2011. Vol.1, No.4, 230-237
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/sm.2011.14029
Under the Flag of Blue and White: Mary as an A-National
Symbol in the Greek-Orthodox Community in Israel
Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel.
Received June 5th, 2011; revised July 17th, 2011; accepted August 19th, 2011.
Marian devotion and rituals have been the apex of Christian believers’ journey for centuries. In spite of its im-
portance in many disciplines, Marian devotion and rituals in Israel have been neglected. In this article I will out-
line several social and religious aspects of Marian devotion in the Greek-Orthodox community in Israel. Using
several case-studies of Marian devotion around the world I will address the question is Mary a national symbol
in Israel? Since one of the most important Marian devotion sites is located in Israel and centered in Mary’s place
of ascension in Gethsemane, addressing this site directly is crucial. I will express a new concept more fitting to
the Israeli case—Mary as an a-national symbol. This research is based upon a combination of two main method-
ologies: participant observations and in-depth interviews with believers (local Greek and Palestinian residents as
well as pilgrims) and clergymen. The research focuses on a procession taking place in the Old City of Jerusalem
in the end of August, celebrating Mary’s legacy and resurrection.
Keywords: Mary, Christia n Palestinians, Cult of the Vi rgin, religious processions, Greek-Orthodox
The Feet Walk, the Heart Sings and the Mind
On August the 15th, 1940, a Greek ship carrying pilgrims on
their way to Mary’s shrine on the island of Tinos was inter-
cepted by an Italian submarine and drowned. Two months later,
Greece entered World War II alongside the Allied Forces and
faced Italy’s armies and the rest of the Axis’ might, declaring
the campaign “The Holy War”. During maritime battles be-
tween Italian and Greek armadas, the later declared their army
protected personally by the Virgin from Tinos, taking action
against Italy’s fascist claims (Seraidari, 2001). As we can
clearly see, even in this relatively modern historical incident
religious symbols were used to benefit or even forward na-
tional-political struggles in order to accentuate the fragile line
of justified conflict between the forces of light and darkness.
More than seventy years later, thousands of believers, pil-
grims from around the Balkans, Greece and Palestine emerged
from the Lions Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, the rising sun
in their eyes, and descended towards the epitaph or their devo-
tion—Mary’s tomb at Gethsemane. The ranks of nuns’ and
priests’ black garments mingled with the green and blue of
Israeli so ldiers’ and policemen’s uniforms. The Israeli flag’s blue
and white was left behind temporarily replaced by the Greek-
Orthodox Church’s symbols. Under the archway leading down
to Mary’s vacant grave, another flag of blue and white domi-
nated the scene—the Greek flag.
What is the relationship between Mary’s resting place and
the state of Israel? What are the believers’ feelings towards the
geographical context wherein they are marching? And what are
the feelings of the Palestinian believers towards said context?
In this article I will confront these questions and highlight the
differences between other Marian pilgrimage centers and the
Israeli context. In this article I will use the qualitative results of
a 3 year ethnography (primarily interviews and participant ob-
servations) which took part mainly in Jerusalem and Nazareth.
Asceticism and Strife:
On the Way to Gethsemane
The Greek-Orthodox procession taking place at the end of
August symbolizes the death of Mary and her resurrection fol-
lowed by her ascension to heaven led by her beloved Son. This
ritual, juxtaposing death and rebirth, dark and light, night and
day, is ceremoniously pronounced in the procession’s dual or
even binary parts. In the first part1, worshippers walk along the
Via Dolorosa counter its historical route (i.e. from the Holy
sepulcher to Gethsemane2). This first phase of the procession
symbolizes the physical death of Mary, hence the early hour
following night’s end, the mourning songs, and candles, all
symbolizing a funeral procession. In the second part3, worship-
pers walk along the Via Dolorosa along its historical route (i.e.
from Gethsemane to the Holy Sepulcher). This journey up-
wards (both metaphorically and physically speaking), towards
Jesus’ final stance, symbolizes Mary’s rebirth, ascension and
transformation from a physical, human entity to the Panhagia4
—the Holy of Holies, the Theotokos5. Along both its parts, the
procession is led by the head of the Church of Gethsemane,
wearing on his neck the blessed icon of the Matoxion6. Apart
from marching, singing and praying for loved ones, the wor-
shippers kiss this icon and stop at various “stations” of the Via
1Taking place on August 25th at 4:00 a.m.
2Gethsemane is the burial place of Mary according to early Christian
traditions, and is situa t e d outside the Eastern si d e o f the Old City’s
walls, at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
3Taking place on September 5th at 8:00 a.m.
4Panhagia in Greek means “the saint above all saints”, a ve ry popular
name for Mary in the Gree k -Orthodox tradition.
5The Mother of Christ.
6A Greek-Orthodox church situated across the Holy Sepulchre, whereas
lays the icon of Mary. According to informants, this icon was copied
from one of the first representations of Mary.
