Recovering and Uncovering

First of all, thanks to all our well-wishers since our break-in a week ago.  We keep discovering little things that we want to use that are gone, and get angry again.  This morning (Monday), the VW dealer is installing the four parts of the door handle which the thieves wrecked in order to get into the van.

But we are back to our happy routine of van life, and it is so great to be cooking for ourselves again.

Here’s one last theft-related photo: we googled “Apple Computer Dealers” and found one called the R-Store a few miles away.  We took the subway and started following the blue dotted line on Lynnell’s phone.  But the store was not there!  About ten seconds before she took this picture, I confidently pronounced that the store must have moved, because there was no such place as #1 Whatever Street.  The facial expression is a re-enactment, but I promise I only moved maybe five feet for the picture.

John can't find the R-store on his phone!

A few days later, after careful application of sunscreen, and parking the van in a VERY SAFE SPOT, we spent four hours in the remarkably well-preserved Roman city of Pompeii.  It’s laid out on a grid, and 20,000 people lived there, although on August 24, the day Mount Vesuvius blew its top in CE 79, a lot of folks had evacuated.   After digging two meters of soil away, the wooden roofs were gone, but the walls, doors, windows, and floors were intact.

You could easily imagine someone ducking out this back door to go buy something for dinner.

Vesuvius and gate-shadow, Pompeii

And like a lot of city dwellers today, Pompeiians apparently bought, rather than cooked, most of their meals.  Here’s what Tour Guide author Rick Steves calls “a fast food place” that opens right onto the street:

food-to-go restaurant counter, , Pompeii

My sister, who in addition to being much younger than I am, arrived here long, long ago, sent me this picture after the blog post was published:


Pompeii was part of a network of multicultural cities and towns linked by the Globalization of the day, the Pax Romana.  Rome conquered, taxed, regulated, and pretty much made sure that the nations they ruled stayed peaceful for trade and travel.  Here was the deal Rome made: “Go ahead and have your own religions and foods.  Speak your languages.  But don’t try to separate yourself from the Empire.  You can sell your goods all over the world, and be able to buy things from far away.  We’re going to build a lot of roads (you’re welcome); aqueducts and canals (you’re welcome); and Temples (make sure you worship Caesar as well as whoever else you’ve got).  No walls on your borders unless we build them.  Be ready to send some young men to the other side of the world to fight barbarians.  That’s the deal.”

Young men could also make a name for themselves–and a lot of money if they were successful–in pro sports.  Gladiators lived in the cells around this huge training ground in Pompeii, and fought one another in the arena behind.  The modern Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj made these great cast bronze pieces to commemorate them.

Gladiator sculptures in ruins, Pompeii

And then, after the volcano spread the horrible cloud of death and concealment, Pompeii was gone.  The people passed into anonymity, and their carefully-built city was gone. Life is short, wrote the French poet H.-F. Amiel, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us along the way.  Be quick to love.  Make haste to be kind.  And the God of compassion will go with you.

Back in Rome, we ran into some brass cobblestones every once in awhile.  We would squat and read about the mostly Jewish people who had once lived in the houses we passed.  It was awfully sobering.  All the people named on these stones were arrested, mostly on March 21, 1944.  So close to the end of the war!  By May, all had been killed, mostly in Auschwitz, far to the north and east, though a few of them did not even get that far.  The DiConsiglio family lived here.  Some were hiding at their grandfather’s hardware store across the street. The German artist Günter Demnig has installed these and other Stumbling Stones, as he calls them, in Rome and elsewhere in Europe.

Memorial cobblestones of Roman jews

Jews first came here in 161 BCE, and their religion was admired throughout the Empire.  Unlike the violent, “degraded, and shameful practices” of the Romans (Tacitus, Annals), Jews had high ethical standards and a God whose name was too holy even to pronounce.  Plenty of “pagan” Romans converted to Judaism during that time.  The Jewish community flourished here in the Middle Ages, and scholars helped translate Arabic and Greek works into Latin.  There was a famous Talmud school.   When the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492, many came here, with no money, and were welcomed.  In other parts of Italy, they were turned away.  By 1555, however, the Pope ordered Jews into a ghetto, and forced them to wear yellow badges.  For the next three hundred years, there were more tolerant popes and less tolerant ones, and life for Jews in Rome could be comfortable and then suddenly precarious.  Besides being unwilling to convert to the state religion, Jews were also targets of suspicion because they were cosmopolitan, educated, and rootless.  Their rootlessness, of course, was the result of their having often had to relocate from whatever place they’d try to put down roots in.

