YOX photography

Andrea Merli

Rachel’s Tomb: an Alien in her Hometown?

Who is Rachel?

A woman. A wife. A mother.

Her story is told in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. She married Jacob, Abraham’s nephew, and she gave him two sons. On the way to the south of Palestine, she died while giving birth to the second one, Benjamin. Her husband, according to the Bible, buried her right there, on the way. There… where? Was it really on the outskirts of Bethlehem? Most probably not, as the research of a Franciscan scholar, Guido Lombardi, pointed out in 1971. Nevertheless, the burial site that was associated with her, along the road to Hebron, is what has attracted the prayers of countless believers through the ages.

When the West Bank was occupied by the Israeli army in June 1967, Rachel’s Tomb was not included within the unilateral borders of Great Jerusalem because of its location, deep inside a Palestinian urban area. Some 30 years later, in the framework of the separation regime introduced by the Oslo accords, Israeli authorities reconsidered the matter and decided to secure a direct connection between the site and Jerusalem. In 1998 Rachel’s Tomb was fortified with external walls, concrete blocks and watchtowers which dramatically altered its appearance. A few years later, after the outbreak of the second Intifada, the construction of the Separation Wall began, and the area was completely isolated from the city. Where Israeli and Palestinians used to find opportunities for economic and social relations, now they remained divided. So they remain today.

The two sides of the site look like two different planets: here the city seems to be a ghost town, with abandoned shops and broken windows; there the enclave looks like a fortress, with tired soldiers and melancholic prayers. While the elderly people of Bethlehem still remember the past, the young don’t have any past to remember, as separation is their only experience of life. Rachel’s Tomb – a shrine? a landmark? an emblem of coexistence among faiths? – is no more on the way to Bethlehem. It is out of the way. Has she become an alien in her hometown?

Moving from this question, I embarked on a social research project together with three friends and colleagues at Bethlehem University: Ingeborg Tiemann, Lucia Maria Russo and Elise Aghazarian. With the help of a small group of students, we interviewed some people living in the area of Rachel’s Tomb, so as to collect their memories and feelings about a site which used to be part of their lives, before disappearing behind the concrete slabs of the Wall. The outcome of our research was a paper and a set of photographs. Then, words and images reached Berlin to find their place in a book: it can be ordered from the publisher’s website, AphorismA, and it includes a DVD with the following slideshow.


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Rachel Tomb: an Alien in Her Hometown?

In May 2010 I was invited to present our research at St. Joseph University, Beirut. It was my first chance to visit Lebanon. I had only seen its land once, from the northern Israeli city of Metulla. Faraway, so close. But this is another story.

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