Voices from Godland, Episode 3: The annunciation in Nazareth

To speak of Nazareth evokes images of the New Testament and of centuries past. There’s the angel Gabriel coming to visit Mary, and of Jesus growing up. But Nazareth today is a modern city, in the heart of Israel. Every day, pilgrims from around the world come to the site to continue searching for meaning in the life of Christ. That search, while deeply personal, can also suggest of broader different ways for reaching peace in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.


Voices from Godland introduces listeners to the Holy Land through the eyes of the people who worship there — pilgrims and religious gatekeepers. Episodes highlight the human voices of holy sites, explore the relationship between place and faith, and commemorate the religious experience. Listen on Soundcloud or in the iTunes podcast app.


The terrible dizziness of approaching the divine Al-Aqsa

JERUSALEM — When Ali Abu Al-Awar speaks of what Jews call the Temple Mount and what Muslims call al-Haram al-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”), reams of history spool out. Here memories from the distant past and the nearly present co-habituate cautiously, both possessing equal merit. There are memories of Israeli military forces from 1967 spreading out over the plaza and crying in exultation, “Har HaBayit BeYadeinu!” — “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” Very close by is Al-Ghazali, the 12th century Muslim theologian, leading a study group on the reconciliation of legalistic and mystical Islam and underneath an olive tree writing his Revival of the Religious Sciences. From Al-Awar’s mouth, the Haram comes alive, teeming both with the conflicts that have defined Jerusalem’s strife alongside the spiritual truths that make this city transcendent.

As we followed Al-Awar to the Haram, we passed a Muslim cemetery where the old Arabic stones crowd one another, vying for recognition when the final judgment comes. Across the Mount of Olives, we could see the adjacent Jewish cemetery, a reminder that the faiths which live in Jerusalem all believe in the resurrection of the body, an apocalyptical tradition centered around the Temple Mount as a site of ascension.

Throughout the Muslim cemetery are green coffins with the words sadaqa jarya or “the only things that stay are good works.” When a Muslim dies, coffins are used as a transport from the mosque to the burial site, but not put in the ground. The presence of them around the cemetery points to the Haram as an active Muslim site, while the Jewish cemetery across the way remains quiet.

As we entered the Lion’s Gate, we were greeted by yet another guide, Ahmad Abu-Hadid, who has been ushering tourists and dignitaries through the site for 30 years. Abu-Hadid quickly condensed into a few minutes some 1,300 years of the site’s Muslim history, from the construction of the Dome of the Rock under the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691 C.E. to the Jordanian government gaining access and control of the Haram in 1951. The Haram is a vast plaza, with minarets on three sides, the Dome of the Rock in the center, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the furthermost south, the third holiest mosque in Islam after Mecca and Medina. While the women of our group put on long loose skirts offered by the waqf, the Islamic religious trust in cooperation with the Jordanians who control access to the Haram, school children nearby played volleyball and old men sat under trees drinking tea.

The serenity of this Saturday morning proved to be deceptive as Al-Awar explained attempts by right-wing Jews to bomb the Dome of the Rock and the continued attempt by fundamentalist Jews to assert their presence on the Mount, and their dream of destroying the Muslims sites and building a third temple.

“There is a fear of violence, a constant fear of Muslims losing control here,” Al-Awar said as we meandered around the Dome and towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque. To counteract these provocations Muslim citizen groups called Murabitin (for men) and Murabitat (for women) were formed in 2010 to safeguard the Haram. From Sunday to Thursday, they sit in circles studying Islamic thought, on guard for those seeking to undermine the status quo, the latest governmental iteration of which says only Muslims can pray on the Haram but tourists of other faiths can visit.

Even in the midst of these tensions, the Haram acts as a great source of unity for those of the Islamic faith in their connection to their religion and their God. Muslims from all over the world flock to the site, seen as the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven, to meet the prophets and speak with God. The Dome glittered magnificently on this cloudless day, as the sun beat down and the devout recited late morning prayers.

As my classmates were ushered into the Dome of the Rock for a brief visit, I was unable to join them because I was overcome by a terrible dizziness. One could say it was dehydration or the overwhelming feeling of approaching the divine. At a place like this, no one ever really knows.

Photos from day 7:


To kiss a cloud of witnesses: Icons on the Lower East Side

NEW YORK — The first thing Maggie Downham does when she enters the inner sanctuary of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection is kiss the icons.

Encased in a simple wooden frame on a pillar directly in front of the iconostasis, the wall separating the nave from the altar, is the icon of the day.

Downham stands before the small table propping up the image and makes the sign of the cross. Three fingers to the forehead, brought down to the stomach, taken over to the right shoulder and then to the left. She bows with her waist, her right hand open and touches the carpeted floor. Rising back to her upward position, she gently touches the contours of the icon and kisses first the feet and then the hands of the subject.

“The icon represents the presence of the sainthood, of a cloud of witnesses,” she said.

Icons can vary in length – the two-dimensional paintings plastered onto the iconostasis stretch upwards of several feet – but this one is the size of a framed family photo. It does contain a family of sorts. Beneath the glass, with the light of the surrounding candles flickering off its golden-hued glint, are dozens upon dozens of figures with haloes. In the center is a Russian Orthodox cross with its three crossbeams, and the background is filled with the domes of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. Its title: “Russian martyrs of the Soviet era.”

Once Downham has finished, she drifts off to the outer reaches of the church, repeating her metania, the series of prostration described above, before kissing other icons.

“We have a personal devotion to particular saints,” she said. “I try to center myself in front of the Virgin. But as I walk around, I go to whatever icon I feel connected with.”

The veneration of icons is considered by Eastern Orthodox Christians as a form of prayer and a conduit to deeper forms of spiritual reality.

“When worshippers pray in front of an icon, fundamentally they are looking at a mirror of themselves because we all share in the image of Christ,” said Richard Schneider, professor of iconology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers.

Icons have been central to the Christian imagination since at least the third century C.E. Yet throughout the early centuries of Christianity, there was constant tension between the distinction of venerating an icon or actually worshipping it.

“We don’t worship icons. They’re representations, like sermons. They open up to us understanding of the mystery. Because you also arrange them in the church, that order reveals a theology and a point about time,” Schneider said.

The icon of each day is pegged to the Orthodox liturgical calendar which typically celebrates the feast days of different saints. This cycle of change is contrasted with the plastered icons on the iconostasis, images which remain unchanging and eternal.

For Juliana Federoff, icons act as reminders.

“Icons are the connecting point between my worship on the weekend in the church and during the week at home. In both places I’m surrounded by them, and they help me understand life itself as worship to God.”

Even though Downham tends to venerate the icons near the beginning of the service, many will wander towards the images during other parts of the service.

This is because behavior at Orthodox services is much less scripted. “It’s strangely loose. It’s very respectful, but it doesn’t have a rigidity to it,” Schneider said.

Given the central role of icons in Orthodox worship – of how the images are touched, kissed, nudged, and felt – there aren’t many from Byzantine times and most in circulation were created in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But Schneider is okay with the predicament.

“There’s a lot of competition between churches and museums about who gets to keep the icons. The curators say they’ll get ruined, they’re kissed all the time and candles are burning. But icons are like people. They’re born, they flourish, and they die. Just like people.”