J. VENTURA 231
Multiple Aspects of the Ritual
The importance of public rituals dominated research in dif-
ferent disciplines for decades. Among these researches per-
vades Durkheim’s, which offered a socio-functional explana-
tion discerning the importance of religious rituals not only as a
social process by as a unique process worthy of attention. In his
opinion, the purpose of public rituals is to reinforce social soli-
darity and to maintain the community’s continued collective
memory (Durkheim, 1965). According to Durkheim, the reli-
gious ritual is a social frame wherein group members can meet
and interact while validating the group’s boundaries. In contrast
to Durkheim’s functional viewpoint, one can find different
theories focused upon the strife and conflicts embedded in reli-
gious rituals (Bowman, 1991, 1993, 2001, 2003; Bilu, 2005;
Ortner, 1979; Gluckman, 1962; Weingrod, 1990; Eade & Sal-
As the modern harbinger of the interpretive approach to ritu-
als (and Max Weber’s “heir” in this context), Geertz (1976: pp.
221-230) emphasizes the cognitive and experiential elements in
which individuals can experience only through dramatic occur-
rences such as rituals. In his opinion, the researcher should
focus upon interpreting the ritual according to the narratives
shared by its participants, hence highlighting said individuals’
experiences. Turner interpreted rituals in a more harmonious
way and focused upon the emotional-mystic experience of the
believer. Turner (1995) presents Van Gennep’s (1960) ap-
proach to rituals claiming that during the religious ritual a
process of liminality occurs in which the believer stands on the
threshold between two worlds, the secular and the sacred. Fur-
thermore, during the sacred journey the pilgrim creates a bond,
both mentally and emotionally with other pilgrims, some of
whom he would never do so during his “secular” daily life.
Other researchers, such as Goffman, (1963, 1967) focused less
on the ritual’s symbolic-theological aspects and more on under-
standing the meaning given to public rituals by the individuals
in said society. The interpretation of the ritual, according to this
approach, highlights not the experiential aspects of the ritual,
but rather an interpretive aspect focusing on the relationship
between the individual and the society in which he lives, such
as manifest through religious or secular rituals.
Critiques of these classical approaches to rituals highlighted
the lack of attention to inter-group conflicts and lack of com-
munitas (Juschka, 2003; Sklar, 2005). Handelman in his con-
tinuous research focusing on rituals suggested a complex and
different approach. In his opinion, the public ritual can be seen
as a maze in which one might find several entrance doors,
where each door symbolizes a different aspect of the ritual. The
researcher can crack the lock on each door and reach a
dead-end, a solution or keep roaming the corridors looking for
different answers (Handelman, 1990). Using this metaphor,
Handelman tries to demonstrate the symbolic, cognitive and
interpretive complexities the public ritual offers. In deciphering
the ritual standing at the center of this article I will highlight the
central and unique attributes of the Israeli procession in com-
parison to other rituals around the world. It is my assertion that
rather than being a national symbol, Mary in the Israeli context
is a social and ethnic symbol, which although being a key
symbol (Ortner, 1979), is not a unifying symbol but a differen-
tiating symbol, dividing the different ethno-cultural groups
taking part in this ritual. In an effort to bypass the multitude of
contradictions and complexities comprising this ritual I would
like to present two new concepts: a-national symbol and anti-
national symbol. Following this chapter I will further illustrate
and elaborate on these theoretical concepts.
The Many Facets of the Ritual
In examining the Jerusalem procession, one might conclude
that perceiving the public ritual as a mystic process unifying
individuals and groups in a common goal is the main attribute
in this case. In this ritual indeed we find cul tural-mystic-religious
elements unifying individuals of the same social characteristics.
Furthermore, we will also find many characteristics associated
mainly with the individual experiences of the believers taking
part in this procession. But, alongside these elements we see a
myriad array of conflicts and rivalries (Weingrod, 1990) which
characterize the public dimensions of this ritual. These conflicts
and strife engulf Arabs and Jews; Jews and Christians; Catho-
lics and Greek-Orthodox; Greeks and Palestinians; pilgrims and
locals; Israeli nationality citizens and foreign nationality citi-
zens (mainly Greeks, Russians and the Balkans). Alongside
these conflicts runs an ancient struggle involving the Greek
community in Jerusalem and the Greek-Orthodox Palestinians,
followed by another struggle inside the Greek-Orthodox Patri-
archy between the higher clergy occupied mainly by Greeks
and the lower clergy occupied mainly by Palestinians (Ventura,
2011). Following Handelman (1990) I will focus in this paper
on the complexity of this ritual as well as its uniqueness in
standing as an isolated a-national enclave. This uniqueness is
characterized by the headline of this article, a ritual which is
neither Greek nor Israeli but shares elements of both.
The Textual Ritual
Eliade (1991) portrayed the religious site as a geographi-
cally7 and ideologically8 prominent place. This holy site func-
tions as an axis mundi, as a metaphysical pipeline linking the
heavenly realm and the hellish domains, and in between—our
earthly domain. According to his theory, upon arriving at the
holy site, the pilgrim is able to “tap” into and “connect” with
the saint guarding the site, hence the religious importance of the
holy journey. “The sacred” is a key concept in Eliade’s theory
not only in regard to residing saints, but also in regard to the
polarization of the holy site. Accordingly, the holy site repre-
sents the existing order between the sacred and the holy, the
pure and the tainted, and in between stands the sacred site.
