On a recent visit to Mamilla Mall to photograph the newly installed sculptures there, I gave myself an additional photographic challenge. I attempted to visually capture the relationship between the Church of Saint Vincent De Paul immediately above the mall’s pedestrian walkway and one of the sculptures below it. I spent about 40 minutes taking photographs from a variety of positions, angles and distances. I left the mall feeling that I had been able to create the photographic composition I was after. At home, I uploaded all of my photographs, including the 25 photographs of the church, and sifted through all of them on the computer. As I did this, I saw that most of the photos showed an off-center, non-alignment between the top of the church and the bottom of its stairway. As I had done while taking the photographs, I again asked myself: “How is it that I had so much difficulty aligning the stairs, the niche with the Star of David Sculpture, the church doorway, the statue of the Virgin Mary and the cross at the top of Saint Vincent’s onto a single vertical axis?”
Saint Vincent De Paul Church is a western style structure built in the 19th century as part of the special privilege arrangement between the French government and the Moslem Ottoman Empire to carry out Roman Catholic building projects and religious activities in the Holy Land. It was built just outside the Old City Walls, in the Mamilla neighborhood, which at the time was a mixed Jewish-Arab business district. This particular Catholic church is part of a larger, close to 150 year old, complex which also includes a monastery, orphanage, school and hospice. It is owned and operated by Les Filles de la Charite de Saint Vincent de Paul (The Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent De Paul). It, like all other property belonging to any religious group with a presence in the State of Israel, enjoys a legally protected status. This means that the church and its stairway, including the first step that rests directly on the pedestrian walkway, along with a Moslem cemetery across the street from the Mall, are the only remaining original structures in the Mamilla area since the Jerusalem Urban Development Plan for this area went into effect.
As I reviewed the photographs of Saint Vincent’s church and the sculpture below it, I began rethinking my original photographic challenge. I came to the realization that through the challenge I was actually
thinking about the complex relationship between the three monotheistic religions which consider Jerusalem central to their beliefs. Each one of them is represented in my photographs. Saint Vincent’s Church represents the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity, the Star of David Sculpture represents Judaism and the name Mamilla, derived from an Arabic word meaning “that which comes from G-d”, represents Islam.
As I struggled with the photographs trying to create one with a single central vertical axis to represent the members of the three monotheistic religions simultaneously reaching up to G-d, I suddenly remembered a long time ago scrap of a conversation I had in a rug store in Agra near the Taj Mahal. As I looked at the rugs trying to decide which I wanted to buy, I pointed out to the salesman that the weave on one of the rugs was not symmetrical. He responded: “They are all like that. Only G-d creates with perfect symmetry. Here in India when we weave a rug we purposefully weave imperfection and lack of symmetry into it. That way everyone will be sure to know that it is manmade.” Despite remembering this, I still wanted to create an image with a single central vertical axis even if it wasn’t exactly symmetrical.
It took me a long time to create an almost symmetrically balanced photograph with a single central vertical axis. I managed the alignment through manipulation of the images – first when I photographed them and later while I edited and cropped them. For me the whole exercise symbolizes my efforts to understand that despite their theological differences all three monotheistic religions have one central point of communality: belief in one G-d. What the exercise taught me was that in order to create the visual composition I wanted I had to work very hard at it. It is the same with finding a solution to the Middle East conflict. In order to find a fair and reasonable resolution to the conflict we need to work very hard at it – perhaps instead of looking for a single vertical axis what we need to do is learn to be more flexible and bend slightly.
By choosing to live in Jerusalem and striving to understand the narratives of all peoples living here, I believe that I am part of a continuing peace process. It is my hope that like the two figures which compose this Star of David we can all learn to be flexible, reaching out to G-d and to one another until, Bezrat HaShem, Inshallah, G-d Willing, a shining peace will reign forth from Jerusalem throughout this land and to the rest of the world.
(All photographs for this blog post are original works by Isa David-Ben-Rafael and are owned by IsraeLightly)