We were up early today and on the road at 7 am. First stop? The Temple Mount, also known as Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to offer his son Isaac. This is where Solomon erected his temple, which the Babylonians destroyed; and then the temple of Ezra, substantially rebuilt by King Herod, which was finally completed in AD 65, only to be destroyed with fury by the Romans five years later.
As our bus ascended the hill, we could see all the graves buried nearby, facing east in anticipation of the Messiah's coming. We "de-couched" (a word our driver coined) and passed through the "Dung Gate, and then climbed further by foot. As you approach the security checkpoint, you see lots of things reminding you the Israelis are in charge; then when you go across a kind of bridge, with people praying at the Western ("Wailing") Wall below, and then reach the summit, you pass into a Muslim area. A sign warns observant Jews that, according to the chief rabbinical authority, they must not go up to the top. Why? Because certain areas of the temple were off limits to any but the priests; and now, no one knows for sure where the dividing line is. So while nothing legally prevents Jews from coming here, I saw no yamulkes or prayer shawls.
What we did see were the two mosques built when the Muslims gained control in the 7th centuries. Their doors were shut. As we the Dome of the Rock--which is pretty much where the Holy of Holies was--to our right was the Kidron Valley, and beyond that, the Mount of Olives, where our Lord prayed the night before he died. We could see several churches built there, one with brilliant gold onion domes typical of Eastern churches. To our left, the guide pointed out where Calvary was. If indeed the spot, it was a good choice for the Romans: a high point, where crucified enemies of the state would provide a warning to any who might resist Rome.
There was a lovely fountain, with a pool, but with very little water. Around the base of it were a series of spigots. I meant to ask if that was for Muslims to wash their feet before entering the mosques.
From there, we passed down into a cramped, old neighborhood, and found our way to the Western Wall. Here again, as far as I know, anyone can come here to pray. Yet, while there were many Jews, the priests I was traveling with--about 30--and some other pilgrims I can't classify--our guide told us he didn't think Muslims came here. "They will go up to the top."
Of the many Jews praying there, many were Hasidic--they are the ones who wear a hat on top of their skullcaps. Here's why (according to our guide). To wear no hat is a sign of freedom--hence a passage of the Old Testament speaks of God's People leaving Egypt with their heads uncovered. So for Jewish men to cover their heads is a sign of their commitment to God. That's the reason for the yamulke. So why a second hat? Because in Eastern Europe--where many of the Hasidic Jews originated--they would be required to tip their hats to dignitaries. So to honor the secular power and the Divinity, they have two hats.
I confess, one of my overriding thoughts since arriving here was, "don't say or do the wrong thing" toward the Muslims and the Jews. All I needed--all the Archbishop needed!--was for a phone call home about my causing some inter-religious, international incident! So what do you avoid saying, or doing, if you don't know what the wrong thing might be? You don't say anything; and you don't go near people! Still, I had some questions.
Happily, there was a boy I'd guess around 13 (the men and women pray in separate sections) was talking to some tourists I guessed from China, even letting them take pictures with his hat! So I surmised no offense would be given if I asked him a question. I'd noticed how the Jewish men would tie a band around their arm, to hold a box with a verse of scripture inside against their skin; and while most of them did it on their left arm, a few did it on their right. Why? The young man explained that it was supposed to go on one's weaker arm: so a leftie wrapped it on his right arm.
A nice custom you may have heard of is that anyone can write a prayer and insert the paper between the stones. As you face the wall, you can see quite a lot of little wads of paper wedged into various crevices. I wonder what happens to them? I had come with my own paper, and I stepped up and found a place.
We'd been told not to bring Rosaries or prayer books, so I didn't have my breviary with me. Too bad! As I stood there, I thought of several psalms to pray. I have several I've memorized, including Psalm 24, which I thought was a good one. Yet, even though I've prayed that psalm by memory for many years, at the moment, I couldn't bring it to mind. Later, when I had my breviary, I looked it up to remind me of the words that escaped me:
"Who can climb the mountain of the Lord? Who can stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things, who has not sworn so as to deceive his neighbor."
After this, we toured some of the excavations around the temple area, finding our way down to one spot where we were at what was street level in our Lord's time. In fact, a section of the street had been cleared. It was a fine street--narrow by our standards, made with the same white stone that was quarried from the hills on which we stood, and which built the temple walls that towered over us. Yet the street was not flat, but caved in. What could explain this? "That's the result of these stones being hurled down from above by the Romans" in AD 70, our guide explained--when, after crushing the Jewish rebellion, destroyed the temple. And just a bit further was a huge mound of these stones, exactly where they'd fallen. I sat awhile to contemplate that scene, predicted by our Lord.
Then we walked around to what was a monumental staircase coming up from the south. A section of it is still there, in quite good condition. Part of it, however, is covered up by what was a palace of one of the sultans. Our guide explained that in this area, in the era of the temple, there were a number of pools built. These were for ritual bathing, before Jewish pilgrims would ascend to pray in the temple. And he reminded us that when the Apostles received the Holy Spirit, Peter preached to many of the pilgrims, and 3,000 were baptized that day. They must have been baptized in those pools, he said, because there was no where else for that to have happened. Which means, we were standing where Peter and the Apostles stood that first Pentecost.
Back to the bus and off to the Church of Saint Ann, situated hard by the pool of Bethesda, where our Lord healed a paralyzed man. The pools are still there, but not much water. The church, built by the Crusaders and used as a Muslim school for a time, was reconsecrated after the French helped the Ottoman Empire in the Crimean War--hence the French flag flying over it. There, our group of priests, from three continents, concelebrated Mass almost entirely in Latin (the readings were English or Spanish).
After lunch, we had a siesta (we needed it!), then a visit with the auxiliary bishop for the Latin Patriarchate (you'll have to look that one up--I'm using my laptop battery to write this), after which prayer, dinner, and a talk about our plans for the next few days. Tomorrow it's Bethlehem; then Galilee for several days.