In and out of the West Bank around Jerusalem today!
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Ron, my guide has the licence that gives us freedom of passage, but requiring prior telephone notification to the Military for visiting the towns of Jericho and Bethlehem. The hotel concierge was suggesting an Israeli taxi to the checkpoint and having a Palestinian taxi meet me there and drive me to Bethlehem. He was also very dismissive of anything of interest over there other than the Church of the Nativity. The complexity, and cost of such a small half-day arrangement is affirmation of the value of investing in my own guide for the duration.
Continuing towards the biblical town of Jericho, the desert is dry, white, inhospitable and unforgiving in the hot sun. I can’t imagine how the ‘ancient fathers’ survived going from one town to the next, but Ron tells me, “Think Bedouin”. My friend Father John writes from Bangalore only this morning, “Michael, do the walk that Jesus is said to have done several times: from Jerusalem to Jericho through the wilderness. Take plenty of water with you, however.” He’s gotta be kidding!
We stop to view the Mount of Temptation above Jericho (Mount Quarantania), where Satan tempted Jesus, but as I took a cable car up to see King Herod’s fortification at Masada yesterday, I am quite satisfied with merely taking a photo of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Temptation nestling up near the top of the cliff here.
Driving through that part of Jericho where we’re allowed access, the scene takes me back in time; to the poor parts of other Arab countries; and we’re only twenty minutes from a very prosperous Israel across the desert. Israeli Ron blames Palestinians’ own corruption for the people not receiving services and progress that international communities are supposed to be providing. Sigh!
On the way out of town we stop, where other pilgrims stop, to see the Sycamore Tree that the tax collector, Zacchaeus climbed in order to get a better view of Jesus. (How can a Sycamore Tree be 2,000 years old?) But it serves to illustrate a familiar story in Luke’s gospel.
Finally in Bethlehem and walking across Manger Square, I can only imagine how cold it would be if I were here for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve with Andrew and his family that was on the cards a couple of months ago.
I have to bend to go inside a very small front door of the Church of the Nativity. (We don’t want any attacking Moslems charging through the doors of this most sacred of sites, on horses!) I’m struck by the simplicity. Double rows of columns run down each side of the nave that has a high wooden roof. In the centre, there are remnants of an old mosaic floor gifted by St Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great in the 4th century.
A grey-robed, corpulent priest drops the red cord holding back the people from entering the Sanctuary, and lets me in. I can see close-up the Iconostasis shielding the Main Altar, but I kneel there to say my prayer and avoid standing in a long line of pilgrim groups waiting to go below where I kneel into the Grotto of the Nativity.
I want to pay a visit to a convent in Ein Kerem to take greetings from a friend in Sydney to a nun in the Order of Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion, Sister Colette. This involves passing through a checkpoint back into Israel where we drive through the Separation Wall. So depressing, and dehumanizing!
Waiting in a queue, and finally surrendering to one of many pesky vendors tapping at the window of the car to sell us water (that was probably bottled from the tap), I’m moved by his reproach and a pleading in his eyes when he says plaintively, “I’m only human”. The graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall reads, “To exist is to resist”.
Ein Kerem is a lovely ending to the day. This old Arab town that was never damaged in any of the wars is in a scented valley of pine trees, cool and green, and the bucolic atmosphere is often referred to as Tuscany. It was in this town that John the Baptist was born, and I see the cave in the Church of St John the Baptist.
Further down in the valley, I don’t get past the Well where Mary stopped on her journey to visit the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and so I miss seeing the Church of the Visitation where she proclaimed her famous ‘Magnificat’. Sr Colette’s convent is on the other side of the hill, and I have to walk there before dark.