Several elements of Turner’s (1992) theory regarding the sacred
journey might illuminate Eliade’s views. Turner (1992, 1995)
views the main religious-mystical experience as expanding and
unfolding along the way of the pilgrim, which develops and
maintains social ties in order to successfully negotiate the
road’s many hardships. Another central issue in Turner’s theory
is, in contrast to Eliade which emphasized the geographical
centrality of pilgrimage sites, the peripheral locations of said
sites. This peripheral location further enhances the religious
asceticism due to the added hardships, and excitement upon
arriving at the destination. These added hardships contribute
not only for the pilgrim’s religious experience, but also tempo-
rarily erases social boundaries, creating a social environment of
parity9. In this context I would like to elaborate on the impor-
tance of text-oriented geographical sites, meaning, pilgrim sites
7Usually a sacred mountain or hill.
8The central goal of the pilgrim during his/hers arduous journe y.
9Hence, according to Turn er the importance of the ritual’s temporality,
social boundaries mi
er cultural norms.
mentioned in the Holy Scripture.
The main Marian textual ritual in Israel is manifested in the
Greek pilgrims’ will to visit only central sites associated with
the life of Jesus and depicted in the gospels. These pilgrims are
not tempted to visit neither other marginal sacred sites nor
secular attractions such as Masada10 or Eilat11. Andonis12, one
of the Jerusalem Greek Community leaders described the
preparations made by the Greek pilgrims prior to their arrival:
Jonathan: And the pilgrims arriving here go and visit other
places in Israel?
Andonis: They are interested only in the sacred sites, and I
try to explain to their Greek guides that there is a huge amount
of culture here, go and see Beth-Shean, Caesarea, the Banyas…
and they say we have these things in Greece as well, we came
to see the sacred sites, it doesn’t interest them.
Jonathan: And what does interest them?
Andonis: Religion. It is not all the Greeks, but mostly those
who come are simple folk, peasants who save their pennies
from the day they were born till one day they will be able to
fulfill their dream and come to see the holy land. When they
come here they do nothing else, they and their guides (Greek
priests) come to Jerusalem and they explore the city and its
surrounding 26 Greek monasteries and you know that all
around here [Jerusalem] there are sacred places, Bethlehem,
Beth-Sahour, a portion of them go to the Judean desert to see
the Desert Monasteries, then Je richo a nd al l th e othe r By za ntine
monasteries. These monasteries are also equipped with in-house
dormitories where pilgrims may sleep such as Gerasimus, Dir
Hogla and then Mt. Tabor and Capernaum and Kafr Kanna.
Then they pass this whole route from Jerusalem to the north of
Israel, reach Capernaum and that’s the Northernmost site they
reach, although I told them to reach further, to the origins of the
Jordan River, but no, they go back to Jerusalem through Naz-
areth and that’s it. That’s their route.
Jonathan: Do they stay a few days in Nazareth?
Andonis: No. They stay at Tiberius or Mt. Tabor and then
continue on their route so-
Jonathan: So they just walk off the bus in Nazareth, see the
Church of the Gospel and drive off?
As we can see in this description, the Greek pilgrims visiting
Israel focus on well-known sacred sites which are mentioned in
the Scripture, mainly in the Gospels. These pilgrims visit the
Old City of Jerusalem, surrounding monasteries located in the
Judean Desert, Mt. Tabor, Kafr Kanna and Capernaum, all of
which are mentioned in the Gospels. Surprisingly, although its
significant textual importance these pilgrims stop for a brief
time at Nazareth13 and continue their journey. The pilgrims
ignore the much more “touristic” sites and focus upon sites
mentioned in the Gospels. The connection to geographical sites
through religious texts is very important in this case since most
of these pilgrims haven’t seen these holy sites, but know them
well nonetheless through the Gospels (in addition to oral tradi-
tions and Hagiography, which one can find in the Greek Or-
thodox Church in abundance). Finally, the pilgrims have a con-
tinuous local connection to their hometowns and villages
through their local Greek priest-guide.
The abovementioned theories, of Turner and Eliade, explain
many aspects of religious rituals but only to a certain extent.
Although concepts such as “the Holy Center”, and “communi-
tas” evolving through the pilgrims, are true in most cases, they
do not provide a full explanation. In order to better understand
the ritual standing at the focus of this article we should also
understand the many processes of conflict and strife created and
evolving by the pilgrims and through their socio-cultural ac-
tions. But before I delve into this world of conflicts and strife I
would like to elaborate on another important issue relevant to
this ritual, which is what I would like to call the “bureaucratiza-
tion of the ritual”. Apart from the individual, mystic and expe-
riential part of religious rituals, in most rituals we find another
world of public facets categorized by beaurocratic elements
which sometimes obscure the more intimate and mystic ele-
ments experienced by the individual.
The Bureaucratization of the Public Ritual
Public rituals include not only religious attributes manifest-
ing intimate-spontaneous-mystic-experiential feelings in the
world of the individual believer, but also symbolic social di-
mensions. Symbols (religious, secular or national) stimulates in
the individual deep personal meanings, whereas the symbol
represents a missing yet present, a tangible yet metaphysic ele-
ment relevant to daily experiences of the individual. From these
reasons the public ritual is crucial in the daily lives of believers.
The individual taking part in the ritual experiences several di-
mensions which in part he is not able to see, yet he is conscious
of. These dimensions include both religious icons (physical,
tangible, present and may be touched and kissed) creating inti-
mate individual experiences, and public dimensions of social
conflict or solidarity (less seen but experienced nonetheless).
