VIDEO: What People In Jerusalem Wish For


When the news talks about the people of Jerusalem, it’s usually to highlight their differences. While those certainly exist, there’s more to it than that. People all have their own opinions and priorities and the folks living in Jerusalem are no exception. In this video, a group of Jerusalem residents are asked all the same question: if you had one wish, what would you wish for?

Their answers are surprising, and cut across religious, political and ethnic lines. There doesn’t seem to be any agenda to this video, as the divisive comments (some quite nasty) are left in along with the heartwarming ones. Naturally, many address the big issues, while some are tied up in their own affairs. This reflects my own experiences in Israel, where people range from good to bad to just plain ugly.

But mostly good, and that’s important to remember.

Visiting The Christian Community In Iraq

Christian Community in Iraq, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
Before Iraq was conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century, it was one of the oldest centers of Christianity in the world. Even after the Arab conquest, Christians made up a sizable minority of the population – sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted, but always surviving.

Now it’s facing its biggest threat in centuries.

The Christian Community in Iraq is a lot smaller than it was in 2003 when the Coalition invaded. During the occupation, radical Muslims claimed the Christians were helping the invaders and used this as an excuse to attack them. Churches and shops were bombed and individual Christians were murdered or told to leave on pain of death.

In an interview with the BBC, the priest at St Joseph’s Chaldean Church in Baghdad said that in the past nine years his parish has shrunk from 1,200 families to 300. The New York Times reports that before the war the Christian population was estimated to be as high as 1.4 million, and has now dropped to less than 500,000.

I met few Christians in my 17 days in Iraq other than some shopkeepers and the owners of a liquor store when I went on a beer run in Basra. I was anxious to see some of the early medieval centers of Christianity that make the country so important to Church history. The Christian community in Iraq is splintered into more than a dozen different churches, including the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and many more. Many of their rites and beliefs are from a markedly different religious tradition than what we are familiar with in the West.

Above is a photo of the entrance to Mar Mattai monastery, run by the Syrian Orthodox Church. Located in Kurdistan in the far north of the country, it sits on the slopes of Mt. Maqloub. It was founded in 363 A.D. by the Saint Mar Mattai and is thus one of the oldest monasteries in existence.

Much of the monastery is modern, with a few crumbling ruins dotting the slopes to hint at its long history. The assistant abbot welcomed us in careful, practiced English and told us how the saint converted Prince Behnam and Princess Sarah from paganism to Christianity. Sarah had been suffering from leprosy and was miraculously cured after her conversion.

%Gallery-172437%When their father King Senchareb found out, he had them put to death. He soon regretted his act, became a Christian himself, and as penance built Mar Behnam Monastery.

This monastery is much better preserved. Its stone interior is intricately carved in the style of the Atabek Emirate, which lasted from the 11th to the 13th centuries before being wiped out by the Mongols. The style is a strange one: a sort of mix of Turkish design with Christian symbolism and elements from ancient Assyrian art. See the gallery for some images, and there are more at this site. St. Behnam monastery survived the Mongol invasion and even managed to make a few converts. Some of the inscriptions in the crypt are in Mongolian.

Christian community in Iraq, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelWalking through these two monasteries I could feel the absence left by the departure of so many from the community. We saw almost no one, and the monasteries felt more like museums than places of worship. Perhaps we just went on quiet days. Both are centers for pilgrimage, though, so I was hoping to meet and talk with pilgrims like I had at the Shia holy places. But it was not to be.

While the situation for Christians, indeed all Iraqis, has calmed down considerably in the past couple of years, the persecutions continue. Iraq has broken down along sectarian lines, with Sunni and Shia Muslims fighting it out and Christians being targeted by radical Muslims.

Being such a small minority, it’s difficult for the Christian community to defend itself. Government soldiers and police guard churches and monasteries, and man checkpoints at the edges of Christian neighborhoods, but as with sectarian attacks against Muslims, the terrorists often find a way to hit their targets.

There’s hope, though. As we studied the inscriptions in the crypt of St. Behnam’s monastery, I noticed our guide and one of our guards, both Muslims, lighting candles. I went over to the guide, who I knew to be a devout Shia, and asked him why he was lighting candles in a Christian holy spot.

“In my office there are a lot of Christian women. They asked me to light candles for them,” he replied as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

This man, who went off to pray every time we visited a mosque, saw no conflict with his faith in doing this or with working with Christian women. If his tolerance can become common enough to push out the intolerant radicals, the Christian community in Iraq may survive after all.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Kurdistan: The Other Iraq!”

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Naughty Women, Leafy Men And Shameful Anti-Semitism: Church Art The Church Would Rather Forget

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kilpeck_Sheelagh_na_Gig.jpg
Historic European churches and cathedrals are high on many travelers’ to-see lists. People admire the soaring vaulted ceilings and richly colored stained glass windows. Look closer, though, and you’ll see things you weren’t expecting.

Like this lovely lady at the Romanesque church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England, shown here courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Yes, she’s doing exactly what it looks like she’s doing. And she’s not the only one. Sculptures of naked ladies spreading it for all to see decorate numerous churches. Most are in Ireland and smaller numbers can be found in England and continental Europe.

They’re called Sheela-na-gigs and nobody has any idea what they mean. It’s uncertain when they were made as the churches they’re found on date from several centuries and some Sheela-na-gigs appear to have been reused from earlier buildings.

So why were they put in churches? Some people like to see them as pagan survivals, although that fails to explain why church authorities would permit them in churches. A bit of support for this comes from the Royal Navy, of all things. An 18th century Navy ship was named Sheela-na-gig and in the ship’s listing the name is explained as a “female sprite.” Other researchers think they’re symbols of the sinful nature of women. While this is possible, it fails to explain why the women aren’t being shown in Hell or being punished by devils, as is typical of didactic church art.

