by John Dryden
St. Stephen’s Gate exudes the allure of the miraculous. History and religion weave a mysterious quality into the fabric of the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim narrative pertaining to the healing power of the waters of the adjacent Bethesda pools. The gate is close to the cave wherein the Virgin Mary was born. Through this gate Jesus entered Jerusalem to begin his Passion Week. This is the traditional route that the procession of Nebi Musa follows out of Jerusalem towards Jericho; and this is the same gate from which the Muslim dead are carried to be buried in the cemetery Ma’baret el Rahmeh outside the eastern wall of the city.
These images flash into my consciousness as I stand in the shade of the only eastern Ottoman entrance into Al-Quds el-Sherif. Standing under the portico of St. Stephen’s Gate, I am barely one hundred metres away from Al-Aqsa Mosque. Straight ahead the road leads to the Antonia Fortress, the scene of Jesus’ trial by Pontius Pilate. To the left stands Hammam Sitna Mariam, the Turkish bath of the Virgin Mary. It adjoins the cave dwelling of Sts. Anne and Joachim, which belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church. The White Fathers at St. Anne’s Church also claim to house the grotto where the Virgin Mary was born.
I suspend judgment, for here we are treading on sacred ground.
I like to visualise the meeting between Anne and Joachim taking place under the portico of St. Stephen’s Gate, though it is reported to have taken place at the Golden Gate. Moreover St. Stephen’s Gate in Byzantine times was the appellation of the current Damascus Gate. Against reason, I opt to believe that on this holy ground - midway between the Rock of Ascension in the Noble Sanctuary and the curative waters of the Bethesda pools and at a direct diagonal line from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - St. Anne met with St. Joachim and confided to him the good tidings: she was pregnant with Mary.
Earlier she had seen birds feed their babies. The sight kindled her feelings of motherhood and she yearned for a son of her own. Her wish was granted. She became pregnant and thus began a new narrative of which the gospels speak and a turning point in Palestinian history. The birth of Mary sets off the chain of events leading to the trajectory from which Jesus would not deviate; he was born to suffer and die on the cross in order to be reborn. The Canaanite Baalic mythological rites of death and rebirth were to be replaced by the historical death and resurrection of the Son of God and the birth of a new discourse.
New beginnings are fraught with the mystery of the unknown. Standing at the threshold - they are neither here nor there - marking the transition from the old and familiar to the new and unfathomable. A beginning is a fully born metaphor, a totalising system and a complete paradigm. Beginnings, as such, present an intellectual challenge through which new discourses are initiated. The intellectual effort to connect between past and present events, to explicate the metaphors in terms of preceding discourses, and to codify meaning in a lineal albeit historical perspective is a logical fallacy. The challenge of understanding the new revelation on its own terms and as a discrete, separate divine intervention in the course of human history baffles the apologists and theologians who seek to understand the new revelation in terms of the old discursive narratives. As such new beginnings dissolve into hackneyed similes. The triumphant Jesus becomes the embodiment of previous prophesies foreshadowing his arrival.
The Canaanite imagination - inspired by the Palestinian geography and the seasonal cycle, and marked by the equinoctial shifting of the axis of the earth - has, since the dawn of history, perceived our mountainous landscape as the gods’ natural habitat. The position of Palestine on the Earth’s meridian allows for a dramatic spring equinoctial change that lengthens the sunlight considerably and that shortens the days following the autumn solstice. Whereas by November the sun would set by 4 p.m., in August daylight stretches until 8 p.m. This striking seasonal change in daylight is accompanied by a rough division of the year into scorching hot and extremely cold weather, into very dry and extremely wet periods. Each month was allotted its special offerings and rituals to celebrate the new fruit, wine, vegetable, or cereal of the season. To their gods they entrusted the power of fertility and their own survival. High places were privileged dwelling places for their deities; chief among them was - ‘Elyōn, which, in English, may be rendered as “God Most High.”