This combination of elements creates the individual religious
experience, according to Handelman:
Public events are phenomenally valid forms that mediate
persons into collective abstractions, by inducing action,
knowledge and experience through these selfsame forms. They
are culturally designed forms that select out, concentrate, and
interrelate themes of existence—lived and imagined—that are
more diffused, dissipated, and obscured in the everyday… Pub-
lic events are constituted through their intentionality (their de-
sign, or “structure” in an old parlance) and through their prac-
tice (their enactment or performance) (Handelman, 1990: pp.
Handelman means that public rituals are framed and de-
signed by society binding physical and imagined elements. By
combining action, information and personal experience with
abstract collective memory religious and secular public rituals
are created. These rituals become vortexes of ideas, values and
practice. Following Handelman we may call the rigidly con-
structed public ritual “the bureaucratization of the public ritual”.
This bureaucratization characterizes not only secular-national
rituals but religious ones as well. In the Israeli case14 the sacred
ritualistic elements are well defined, the believers know exactly
the procession’s route, which psalms to read and with which
melodies. Therefore we see two facets of the public ritual; on
the one hand, theories focusing on religious geographical loca-
tions as textual attributes (Handelman, 1990); and on the other
hand, theories focusing on complex and contradicting elements
of the ritual. Similarly to Bowman, Handelman recognizes a
10Masada is a famous m ou ntain faci ng the Dead Sea where a final stand of
the Jewish rebels was made against the Roman army, ending with a mass
suicide committed by the Jewish rebels.
11Eilat is a very popular vacation site at the so uthern pa r t of Israel on the
shore of the Red Sea.
12Following the anthropological ethical code, all the names in this research
have been changed.
13Mainly, the pilgrims visit the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel,
where the angel announced Mary of her upcoming miracu lous conception.
14Both in Jerusalem and in Nazareth.
J. VENTURA 233
clear and permanent element of the public ritual and that is the
beaurocratic element. But Bowman added another crucial ele-
ment which is the internal as well as the external conflicts
(Bowman, 2003) created between social groups taking part in
the religious ritual (Bowman, 1993).
We can see that in this ritual two main elements contradict
and complement each other. On the one hand, elements of so-
cial order, following religious texts and well-defined geography,
hence are creating a sacred site defined by geographical and
transience boundaries. On the other hand, elements of religious
zeal and well-defined emotional asceticism, both institutional-
ized and spontaneous. Furthermore, in this ritual dimensions of
strife and conflict are current. These contradicting yet comple-
mentary elements contribute and create “playfulness” condi-
tions transforming Mary to an a-national15 symbol, on which I
will elaborate in the next chapter.
Mary as a National Symbol: Case Studies
Along history religious iconic figures served as national
symbols in order to further political goals. Such was the case in
different Marian sights, in the island Tinos, in Mexico (Guada-
lupe), Poland (Czestochowa), France (Lourdes), Bosnia (Med-
jugordje), Portugal (Fatima) and in Egypt (Zeitun), and I will
briefly elaborate on these cases in this chapter. But before I
continue, I would like to emphasize an important point. While
religious visions and apparitions are common in the Catholic
world, they are not so in the Greek-Orthodox world. In this
world Mary tends to manifest through sacred icons in different
parts of the world. Each icon has its miracle stories uniquely
exhibiting Mary’s potency16 (Dubisch, 1995). In this chapter I
will illuminate the national attributes of different Marian loca-
tions, and lat e r contradict th e Israeli example with these cases.
1) The Greek Mary of Tinos: On March 25th 1821 the
Greeks rebelled against Turkish rulers and declared a war of
independence. To the nationalist claims were added reli-
gious differences between Christianity (Byzantium and
Greece) and Islam (The Ottoman Empire and Turkey). Fol-
lowing the destruction of the church by Saracens during the
13th century, Greek believers claimed a miraculous recovery
of the local Marian icon, which was then hidden waiting
future conflicts (Seraidari, 2001). On the day the Greek re-
bellion was declared, on March 25th 1821’ according to
Greek tradition, the local Marian icon miraculously ap-
peared in order to help the Greek forces battle the Ottoman
aggression. This incident symbolizes a tendency to adopt
popular religious symbols transforming these to the grow-
ing national identity, hence boosting morale in the face of
the cruel Islamic foreign empire. In this case, Mary, de-
fender of Tinos and Greece itself stands alongside her fol-
lowers, saving them from Turkish invaders. On August
15th17 1940 a pilgrimage ship was drowned off the shores of
the Island of Tinos by an Italian submarine. During the en-
suing naval battles involving Greek and Italian ships the
former announced that the Virgin of Tinos defends the
Greek navy against Italian Fascism (Seraidari, 2001). And
so, in a newspaper appearing on January 1st 1941 the head-
line read “The Panhagia, leader of our army in battle” (“I
Panayía, odhiyítria tou stratóu mas is tas Máhas”). Fur-
thermore, a few years ago the Greek government decided to
make August 15th, Mary’s day of ascension, in the Island of
Tinos to a national holiday of the “military forces”18
(Dubisch, 1995). In the Greek case Mary is not only the na-
tional benefactor and protector facing external enemies, but
also internal ones and first and foremost the communists.
An interesting point in this regard is that while our story of
Greek autonomy and individuation of the Greek Church is
mainly masculine, the highest number of believers taking
part in Greek Orthodox rituals are women (Ventura, 2011).