%Gallery-167773%Another mystery is the Green Man. This is a face surrounded by leaves and buds. Sometimes greenery is coming out of the Green Man’s mouth. At first glance it appears to be a very pagan symbol. Indeed, a similar type of leafy face was common in Roman art but died out when Classical art died. The Green Man reappeared in church art in the 11th century. He became hugely popular in Victorian Britain, which celebrated both nature and Classical art.

Once again, we’re stuck for an explanation. Pagan symbol or co-opted Classical decoration? Perhaps a fertility symbol celebrating the abundance of spring in what was still a predominantly agricultural society? Like with the Sheela-na-gigs, the Church didn’t leave records as to why they appear in a religious building.

The motive behind another odd bit of church art is all too clear – the Judensau, or “Jew’s sow.” In this scene a large sow is being suckled by a number of Jews, identifiable by the conical hats they were forced by law to wear. Another Jew is shown lifting up the sow’s tail to lick its rear. Often a Semitic-looking Devil stands by watching in approval. This disgusting bit of anti-Semitism first appeared in medieval Germany and remained a popular church “decoration” for several hundred years. The image seems to be limited to German-speaking areas and is found on churches and cathedrals and occasionally secular buildings.

The Stadtkirche in Wittenberg has a famous example on the exterior wall, clearly visible from the street. Martin Luther mentioned it in one of his anti-Semitic writings: “Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras.” In the last line, Luther is talking about the Hebrew term for the ineffable name of God, thus insulting their beliefs as well as their dignity.

In modern times a memorial plaque was put beneath it acknowledging that six million Jews were killed “under the sign of the Cross.”

Archaeologists Analyze John the Baptist’s Bones

John the BaptistThe Black Sea port of Sozopol has been making the news quite a bit lately. First, Bulgarian archaeologists uncovered two vampire skeletons there, and now its relics of John the Baptist have been submitted to scientific analysis.

Back in 2010, archaeologists uncovered six bone fragments from a marble sarcophagus in the ruins of a medieval church on the island of Sveti Ivan, “Saint John,” near Sozopol.

The bones are on display at a church in Sozopol. One of them, a knucklebone, was radiocarbon dated at the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. The team found it dated to the first century A.D.

The radiocarbon results will no doubt cheer the faithful, who generally dismiss radiocarbon dating when it proves the world is more than 6,000 years old or that the Shroud of Turin is a medieval fake.

Geneticists at the University of Copenhagen analyzed three bones and found they belonged to the same male individual, and that he hailed from the Middle East.

So could this be John the Baptist? It’s possible, although of course it can’t be said for sure. One point in favor is that a box made of volcanic tuff from Cappadocia, Turkey, was found next to the bones. On it is an inscription in ancient Greek of John’s name and feast day. Researchers note that many relics came from the Holy Land via the religious communities in Cappadocia before ending up in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, modern Istanbul. They were then distributed throughout the Empire.

Many relics from John the Baptist can be found in churches throughout the world, including several examples of his head. Gadling blogger and relics researcher David Farley came across one story of a Spanish monk who went in search of a relic for his monastery. As Farley relates:

“During his wanderings he happened upon a black market relics salesman who told him he had a fine relic he could sell him. It was the head of John, the Baptist. But this wasn’t just the head of John, the Baptist. It was the head of John, the Baptist…as an infant.”

[Photo of Serbian painting of John the Baptist, c. 1235, courtesy The Yorck Project]

Crucifixion nails found in Israel? Probably not.

Crucifixions, nail, Roman, Roman nailThere’s been a shocking archaeological discovery in Israel. Nails from the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ have been found!

Well, no, probably not.

The claim comes from Israeli Canadian documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, the Washington Post reports. Jacobovici has done several documentaries on Christian subjects and came across an archaeological report from 1990 mentioning the discovery of nails in the tomb of a man named Caiaphas. For those who know their Bible, this is the same name as the Jewish high priest who plotted to arrest Jesus and then gave him to the Romans. The name is right, the date of the tomb is right, so the nails must be those from the Crucifixion, right?

The Post quotes Jacobovici as saying, “There’s a general scholarly consensus that the tomb where the nails were found likely belonged to Caiaphas. Nails at that time were a dime a dozen, but finding one in a tomb is exceedingly rare.”

Actually neither of these statements is true. The Post quotes an Israeli archaeologist as saying that the inscriptions in the tomb aren’t clear as to the occupant’s identity, and I myself have seen Roman nails turn up in tombs. They were pretty common objects, after all.

The timing of this announcement just before Easter and just before Jacobovici’s next documentary comes out (titled “Nails of the Cross” to air Wednesday on the History Channel), adds to the suspicion that Jacobovici is fooling either himself or us.

There’s also the question of why a Jewish high priest would take the nails of someone who he thought was a false prophet to the grave with him, or even how he got them in the first place since it was Jesus’ family and followers who removed Jesus from the Cross.

In the view of this former archaeologist, this story is more of the usual sensationalism masking as science that fills so much of the media. A bit like the spurious discovery of Caligula’s tomb.

Never fear. There are plenty are saints’ relics in Rome, including enough nails for a dozen Crucifixions. Gadling’s own David Farley has even written a book about the Holy Foreskin, which you can also visit in Italy. Actually there’s more than one relic claiming to be the Holy Foreskin, but that’s another story. . .

[Image of Roman nails courtesy user Takkk via Wikimedia Commons. These are not the same nails that came from the tomb mentioned in this article.]