80% of Italian Jews survived the Holocaust, mostly by hiding or emigrating, and some by having the good luck to be put in Italian internment camps, which often did not allow inmates to be shipped to the death camps.

The Jewish community in Rome today numbers about 25,000, according to a recent Ha’aretz article. Wikipedia says 45,000.  There are about fourteen synagogues in the city, though some are barely functional.

Not far from the DiConsiglio’s home are the ruins of the Colosseum where the Romans used to watch prisoners thrown to the lions, gladiators fighting to the death, and even mock naval battles.  They could put six feet of water in the place in short order.  It was sobering to read the placards describing how some combatants were ignited to add drama to the spectacle, and how Jewish and other slaves were put to work constructing the Colosseum.  Apparently a lot of the funds used to quarry and transport stone came from selling valuable objects stolen in the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

big man with tattoos, Colosseum

The bronze Stumbling Stones help us remember.  Maybe my favorite work of Roman art, though, was this statue (below) of a wayfaring stranger.  We saw it at a distance, and couldn’t help going up to see if there was a face under the hood.  Sure enough, there was, as well as wounds in feet and hands.  The inscription on the wall plaque comes from Jesus’ famous story about how people would be judged when, one day, they meet their Maker.   I was a stranger, and you took me in.


"I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

The Final Exam in Life, according to Jesus is: when you cared for ones who the world regards as unimportant, you were caring for me.  If they were sick, imprisoned, homeless, or lacking food or clothing, the way you treated them will reveal your spiritual quality.   How you treat your friends and family is important, sure, but the real test is something else.  Your faith in God is revealed in how you act toward people who aren’t going to repay you or make you famous or rich.

St. Francis put it another way: Preach the Gospel.  If necessary, use words.

The Five Stages Of Recovering From Having All Your Stuff Stolen

Five days ago, unknown jerks broke the door handle off our van and got in, grabbed all the luggage they could find, and drove off.  We had been parked in the lot of a big mall near the airport, getting Italian SIM cards for our phones.  It took longer than usual for the SIM cards to activate, and we went back to the van to get a couple things, talking about the weird message Lynnell had gotten about two purchases in Rome on her credit card.  We thought the mall wifi was hacked, but when we got to the car, we found out WE had been hacked.  Jacked.  Fracked.   Here’s where we had been parked.  Yeah, you’re right: the tree on the left covered the bad guys.  They just grabbed everything that was packed like luggage, which was pretty much all our stuff, minus the cooking gear and travel books.


I won’t bore you with the list of stuff we will never see again, but the police were very calm.  No, we can’t give you a form right now, but don’t worry, they told us, you can file your report any time in the next 90 days.  Don’t feel too bad, that mall doesn’t have very good security.  Go have a nice dinner with your family.  It was closing time, maybe 6:30 pm, and the officers were all going home.  Thanks, guys.

We were stunned and numb, walking aimlessly back to the mall and trying to decide what to do after visiting the precinct.  We were out by the airport, planning on putting the van in long-term parking and meeting our son Carter and daughter-in-law Jennifer who were joining us within the hour for a long weekend, getting away to Rome from rainy, cold London.  For a while, we thought it would be better to stay in a hotel near the airport, so we could have the van to drive to big box stores and buy new stuff.  We needed everything.

But we wisely decided to leave the van in a much more secure lot, near the po-po, and go meet Jen & Carter’s flight.

The next 24 hours we spent in their loving and efficient care, making lists, telling the story over and over, going through Kübler-Ross’ stages of loss:

  1. denial (doesn’t last long, looking at a very empty van with a broken door handle)
  2. anger (how dare they!)
  3. bargaining (OK, God, thanks for the lesson on impermanence, but no more, OK?)
  4. depression (let’s just go home to Minnesota.  I don’t want to see the Colosseum, I don’t want to have to find someone to fix the door, what else did they take?), and
  5. acceptance (Fine, dammit.  We’ll buy enough clothes for now, and toiletries, and I guess I can do without my precious laptop for three more months, and let’s sit down and change all the $%^&* passwords we can think of so the thieves can’t do more damage).

