The ancient walls on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, below the dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, show the layers of building on that site. The mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam, and the Temple Mount itself is sacred in Judaism and Christianity.
The sacred is everywhere. But there are particular places that are – or have been – set aside to God in ways that make them particularly holy. These are places where people gather to worship God, in whatever form God has revealed Godself to them. We visited many such places in our journey to Israel, Greece, and Turkey. We came home from that pilgrimage with deeper awareness of the conflicts that plague the world when we forget that we are all creatures of the one God.
A gallery of pictures of some of those sacred places follows the poem, reflecting our journey.
The End of the Pilgrimage
The Church of the Holy Wisdom is a museum now,
The mosaics oddly accented with the blue roundels of Islam.
The fierce archangels Michael and Gabriel look out
Over the wandering tourists below,
While the Madonna gazes into the distance,
The infant Jesus resting solemnly in her lap.
All around the vast space of the cathedral,
The names of Allah, Mohammed, and the caliphs
Glow in gold script on the blue roundels.
I think of the hazy mountainside at Delphi,
The ruined, ridged columns of the Temple of Apollo
And the Pythia poised on her tripod
Over the fumy chasm.
On the heights of the Acropolis,
And on the seaward cliffs of Rhodes,
The power of Athena still marks her temples.
I think of Corinth, city of commerce and temple prostitutes,
Memorable now for Paul’s words and works,
And of Ephesus, where Paul and John contended
With the followers of the mother goddess,
Artemis of the thousand breasts.
The synagogues of Israel seemed half-familiar,
Columned ruins of rich limestone
Or functional rooms with plain wooden seats
Contrasting with the ark of the Torah
Covered in rich ornaments of paint and embroidery.
In the tiled mosques of Istanbul, full of light and prayer,
We were shoeless strangers, half comprehending.
We heard the call to prayer echoing electronically from the minarets,
And the language was foreign to us, as we were foreign to the
Kneeling worshipers in the crystalline blue light under tiled domes.
In the churches of Jerusalem, Roman Catholic and Orthodox,
Full of gilded ornaments and incense, our Presbyterian souls,
Conditioned to the simple grace of stone and wood,
Were shocked by Byzantine splendor.
The plainness of the Garden Tomb spoke to us more clearly,
Or the tiny church on Patmos with its rocky niche
Where John of the Apocalypse was said to sleep.
Dear God, your people are so various.
We seek you in so many ways, by so many names.
Surely you are with us all.
Surely it is not you who are fragmented, but we –
Not you who contends in factions, but your imperfect people
Whose sight is too small to see your perfect wholeness.
God, bless us all. Teach us to live together in your grace.
The Hagia Sophia,, Istanbul, Turkey. This greatest of Byzantine churches, the Church of the Holy Wisdom was built in Istanbul in the 6th century as the seat of the patriarchs of Constantinople. It was a Roman Catholic cathedral during most of the 13th century. From the 15th century until 1931, when it was secularized and became a museum, it served as a mosque.
The interior of the dome of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece
The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion Head, Greece.
The Temple of Athena at Lindos, Rhodes
The Parthenon, Athens, Greece
Synagogue at Capernaum, Israel. This fourth or fifth century synagogue was built over the remains of a first century synagogue, quite probably the one that was there in the time of Jesus. Capernaum was the home of the apostle Peter.
The Abuhav Synagogue. This tiny synagogue in Safed (Zefat), Israel, is named for the 15th-century Spanish rabbi and kabbalist, Isaac Abuhav, who is said to have designed the structure. It is said to have been built by his followers when they fled Spain; it was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1837.
The Ark of the Torah in a synagogue in Safed, Israel.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey. More commonly called the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles that decorate its interior.
Blue Mosque interior. This 17th century mosque is considered the last of the great classical mosques. Some of its architectural features were modeled on Byzantine Christian elements of the nearby Hagia Sophia.
The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel. This shrine on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem dominates the city skyline. It was built in the late 7th century on the site of the Jewish Second Temple, the Temple Jesus knew. It is said to mark the site of the prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey. One of the oldest examples of Islamic architecture, it contains elements taken from Byzantine Christian architecture.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem, Israel. Originally built in the fourth century on what was considered the site of Calvary, the church was rebuilt after a fire in the 7th century and again in the llth and 12th centuries after the earlier building was largely destroyed on the orders of a Fatimid caliph. Renovations have continued intermittently. Disputes over jurisdiction led to a shared authority among Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches.
The interior of the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Greek Orthodox shrine at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Israel
Mosaic of John of the Apocalypse and his cave, Patmos, Greece