Our final morning in Jerusalem began with Mass at 7am in the Ecce Homo Church. It was built in the 1860s and incorporates part of Hadrian’s original archway. We were led by Fr Michael today, with Sheila saying the readings and Psalm and Fr Paul proclaiming the Gospel. Fr Mervyn reminded us in his homily that though the Pharisees were good people, they got too caught up in the rules for their own sake and forgot their purpose, which just as in Christianity is to help us love God and our neighbour. Fr Mervyn encouraged us by saying that everyone of us has been chosen by God for a mission, and we all have all been given special and wonderful gifts to help us complete it. As we have done at all our masses during this pilgrimage we prayed for our home parishes and those who have specially asked for our prayers during this time. The Mass concluded with the inspiring hymn – “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.”
We said our farewells to Ecce Homo and headed for the coach at 8.15am, passing through the myriad of alleys that become a bustling market during the day. Today’s is Corina’s birthday, and we sang happy birthday to her – Corina says she’s 29 and we believe her! Fr Mervyn took us through today’s programme which will see us go from 2000ft above sea level to 1300ft below, as we visit the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth.
We are also looking forward to seeing one of the oldest continually habited cities in the world, Jericho, and after lunch travelling along the Jordan Valley to our hotel at Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee. Father assures us that Galilee will feel like a holiday resort after the intenseness of Jerusalem! There is a Rabbinical legend that when God created the world, he made 10 portions of beauty and 10 portions of sorrow and he gave 9 of each to Jerusalem. An apt tale. It was a treat to see the town where Samir lives, Beit Hanina, as we picked him up on the way. The town is a housing project built by the Catholic Church as a way of helping local people who can no longer live in Jerusalem, nevertheless stay in the area. The local Christian school is run by the de la Salle Brothers. Samir is understandably bitter that he pays the same Municipal Taxes as the Jews but their areas receive far better services and opportunities, such as clean streets and parks. There are clearly echoes here of the situation in Northern Ireland in the 1960s that led to the civil rights movement demanding equal treatment for all people regardless of faith.
Our coach took us the direct route along the Jericho Road, unfortunately if we had a Palestinian number plate we would not be allowed to use the road. The journey through the Judean wilderness was fascinating, the landscape is arid and rocky with deep valley and hills. The soil has a distinctive red hue. It is almost impossible for us to truly imagine what life must be like for the many Bedouin tribes that inhabit this area. Their homes are temporary wooden shacks and they tend animals to earn a living. It is a hard life. The sons leave home at sunrise with the goats or sheep and return at sunset for a meal. In April and May they sell white goats’ cheese, which is then preserved with salt by the buyers to make it last the rest of the year. Samir told us about a local Bedouin man with 4 wives and 36 children, who built a school for them all. This is the area that the Good Samaritan passed through and helped the Jewish man attacked by robbers, it is easy to see why it would be such a dangerous area to cross alone. The Good Samaritan Inn can be visited today. People make their living anyway they can, we passed a man with a camel at the side of the road, offering rides to tourists.
Outside Jericho, palm trees are grown and their dates harvested among the wilderness, along with bananas, figs, lemons and oranges. This is the Jordan Valley and as the name suggests it is abutted by the country of Jordan, which has had tempestuous relations with Israel which now controls this region. The climate is much hotter than Jerusalem and more humid, with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees today.
This is the place that Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan by his cousin John. Baptisms still happen here – nearly all of Samir’s family have had this honour. We had the wonderful experience of renewing our own baptismal promises at the spot where Jesus was baptised, and then blessed ourselves with the water – Fr Ka Fai even paddled in it! On a clear day the Mount of Olives can be seen from the banks of the River, linking the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with its end. The Jordan River is also famous for being the place where Elijah ascended to heaven. If we had tried to visit a few years ago we would have been unsuccessful as this was a militarised zone full of land mines and was closed for 40 years.
We entered the modern town of Jericho, passing a baby camel with its mother at the roadside. Jericho is steeped in Biblical history, it was here that Joshua and the Israelites caused the walls to crumble by walking around 7 times and then blowing their trumpets. They were aided in their conquering of the city by one of the most important women in the Bible, Rahab, who betrayed her own people by hanging a red cord out of her window as a sign to the Jews. Joshua cursed anyone who tried to rebuild Jericho and for this reason it is not a popular location with Jewish people and only has one synagogue.
For a time the city was closed by the Israeli government and all the traders lost their businesses. It is now a popular winter holiday destination for Palestinians. It was in Jericho, of course, that Jesus had his famous encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus who climbed a tree to catch a view of his hero. Interestingly, Fr Mervyn revealed that it is possible that Zacchaeus had to climb a tree not because he was too short but because JESUS was! The wording is ambiguous. There is a 700 year old sycamore tree still here in Jericho, those with a basic grasp of history and maths will quickly grasp it can’t have been THE tree, but it gave us a good idea of what the scene may well have looked like 2000 years ago. After reading the story from the Bible, we prayed for all those children and teachers who each year retell this story in their school assemblies and for the priests who manage to remain enthusiastic each time they have to watch it! Those of us expecting a Canadian sycamore were surprised to find a fig sycamore tree instead, which bears little fruits inedible for humans but animals aren’t so fussy. We then read another Bible story that puts Jericho firmly on the pilgrim map – the miracle of the healing of Blind Bartimaeus.