2) Mary the Indigenous of Guadalupe: In the case of Gua-
dalupe, Mexico, Mary appeared before an indigenous local
named Juan Diego near Mexico City. As a consequence, in
the year 1531 nine million indigenous Aztecs converted to
Christianity and embraced Catholicism (Horsfall, 2000).
The robe on which Mary’s imprint manifested became, to
our days, one of the most important pilgrimage destinations
in the world. In this case, Mary became a religious key-
symbol in South America only during the 16th century
(Sklar, 2005). Following the conversion of many of the in-
digenous nations, Mary had become not only a symbol of
socio-religious occupation, but a Pan-American symbol
enabling social mobility (Fawrot Peterson, 1991). Between
the years 1924-1935 anti-clerical revolutionaries in Mexico
depicted La Virgen de Guadalupe on their banner as a
symbol of the revolution and dying while crying “Vive
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe!”. Not only individuals took
Mary as their symbols, but Mary’s church in Guadalupe
served as a focal point for revolutionaries’ demonstrations
(Perry & Echeverria, 1988).
3) The Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Defender of Po-
land: The Black Madonna at Jasna Gora19 in Czestochowa,
Poland has been transformed to a national symbol after
aiding the Polish Kingdom during the 14th century. Ac-
cording to local traditions, Luke painted Mary while she
told him of the happenings of Jesus’ life and death, what
became the Gospel by Luke. Due to these reasons (healing
and guarding abilities) The Black Madonna of Czestochowa
has become a national symbol and a Polish Patron defend-
ing the country against heathens and enemies. For example,
not only did The Black Madonna stood against Swedish
conquest attempts during the 17th century, but also stood in
favor of Polish independence movement during the 1980es
in a struggle against atheist and communist doctrines
4) Mary the Healer of Lourdes: During the year 1858 Mary
appeared 18 times in the small village of La Salette near
Lourdes in France to a local 14 year-old girl named Berna-
dette Soubirous. In the local Grotto where Mary appeared a
stream started to flow, stimulating several medical miracles,
in which cripples began walking and the sick were healed20
According to Keselman (1978), the Church used different
visions and apparitions during history as a tool of empow-
erment against claims of rationality and science21. The
Lourdes’ apparitions supplied the French Church ample
proof as to the relevance and importance of Mary, in con-
tradiction to scholars’ beliefs. As a consequence, these ap-
15By the term a-national symbol I do not mean dimensions of conflicts in
the way of post-Marxist theories but rather the adaptation of a religious
symbol by marginalized social groups.
16For example, so me women, Gr eek and Pales tinians , told me of the heal ing
abilities of the icons of the Matoxion and Gethsemane in Jer usalem.
17The date is meaningful since it is the day of Mary’s ascension.
18And indeed in th e Tinos official site (www.tino s.biz) one can fi nd numer-
ous pictures depicting Greek infantrymen and naval officers taking part in
the procession on the Island and even bearing the Mary’s icon in thei r arms.
19The Black Madonna’s location follows Eliade’s theory since its name
translates as “the Ill uminated Mountain” or “Mountain of Light”.
20The crutches of the healed are suspended in the grotto till this day.
paritions drew the attention of Pope Pius 10th (Harris, 1999;
Dahlberg, 1991; Eade & Sallnow, 1991). Every year over 4
million pilgrims visit Lourdes, mainly between Easter and
the day of Mary’s Ascension in mid-August. “Rome is the
head of the church, but Lourdes is its heart”, say the pil-
grims, meaning that while the “brain” of the Church stands
in St. Peter, its heart lies in Lourdes. Believers viewed Ber-
nadette as a living saint present at the site, and even other
sick believers as saints sent by Jesus to test their faith
(Dahlberg, 1991). In this context we can interpret sick and
ailing believers as bridging the gap between our mundane
daily world and the heaven above (Eliade, 2005, 1991).
5) The Mother of Peace, Mary of Medjugorje: While Eliade
wrote of the sacred site located at a central location, the
Bosnian case better resembles Turner & Turner’s interpre-
tation of marginally located sacred sites. The Bosnian site
of Medjugorje became a central religious pilgrimage site,
sacred to the three monotheistic religions in the area
(Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims), only after Mary ap-
peared before several local children which during their reli-
gious trance felt no pain and lost grasp of reality (Jurkovich
& Gesler, 1997). In the village of Medjugorje after appear-
ing to several local children in 1981 till now22 Mary appears
at the local church and delivers messages of worldly peace
to her followers (Horsfall, 2000). The Bosnian case is in-
teresting for it resembles some of the attributes of the Israeli
ritual: a sacred site standing in the core of a socio-cultural
conflict between different groups vying for political lever-
age. Researchers see the apparitions of Medjugorje as an
ample example of using a religious meta-symbol for politi-
cal goals. Bosnia-Herzegovina, just like other parts of East-
ern Europe in the 1980’s, was under Communist rule,
viewing the Church as an obsolete medieval relics. Mary’s
apparitions in Medjugorje supplied the Church with the
right opportunity to show the local atheist government
God’s might and relevance (Perry & Echeverria, 1988). As
we shall see in the following lines, similarities between
Medjugorje and the Jerusalem ritual are apparent.
