Pilgrim Land

A Photo Essay by Jonathan English

Memory sometimes eludes us, smirks, plays tricks. Now, as I write and peer back into the golden haze of early childhood memories, I seem to remember in church flipping through vibrant maps at the back of Bibles, tracing journeys of Biblical characters, through deserts, across water, encountering detour and hardship and salvation and loss. In the background, fragments from sermon narratives waft through the air of the hushed, listening church. Somehow, at the edges and first formulations of memory, my first impression seemed to be that these maps, these places rather, no longer existed in the real world. They were foreign and, more than that, forever unreachable, mystical, though infused with a gritty realism.

            I say this with some sense of embarrassment, conscious of ignorance. But perhaps it’s necessary to acknowledge ignorance (inevitable at any beginning after all), to truly move beyond it. It may be that to fear such an acknowledgment is ultimately to fear the quest for new knowledge. “In order to arrive at what you do not know, you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance”—St. John of the Cross.

            At some point, though I don’t know when, the realization must have dawned on me that the places drawn in those maps haven’t disappeared. They still exist. Only the lines on the maps have been rearranged. Political lines shifted, antiquating old maps, depicting new nations with new cities and new words, reflecting current affairs and reality.

            Traveling recently to these pilgrim lands—Israel and Palestine in particular—was like a waking dream almost, beyond childhood imagining. A bit like time travel, reaching back in time into the past, or at least to a place of unforgetting continuity between past and present. We floated in the still summer heat on the Sea of Galilee, dipped in the Jordan, walked among dusty Jewish and Roman ruins still standing from millennia past. Za’atar spice we craved. The turquoise water of the Mediterranean took one’s breath away. The photos below document some of that journey.

            Along the way, there’s opportunity to learn. About history and religion. About Jews and Christians and Muslims who live in close proximity. The place is freighted with a long and complex history, to be sure. Territory taken and overtaken, again and again. War. Affronts. Peace, both desired and feared.

            Yet each religion teaches about God-given dignity that ethically demands respect. If these demands were met, albeit by imperfect people, the region would inevitably at last find peace.

            In Jewish and Christian scripture, in the beginning, God created all mankind in his image, bearers of dignity entitled to brotherly and sisterly love. In the Genesis narrative, at the pinnacle of creation, God says, “’Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness. . .’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27). From this derives the eloquent statement in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . . .” Further, the greatest commandment, aside from loving God the Creator, is to love one’s neighbor, irrespective of religion or culture. In ancient Israel, scripture repeatedly reminded the Jewish people to treat even sojourners with justice, since they themselves were sojourners in Egypt before.

            So, too, in Islam, God gives to all people human dignity, karamah (or karama) in Arabic. “We have bestowed dignity [or honor] on the children of Adam . . . and conferred upon them special favors above the greater part of Our creation.” (Quran 17:70). (Though, despite such unreserved language, some Muslim commentators have apparently viewed this dignity/honor as limited to certain groups or people.) Consistent with this passage, in the recent Marrakesh Declaration of 2016, Muhammad’s Charter of Medina is understood as a protector of rights, specifically “guarantee[ing] the religious liberty of all, regardless of faith.”

            This significant sphere of agreement merits contemplation. May we all reverence others with full respect for their inalienable individual human dignity. Listening, exploring, and learning more about others may be one step in that direction. Like Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” The photos below offer a virtual glimpse or spark to that end, an invitation to exploration.

            As travelers ascended the road to Jerusalem during the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, it’s believed that pilgrims would sing the fifteen Psalms called Songs of Ascents, united in prayerful human longing. Here is a famous one, Psalm 126:

                                                            When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
                                                                 we were like those who dreamed.
                                                            Our mouths were filled with laughter,
                                                                 our tongues with songs of joy.
                                                            Then it was said among the nations,
                                                                 “The Lord has done great things for them.”
                                                            The Lord has done great things for us,
                                                                 and we are filled with joy.
                                                            Restore our fortunes, Lord,
                                                                 like streams in the Negev.
                                                            Those who sow with tears
                                                                 will reap with songs of joy.
                                                            Those who go out weeping,
                                                                 carrying seed to sow,
                                                            will return with songs of joy,
                                                                 carrying sheaves with them.

May all neighbors there find such joy and peace and flourishing fortunes.


Guarding Lions’ Gate into the Old City. According to one legend, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I dreamed he would be eaten by lions because of his plans to destroy Jerusalem, and he was spared only after promising to protect the city. The current walls were constructed under his successor, Suleiman the Magnificent. The Lions’ Gate is also thought to be the location of the earlier Sheep Gate, mentioned in Nehemiah, through which sheep were led for sacrifice. This is considered the beginning of Jesus’s Via Dolorosa, his path to crucifixion.
Old City, Jerusalem
Western Wall of the Temple Mount, also known as the Wailing Wall
Olive Tree in the Garden of Gethsemane, the site of Jesus’s prayer and arrest, as recorded in the gospels
Jesus betrayed by Judas, in a mural in the Church of All Nations, or Basilica of the Agony, in Gethsemane
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as Church of the Resurrection, the traditional site of the entombment and resurrection of Jesus
Hill in the City of David, just south of the Old City walls
The Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine associated with Muhammad’s Night Journey, recounted in the Quran. It is located on the Temple Mount, site of the Jewish Temple–the Temple of Solomon prior to its destruction and the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans.
A view from Bethlehem–walls and security, dividing the West Bank from Israel
Angel relief in Shepherds’ Field, Bethlehem, traditional site of the annunciation of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds
Icon of St. Nicholas, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Priest reading, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
The wilderness of Ein Gedi. According to the book of Samuel, King David hid from Saul in the caves of Ein Gedi.
The fortress of Masada (literally “fortress”), looking out to the Dead Sea. According to the historian Josephus, a siege of Masada by Roman troops in 73-74 CE ended in a mass suicide by over 900 Jewish rebels, or Sicarii.
The Mediterranean, at Caesarea Maritima, where Pontius Pilate had a residence and where the Apostle Paul was imprisoned for two years by the Roman governor Felix. Roman ruins and a giant Roman theater, still standing, overlook the sea.
The synagogue of Capernaum, one of the synagogues where Jesus taught, according to references in the gospels of Mark, Luke, and John.
The synagogue at Magdala, with a replica of the Magdala stone. The town is thought to be the hometown of Mary Magdalene, and likely she would have attended this synagogue. Remarkably, the synagogue ruins were only discovered in 2009. The Magdala stone, found in the synagogue, displays rare imagery of the Temple in Jerusalem.
St. George Monastery, Wadi Qelt