The contemporary Palestinian mountaintops are dotted with sanctuaries, domed rooms amidst oak groves or huge carob trees. These remote holy shrines, albeit under Muslim mystic Sufi veneer, attest to the pervasive intimations of the transcendent “Other” sensed throughout Palestinian history as residing in high places. Innumerable bimot (Canaanite high religious places) have been absorbed within the classical Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition and have become part of the Palestinian national cult of St. George known alternately as Mar Jiries in the Greek Orthodox tradition or el-Khader in the Muslim narrative. In Greek icons Mar Jiries may be depicted alone or in conjunction with the rain bringer St. Elijah, Mar Elias. Alternately Sufi Islam empowered these high places to become the popular sanctuaries that dot the landscape astride mountaintops, under the generic name of El-Sheik Saleh, the good sheikh. They may also survive under the garb of biblical iconography, such as the sanctuary of Noah in Dura, Lot in Beni Naim, Matthew in Bet Ummar, Esau in Al-Seir, Jonah in Halhul, and Samuel south west of Jerusalem. The primordial Canaanite precepts of Palestine as the holy land has played a major role in shaping human relationship to god and that of god to his creatures in festivities and fertility rites that celebrate the turn of the season and punctuate the Palestinian agricultural cycle.
The oldest common feature of the religions of the ancient Near East was the worship of a great mother-goddess perceived as the embodiment of fertility. Associated with her, usually as a spouse/brother/son, was a young god who died and came to life again, in imitation of the agricultural seasonal cycle. The motif of the young male god’s downfall is a recurrent theme and the subject of innumerable books and articles among which Richard Campbell’s classic stands out, The Hero with a Thousand Masks. In these myths the god of fertility was either slain by another god, by wild animals, or by reapers, or burned to death or drowned, etcetera. His absence produced infertility - of the earth, of man, and of beast. His consort mourned and searched for him. His return brought renewed fertility and rejoicing.
In Mesopotamia the divine couple appear as Ishtar and Tammuz, in Egypt as Isis and Osiris. In Greater Syria (Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria) the dying and rising god is Baal-Hadad, who is slain by Mot (Death) and mourned and avenged by his sister/consort, the violent virgin Anath. In the Canaanite Ugaritic myths the character of the female gods is more complex. The great mother-goddess Asherah, the wife of the aging chief god El, is the consort of Baal, in conjunction with Ashtarte.
Sacred space and sacred time overlap throughout history in Jerusalem and proliferate under the veneer of the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition, each ascribing its own narrative and distinct iconography to the city’s rocky high places. These sacred grounds were associated with the harvest and winnowing of Palestine’s daily staple, namely wheat, as the Canaanite/Hebrew word goren indicates. Significantly the word goren has more than one meaning. It also refers to a circular place of worship. Some scholars believe that the goren, the threshing floor on top of Mount Moriah was, in fact, a Jebusite shrine, a high place, dedicated to the worship of the gods of fertility and peace. Agricultural threshing floors are normally located close to the fields; however the goren of Araunah, the Jebusite from whom David bought the threshing floor, was nowhere near the fields. In fact, biblical tradition indicates that Araunah may have been a Canaanite high priest and the last Jebusite King of Ur Salem.
Canaanite Jerusalem had two major holy sites, i.e., two goren; both were above and outside the city walls. Shalem, the Jebusite god of peace was worshipped on Mt. Moriah, which later Jewish and Moslem narratives respectively acquired first as the holiest site for the Jews and then as the site where God and Prophet Mohammad met during the miraculous Night Journey, El Isra’ wal Mi’raj, when Prophet Mohammad “ascended” to the heavens; hence its paramount theological significance in Islam. The second Canaanite holy site, goren, associated with Asherah was probably located near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where a Roman temple was built by Hadrian for the goddess Aphrodite, consecrating the impressive Golgotha and the traditional site of the crucifixion of Jesus.
In the ancient Semitic religious tradition shrines were built on an elevated site, the high places for Canaanites. The shrines were devoted to fertility deities, to the god Baal who was the god of fertility and/or to the Semitic goddesses known as Asherat, who is at once consort, wife, mother, and ally of the young god who rides the clouds and brings thunder, lighting, and rain. These shrines often included an altar and a sacred object such as a stone pillar or wooden pole. One of the oldest known high places, dating from c. 2500 BC, is at Megiddo. These high places consigned to the service of gods came to be known through the Old Testament as bamot.
The principal holy elements in the bamot were an altar for sacrifices, commemorative stone pillars (matsevot) symbolising male deities, and a wooden pole or tree (asherah) for female deities. Both supplicants and priests prayed at the high places. Buildings or caves were sometimes attached to them to form the consecrated ground. Not only rocks on promontories in high places, nor the adjacent caves but trees and water wells served either as dwelling or resting areas for the Semitic gods, elohim.