a. Both Medjugorje and Gethsemane are located in areas of
religious and political conflict. Furthermore, alongside
religious strife abundant in this region, till the fall of the
Communist state, Bosnia-Herzegovina suffered strug-
gles between atheist governments and religious groups
(Jurkovich & Gesler, 1997). While pessimists viewed
these apparitions as a Christian tool for eliminating
Muslims, others saw Mary as a harbinger of worldly
peace and understanding between opposing socio-cultural
groups (Sudetic, 1993). Rivaling groups turned to the
Scriptures to add textual meaning to the village of
Medjugorje naming it “New Bethlehem” and “The New
Holy Land”, hence adding to their rightful claims
(Jurkovich & Gesler, 1997).
b. Another resemblance between Medjugorje and Mary’s
ritual in Jerusalem are the attempts of local govern-
ments to turn these sacred sites to tourist attractions. In
both cases political conflicts23 resulted in a serious
downfall of tourists arriving at both countries. In both
cases local governemts tried to portray a daily experi-
ence of “business as usual”, and indeed in the years I
have researched the Israeli rituals I saw a steady in-
crease of pilgrims between the years 2003-200924. In
Bosnia-Herzegovina as well numbers of pilgrims are
constantly increasing (Connell, 1992).
c. Finally, another resemblance is a multitude of religious
beliefs in a small geographic location. In the Jerusalem
procession one finds not only Christians but also Mus-
lims, in the same way as Medjugorje attracts different
religious-ethnic groups (Vukonic, 1992), praying to the
same merciful Mother (Pervan, 1987). As a result, Mary
has become a trans-national and multi-cultural symbol
relevant to human beings wherever they come from
since she is a cosmic mother and the “Mother of Peace”
6) Mary of the Poor, Fatima: In 1917 the revolutionary re-
gime declared a separation of state and church and the
abolishment of monasteries. WWI hardships, hunger and
poverty created a reality in which thousands of beggars and
poor folk hungered for food and yearned for saintly and
heavenly help intervention. At the beginning of May 1917,
Mary appeared to 3 Fatima-born children25 for 6 months.
Mary, introducing herself as the “Angel of Peace” and later
that year as the “Angel of Portugal” (Perry & Echeverria,
1988), foretold the children of a future, greater war which
will engulf the world in. Mary also showed the children a
glimpse of the true essence of Hell (Zimders-Swartz, 1991).
Apart for several secret messages Mary’s messages gained
great popularity and spread through the Christian world like
wildfire. During the tragic events between the years
1917-193226 Portugal witnessed 39 governments, mass
demonstrations, bombings, political assassinations, bank-
ruptcy and a brief civil war, which attributed the Cult of the
Virgin un unprecedented popularity (Perry & Echeverria,
7) Mary under the Crescent Moon, Zeitun: Mary’s appear-
ance in the Coptic church of Zeitun (1968), on the outskirts
of Cairo, occurred during a period in which Egyptian au-
thorities tried to rebuild their national pride. After the loss
of the Six Days War, an occurrence of this magnitude could
make thousands of believers flock to the sacred Egyptian
site. Although Mary was not an Egyptian national symbol,
she served a functional goal of nurturing national pride
(Davis & Boles, 2003). The unique feature of Zeitun is the
fact that Mary appeared simultaneously to thousands of be-
lievers who even took her picture hovering over the
chapel’s roof27. Perry & Echeverria (1988) suggested a
theoretical model to analyze religious visions. Accordingly,
the characteristics of modern apparitions are:
a. Background: Social chaos, political and economic crises,
an “ecclesiastic threat” (modern age, science, revolu-
tions, national movements), apparitions occur mostly in
under-developed rural areas.
b. The “seer”: Un uneducated girl, peasant, poor family, had
had former visions or heard of them, has a connection to
other Marian cults.
22Mary’s offic ial messages can be found at www.medjugorje.org
23Civil wars in Bosnia-He rzegovina and th e El-Aqssa Intifada in Israel .
24While in the first procession I witn essed the estimate number of pilgrims
was approximately 2,000, two years later the number reached 5000 and
25Lucia dos Santos, 9 y ears old, and her two cousin s—Franc i s co and Jacinta
26From Mary’s first apparition to the rise of power of Salazar.
27Pictures of the Zeitun apparition can b e found in numerous internet sites.
c. The apparition: Usually begins with a lightning followed
by the appearance of a luminous Lady, clothed in regal
robes, hovering or weeping, describing herself as the
“Virgin” of a certain description.
d. The message: Apocalyptic messages were meant strictly
for the Pope’s ears, usually consisting of a secret part
J. VENTURA 235
meant for the Clergy and a lesser part meant for all
Christians. The need for abstinence, piety and prayer is
adamant in Mary’s message.
e. Miracles: Physical healing, a fountain flowing directly
from the apparition site etc.
f. Reactions: Church officials, dreading heresy, try to abol-
ish the seer’s claims by threatening their families.
Masses gather to the apparition site but are thrown back
by police forces. Slowly, due to local and national
pressure the Pope relents and declares the apparition site
as a sacred site.
The discussed sites are but a mere example, since along his-
tory 21,000 apparitions were documented (Horsfall, 2000). In
the following chapter we will see that although the Israeli site is
one of the most important ones, since it is Mary’s ascension site,
it does not follow the same pattern as other major sites. In the
Israeli site, Mary serves not as a national symbol, but rather as a
marginal symbol, indentified with a marginal community in
Israeli society, Christian Palestinians in general, and Greek
Orthodox in particular.