My “precious laptop” had been backed up pretty often to the “Cloud,” thanks to Breck’s google-doc system, but some documents and many photos from the last eight months are now just plain gone.  (Yes, we had also backed our computers up to a hard drive, but alas,  the thieves got the hard drive too–it was packed away in our luggage.) The best photos have been saved here, on this blog, which lives in the Cloud, too.  Meanwhile, our son Jackson, who was robbed four years ago in Minneapolis,  helped me remotely lock my computer, and walked me through creating backup systems I should have had in place before now.  He is a gem.  Here he is with our soon-to-be-daughter-in-law, Mackenzie:


And Lynnell and I are both fine.  Uninjured.  It’s just stuff and arrangements.  Lynnell said she had double-trauma: first, getting all her belongings stolen; then realizing she would have to go shopping, something she hates. But Jennifer, who is shopping-savvy and highly-organized, shepherded her through two big-box stores, Decathalon and H&M. and they managed to buy just about everything she needed (plus more!) in less than three hours.

Yesterday, we went to see an English-speaking doctor who wrote new prescriptions for the medications we had been carrying.  The appointment cost us $50, and the Rx were filled down the street in ten minutes for one-fourth the cost of what it would be in the USA.  We said goodbye to Carter and Jennifer, and I found a Big and Tall store with great stuff, and then bought some wedding bowties made in the back room of the shop.

Other than being shellshocked, really, we have had a great time.  The “kids” were so utterly sane and adult, so adept at finding amazing restaurants and patiently waiting in line for them (and it was worth it, just to savor the pasta).  They also love walking, and this is a great city for it.  We saw the Pope on Sunday, at St. Peter’s, in his white Popemobile, waving and encouraging the faithful to work for justice in the world and nurture their inner lives so they wouldn’t burn out.  Good advice for us, too.  We saw the Colosseum, which is bigger than I could have imagined, and its history is so gruesome.  We spent a long time in the Pantheon, which has been perfectly preserved for 1800+ years, and couldn’t get enough of that shaft of sunlight coming in through the circular opening at the top of the dome.


We took a slow walking tour of the ruins of the Roman Forum, and sat in the sun while the “kids” bought a very cool gift for someone back home who might be reading this.  We will be eternally grateful to these two for parenting us through our ordeal.


We will get around to writing about our four days in Istanbul.  Lynnell is giving me her laptop every morning, and I will find pictures from wikimedia to replace my stolen ones, and will properly cite my usage.  We might write about our two days in Figueres, Spain, where we learned that Salvador Dalí was an amazing artist and despicable human being.  Figueres was where we waited for our van to be ready at the VW dealer, after having flown from Istanbul to Barcelona to resume VanLife.

But Rome is a wonderful city, loud and full of tourists following guides, and full of monuments to the vanity of men who built maybe the greatest empire ever by systematically stealing from others and then building infrastructure that lasts for ages.


This is Nero: a paranoic, thief, bigot, liar, and very cruel, humorless man.  The pigeon and the graffito “Hi” made me smile.

Holy Week in the Eastern Mode

Unlike a Catholic or Protestant church, there are no pews, no booklets, no projection screens.  No announcements.  Lots of icons; fewer stained-glass windows.  We’re worshipping in the lands where Christianity was invented: the eastern end of the Roman Empire.  The Mediterranean world of flat bread, wine, and olive oil.  The great centers of faith were places like Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, where people spoke Greek.  Rome wasn’t even the capital of the Roman after Constantine gave up trying to defend it from Barbarians.   He moved the capital to Byzantium, which he named after himself.

For the past ten days, we’ve been taking part in a course at St. George’s Anglican College in Arab East Jerusalem.  With twelve others, mostly Americans, we’ve traced Jesus’ last week and explored the liturgies of six Orthodox branches of Christendom: Greek, Russian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian.

Communion of Saints Icon, Holy Saturday, Russian Orthodox church

The worship services we visited were a kind of dance between solo and ensemble.  On the one hand, a choir or two and a group of clergy follow the service: an ancient sequence of chants.  On the other hand, individual people come and go, taking care of spiritual business around the church.  So you see people quietly whispering a prayer in front of an icon, crossing themselves or kissing the painting.  You see people bowing and even prostrating themselves, like Muslims at prayer.  They light long, slender tapered candles and place them in bowls of sand.  Scott Gunn Candle woman(Photo credit below: Scott Gunn)

And then someone in silk vestments catches everyone’s attention by swinging a thurible full of incense, three times in each of three directions.  As the choral music swells, the celebrant, perhaps wearing a crown or a brocaded hood, sweeps out of the doors from the mostly-concealed sanctum, and redirects the chant in a booming voice.


