Dear Intrepid Travelers,
Road to Jerusalem
Following the path of Jesus with fellow pilgrims in January would not be complete without a stop at the River Jordan. Our group of thirty-nine from Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle and Immanuel Episcopal Church on Mercer Island had mixed feelings about leaving the calm of the Galilean region. We boarded our bus heading for Bethlehem and thence to Jerusalem. I had a slight sense of foreboding as the bus left the intermingling of rural green, Arab farms, Bedouin herders and Jewish settlements. We drove south to Jericho on highway 90, a narrow two-lane road, passing through a checkpoint from Israel into the West Bank just south of Beit She ‘an. I was grateful Shepherd Tours took care of these details. Israeli officials respect this Palestinian Christian tour company (established in 1965) and our bus passed the formalities of inspection without delay.
Very quickly, I noticed subtle changes in the landscape. Verdant fields, productive agricultural areas were fenced with barbed wire. Vast tracks of banana groves planted for export were protected by gauze canopies and enclosed with fencing. No shepherds tended flocks of sheep and goats. Military posts with low-lying buildings dotted the region. We were driving through Section C, land in the West Bank (Palestinian) held and managed by Israeli authorities for security, planning and construction. A Palestinian hamlet—we passed through several—had restricted access to the surrounding land. The villages contained gardens and ancient olive groves, but roads led nowhere. Take a look at the map to see that Palestinian autonomous authority (called area A or A & B) pertains to cities, town and villages, but not to the adjacent open land.
We were there as pilgrims, Christian tourists, but I couldn’t help but become engaged in the politics of everyday life. I tried to imagine what it would be like to want to expand my orange grove, plant a few new olive trees or take my flock of sheep to richer grazing area only to find I was prohibited. Israeli authorities consider these expanded farming activities a security risk.
En route, we took a quick break at a rest stop with its reminder of the ’48 war.
Lunch and a camel riding opportunity beneath the Monastery of the Temptation. Jesus supposedly spent forty days resisting the Devil and preparing himself for his ministry.
The Jordan River is chilly and cold/ it heals the body and warms the soul.
The Jordan River runs thick and brown, over flowing its banks because of recent rains. The Israeli military authority manages the site presumed to be where John baptized Jesus. The Israeli Dept. of Tourism constructed it in 2011 in response to the Christian tourist industry. Approaching the Jordan River valley through desolate empty land patrolled by Israeli military gave me an otherworldly experience. The landscape is devoid of human habitation. The land belongs to Palestine but Palestinians have no access to it. No Jewish settlements have been built (they would be “occupying” Palestinian land). But Jewish settlements have been established in many other areas of Palestinian land, just not here, yet.
Palestine and Jordan are swimming pool width distance from each other. Churches pepper the Jordanian side. On the Israeli controlled side, Christian tourists gather to renew their baptismal vows. Suspending politics, I was able to imagine First Century followers of Jesus coming to the river for ritual cleansing, as was the practice of the Qumran Jewish sect. John may have been part of this sect who awaited the coming of a Messiah. Our group prayed, sang and listened to the baptismal passage from the Gospel.
Before turning toward Bethlehem for our hotel, we stopped for a later afternoon swim in the Dead Sea. Again the road led through Israeli controlled Area C land to a large tourist parking lot and accommodations for the fun experience we were about to have. Lockers for our clothes, a place to change into bathing suits or makeshift swimming costumes, towels for rent and water for drinking. Even though the day had been too cool for this Oklahoma girl to consider swimming, the Dead Sea is deep enough below sea level to be plenty warm. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
We couldn’t escape politics as we drove to Bethlehem. The road goes through territory that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis govern effectively. Bethany, where Mary and Martha are said to have lived, and Lazarus is said to have been raised from the dead, is the second largest concentration of Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank. Its modern name, al-Azariya, Area B, is a jointly governed Palestinian Authority town. The PA is responsible for traffic, garbage collection, civic water and electricity distribution while the Israeli government maintains security. Our bus crawled through impossible congestion passed crowded tenement blocks, and along the edge of a concrete barrier built in 2004 that now curtails the lively commerce in the strip of shops along the road, which drew both Arab and Jewish customers. Palestinians Arabs live on both sides of the wall and have great difficulty getting back and forth to farmland, jobs, shops, and schools. We stared out the bus windows in silent disbelief that any political battle could so interfere with the daily lives of good people. We heaved a sigh of relief when we arrived in Bethlehem. At least its narrow winding streets are well lit with traffic signals that work and a sense of order completely absent in Bethany.
Few tourists spend the night in Bethlehem. I appreciated our two nights in a slightly rundown but once lavish hotel built into the side of a steep hill. The formal entrance to the gardens, outdoor dining and bar/reception is right off Manger Square. We entered from a side street three floors below. It was dark when we got there. We all agreed to the delayed arrival in order to patronize a Christian-owned shop selling beautiful religious items from hand painted crèche figures, elaborate altar crosses and candlesticks, gold and silver jewelry, prayer rugs and olive wood ornaments. The family members who served us were so grateful for customers. Unrest on the West Bank has kept tourists away. We were the second group to shop there that day.
