This article explores the role of sacred places and pilgrimage centers in the context of contemporary geopolitical strife and border disputes. Following and expanding on the growing body of literature engaged with the contested nature of the sacred, this article argues that sacred sites are becoming more influential in processes of determining physical borders. We scrutinize this phenomenon through the prism of a small parcel of land on the two sides of the Separation Wall that is being constructed between Israel and Palestine. Our analysis focuses on two holy shrines that are dedicated to devotional mothers: the traditional Tomb of Rachel the Matriarch on the way to Bethlehem and Our Lady of the Wall, an emergent Christian site constructed as a reaction to the Wall. We examine the architectural (and material) phenomenology, the experience, and the implications that characterize these two adjacent spatialities, showing how these sites are being used as political tools by various actors to challenge the political, social, and geographical order.
This article explores the connections between rituals, embodiment, and territorial claims by taking stock of Christian Orthodox rites at the Tomb of Mary in Jerusalem. As part of a comprehensive ethnography of this shrine, I have examined a wide array of body-based female practices that revolve around Mary’s tomb. By rejuvenating embodied practices that are associated with fertility, parturition and maternity, devotees enlist the grotto’s womb-like interior as a platform for kissing, touching, crawling, bending, and other physical acts of devotion that make for a powerful body-based experience. As demonstrated herein, the mimetic journey of a fetus/pilgrim through this womb-tomb expanse elicits a sense of rebirth, which is analogous to reclaiming the land and establishing a “motherly” alternative to the masculine and bellicose disposition in Israel/Palestine.
On June 2, 2008, the twenty-eighth of the Hebrew month of Iyar, 5768—Jerusalem Day—the fortieth anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem, forty nationalist Orthodox rabbis, some of them from the settlements of Judea and Samaria, visited the Temple Mount. This declarative act was preceded by a number of calls opposing the ban on visiting the mount that had been issued after the Six-Day War by the Chief Rabbinate. Such calls have been issued in clearly political contexts: in 1996 at the height of the struggle against the Oslo Accords; in 2001 in protest against the Waqf’s exclusion from the mount of non-Muslims at the beginning of the second intifada; and in 2004 after the Temple Mount was reopened to non-Muslims.
The rabbis’ visit to the Temple Mount was a high point in the debate within nationalist ultra-Orthodox society between opponents and supporters of such a visit. The visit to the Temple Mount also revealed a nascent change toward the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and its rulings.
Violence is a regular occurrence at many of Jerusalem’s holy sites. Ongoing civilian clashes play a role, but official modes of control through the Israeli army (IDF) and Border Police, as well as more informal private security operations are often involved. Such militarisation may keep violent upheavals in check, but it is carried out within the framework of a long and harsh occupation. The two sites considered here—the Western Wall in the Old City and Rachel’s Tomb on the border of Jerusalem and Bethlehem—each have a history of war and are fixtures of the occupation. This study explores the mechanisms that embed religious and militaristic meanings at each site. In so doing, certain questions are addressed. Firstly, how are the sites being constructed and used as popular and dramatic settings for certain constituents to promote religious militarism/militarised religion in Jerusalem? In which ways do these characteristics act to intertwine with the religious and militaristic aspects of the sites, making them more extreme but also, in some circles, more attractive? And finally, how do these sites contribute to the character of Jerusalem, both in their own construction and image but also in the roles they play within the wider urban topography?