Jerusalem; The Holy City
In the proverbial tug of war between Arabs and Jews, Jerusalem is the ultimate prize. Consecrated to all three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – this ancient city dangerously weaves politics with religion rendering the fabric of society delicate at best, dangerous at worst.
For Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank, access to Jerusalem is problematic. Even though it’s their rightful city as per international law, they must apply for the hard-to-obtain Israeli permits to enter the city.
For Jews, Jerusalem is the holy city that God has given them. The Western Wall is all that remains of the second temple destroyed by the Romans almost 2000 years ago. Where the temple once stood, the Al Asqa Mosque now stands. After Mecca and Medina, this site is the holiest in Islam. The Dome of the Rock is built on the spot where Mohammed is believed to have ascended into heaven.
For Christians, Jerusalem is the city where Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. The Church of The Holy Sepulcher is built on the site where these events are believed to have happened.
Palestinian Christians trace their ancestors back to the first followers of Christ. Always an essential component of Palestinian society, they share in the struggle against the occupation. Approximately 200,000 Palestinian Christians currently reside in the Holy Land, descendants of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. However, the number has drastically declined exacerbated by the drudgery of struggling under Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestinian Lands.
Ethnic Cleansing At Work
In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the number of Palestinian Christians has also declined. In 1947, Bethlehem’s Christian community was 85% and today it is merely 20%. Palestinians in occupied Palestine; specifically Jerusalem was 19% but today it’s a sad 2% and less even less than 1% in the Gaza strip.
Preserving Palestinian Easter Traditions
Despite the ugliness, Christian pilgrims flock to Jerusalem during Holy Week festivities. Easter is particularly significant for Palestinian Christians who have been integral players in these ancient rites that the illegal occupation is deterring with a vengeance.
The Good Friday procession, also known as The Way of The Cross marks Jesus’ journey up to Golgotha to be crucified. The streets and alleys of the Old City throng with pilgrims, following Jesus’ same path down the Via Dolorosa, holding crosses in support of their Lord.
On Holy Saturday, also called the Day of Light, believers’ set out from The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a celebration, holding candles that they light from fire that, according to tradition, emanates from the Holy Tomb. Youngsters sing religious and national songs, passing through the streets of the old city of Jerusalem lighting the candles of other people. The light is then taken to other cities and towns in Palestine.
This evocative tradition is under threat amongst Palestinian Christians as those living in the West Bank struggle to obtain Israeli army permits to enter Jerusalem, as a result it has hindered passing the light to neighboring holy cities.
During Easter, Christians visit relatives and friends to wish them a Happy Easter. Usually, the visits don’t last more than 10 minutes. At each visit, you’re offered eggs, kaaki maamoul and chocolate, leaving you with a bag full of goodies. Because it is difficult for Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank to get permits to visit their families and friends in Jerusalem and other areas inside Israel, this custom has been disrupted too.
Palestinian Easter Food Traditions
Kaaki Maamoul is an ancient cookie that inaugurates Easter and Eid in the Middle East. A shortbread cookie filled with date paste or chopped walnuts and pistachios, before Easter, the women in the family gather together to prepare these treats made out of semolina and butter. Kaaki is stuffed with a date paste and maamoul with nuts. Both of these cookies are decorated with a fork or a special kitchen tool with little pinches that make it look like a crown. This represents the crown of thorns that Jesus wore. The maamoul is shaped to resemble a stone, which represents the stone that was rolled away when Jesus rose from the dead.
Eggs have an ancient special meaning and signify ‘rebirth’, but for Christians cracking them means more then just fun and a big mess. The hard shell of the egg represents the sealed Tomb of Christ and the cracking of which symbolizes his resurrection from the dead. Whilst, the dyed red colour embodies the blood of Christ… Children play a special ‘egg war’ where they try to crack other’s eggs while keeping theirs un-cracked; whoever has an un-cracked egg the longest becomes the king of eggs.
On Easter Sunday, Lamb takes the center stage as the main meal. Lamb boasts a unique significance to Christians and refers to Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God.’ Lamb is eaten to commemorate Jesus’ and his sacrifice.
Palestinians often cook Lamb during special occasions. It is often roasted on a spit, in the oven, or barbequed. Another traditional lamb dish eaten in Palestine at Easter is Mensef. This festive dish comprises of lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt sauce and served with rice. The dish is traditionally enjoyed standing around a large platter with the left hand behind the back and using the right hand to create balls of rice that are placed in the mouth through the use of three fingers
Traditions At Threat
With numbers dwindling rapidly, the struggles of living under the illegal Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian Lands are rife. Daily hardship for all Palestinians including Christians is worsened by the restriction of movement, limitations to access water and electricity, along with a stressed economy.
In and around Bethlehem Israel has imposed approximately 32 checkpoints, roadblocks and gates that limit how Palestinians can move around in the city. Additionally, Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike are denied access to worship at their holy sites in Jerusalem’s old city. Israel forbids Palestinians from the West bank and Gaza to enter Jerusalem unless they get a difficult to obtain permit. Palestinians access to Jerusalem contradicts Israel’s claim of respecting freedom of worship in the holy city. Palestinian Christians who have made it to Jerusalem have protested over curbs on access to the holy sites.
Furthermore, Palestinian Christians who are citizens of Israel suffer the same widespread discrimination, as other non-Jews who are a minority in the state, including employment housing and land ownership. There are more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians citizen in Israel, making them second or third class citizens in their own homeland.
This litany of suffering is as painful as Christ’s own agony. But Christians and Muslim’s alike derive strength in the confidence that resurrection will ultimately transcend all injustice.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Tanya knew that Palestine was her symbolic homeland. Always curious about her identity and connecting with her roots, she was eager to strengthen her ties to the Levant and traveled the region, desperate to learn more. It wasn’t until her first trip to Palestine that she became spiritually and emotionally connected.
She studied Political Science and Sociology at the University of Toronto. She then moved to the UAE, supporting numerous NGOs related to children’s welfare in the region. When she had her own family, she created the My Olive Roots platform in the hopes that her children and the Arabs diaspora would have a place to connect, learn and preserve their roots. Tanya enjoys discovering humanist stories and exploring the connection of food and art with culture.