Religion in the Middle East

Caravan-Serai Traveler’s Handbook

A Word on Religion in the Middle East and North Africa

There have been many different religions founded in the Middle East,dating from prehistoric times. Today, the three most important are (in alphabetical order): Christianity, Islam and Judaism. We would like to tell you a little bit about each in the context of the region.

Christianity: Israel and Palestine are centers of Christianity. Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and the Jordan River are principal destinations. Approximately 20% of the Palestinians are Christians. Churches can be found throughout all the countries in the area. Aleppo (Haleb) in Syria has many famous Christian churches. You can even hear Aramaic, the language of Christ, spoken in Maalula in Syria, as well as by Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. Since Christian protocol remains essentially the same in the Middle East as the United States, behavior rules are the same in both places.

Islam: For Muslims (Moslems), God revealed his eternal truths in Arabic through the Prophet Muhammad (Mohammed), 570-632AD, who lived in what is today Saudi Arabia. The revelations were collected as the Quran (Koran). Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was transported in a miraculous journey from Mecca (in modern Saudi Arabia) to Jerusalem to Heaven and then home. The Dome of the Rock commemorates the spot where he rose to Heaven and returned. After the Prophet’s death, Islam was spread by his followers and eventually encompassed an area from Bosnia to southern Russia, east to China, south to the Philippines, and west via North Africa to Spain. We therefore can find mosques (houses of worship) throughout the world as well throughout the Middle East. Many Christian churches have been made into mosques, particularly the Byzantine churches in Istanbul, so one can observe symbols of both religions in these buildings.

We recommend the following: When visiting a mosque, be prepared to leave your shoes with the door keeper. It is not necessary to tip him. Women wear a scarf which covers the hair when entering a mosque. Black and white scarves are usual in the area, but any color may be used. Prayers may be in session and quiet respect is expected. Hearing the prayers chanted can be a thrilling experience. Muslims (not Mohammedans) wash before praying but this is not required of visitors. Islam follows a lunar calendar of 12 months a year. The holiest month is Ramadan (pr. Ra-ma-da-n), and moves backward each solar year to an earlier time from the preceding year. During Ramadan, strict Moslems fast during the hours between sunrise and sunset, and eat between sunset and sunrise. During the fast, no food, drink or smoking is engaged in during the daylight hours. Thus, please observe no smoking or eating during the day in the streets (during the month of fasting). Visitors are not expected to observe the fast. You may plan to eat in hotels and restaurants as desired.

Judaism: God revealed to Moses the 10 Commandments in Sinai but he was not permitted to enter the Holy Land. King Solomon built the first temple which was destroyed by the Babylonians. The First and Second Jewish Temples were built on the mount which now is occupied by the Dome of the Rock. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple. Only the old retaining wall which is called the Western or Wailing Wall remains. Archaeologists have reconstructed a model of the Second Temple which you might visit. Sites holy to the Jewish people can be found throughout Israel and Palestine. We know of no special protocols for visiting Jewish synagogues that you need to observe except that from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown is their Sabbath or day of rest and visitors to Jewish houses of worship may not be welcome on during that time.

A respect for all religions and the people practicing them are requested for people enjoying our tours. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to ask us.

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