The bowl that holds Nazareth has a concrete rim. Because of the vista it offers, optimistic developers have dubbed that rim “Heaven’s Promenade.” The reality falls short of this lofty promise. Closer to earth, it is simply the al-Nabi Sa’in Ridge.
The Jesus Trail runs along this promenade. Aging exercisers join me here to celebrate the dawn. Their disturbing lumpishness is ill-concealed, compressed by the spandex of another generation. I, on the other hand, sport a full-flaps-out look. I am as dainty as an F-4 Phantom on final approach: hat and pack and sunglasses and camera and velcro and notebook and shirttail and waterbottles and guidebook grab air. What unites me with the walkers is not our oddly shaped slipstreams, our need for exercise, or even our perceived nearness to (or distance from) heaven. It is our desire to beat the heat. They thump to and from their air-conditioned apartments. No such retreat is available to me; I am motivated by the need to tuck some miles under my belt before being forced into early retirement by the sun.
The orange and white blazes lead this Jesus Trail(er) past a striking structure. I slow, stop, stare. The structure is part of a complex perched on the highest point in Nazareth (no accident here). A sign identifies it as the Tomb/Mosque of Nabi Sa’in. On top of the primary structure is an onion dome that rises, swells, then tapers to a point. Sunlight reflects off of the gold sheathing. It is elegant, a real eastern beauty.
But beauty can be skin deep. Until recently the site was simply a shine (makam) dedicated to an unknown prophet (nabi). The bodily remains of Sa’in curl inside.
In the early 1990s, however, mounting tensions between Nazareth’s growing Muslim majority and a shrinking Christian minority brought this corner of “Heaven’s Promenade” into the view of an earthly crowd. The area about the prophet’s resting place was declaredwaqf, “inalienable holy land” and claimed by Islamic fundamentalists. Construction was initiated and the gravesite was converted to a mosque. Complications erupted when this switcheroo was discovered to extend beyond the limits of the granted permit. The municipality confronted the squatters on the knob who refused to yield. Beyond petty bickering, nothing more was done. It was a real-estate victory of sorts. The high ground in this traditional Christian city had been quietly usurped, fenced and flagged. The fundamentalists were emboldened. The Christians were roiled.
This was not the end of it either. The intra-Arab spat in Nazareth peaked with Pope John Paul II’s Millennial visit in the year 2000. Political struggles, at both national and local levels, fanned the embers. Corruption charges flew; the attempted wooing of voters in the election season only made matters worse. And somehow, in all the obscuring smoke, the cornerstone for a second controversial mosque in Nazareth was laid. This one, connected to the grave of Shihab-a-Din (an Arab warrior from the time of the Crusades), was located in the shadow of the Basilica of the Annunciation. Rumors circulated that this second mosque would, in the words of historian Raphael Israeli, “have both dwarfed the Basilica and obstructed the view to it” (Green Crescent over Nazareth, 2002: ix). Such construction would be no mean feat, given that the venerable church that marks Jesus’s boyhood home is the tallest in all of the Middle East. The invoking of the “height-is-might principle” was hardly accidental.
Christian leaders from around the world, moderate Muslims (including Yasser Arafat), and even President Bush criticized the mosque project. Their words ranged from brittle to doughy. This time though, the narrative took a different trajectory from that taken in the Nabi Sa’in debacle. A government commission appointed to review the case showed teeth and permanently halted the provocative construction. Israeli war-dozers moved in by the dawn’s early light and surgically removed the freshly-laid foundation. Surprised Islamists, previously emboldened, howled loudly; Christians celebrated quietly.
As the door of the new millennium creaked open, life in Nazareth slowly returned to normal. The pope came and went, as did millions of other pilgrims. The area in dispute was was paved, lined with benches, and today, functions as a public plaza (I enjoyed a schwarma there the night before last). The only visible residue from the mosque debacle are signs and banners. Every visitor to the boyhood home of Christ passes by the footprint of this phantom mosque. Those who are alert catch the sour message.
Who is the loser here? Who is the winner here?
I peer down into the bowl of Nazareth from “Heaven’s Promenade” and wonder . . .
. . . if folks would be surprised to discover that “heaven’s” true promenade, the place where God himself strolls, is not so distant (or elevated) at all. It envelops every space that we can perceive and extends into dimensions that we cannot.
. . . what would happen if American evangelicals figured out that the struggle for real estate flew away with Ezekiel’s vision (see his Chapter 10)? Put differently, God’s program ain’t about land (and it hasn’t been for a very, very long time!).
. . . if there is anything more incongruent with the message of Jesus than the whole “mine is bigger/stronger/higher/faster/etc” argument?
But alas, I veer into theology. And ironically, the squabble over “sacred space” in Nazareth is not really about that at all.