Fire from heaven - meteorites that upon landing turned from balls of fire into stone - would be considered tokens from the heavens and manifestations of the divine itself, hence the paramount symbolic importance of the Black Stone in pagan and Muslim Mecca. The reverse, fire bursting forth from stone, is equally miraculous, the rebirth of God. It is a long-observed sacred tradition that on Holy Saturday, following Good Friday, fire from the stone tomb of Jesus bursts forth. The fire from this sacred annual miracle is used to light all the candles in Orthodox churches. The fire itself is perceived as the resurrection of Jesus and is central to Easter celebrations. The metamorphosis of fire into stone and stone into fire is a rich thematic in Palestine. In Nebi Musa, stones on which Qur’anic verses are written are sold as holy relics; one of their miraculous qualities is the fact that they can burn completely upon exposure to fire.
In Jebusite Jerusalem, water, specially in Bethesda pools, was endowed with healing powers; a presentiment that lingered into the biblical era where the paralysed, the blind, the sick, and the disabled would wait for the ripple on the surface of the water to immediately plunge in the pools for the ritual cure. The stir in the water signalled the passage of the Holy Spirit. It should not be forgotten that within a stone’s throw of the pools and caves of Bethesda, a thousand years before Christ, the angel stood on top of Araunah’s threshing floor and protected Ur Salem from being decimated by the plague.
Nowadays the Bethesda pools stand on the grounds of St. Anne’s Church, a mere archaeological site. The pools are empty. The water that once cured the sick no longer fills the roughly hewn rock basins. Jesus saw the paralytic by the pool and, having learned he had spent over thirty years waiting for his turn to take the plunge, told him to stand up and walk. The man simply walked through the miracle of faith.
The healing power of water persists in Palestinian thought in association with the Virgin Mary. The Virgin plays a crucial role for Muslim and Christian supplicants alike, de facto validating the presentiment of the holy through formal classical religious faith and rituals. Her apparitions at the various water wells in Beit Sahour, Beit Jala, even Nazareth, have gained these sites the status of sanctuaries. In Beit Sahour, despite the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox church built to house the water well associated with her apparitions, Muslims visit to pray, to drink from the water, to make their vows, and to receive a blessing.
Though the Muslim lunar calendar has liberated Muslim holidays, in general, and the Night Journey, in particular, from the cyclical fertility rites, the Jebusite agricultural rites survive into modernity under the veneer of Judeo-Christian narratives as Easter and Passover. The evolution of Judaism in the context of Canaanite religion and the indebtedness of Christianity to Judaism is a major theological polemic. That God had intervened in the course of human history marks the beginning of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim discourses, each with its own distinct hermeneutic, a paradigm to be apprehended in its totality; a sealed metaphor.
Standing under the portico of St. Stephen’s Gate I am overwhelmed with the awareness of the holy. I feel the gentle breeze blowing over the surface of Bethesda’s pools; I sense the fragrant oils that Melki Zedek used in anointing the Holy Rock, Sakhret el-Mi’raj, a relic marking the meeting of Prophet Mohammad and God. In the glimmering golden Dome of the Rock I glimpse the beaming face of St. Anne radiant with joy confiding the good tidings to Joachim.
Ever since creation God has kept the covenant with Adam. From time immemorial God has revealed himself to each people using their own language and their own metaphors. In each revelation a different aspect of God’s divine nature is disclosed. Like a light beam refracting into the primary colours as it passes through the prism, our knowledge of God is necessarily incomplete; a partial refraction delineated by the fact that we are born to a particular father and mother, of a particular religion in a particular culture, and at a particular point of time.
Walking in Jerusalem we are besieged by signs intimating the “Other”; our categories of thought are challenged, dissolved and transcend logic to bring us in touch with the sublime. Various civilisations, cultures, and peoples have known God in Jerusalem. They have come and they have gone. The truth remains. Stepping into St. Stephen’s Gate plunges one into the Holy.
This article was inspired by a tour of the Via Dolorosa organised by the Jerusalem Research Center and conducted by the author at Easter.
Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and the recently published Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilizations. His filmic documentary about French cultural identity, Le Regard de L’Autre was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.