Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Tracing Religious Origins

For starters, to Christians and almost everybody in my homeland, Malawi, the Holy Land of Israel is a Christian nation - period.

Well, maybe not completely wrong, but not right either. Sounds disturbing, right? But until you set your feet on the Holy Soils, the combination of Israel and Christianity shall remain a myth.

Figures and facts about Israel have it that the Middle East nation stands on a 21,643 square kilometre land with only 7 million inhabitants.

Seas and mountains spice up its looks on the northern part, while the south is Negev desert occupying the majority 65 percent of Israeli land.

Of the 7 million people, Christians make up a mere 1.5 percent, Muslims take up 15 percent, people without religion share four percent and the rest are Jews.

“Israel is a Jewish state,” reaffirms Ms. Mazal Renford, Director of Mount Carmel International Training Center (MCTC).

There begun my turning point. I arrived in Israel filled with my Malawian belief about this Holy Land – a Christian State.

I jetted in through the capital Tel Aviv but destined for MCTC in Haifa on Mount Carmel, some two hours by road out of the capital.

And here begun the trail for my religion.

Mount Carmel – God’s vineyard – is where the Biblical Elijah fought prophets of Bhar.

“This Mount is also dedicated to Virgin Mary,” Mr. Zvi Segal, a certified Tour Guide whetted my thirst to crave for more; minding that Virgin Mary is the anointed one – Mother to founder of Christianity – Jesus Christ.

It was my first trip out of Haifa after a week of tiring class work at MCTC. In the company of 26 colleagues, I was headed for Nazareth, Sea of Galilee and The River Jordan.

Haifa City is built right from the top of Mount Carmel all the way down to the lips of the Mediterranean Sea. A city on a slope!

Trip to Nazareth

As we descend Mount Carmel on a peaceful quiet Sabbath - Saturday - one thing runs through my mind – the Seventh day Adventist Church back home.

Which one is the true Sabbath? Saturday or Sunday? That could be a topic for another day, but Jews pray on Saturday and cities are completely deserted on this day.

I sat listening very keenly to the tour guide.

“Now we leave Haifa, precautions for the day. What should you do if you miss the group: Please call me,” explained the guide giving out his cell number.

“But why do you have to tell us that,” I quizzed.

“First, it’s Sabbath. There is no public transport,” explained Ms. Anna Andrachnik, our course director.

She went further: “My friend is a tour guide and every week she tells me stories of tourists getting lost so we wouldn’t want that.”

Israel is located in the Middle East bordered to the west by Mediterranean Sea and Egypt, east by Lebanon and Jordan and south lies dead sea and Negev desert.

It has been at war almost throughout its lifetime. That could be the other reason, I said to myself.

At exactly 9am we started climbing the Mount of lower Galilee towards the city of Nazareth – the largest Arab city of Israel.

Another surprise because being home to Virgin Mary, to me this must be a wholly Christian city.

Few minutes later: “this is where king Solomon died fighting, this is where this, this is where that,” too numerous to decode.

Just before Nazareth lies Yafia village - populated by mostly Muslims.

But according to Christians, this in where two of Jesus’ disciples – James and John – sons of Zebedee – were born. John was Jesus’ most loved disciple.

"We are approaching Nazareth," said Mr. Segal, the tour guide.

Next to Nazareth is a Jewish city with about 50,000 inhabitants. In a few minutes we turn into the street named after Pope John Paul the second following his visit in 1964. This is Nazareth.

Nothing peculiar on face value. To the right is the foot of Mount Pespith – the mount Jesus had to jump escaping from Jews who run after him.

In the Jewish religion Jesus is not the Messiah and they are still waiting for the Messiah to come.

“This is because they believed that the messiah was going to release them from the Roman bondage and Jesus did not.”

The city of Nazareth is the home for Jesus Mother Mary – the supposed mother of Christianity.

But today Nazareth is divided largely into Jewish and Muslim quoters while Christianity stands in dots mainly in the name of Greek Orthodox Church.

Off the tour coach in Nazareth, the weather is nice and sunny on this supposed winter Saturday.

“But take your coats. Take an umbrella or rain coat. My experience is that if you take an umbrella it doesn’t rain, if you don't take, it rains,” joked our guide.