In the picture below, the Armenian Patriarch prepares to wash the feet of his twelve bishops, humbling his otherwise very exalted self on Holy Thursday as Jesus did.

Armenian Patriarch will wash the feet of his twelve bishops

Virtually every member of the cast is male in an Orthodox liturgy, though at the Russian service, a nun carried the Patriarch’s staff when he was not using it.  I was struck by the sacred seriousness of everything, but despite all the formality and traditions, people seemed at home.  It was like going to grandma’s for Thanksgiving: you dress up a little more, and remember not to slouch, and it’s just the same as last year, but that doesn’t make it boring.

We were surprised at the number of folks filming the services on their cell phones.  A young deacon, when he wasn’t moving a lectern or carrying a candle, seemed to be documenting everything.  I wondered if he would use the film later to prepare for next year, when he’d have a bigger role.  We were in our own private devotional worlds, where the veil between the visible and Icon of St. Gerasimus in Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Jerusaleminvisible worlds is thinner than usual.  You look at Mary’s sad eyes in a painting, or close your own eyes and listen to the singing.  It’s all in a minor key, which makes the prayer seem more profound, despite the fact that you don’t know any Armenian or Russian.

Most of the walls and ceilings are covered with paintings or mosaics: pictures of bearded men and veiled women, most with haloes and carrying symbols of their own struggles with the selfish distractions and obsessions of life.  Prominent are the fathers and mothers of the early church who retreated to the desert, seeking enlightenment in poverty.  The faces aren’t looking at you, but they are watching over you, somehow. Scripture calls them the great cloud of witnesses.  They chanted these very melodies, five hundred, a thousand, and even fifteen hundred years ago, in walled cities and caves in the desert.  Some were severe zealots trembling before a harsh divine judge, but many were open-hearted healers of the sick, or drum-majors for justice.

On the left is the monastic guru St. Gerasimus, who left his wealthy parents in Lycia, Asia Minor, to seek a more honest and compassionate life in the desert.  He was said to have tamed a lion by extracting a thorn from its paw.

One of the most dramatic rituals of Orthodox Holy Week comes when the Greek Patriarch enters the tomb where the crucified Jesus was laid.  He emerges with a new fire, which is transferred by candles, Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 11.53.38 AMlamps, and lanterns to waiting congregations all over Jerusalem, and also flown by jet to Athens, Moscow, and the New World.  We learned that archaeologists believe it quite likely that this, or one of the tombs within a fifty-foot radius, was the resting place of Jesus.  Here is the Holy Fire just after it arrived in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral a mile west of where it was kindled.

Compared to our westernized worship, the Orthodox are much more into the sacredness of beauty.  More interested in mystery than belief.  They are swimming in spirituality.

For me, the point of Holy Week is that by following the actions of Jesus and his followers closely, I can better understand why he didn’t flinch from a fate I am sure he knew was coming.  If God could take on human form, Huston Smith once wrote, this is what God would look like:

  • a suffering servant, to whom no one was too lowly to care for
  • a critic of the empires that worship wealth, violence, and dominance
  • a spiritual doctor of paradoxical wisdom who unerringly seemed to know when prescriptions of yin or yang were indicated.

Jesus accepted the phony trials, the mob’s braying, and Pontius Pilate’s cynical hand-washing gesture.  And a few days after dying, he began appearing in some strange new form, a resurrected being.  He had been divine, after all.  An icon.

This week has confirmed my intuition that something very mysterious and inspiring happened.  Before that, resurrection had just been a theory: at the end of time, God will reunite bodies and souls.  Hundreds and soon thousands of people became convinced that Jesus’ teaching, healing, and passion were, in fact, a vision of the eternal goodness, truth, and beauty of The One in whose image we are made.

At its best, religion gives us windows that help us see that One.  Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism parted company a thousand years ago.  It was really political, although there were church matters at stake: Latin or vernacular?  Pope or Councils?  Filioque or not?

They quit looking THROUGH the windows.  All they could manage was to look AT each other’s windows.  Or to use one of Jesus’ best metaphors, they complained about the speck in the other’s eye, ignoring the log in their own.

It’s been eye-opening for me to come to the East and look through some ancient windows which are new to me.

LM inside Christ Anglican Church, Nazareth

Lynnell and I met at Christ Church, Detroit in 1983.  We took this picture two weeks ago at our sister parish, Christ Church, Nazareth–Jesus’ home town–34 years later.