Israeli reality is saturat ed with conflicts and ethno -religious-cul-
tural differences culminating in violence28. Sered (1991) com-
pared rituals of three monotheistic major female saints29 and
came to interesting similarities: the ritual form and wishes from
the saints; female saints situated in patriarchal worlds. Bowman
(1993) ascertains that the Christian-Palestinian populace in
Israel is situated between a rock and a hard place. On the one
hand, Muslims consider them as non-Arabs, and on the other
hand, Jews consider them as Arabs. As a consequence, situated
in the margin’s margin of Israeli society, many Christian youth
leave Israel and immigrate to neighboring Arabs countries,
Europe or the United States30.
Another important point illuminated by Bowman (1991)
claims that we should view Jerusalem “not [as] a holy city but a
multitude of holy cities”, due to the multitude of religions local
to the area. According to Bowman, Jerusalem depicts a varied
narrative accentuating a multitude of discourse forms dealing
with religion in general, and Jerusalem in particular. I will now
turn to further highlight the case of “Israeli Mary”.
Under the Flag of Blue and White: Israeli Mary
In contrast to other Marian centers I’ve mentioned earlier,
whereas Mary serves as a national symbol, the Jerusalem ritual
is far from this concept. In Marian rituals around the world the
national element is central in its importance. Such is the case in
the French Marian center in Lourdes, which stands as a clear
French national symbol to all the pilgrims arriving there (and
the connection to Marian is not trifle). In the Israeli case, how-
ever, Mary not only does not represent the Israeli state but is
even viewed as an “anti-national” symbol eliminating the Is-
raeli context from the religious reality of the procession. As we
have seen, in all the other cases I have portrayed, Mary is
viewed, by locals as well as pilgrims, as a national symbol. In
Lourdes Mary is a “French saint”, alongside other major female
figures such as Marian and Jeanne d’Arc. In Bosnia, different
ethno-religious groups vied to take control over the apparition
site and “nationalize” Mary. In the Polish case, Mary has been a
priori “canonized” as a Polish patron since the 16th century. In
the Mexican case, Mary of Guadalupe has been seen as a pan-
Latino saint as early as the 19th century (Bosca, 2005).
In contrast, Mary in the Jerusalem ritual is a marginalized
symbol (Sa’ar, 1998), or even a symbol of the margin’s mar-
gin31. Furthermore, none of the groups participating in the ritual
view themselves as Israeli. Pilgrims bear their nationalities
(Greek, Russian, Balkan or other), manifested by a European
passport, during their visit to Israel (Bowman, 1991), while
Greek-Orthodox Palestinians describe themselves in a-national
definitions, as we can see in Andonis’ description:
Jonathan: So you define yourselves as Greeks living in Is-
rael which is not Greece, but a Greek province?
Andonis: Look, I am an Israeli citizen, but I am Greek, and
in my passport is written “Greek nationality”, I cannot deny it, I
have been living here for 55 years but I was born in Greece.
Greek-Orthodox Palestinians prefer to define themselves as
Palestinian, even those living in Israel, not only in the Palestin-
ian Territories32. A for the personal identity of the Palestinian
believers, the most common description was one of confusion
and lack of identity coherence, as described Emile, a Palestin-
ian resident of the Old City of Jerusalem:
Jonathan: So, upon asking, what is yours, Samir’s or Aziz’
identity, will you describe yourself as Greek, Christian, Arab,
Emile: It is a constant dilemma we live with, and a very dif-
ficult one. As for myself, personally, since I was a child, they
always said we were Arabs, and this new reality in which we
live in, the first and second intifadas and all these occurrences,
many things shattered along the way, it is like in the last inti-
fada Christian Palestinians were seen as traitors, and why? be-
cause they refused to fight the Jews.
Jonathan: Who viewed them as traitors? Muslims?
Emile: And why? Because we do not go and kill [the Jews]
because it is forbidden in our faith, it is very simple; we don’t
have a concept of struggling violently on a piece of land or
Jonathan: And Jews view you as second-rate citizens?
Emile: True, not only as second-rated citizens but as ene-
Jonathan: Because you are Arab?
Emile: Exactly .
Jonathan: Meaning, that the Jews view you as Arabs, and
the Muslims see you as collaborating with the Israeli govern-
As we see in this description, Emile’s identity is not Israeli
and not Arab, since these definitions stem from religious-based.
The problematic situation of Greek-Orthodox Palestinians led
me to think of the term a-national symbol in relation to the
complex relationship between nationality, religion and Marian
processions. In the term a-national symbol I do not mean to
imply hegemonic political struggles such as portrayed by
post-Marxist theories, but rather a tendency of marginalized
ethno-religious groups to adopt a meta-symbol, while staying in
society’s margins, hence marginalizing the said symbol.
Greek-Orthodox Palestinians in Israel do not view Mary as a
meta-symbol nor as a national symbol, but rather take part in a
process in which Mary is marginalized by the nation state. In
that manner one may better understand Emile’s description of
28Such a case happened in a Greek-Orthodox procession taking part on
September 5th 2005, when Jewish residents of the Old City of Jerusalem
confronted prie sts leading the procession:
29Mary, Rachel and Fatima.
30Christian Palestinians I have interviewed in the Old City of Jerusalem and
azareth have described the sam e.
31The Palestinians are a marginal group in Israeli society, and Christian
Palestinians are a margin of Palestinian society.