“This is Nazareth,” he starts his narration as he opened his Bible. “Read John chapter 1 verse 45,” he advised.

The Spring of Mary

Our first stop was right where we disembarked, a stone structure linked to the spring where Mary used to draw water. Here tourists can touch water from the holly spring if they don’t have time to get closer to the mostly crowded actual site.

“This is called The Spring of Virgin Mary. But if you ask me is this water holly, I don't know but Virgin Mary used to get water here many years ago,” our guide explained.

By the way, so many bars in this Holly City. Is beer un-holly? Business for another day.

The place where the Actual Spring of Virgin Mary is, now lies the Greek Orthodox Church of Annunciation of Nazareth or St Gabriel Church.

This is where Angel Gabriel is believed to have announced to Virgin Mary of her conception to Son Jesus. When she heard that, she run home but this is not written in the Bible but in other religious books, according to our guide.

This is a church, but I saw Muslim women entering to pray. I was shocked. Why? I giggled.

“It’s allowed here. By the way, even Jews and Christians are allowed in a Mosque,” said the guide. That’s how far religions co-exist in Nazareth.

I entered St. Gabriel Church just to go see the actual place Virgin Mary met Angel Gabriel. As we took pictures of the well guarded site, a Muslim woman walks in kneeling and saying her prayers.

In no time we left the place, the main attraction of the City of Nazareth. Now, headed for a Mosque.

Unlike in the Greek Orthodox Church, only one person, a Muslim friend from Senegal was allowed beyond two meters on entry. He said his prayers for some time while we waited.

Next, now the Catholic Church of Annunciation. On top of it, is a light tower- apparently because Jesus said: “I am the light of the world?”

We still entered even if people were praying. You can imagine strangers taking pictures of you as you pray. I counted there were just about 50 in total including priests and the laity. I bet, I saw no suits.

As we walked a woman shouted: “Silence please. This is a holly place.” At this church is where the second Annunciation was made to Virgin Mary.

As you walk out you are greeted by the statue of Virgin Mary stepping on a snake to symbolise the correction of the first sin by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

This was at about noon, in no time, another sign of a unified Nazareth – church bells and Mosque sounds from all corners.

The Holy Nazareth, the home of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary. As we drive out of Nazareth, one thing brought me back home - traffic jam - so much so that a simple stretch of 300m took us half an hour. Too many tourists. Israel makes a good part of its forex from tourism.

Out to Galilee

Before reaching Galilee, is a small city of Cana where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding ceremony.

In fact, the city is still famous for weddings. Oh! As we drive, a wedding procession passes.

"People in fact still come to Cana to renew their marriage vows,” says our guide.

And now enter lower Galilee. This part of the country has always been over populated because of its rich alluvial soils that made it bread basket for not only Jerusalem, but the entire region.

After a few kilometres: Wow! The Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights on the east coast – initially part of Syria until 1966.

When Jesus was about 30 years old, he left Nazareth came over to Jordan where he was baptized by John. Then he started his mission through the Galilee.

We will get to river Jordan, but meanwhile, a stopover on Sea of Galilee became apparent and necessary. Approaching, it looked more of Shire River at Liwonde or Songwe in Karonga or Lake Chirwa from the Zomba side.

Closer, it looks like Lake Malawi from the Livingstonia beach in Salima. But our eyes were headed for The Church of Beatitudes. This is where Jesus started His ministry. The Sermon on the Mountain, his massage was called.

"Mathews 5 verses 1-10."

The mountain is topped by a Catholic chapel built in 1939 by the Franciscan Sisters with the support of the Italian ruler Mussolini.

The building which was constructed by the noted architect Antonio Barluzzi is full of numerical symbolism.  In front of the church, the symbols on the pavement represent Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, Charity, Faith and Temperance.  Inside the church hangs the cloak from Pope Paul VI's visit in 1964.

The top has a dome painted in gold to symbolise light of the heaven.

Time was not on our side we could barely touch the waters of Galilee because everyone's mind was tuned at Jordan for a Baptism.

The River Jordan

From the east coast of Galilee came around the Sea to head towards The River Jordan.

Oh! In a few minutes we cross the first part of Jordan River.

Am surprised! Search your dreams and tell of the kind of river you would imagine.