This Year In Jerusalem

At the end of Passover seders all around the world, Jews express a fond hope: “Next year in Jerusalem.”  This is not, I have recently learned, a geographical aspiration.  It is a spiritual vow: may we find ourselves a year from today in peace, living with integrity with our neighbors.  My friend Rabbi Avi Olitzky told the kids at Breck a few years ago, don’t think that Passover is just about how ‘we were once slaves, but now we’re free.’  There is a part of each of us that’s Pharaoh, too.  

Wise words for a financially-fortunate, white, Christian, American, heterosexual couple in good health to ponder as the moon reaches full this Passover.

Just because you are in Jerusalem, the holiest of cities, does not mean you’ve arrived.  Jews living here don’t say anything different at the end of the meal.  They, too, say “Next year,” because “Jerusalem” refers to a state of shalom, peace, nirvana, or wholeness that, Lord knows, is not yet here.

Walking home from dinner last night at St. George’s Anglican College in the Holy City, I snapped this photo of the Passover Moon:

Passover Moon

Lynnell and I are taking a ten-day course at St. George’s called “Easter Fire,” referring to the tradition of kindling a new flame on the eve of Easter in churches all over the world.  By coincidence, Passover, Orthodox Easter, and Western Easter all fall in the same week this year.  Every day, our group of thirteen pilgrims from the US, Canada, and Australia visits several sacred places in or near Jerusalem to get a clearer sense of the meaning of Jesus’ life, teachings, healings, death, and resurrection.

Today, for example, we visited the place of his baptism, and saw these two white doves:

Flying Doves at Jordan Baptism Site (Israel Side)

We renewed our own baptismal vows, promising to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to persevere in resisting evil, and to work for peace and justice in the world.  All very sobering vows.  Later we sat in silence atop this mountain in the desert above Jericho.  Our Chaplain reminded us that the prophet Elijah had found refuge in a cave right here, before traveling to the mountain where he heard the “still, small voice” of God.  Another translation calls it “the sound of sheer silence.”  Jesus also sought the quiet of the desert in these hills, trying to make sense of his vision of a dove coming down on him at his baptism, and a voice calling him “Beloved Son.”  We only had a half hour, but we looked down on cliffside caves, huts, and a modern monastery where for 1700 years monks and nuns have sought the voice of God by fleeing the noise of daily life.   I felt serene and wise until a pushy teenager who’d pestered us on the hike up the hill mocked the way I told him “no thank you.”  He was having a bad day, I guess, frustrated at not selling anything.  Jesus wouldn’t have laughed at him like I did.

Yesterday, we climbed up and down the Mount of Olives with thousands of others recreating Palm Sunday, passing this Jewish cemetery along the way.  Visitors leave stones instead of flowers, honoring the dead.

Jewish Cemetery on Mount of Olives Facing Dome of the Rock Shrine, Palm Sunday

We got to the bottom of that steep hill and then began climbing again, through a Muslim cemetery.  Since the Messiah is expected to take this very path, being resurrected on the last day on the slopes below the Holy City puts you at the front of the line!  Our Palm Sunday procession ended up at the Lions’ Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.

St. Stephen's or Lion's Gate, Jerusalem's East Side

The day before, we had paraded from a church in Bethany, a couple miles east of Jerusalem, to the tomb of Lazarus, a tiny passageway into a stone tomb too claustrophobic-sounding for us.  These boys had a good perch, though, and we had a great cup of Arabic coffee while waiting for our braver fellow pilgrims to enter and emerge.

Boys above Processional Crowd at Lazarus' Tomb below the Separation Wall

The Separation Wall is visible above the white car at the far right, up the hill.  A guy who works at the college used to have a ten-minute commute from this town.  Because of the Wall and checkpoints, it now takes him an hour on a good day, and two hours a few times a month.

The day before that, before our course started at St. George’s, Lynnell and I paid a visit to Christ Anglican Church in Nazareth, an historic Palestinian Christian center of education and worship which was once the sister parish of our own Christ Church Detroit.  We had coffee with Fr. Nael, and I snapped this picture from behind the altar.