32As did informants describe both in Jerusa lem and Nazareth.
the Marian procession taking part in Jerusalem:
Jonathan: So, when I take part in the procession, whether I
am a Greek or Serbian believer, I am still in Israel, right? Do I
take part in an Israeli ritual or a global one?
Emile: It is exactly global, Orthodox is Orthodox, and how
did they invent this thing called Orthodox? There were different
opinions and heated arguments in the Church, whether to go
“by the book” or by the Patriarch, and then there was the split-
ting between the Catholics and the Christians [Orthodox], and
the Catholics created the tradition of canonizing a person after
As we see in Emile’s description, in the Orthodox world
Mary is not related to the national state in the same way as in
Catholicism. In this case, Mary is viewed as a global,
Pan-Orthodox symbol, which is excluded from the Israeli geo-
graphical reality. In that way, pilgrims or Greek-Orthodox Pal-
estinians arriving at Gethsemane at the highlight of the proces-
sion see Mary not as a part of the Israeli context, but rather as a
global Christian symbol or as a Pan-Greek-Orthodox meta-symbol.
The Greek flag furling above Gethsemane’s entrance dulls the
global context, but accentuates the separation of the sacred site
of the Israeli nation state, as we can clearly understand from
Emile’s and Samir’s description:
Jonathan: At the end of August I went to Gethsemane and I
saw there a Greek flag.
Emile: Of course you saw a Greek flag. But the Greeks in-
sisted a Greek flag should fly there, since they rule the area.
Jonathan: And what would think a tourist or pilgrim arriv-
ing at the site and seeing a Greek flag there?
Emile: If he is Greek-Orthodox he will think the area is
Greek, but it is a fact that it is Greek.
Jonathan: and how does that relate with the fact that he is
standing on Israeli soil?
Samir: Just as he goes to his local church, they [pilgrims] do
not relate to that.
Jonathan: Does the pilgrim think only of Mary?
Samir: Yes. In the church when you attend, you come to a
church according to its patron saint and repent from your sins,
that’s what matters, what might drive him crazy is if the au-
thorities deny access to the church […]
Jonathan: And when a Greek peasant walks along the pro-
cession’s route and sees the Greek flag, does he ask himself
whether he is still in Israel or rather in a Greek enclave?
Emile: No. I never think of Israel, now when I go to Greece I
feel a national pride.
Jonathan: Do you feel you are Greek?
Emile: Let’s say that they [Greek authorities] would never
make you feel as a Greek, but as a Greek-Orthodox you will
always fell Greek inside […] till today I cannot explain myself
why and how I feel Greek inside, but my heart is Greek.
According to this exchange, Gethsemane is viewed as a
Greek complex, but an Orthodox believer descending the
church’s stairs does not view the site as Greek but rather as
globally-Orthodox. Furthermore, while Israeli society excludes
these believers from the mainstream national identity, they feel
pride in their Greek patriotism. In this description Mary as a
religious symbol is not viewed as a national symbol but rather
as a marginalized icon symbolizing socio-cultural groups ex-
cluded by the Israeli government. In this a-national context the
Israeli contents is pushed into a corner of the believers’ con-
sciousness. In that way, we do not deal with a patriotic pride
but rather an individual separation from the national ethos and
the creation of a socio-cultural group standing under a religious,
rather than a national, flag.
In both the main groups taking part in this procession the
term a-national ritual takes a different form. In the Greek
population the term is manifested in the form of exporting
Greek ideas, values and norms and the annulment of Israeli
values and norms while keeping unique cultural attributes
(Bowman, 1991, 1993)33. In the Greek-Orthodox Palestinian
communities as well, the main socio-cultural norms and values
are not Israeli but either Arab-Palestinian or western-European,
manifested in seeing higher education in Europe or the United
States as a first stage in a successful immigration process, or a
growing tendency to immigrate to Western countries such as
Europe, Canada or the United States. In this outlook Israel is
seen as an “immigration springboard” to more liberal and mul-
Finally, I would like to illustrate the fine line separating the
dual meaning of this unique Marian procession. On the one
hand, we witness a very emotional, personal and experiential
ritual for the individual believer. On the other hand, we witness
a very orderly ritual accentuating social norms and values.
During this ritual a marginalized group uses the religious plat-
form of the ritual in order to express socio-cultural emotions
and even creating an anti-national protest. In this regard we can
better understand the term I have suggested in this article, an
a-national ritual consistent of anti-national socio-religious
In contrast to other research approaches differentiating the
diverse elements of the ritual, emotional and a-personal, spon-
taneous and planned, public and personal, secular and religious,
we need to take all these elements in order to better understand
religious rituals in complex societies. The ritual I have por-
trayed in this article consists of spontaneous elements as well as
well-defined and organized ones; this ritual consists of per-
sonal-experiential elements alongside public-collective ele-
ments. Therefore, in order to better understand it we should
combine different theories of solidarity and conflict and to
search and interpret other dimensions of religious ritual in gen-
eral. Only through multi-faceted approaches we would be able
to truly comprehend religious rituals in all their complexities.
Finally, the terms a-national ritual and anti-national ritual,
will benefit, in my eyes, sociological and anthropological re-
searches not only in the understanding of religious rituals, but
of marginalized social groups standing in the midst of an
ethno-cultural conflict. Using these terms will enable research-
ers the flexibility to better understand religious rituals through
national concepts in general, and in areas of conflict in particu-
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