Probably wrong. Very small! The widest part of this revered river is 10m. The road we are on, separates Israel from Syria.

“We are about to reach the Baptismal site. I hope those of you who want to get baptized are ready."

We crossed The River Jordan for the second time now south of Galilee.

Arriving at the site, I counted more than twenty tour coaches.

"Welcome to Yardenit, the Baptismal site on Jordan River,” a plaque welcomed us inside.

Entering we found too many people on the queue, receiving white Baptismal gowns and bath towels. You don't enter the Holly Waters with your clothes. You go into a change room to put on the white cloth.

Deeping oneself into The River Jordan is an experience. As I did it, three Biblical stories run through my mind.

First, this is where Jesus was baptized, Naman the Syrian Army Chief of Staff deeped himself thrice to get cured of his skin disease and children of Israel became a nation after crossing these Holly Waters.

This is why River Jordan is called the place of transformation. We didn’t have the luxury of time as we had to drive two hours back to Haifa. We left after an hour of the baptismal.

Bon voyage, reads a plaque as we left the baptismal centre. But the Jesus story does not end on River Jordan. He died in Jerusalem. That's my next destination.

Trip to Golgotha

Just entering the city, songs of the Church of Central African Presbyterian (CCAP) women's guild echoed in my mind.

“Yerusalemu watsopano.” Just like to whole of Israel, Jerusalem is, in the mind of a Malawian Christian, simply a Christian city.

Completely wrong. Some 700, 000 people live here 70 percent of them Jews, 20 Muslims and 10 percent a combination of Christians and other beliefs.

In fact in Islam, Jerusalem is their third most Holy city because they have here Alaqsa Mosque which stands at a place where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Still, our tour of Jerusalem took the Christian route headed for Golgotha where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried.

Standing on Mount of Olives facing west, three main structures tell a Christian story. First, a Catholic Church built at the point where Jesus first stood to look at the old city of Jerusalem and proclaimed that this city will be destroyed. Second, Geth Semani (Getsemani). Two things are key here. Jesus wept and Judas Iscariot betrayed him at this same place.

On the other side is Mount Zion where Jesus had last supper with his disciples and Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified and buried.

We began our trail on steep slopes of Jerusalem to first stop at a place now Russian Orthodox Church. This is where Mary Magdalene met Jesus and recognised him as the promised one. She anointed his feet with olive oil before cleaning them with her own hair.

“Our next stop is Geth Semani,” our Jerusalem tour Guide Yoav Totem said to us.

Entering the brick wall, one thing greets you first - very old olive trees as old as Jesus’ years. Thereafter, is the Catholic Church built to preserve the very stone Jesus Christ sat on  as he wept knowing he will soon die. His tears and sweat turned into blood here.

We went into several other places of historical importance in Jerusalem but most hearts were tuned for what is now known as Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is Golgotha.

Initially, this place was out of the city because by Jewish tradition, crucification and grave sites were located out of cities but eventually Jerusalem grew and enveloped this place of Christian sorrow.

It is believed that it is at this same site where the scar of God’s first creation, Adam was traditionally buried. In Hebrew Golgotha mean scar.

“Now we have arrived here at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Inside there are two long queues,” said our Jerusalem guide.

One of the queues is to see and touch a stone that held Jesus’ Cross until he died nine hours later on that fateful Friday.

This queue was shorter and we persevered eventually managed to touch the place where he was nailed to the cross and stone that held his cross.

This place now stands in stunning Gold. From there is a place where His body was washed by Mary the mother and Mary Magdalene before the hurried burial.

“Jesus’ burial was hurried because Jews did not want it to coincide with their Sabbath which begins Friday 6pm,”explained our guide.

The curve where He was buried stands the most holy and a must touch. But we failed. There was a queue not equalled to any I have seen before, of course it reminded me of fuel troubles back home.

Jerusalem, the land all Christians want to see, a must-visit. Indeed, history favours those who write it, the Jews wrote it and Jerusalem is a Jewish City as is the Holy Land of Israel.—Zodiak Online

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0 #1 Godwe J 2011-11-22 15:04
Very good,educative, eye opener and well written story though writer needed to ask Muslims about Masjid Aqswa.To Muslims-neither in Jeruslem nor Isaac involved in sacrifice issue.

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