Celebrant's View of Christ Church, Nazareth

We also visited a replica (below) of the synagogue of Jesus’ youth in Nazareth.  In those days, synagogues were more community gathering places than houses of worship.  That role was played by the grand Temple in Jerusalem, recently expanded by King Herod.  But within a couple of generations of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jewish rebellions against oppressive Roman rule led to the catastrophic destruction of that Temple in 70 CE; and synagogues like this one took on the role of housing prayer, study, and celebration for Jewish communities all over the world.  Here some Christian pilgrims from Hong Kong heard about Jesus’ first public preaching in his hometown.  He didn’t win any converts.  In fact, his neighbors, having known him since infancy, didn’t buy his new role as rabbi, healer, and prophet.  He didn’t call himself Messiah quite yet, but that would have really angered them.

Model of Nazareth Synagogue

In Nazareth, we stayed in this guest house, called al-Mutran in honor of the Arabic word for Bishop, whose house is next door.  The Old City of Nazareth is full of great cuisine, amazing churches and mosques, and not nearly enough tourists.

View from guest parlor, al-Mutran Guest House, Nazareth


February and March in Pictures

You can see captions by hovering your cursor or clicking on each photo.  Most of these pictures haven’t been in the blog yet.  Thanks to our loyal readers.  Four Months To Go!

Crushed: one picture and 500 words

After lunch in Safed, the world capital of Kabbalah and for the 60’s and 70’s the Israeli art capital, Lynnell lingered at the table and read history and I went for a walk in the spring rain. We’d been talking about how Safed seemed cursed with instability. (thanks to Wikipedia and the Lonely Planet Guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories)

1099 The Muslim town of Safed captured by Crusaders; many killed.

1188 Saladin beseiged Safed for a year, then retook it from the Crusaders.  Christians were given safe passage to Tyre, on South Lebanon coast.  Safed’s walls knocked down 50 years later so Crusaders wouldn’t want it back, but…

1240 Christians got it back, and rebuilt the walls, but…in

1266 the Muslims retook Safed and didn’t destroy anything so if the Christians come back it would be harder to capture.

The Christians didn’t come back.

1500’s Jews, especially those expelled from Catholic Spain, began arriving in significant numbers and made Safed a world center of Jewish learning and book publishing.  Now ruled by Ottomans, Safed was about 25% Jewish.

1628 Safed conquered by a Druze army (a minority sect related to just about every religion you can think of in this part of the world).  In 1633 the Ottomans got it back.  In 1660 the Druze destroyed it, and very few Jews came back to rebuild.

1700’s plagues and earthquakes

1800’s Russian and Lithuanian Jews came, fleeing pogroms. Egyptians took over Palestine, but Safed’s Arabs resisted, and looted most Jewish homes in 1834.  The ones who remained had their hillside homes flattened by an earthquake three years later.  More plagues followed, plus Druze looted Muslim and Jewish houses just after they were rebuilt.

In 1917, the British defeated the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and made contradictory promises to Jews, Arabs, and (secretly) France about the future of the Middle East.  The first British census of Safed found 60% Muslims and 33% Jews, the rest being Christian, Druze, and Other.

Anti-Jewish riots in 1929 left 20 Jews dead in Safed.

In 1948, Jewish forces drove the Arab majority out of town, including the family of Mahmoud Abbas, the current President of the Palestinian Authority.  Since the declaration of the independent state of Israel, Safed’s been just about 100% Jewish.

As I walked around in the cold drizzle, I kept ducking into galleries.  The biggest gallery was in a decommissioned mosque.  The crescent had been removed from the spire, but an elegant quotation from the Quran remained, carved over the main doors.  Off to the right was what first appeared to be a whimsical, almost cartoonish sculpture (below).  Sandwiched between what seemed to me like the heavy stone blocks of the history we’d been reading are pale human figures.  Like beads on a merchant’s abacus, they get shuttled back and forth as he rings up a sum.  But when the abacus is upturned, the beads, people, and cubes become skewers (we had had kebab for lunch).  And the people are crushed.


I’m not sure whether the artist meant them to represent various generations of Jews in particular.  He or she (there was no label) might have been depicting just the people of this hilltop town or maybe all of us.  The blocks of stone might symbolize any of the oppressions that bear down on us, and the abacus itself could belong to any bean-counter, heavenly or demonic.  Safed has become once again a center of Jewish mysticism, and the deeds of G-d, angels, and Satan himself are all the subject of imagination.

The Western Wall

Our great Minneapolis friend Phil Freshman told us last year: when we get to Jerusalem, we have to tour the underground tunnels which uncover parts of the famed Western Wall.  He had taken part in some similar archaeology on the Southern Wall, near David’s City, uncovering 3000+ year-old Jerusalem.