Once we checked into our rooms and ate dinner, we were encouraged to stay in for the night due to the assassination of a Palestinian youth at a nearby checkpoint.
Early the next morning, I was in Manger Square, its Christmas tree and decorations still in place to accommodate the Armenian Orthodox celebration of the birth of Jesus (January 18) and the arrival of the Magi two weeks later. The Church of the Nativity is right next to an enormous mosque. Tony Azraq, our Palestinian Christian guide, explained that a dozen or more new mosques have been built in recent years. The mosques are gifts from Muslims in other countries who believe that building a mosque ensures entry to heaven. Their calls to prayer compete with each other and the sounds of church bells ringing a competitive cacophony.
I had a hard time wrapping my head around The Church of the Nativity. Layer upon layer of commemorative building detracted from the humble beginning we attribute to Jesus. I watched other groups of Christians kiss the Silver Star burst signaling the place the birth is to have taken place, but I could not find similar veneration in myself. As Tony, a trained archaeologist, suggested to us, when Mary and Joseph asked for a place to sleep, the man probably offered the lower level of his house, a space given over to the animals whose warmth rose to heat the family’s living quarters overhead. It was unheard of in first century Palestine to turn a stranger away and making space with their livestock would have been normal hospitality.
The Church of the Nativity is one of few structures that survived from the crusader period. Three different orders of nuns occupy spaces attached to the central nave. Excavations reveal Fourth Century mosaics. Such a grand building for such a humble event!
Nearby, Shepherds Field sits below the gleaming suburb of Israeli settlers. Because Bethlehem is fifteen minutes from Jerusalem, professional Jews prefer living as occupiers in Palestinian territory. They pay no taxes to the Israeli government even though they carry Israeli citizenship, because they are “settlers” colonizing new homeland for Israel. They travel by freeway in and out of the city, a highway only available to cars with Israeli license plates, yellow in color, in contrast to Palestinian license plates which are white.
But let us concentrate on the antiquities before us.
Tony explained the significance of the presence of shepherds at the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. A shepherd was the lowest of the low. Illiterate, small of stature, doing a job no one wanted. They were invited to the birth along with the highest of the high, the Magi, foreign dignitaries, exotic wise men.
I get it. All are welcome. I can hear Desmond Tutu in his sing-song voice, All, All, All people are welcome at the table. I remember the disciples catch of 153 fish. I shall make you fishers of men. That includes all people in the known world, all 153 nations.
These stories and symbols of inclusiveness lie in Bethlehem alongside structures of horrible, dramatic modern day exclusion. Witness the settlement behind the excavation above. Look closely to see the white apartment blocks in a line just below the hill covered with modern condos. Then a green no-man’s land, then Palestinian apartment blocks. Witness the separation wall, sometimes described as a security fence, barrier. Its maximum height is 25 feet high and runs over 400 miles long separating Israel and Palestinian land at a cost of about 2.3 billion dollars.
Despair nearly took over, especially after visiting the Christian orphanage attached to a hospital in Bethlehem. Reduced to less than 2% of the total Israeli/Palestinian population, Christians provide over 40% of the health care. This particular hospital is where young pregnant-out-of-wedlock Muslim girls come to deliver premature babies. This orphanage helps those preemies survive and looks after them for their early years. Any of us would be grateful for our own grandchild to be in the building’s calm interior with its stone floors, colorful nursery, classrooms, sleeping areas, clean toileting and washing up areas. There was no lack of equipment. The devoted director spoke to us of the non-future of these children. Islam does not allow adoption. They have no families. In Sharia Islamic law, their existence brings shame to the family. We didn’t find out what happens to the girls, their mothers.
With tears in our eyes and heavy hearts, we went to the International Center of Bethlehem and met Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb and his assistant. Their enthusiasm and hope for their country’s future bubbles over as they talk and show their slides. This is a cross-cultural place where everyone regardless of their ethnic or religious background is welcome to come and live their stories. They use art, dance, song, games to interact and discover the common language and experience in every human being, a yearning to love and be loved, to be understood and to understand. Individuals in our group bought all of Dr. Raheb’s publications, clear-eyed stories of the history and struggle in the region and the individual and collective refusal to give in to a politics of separation.
As we boarded the bus at 8 a.m. on January 13, we left a Bethlehem bracing itself for a funeral procession. Manger Square filled early with cars and people ready to carry their beloved teenager, a young boy shot in a checkpoint skirmish the previous day. Dr. Raheb’s message of hope was dimmed by this tragedy, but not extinguished. Like Jesus, we turned our faces to the seat of power.
Jerusalem is a gleaming modern city including in its environs ancient shrines, walls, markets, burial grounds, museums and 5th Ave. rivaling shopping malls. Please watch for the next post for an account of our time in Jerusalem.
In peace, Betsy
Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your comments.