The Netherlands Institute for the Near East

Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten  -  Institut néerlandais du Proche-Orient

24 May 15:00

The Strange Case of Simon the Just and his Veneration

Salim Tamari

Gravensteen: “Schepenkamer” (room 0.11)

Popular Religious Ceremonials and Photographic Ethnography. The Strange Case of Simon the Just and his Veneration

The Spring festivities of Simon the Just’s day in Jerusalem was one of several popular religious rituals that crossed religious and urban rural boundaries, bringing together various religious communities together quite often in contrast, and sometimes in conflict, with official religious policies. Those included the shrines/festivals of the Virgin Mary, Nebi Musa (the Prophet Moses), and most significantly the season of Nebi Rubin (St Reuven) in Jaffa, whose season was richly captured by the camera of Frank Scholten in the 1920s. Simon the Just festivities were also captured by another famous photographer, Maynard Owens Williams in the mid-1920s, in a series of hitherto unpublished images that reflect the “Arab-Jewish” presence on his site.

Two major transformations impacted the veneration of Simon the Just, along with most other popular saints and prophets whose ‘seasons’ (mawasim) were an essential feature of popular ceremonials in Palestine. The first was the process of secularization that emerged in the early years of the 20th century before WWI, which essentially re-configured the ceremonial into a social event, a public outing, almost bereft of its religious origins. This is the case that we also witness with the celebrations of Nebi Rubin in Jaffa.

The second was a process of nationalization of the ceremonial in favor of a nationalist interpretation of the event. This is what happened to the mawsim of Nebi Musa in the 1930s, ostensibly a return to its original purpose as established by Salah Ed Din in the 12th century as a pre-emptive deterrence against the possibility of Christian pilgrimage turning into a military campaign. During the rebellion of 1936 Nebi Musa became a rallying cry for Palestinian mobilization against Zionist immigration and the Balfour Declaration. Simon the Just’s tomb however remained dormant throughout the mandate period and continued to be celebrated throughout the Mandate and a center for communal harmony by Muslims, Christians, and Sephardic (Arab) Jews until the 1990s when it became a rallying cry for the settler’s movement in the Sheikh Jarrah area. In my discussion I will explain how and why the veneration of Simon the Just illustrated these facets of religious syncretism how the photographs of Maynard Williams open to us a new reading of these ceremonials.

Salim Tamari (Institute for Palestine Studies) is Professor of Sociology (em.) at Birzeit University.

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