A lost passport (mine) meant a morning of searching and then gathering materials to get a new one, so I missed the tour of Hebron which Lynnell is now writing about.  But after a delicious lunch, I joined a group of maybe twenty tourists to see the web of chambers whose arched ceilings hold up the Muslim Quarter.

We walked down a ramp which gradually put us twenty or thirty feet underground, which is the way these things work: cities keep building up layers so that two thousand years ago is a couple of stories down, and three thousand is buried deeper still.  Wall Tunnel Tour: Solomon's TempleKing Solomon built the first Temple around 950 BCE, on the second-highest ground in Jerusalem, a mountain believed to be Mt. Moriah (where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son) and for awhile also called Mt. Zion.  Our tour guide showed us this model.

She then pointed to a thick window built into the floor, through which we could see workers doing something down at the level of that very same first temple.

A very modest second temple was built after the Babylonian captivity in 519 BCE,.

Then she pulled up another model, showing how King Herod prepared the site for a grand expansion of the second Temple in the first century BCE.  He spent 46 years all told, and raised huge sums of money by taxing his subjects.  He also built a huge palace for himself.  Our guide wryly observed that since he had no army (puppet kings don’t get to conquer), and was obsessed with his reputation, he built large monuments with his name all over them.

Wall Tunnel Tour: Herod flattens the Temple Mount

So, atop this newly-flattened mountaintop, Herod The Great built a wonder of the world, with retaining walls all around.  Unlike a lot of walls in this part of the world, this one was all about support, rather than separation or defense.

The western wall still sits on the bedrock made from stones bigger than a 1960 Buick.  The photo below is from a model of Jerusalem, 63 CE, at Yad Vashem.  The whole plaza depends on those big stones, which neither earthquakes nor erosion nor thieves looking for building materials have budged.

Model of Jerusalem, 63 CE

About a hundred yards of the Western Wall are now visible.  It’s the holiest Jewish Place in the world.  We’ve visited it a couple of times already, as did this group of cute Orthodox boys celebrating the occasion of receiving their first prayer books at the age of six or seven:

Kids on a siddur party

The invisible part of the Western Wall is a lot bigger.  It lies half-buried below the Muslim Quarter of Old Jerusalem.  Our friend Phil and thousands of amateur and professional archaeologists have uncovered the whole length of the Wall, and the woman below took a moment to pray, perhaps 50 yards from where the Holy of Holies used to be.

Praying at the Western Wall under the Muslim Quarter

When Muslims took over Jerusalem not too long after Muhammad’s death, they restored what the Romans had destroyed.  With a massive engineering effort, they built a new neighborhood on top of hundreds of stone arches and then put the most beautiful building in Jerusalem on the plaza: The Dome of the Rock.

Wall Tunnel Tour: Dome of the Rock

The Dome of The Rock still rises above the Western Wall, where we joined hundreds of mostly-Jewish worshippers, many putting folded paper prayers into the cracks between the two thousand year-old limestone blocks.


So we send you all our greetings from Jerusalem, known in Arabic as al-Quds, The Holy City, where Abraham, David, Mary and her son Jesus, and Muhammad all encountered God as a living presence.  Wikipedia defines Jerusalem syndrome as “a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem.”  Fortunately, we don’t seem to be obsessing, delusional, or psychotic so far.

Quite the contrary, we’ve been having a wonderful but exhausting time.  Tomorrow morning, we take a rental car north to Haifa, Acre, Capernaum, and Nazareth: the greener country of Galilee.  We’ll be looking at Baha’i, Jewish, Muslim, and especially Christian places–more trees than rivers, once again–before returning to Jerusalem for the confluence of Western and Eastern Christian Holy Week and Passover.

We will be taking a course together here at St. George’s Anglican College in mostly-Arab East Jerusalem called Easter Fire, in honor of the new flame kindled on the vigil celebrating Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  We’ll be retracing his steps and those of his Apostles 2000 years ago when the Western Wall still stood as a majestic foundation of worship of the God whose Oneness seems way too hard for us mortals to imitate.  It’s a wall of support and strength, a foundation wall mostly buried underground.

Lynnell took today’s last photo a few days ago.  It’s a poster on the Palestinian side of a much less holy western wall, the separation wall in Bethlehem:

What unites human beings is huge and wonderful and what divides human beings is small and mean