We spotted yet another camel in the street available for rides – in fact the novelty is starting to wear off! Elisha’s Spring, now renamed Sultan Spring Park, marks the place where Elisha made the waters of the Jordan drinkable by adding a handful of salt. Priests still refer to this miracle when they bless water. The water is cool and refreshing, having the mountains as its source, and we were happy to follow Samir’s lead and take a sip.
Old Jericho was excavated during the 20th Century and revealed a fascinating archeological site, though no conclusive evidence as to whether the walls were indeed brought down in a sudden, catastrophic event.
Of course this is also the wilderness area that Jesus spent 40 days and nights in after his baptism, being tempted by the devil. Unlike the Israelites during their 40 years in the wilderness searching for the Promised Land, Jesus did not succumb to Temptation. After reading Matthew’s account we prayed for the strenth to resist temptation ourselves. In 1895 a monastery was built on the ‘Mount of Temptation,’ and is now flanked by a restaurant and cable cars for tourists. At our rest stop, many took the opportunity to sample local freshly squeezed juices from the abundance of fruits that grow in this area. A local camel wasn’t too impressed by us and flashed his teeth as a warning!
We then made the short trip by coach to the Dead Sea, so called because nothing can live in it due to its being 33% salt – most seas in the world have no more than 4 to 6%. The eastern side of the Dead Sea is controlled by Jordan and the western side by Israel. It is 47 miles long and glistens invitingly in the desert heat. Many of us were completely unprepared for its beauty, possibly having been misled by the name. It has a bustling tourist area with full facilities next to it, including showers, changing rooms and a restaurant. Not everyone chose to bathe but those who did enjoyed a magical and what for many will be a once in a lifetime experience. The white sand next to the beach is too hot for most people to walk on with bare feet and sandals are a must. You really do float in it, an amazing feeling. There is the mud, which has healing properties, and some of us chose to cover ourselves from head to foot in it but it was simple to avoid getting muddy if you didn’t want to. Plus it is not like disgusting black mud at home, it feels, as indeed it is, the same as the mud you would receive in a fancy spa. Walking down into the water there are many bumps and crevices and these can easily cause a calamity for the unwary! We spent about 30 minutes in the sea, and many found the heat oppressive on emerging – at over 40 degrees we felt like we were melting! After showering and changing we went for lunch in the Kibbutz run restaurant – eating places seems to have a simple formula here: choose from a selection of salads or pay a bit more and have a hot meal, whichever you choose it is good value for money.
At 2pm we headed off along the Jordan Valley towards Tiberius. Making a quick stop at Qumran where, in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found hidden in caves. These unique documents have given us a wider knowledge of life in Jesus’ time, confirmed the accuracy of Biblical translations down the centuries and given us the Book of Syrac in the original Hebrew. This was very much a journey of two halves, the first hour in the region of Judea continued to display the arid and at times desolate looking landscape we had seen in the morning. But once we passed the Israeli checkpoint and got closer to Galilee there was a previously unseen lushness to the landscape. We received only a cursory inspection at the checkpoint, the luggage hold was opened and a male and female soldier walked down the coach having a swift glance at us, though some people had their passports out ready, they didn’t check them. It was intoxicating to actually see the landscape that forms the backdrop to most of the Old Testament stories – this was where Abraham and Lot parted company, with Lot choosing to take the land closer to the Dead Sea, creating the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It was here that the Masada Jews killed themselves rather than be captured. Jacob and Esau held their reconciliation here after 20 years, following Jacob’s treachery towards his brother. King Saul, the first Jewish king, was beheaded along the route. The list is a long one!
Today the economic wealth of the Israeli Zone C comes from agriculture, tourism and diamond cutting. Mango trees lined the route and it was fascinating to to see how bananas are harvested – each bunch is wrapped on the tree with a colour coded plastic bag that lets the farmer know when to harvest them eg 1 month, 2 months etc. We saw our first McDonalds in the attractive town of Beit Shehan and on entering the outskirts of Tiberius there was another one – this is a highly modernised and sophisticated area. Clearly designed for tourists who want to experience the magnificent beauty of the Sea of Galilee, there are hotels, restaurants, picnic areas, a water park, bars and nightlife. The Sea of Galilee itself is 13 miles long and is fed by the River Jordan, it is a breathtaking sight and a deep contrast to some of the places we had seen just two hours previously.
Our hotel, The Restal, is a delightful tourist hotel with the amenities typical of its type – fridge, TV and wifi in all rooms plus its own swimming pool and an excellent souvenir shop. Our rooms either look out onto the pool area or the Sea of Galilee (admittedly it’s in the distance and there is a much better view of the bus station but it’s still a sea view!) We enjoyed a leisurely evening, taking a dip in the pool, a stroll in the local area, a quiet nap etc, depending on our preferences. Tonight’s meal was an all you can eat buffet with good quality food.
Tomorrow promises to be a delightful day, with a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee…