“Did you come for the shrines—or to see the living stones?”
(Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers)
This past semester has been one of learning the art of pilgrimage. While some grow up with dreams of visiting the sacred shrines of the Holy Land, I have found living and traveling in the Middle East to be the fulfillment of a dream to visit “the shrines of antiquity,” sites where the ancient Greeks and Romans and other peoples left their mark in now-ruined architecture or surprise Greek and Latin or Nabatean inscriptions. Besides the famous Pyramids of Egypt and the ruins of Carthage in Tunisia, the country of Jordan itself boasts many sites including the treasured remains of a Citadel and Roman theater (in Amman) and, further away in Jerash, the ruins of beautiful temples, theaters, colonnaded streets, and the stones of a Byzantine Church.
However, learning to be a pilgrim in this place of wonders has been a challenge beyond decoding ancient stones and papyrus leaves: the challenge of decoding and learning wisdom from the culture of each country’s “Living Stones” who carry all the heritage and mystery of their ancient forebears along with important insight for living today. In Amman, for instance, the average taxi driver will have a greater awareness and knowledge of Middle East history and the current foreign policy of the U.S. than I do myself, sometimes even knowing the names and numbers of UN Resolutions that affect his neighbors. Living with the people here thus underscores the importance of the past as an inescapable point of wisdom for present decisions and the importance of listening to how it affects local people.
The “Living Stones” of this region are also privy to a unique window on the faith and practice of Bible times. Meeting local believers in each country we’ve visited and hearing their story of each of the holy sites here gives greater context to understanding sites such as the Church of the Shepherd’s Fields, the Caves of Bethlehem, the churches of Coptic Cairo, and, a little nearer in time, the various Arabic-speaking Protestant churches in Amman.
Occasionally, there is an opportunity for an event in Amman where we learn about what the stones of Classical Antiquity do mean to the “Living Stones” of today. One lecture we spontaneously attended was on Greek and Arabic papyri rolls discovered in Petra (part of the old Nabatean Kingdom in Jordan). As a linguistics major and classics minor (history and ancient Greek) at Gordon College (Wenham, Massachusetts, U.S.A.), I found these papyri exciting in their own right. To the locals, however, the significance of this discovery was doubled by seeing how their country had hosted the civilization that gave their alphabet to the world (even influencing the Greek and Phoenician alphabets) as well as being the place where some of the earliest written Arabic was found. It took listening to these “Living Stones” for the papyri to come so much more alive beyond what I could have imagined by simply looking at their pictures on the black and white slideshow.
As I continue onward along my pilgrim journey after MESP, I want to challenge myself beyond the “academic pilgrim” mindset to continue to bridge the gap that sometimes exists between a country’s “stones” and its “Living Stones.” Rather than merely soaking in the ancient/medieval history, I hope to continue meeting the people of today and learning from their perspectives on history, diplomacy, languages, and worship.