We had to have a post-tour lecture at the hotel in the evening telling us what they would have told us during the tour. 

I think I'll save a lot of the information about Jerusalem until later when we visit the town itself.

Our afternoon featured a visit to the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity, the oldest standing Christian Church on earth.  The location of the cave where tradition said Jesus was born was identified by Constantine's mother Helena in the fourth century in a place that had been venerated since the first century.  She built a church there.  In the fifth century Justinian rebuilt and expanded the church.  It was spared the seventh century mass destruction of Christian shrines by invading Persians because of a representation of Persian nobles painted on the wall, an image of the Magi's visit to the child. 

We entered on the Orthodox side of the shrine.  The doorway shows several centuries of adaptations, the last being to make a very small entrance that one must lean down to enter.  Below the 5th century floor there is an opening showing the mosaic floor from Helena's 4th century church.  The church is elaborate, with many hanging lamps, dozens of icons, ancient mosaics and more stuff than you can look at.  We entered the tunnel that goes down into an old cave, now covered with tapestry, marble and icons.  In the floor to the right is a small alcove with a silver star on the floor.  In the center of the floor one can touch the rock of the bottom of the cave which is said to be the traditional spot of the birth of Jesus.  It is smooth to the touch from the veneration of thousands of pilgrims.  Just a few feet away is another cave, elaborately adorned, which is said to be the manger where Jesus was laid.  The scene was noisy, with lots of people being rushed through.  We followed a group of nearly 50 pilgrims from India.  They are used to jostling their way through crowds and did a much better job of elbowing their way to the front.  The curators of the shrine kept hurrying people, discouraging any lingering or pause.  We shuffled through the manger like cattle being taken to the next field.  It was hard to feel much sentiment.  Yet, that first Christmas was a crowded, anxious one, in an unhappy country under foreign occupation, a family displaced by a resented census.

A word about the circumstances of the Holy Family in that visit.  Luke's gospel says that the birth took place in a stable because there was no room in the "cataloma."  Elsewhere, the word "cataloma" is translated "upper room," as in the Last Supper.  (Early English Bibles translate the phrase "there was no room for the in the inn.)  There were no inns in first century Bethlehem.  Joseph was of the family of David, whose home is in Bethlehem.  When they were taken into the home of the relative who housed them, there was no room in the upper room, where all of the family slept, parents and children.  An upper room was an inappropriate place for the messy and ritually unclean business of birthing a child.  Many homes were built above a cave which served as a stable for the family's cattle.  Clearing a place in the stable would have been more appropriate, and about a clean as one could wish for in the day.  Jesus was born, like nearly every other baby in Bethlehem, not in the sleeping quarters of the family, but in the "basement" cave.

We exited the nativity site into a room where the Coptic Church is given a corner presence, with an altar (covered) and a handful of paintings and icons.  Then we went to the adjoining Roman Catholic Church on the site within the Church of the Nativity.

Okay.  I can't not say it.  But, the churches and shrines that we have visited that are administered by the Roman Catholic Church are all pretty awful.  The art, appointments, architecture, altars, and adornments are so disappointing and uninspiring that it makes your head shake.  Lovely locations, compelling history, ugly churches.  Thus endeth the rant.

Our final visit was to a shrine dedicated to the story of the announcement to the shepherds in the fields.  Again there is a pretty ugly Catholic Church placed at a location where there are several caves that most certainly served as livestock shelter, probably in the first century.  I learned that the shepherds "slept" in the entrance to the sheepfold, not by lying down, but by squatting in a manner that would allow their instant response to any threat.  Our guide ask us to notice that the gospel story says that the angel of the Lord "stood among them," as a singular presence in the midst of the shepherds.  Then it says the "Glory of the Lord shown around them."  The word is "shikana" (sp?) – the physical presence of God.  In the Hebrew biblical tradition God physical presence was something tangible that might come and might leave.  At the time of the Exile, the prophet Ezekiel narrates the Glory of the Lord leaving the Temple, pausing at the gate of the city, and departing from Israel.  Luke takes that tradition and tells the story of God's glory returning to dwell with God's people permanently in the person of Jesus.

We closed the day with some shopping at a market run by a cooperative of Christian Arab Palestinians.  Our guide told a story of one of them, Sister Frieta, a nun, who after the first Intefada, took widows and orphans from that conflict and taught them to sew to create stoles and vestments for priests.  The work grew to feed and support 600 families, she built three schools and one hospital.  My friend Charles Page tells a story of being at Sr. Frieta's little shop one day when some ugly Americans visited.  They were loud and rude, one commenting on the stinking Arabs, and another remarking on the ugly old woman.  (Sr. Frieta had one side of her face that drooped.)  Charles' blood began to boil, and Sr. Frieta shook her head at him and said, "Not your problem." 

After the offending group had left the shop, Sr. Frieta looked at Charles, and said, "You Americans are such a funny people.  So many of you take the Bible literally.  So few of you take the Bible seriously."

Tomorrow to the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, and the Old City of Jerusalem.



At 8:52 PM, Anonymous janetlgraige said...

Hi Lowell and All,

Shekhinah - the divine presence and feminine, too - something to do with the form of the Hebrew verb.

These are amazing histories and thought provoking readings.

Be safe!

Peace, Janet


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