Journey to the Center of the Earth: The Middle East

One of my favorite paintings is Paul Gauguin’s enigmatic “Where Do We Come From / What Are We / Where Are We Going,” housed in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The very large canvas is done in a heavy blue palette and, like many of Gauguin’s paintings, depicts scenes from his time spent in Tahiti, where he spent most of the last decade of his life in search of a simpler and more elemental life.

The painting, which includes the eponymous line in the upper left of the canvas, shows a series of human groups that, when read from right to left, show the various stages of life – infancy and youth, adulthood, and old age and death, all watched over by a blue figure which Gauguin described as “The Beyond.”

I thought of this painting as I have contemplated the experiences of our short time in the Middle East. It was a place that was at once far more ancient and elemental than our modern society, but also more affected by its own cultural, historical, and political significance. And while it felt foreign to be in a place that largely lacked the veneer of our modern, secular, corporate society, it was at the same time rife with the more elemental tensions that result from its significance as the crucible and nursery of that very same society. Experiencing this place, with its ancient history, religious significance, and cultural influence, left me pondering the same question noted in Gauguin’s painting – “what is this human existence?”

Where Do We Come From

When we think about where we come from, we start with history – that which has been passed down to us, our starting point.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, was founded in 1826. It is a haven for strip malls and big car dealerships. Too much of what little history it had was destroyed in the urban renewal atrocities of the 1960’s. It is hard to feel any ancient history here.

Boston is older and better preserved. The city was founded in 1630 and is one of the oldest English settlements in New World. A trip downtown invariably intersects the “freedom trail” and passes the houses, churches, graves, and monuments of the great figures of its storied history. Still, to a European, it is a young city.

The Leffe monastery began brewing beer in 1240. Notre Dame was begun in 1163 and completed in 1345. Windsor Castle was built by William the Conquerer in the 1070’s. The Book of Kells was written sometime around 800 AD.

None of it compares to just how ancient Jerusalem is.

Evidence indicates that Jerusalem was settled as early as 4000 BC. Jewish tradition suggests Noah’s son Shem was its founding father. Since then, it has played host to such a host of historical events, legends, and myths that it would be impossible to detail them all, but here is a brief sampling: the capture of the city by King David, the construction of Solomon’s temple, the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar, the construction of the temple of Herod the Great, the passion and death of Jesus, the destruction of the second temple by the Romans, Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem and journey into heaven, multiple crusades, and the Six-Day War. The city has been captured or re-captured 44 times. Three religions that today count nearly 4 billion adherents consider Jerusalem one of their holiest places.

Walking the narrow streets, one feels the history, not just because of the random scattering of Stations of the Cross and other sacred religious sites, but also because of the mood. Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims of all sorts – Russians with their crazy hats, Orthodox Jews with their forelocks, Muslims with prayer mats. All come to this one place to experience the tradition and history of the Old City.

It is stirring to think that, regardless of what Western tradition we hail from, chances are that its spiritual home is in Jerusalem.

What Are We

In such a religious place, we stand face to face with Gauguin’s blue idol. Here are physical manifestations of the religious traditions that are the source of meaning for so much of humanity. For Christians, we see the Stations of the Cross, the rock of the Crucifixion, and the tomb of Christ. For Jews, we have the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and the proximity to the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant once rested. For Muslims, we have the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, which mark the locations of the Isra and Mi’raj, Muhammad’s landing point in Jerusalem on his Night Journey and the site from which he was taken by Gabriel on a tour of heaven and hell.

Having grown up in a religious tradition that, for the first 25 years of my life, only existed in the 8.5 x 11 inch geography of my Bible, to see the tomb of Aaron (as in Moses’s brother) marked on my map of Petra, to see the wall of the Jewish temple, and to walk the streets that Jesus walked was a surreal experience.

Yet the parts of this experience that felt most spiritual weren’t at the foot of the rock of the Crucifixion or facing the tomb of Christ. Rather, they were quieter moments when one didn’t have to focus on the historical significance of a thing and could get lost in the simple enjoyment of the place: facing the beautifully carved stations of the cross in the Franciscan chapel, a bottle of wine on the roof of the Lutheran Guest House overlooking the city, trying to sort through puzzles in a game store in West Jerusalem, or enjoying hookah on the steps of the Jaffa Gate amidst the Ramadan celebrations of the Arab quarter.

These were little moments, absorbed in life, exploring this ancient place with my best friends.

Where Are We Going

If there was any theme for our trip through the Middle East, it was “Where are we going.” From the moment we arrived in Jordan, our inability to say anything other than “La” (no) and “Shukran” (thank you) – which we sometimes combined into the (highly necessary) polite denial “La, shukran” – posed a challenge to our ability to do anything on our own. Eager to see as much as possible, we set an aggressive schedule for ourselves that included the Jordanian Dead Sea Resorts, Jerusalem, and Petra on consecutive days. Unfortunately, in the Middle East, logistics can be a challenge, even with our incomparable guide, Amy Kyleen Lute.

Indeed, in addition to the language barrier, our Middle Eastern obstacle course included the following hurdles:

  • Incorrect border hours online
  • A four-hour detour to the Sheik Hussein Bridge (hello, Syria!)
  • Unmarked customs
  • No buses on Shabbat
  • A sleazy Israeli taxi driver (700 shekels, are you out of your meckles?!)
  • Tractors driving through the crowds in the Old City
  • Muslim-only time on the Temple Mount
  • A single-entry visa
  • A four-hour bus through the Negev Desert
  • Broken air conditioning
  • Capitalist ponies
  • An 8-hour hike over the red rocks of Petra
  • No afternoon buses during Ramadan
  • Long arguments about how much a 3-hour taxi should cost (~$70)
  • Solidarity Ramadan fasting with our taxi driver

Yet without these obstacles, we would have missed out on much of our most memorable Middle Eastern experiences – stopping for food at a market in a small Jordanian town (free pancakes for the newcomers!), contrasting the northern towns of Israel to those of Palestine, driving through the moonscape and canyons of the Israeli desert, the Wadi Rum at twilight, tea with a Bedouin woman who might have been as old as Petra, and last of all, the shower at the end of it all.

This last was perhaps the most glorious of all. And as I contemplated how to answer Gauguin’s last question – the unanswerable question – I could only hope that at the end of all the stress and obstacles we face in life, we can finally wash the red dust and sweat from our bodies and fall into a heavenly (Sheraton) bed, tired and full.

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