Excerpts from my journal as I examine and portray the troubles in the Levant
A tale of two fires in the same month, the Holy Fire (or Holy Light, Ἃγιον Φῶς) in Bethlehem during Orthodox Easter which I photographed and now write about, and a lethal house fire in Gaza where I often work. Festive in the first case. Tragic in the second. In Gaza 3 children burned or suffocated to death when a candle ignited fuel stored in their home. Because of a complex of causes involving the Israeli siege and arguments between Hamas, the ruling political party in Gaza, Fatah ruling in the West Bank, and Egypt, fuel for the electricity generating plant in Gaza was scarce. The family had used candles for the first time. Quick and needless death. Pure family tragedy. A great loss. The power of fire.
An active afternoon photographing the entrance to Beit Sahour (part of Bethlehem) of the Holy Fire. The idea, for Greek Orthodox at least, maybe other Orthodox Christian churches as well, is that each year around this time, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a fire miraculously ignites from the stone on which Christ lay in tomb. This is understood to be part of his resurrection. It is an element of the Easter story I’d never heard. Orthodox Church leaders then carry the fire to various districts in the West Bank—this is a widespread belief and the fire goes all around the world from Jerusalem, similar to the early Greek marathon fire.
Thousands assembled near the main Greek Orthodox church in Beit Jala, part of Bethlehem where B had invited me to photograph for PNN (Palestine News Network).
First question: when is the fire going to arrive? This could be a long wait. B forecast between 1 and 2 pm, I was on station early, just in case and to survey and absorb the general excitement. Second: where’s the toilet? Third: the sun light, what sort of light and its direction? Leading to a fourth: position, where to place myself? I wandered at ground level first, not sure which direction the parade would come from, and then I moved to a higher platform outside the patriarch’s house where I could survey the crowd, photograph restless kids pestering their parents, and show the assembly as it arrived.
What’s keeping them? Stopped at a checkpoint? No fire this time?
The Miracle of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem by William Holman Hunt ( 1892–1899)
A friendly local woman, short and plump, explained to me the tradition. She also informed me that her sister had married an American, lived in the Boston area, and she now wished to return home more often. Her husband has never visited Palestine, altho he had converted to Orthodox Christianity and now studied for the ministry at Holy Cross College not far from my home in Cambridge Massachusetts. She also guarded my prime location from pushy kids.
Finally, at least 1 hour later than B had predicted, maybe around 3 pm, the procession hiked up the hill. How long had they been walking? No clue? Who are they? Ditto. I did see the fire, carried in a small lantern and in another lantern, much larger, which was periodically hoisted above all heads for all to watch and perhaps venerate—the power of fire, the power of light. By now I was at street level, having dismounted from my perch, able to move out of the crowded porch doorway by following in the wake of a large pushy woman. Initially I crouched and then knelt to make street level views, especially of marching kids, and then stood to notice the entrance of the Holy Fire. I was not more than 3 meters from it and the carriers. With others I then fell in line with the parade and marched to the church.
Everyone tried to crowd into the church. Purpose: to light their fire from the main Holy Fire. I decided I’d probably not be able to easily show this because of the dim light (missed opportunity?) and crowds, and decided my first priority was a hamaam, or toilet. Which I easily found and used.
B called to ask how I was, I could not hear him clearly because of the roaring din encircling me—songs, shouts, rifle fire, bells, crying. I found new positions, usually high, and photographed believers leaving the church, candles and lanterns alight.
All in a day’s work. Much different from today, should I decide to try to cover the Welcome to Israel Campaign as activists attempt to enter the West Bank at the invitation of local organizations, including some in Bethlehem. Should I be at the airport for the big confrontation, expect to be blocked from entering the airport, let alone find a good position like the ones I had yesterday, or even reach the airport? Should I remain in Bethlehem rather than travel thru the Valley of Fire to Ramallah for Quaker Meeting with the possibility that a few do get thru tight security so I can show them greeted in Bethlehem by the likes of Mazin Qumsiyeh? Might something happen in Ramallah? Or should I concentrate on my usual Sunday activities and attend Quaker meeting?
Miracle of the Holy Fire (opinion by Maria C. Khoury)
Israel and the Plight of Mideast Christians by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States