No women allowed

With donkeys and goats competing for space with plastic bags and rubbish of all sorts, the Judean desert isn’t what you’d call pristine. Actually, what I’ve seen of Palestine so far leaves a lot to be desired in terms of cleanliness. There’s rubbish everywhere. People nonchalantly toss plastic bottles out of cars as if they were apple cores that would magically biodegrade. It’s hard to imagine why, in a region so dependent on tourism, that some bright spark in the Ministry of Tourism doesn’t do something about it.

Driving deep into the desert, where the only things growing are olive trees and scrub, what fences there are have trapped flying plastic and empty beer cans. Miles from anywhere, evidence of human carelessness abounds. It was putting me in a bad mood.

IMG_7687 (800x600)IMG_7724 (600x800)When we switched to a smaller bus to navigate the windy roads to the Mar-Saba monastery, I could feel my blood pressure rising with the temperature. Closer to the ground, I was closer to the detritus. And then, when we got there and were told that only men were allowed inside, I was fit to be tied. It’s the twenty-first century, people.

Saba himself, the chap who may or may not have founded the places in the fifth century AD, came from Cappadocia. He lived in  cave near the present site of the monastery for about 10 years and, when he was 45, he established what’s known as a Laura – a cluster of caves or cells of hermits residing around the central monastery. (Even his mother wasn’t allowed inside…) A second account by one James Kean, says that it may have been founded by Saba’s teacher –  St Euthymius. Seems like the region is awash with either/ors, mights and maybes.

IMG_7715 (800x600)IMG_7693 (800x600)So when the men go inside to see the heads of old monks, and the body of Saba himself, and God only knows what else, the women content themselves by writing out petitions which they hand in to a monk (Greek Orthodox) on duty at the entrance and in return receive some oil and a postcard. I’m all for tradition and I know I’m on record as saying that the feminist streak in me is small enough to go unnoticeable, but for some reason, this upset me hugely.

IMG_7721 (800x600)IMG_7723 (600x800)IMG_7732 (580x800)That said, it didn’t seem to bother anyone else. Reputedly one of the oldest monasteries in which monks still live, it’s about half way between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, overlooking the Kidron valley. With tour buses disgorging passengers every 30 minutes or so, the place was awash with people from all over the world. Folk groups brought their guitars and sang from the cliff side. One female choir pitched up outside the doors and sang the same tune over and over and over again. Perhaps that was their sweet revenge!

IMG_7714 (800x600)No matter what I might think of it being so exclusive, the place itself is nonetheless impressive, standing as it does in the middle of nowhere. It’s been around for eons and despite repeated invasions, it’s stood the test of time.IMG_7710 (800x600)

The shepherds’ field

I can read the book or see the movie. I can’t do both. Well, I can, but any time I have, I’ve been disappointed. Nicole Kidman in as Ada Monroe in Cold Mountain? Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard in The Beach? And I won’t even mention what’s his name as Jack Reacher!

I was brought up on The Bible. I used to read a passage every night. I know the ins and outs, the characters, the plots … and being in Bethlehem is a little like being on set; being in the movie rather than watching it.

IMG_7639 (800x646)The Shepherd’s Field is home to a grotto marking the place some think the angel appeared and told the three shepherds of the coming of Christ. The modern church – The Church of the Angels – was designed by Antonio Barluzzi, known as the Architect of the Holy Land, back in 1954. It’s a lovely space. Built to suggest the open sky under which the angel appeared, to my uneducated architectural mind, it captures the essence of the moment.

IMG_7644 (800x600)The church has three frescos: one where the angel announces the birth of Jesus; a second of the shepherds in adoration; and a third of their return to Egypt.

IMG_7647 (589x800)IMG_7642 (800x599)Mind you, there’s said to be a 300-year gap in the literature – or at least in the documenting of where these biblical happenings actually happened – IMG_7641 (800x600)so this, like many other spots in the region, is subject to debate. Whether or not the angel appeared in Beit Sahur is under question. That said, it certainly doesn’t take from the beauty of the place.

Underneath  is a cave that was in use a church by the Greek Orthodox until 1955. And from the side of the excavations we could see some Israeli settlements in Palestine. Quite strange to see them nudging their way in and I have to wonder why the Palestinians don’t just build on the land instead.

IMG_7666 (800x586)IMG_7665 (800x600)There are about 1.5 million Palestinians with Israeli passports living in Israel. When I asked how this went down with those who have stayed at home, I was told that it’s not an issue. They might earn their money in Israel, but they spend it in Palestine. Here, they like the US dollar. The ATM offered me Jordanian dinar (?) and the street vendors are happy with shekels. Seems like money is money… I should try to see how far I’d get with some Hungarian forints.

 

 

 

Geographically challenged

Yesterday, I thought I was heading to Israel. This morning I woke up in Palestine. Perhaps I should have read the itinerary more carefully. Or perhaps not. When asked at immigration what my plans were, I said that I was going to Tel Aviv and then to Jerusalem. That I was meeting up with a scout group from Serbia and Macedonia (turns out there are six countries on this trip). And that no, I didn’t have any friends or family in Israel. Two out of three ain’t bad I suppose.

Waiting to be identified at the airport, I didn’t feel any anxiety despite my lack of preparedness. As each passenger on my flight made their way towards the exit, I stood centre concourse with by bag wondering what I’d do if nobody showed. I still thought I was staying in Tel Aviv. Not for the first time I marvelled at how easily I abdicate responsibility when someone else takes charge. If I don’t have to make decisions, I switch off completely.

http://jewfondue.blogspot.com/

http://jewfondue.blogspot.com/

On the drive to the wall (the military structure that separates Israel from Palestine on the outskirts of Bethlehem) we passed many Hasidic Jews (not at all strange really, considering we were in Israel). They wear their hats set back on their heads, showing lots of forehead. Black suits and dark shirts made it feel as if we were on the set of a black and white movie and the a fleeting notion black-and-white approaches snagged somewhere in my brain. There seemed to be mainly men, many of whom were pushing prams. Young boys, teens, older men … pushing prams. I’m not sure why that struck me as odd…but it did.

The first twinges of embarrassment at my complete ignorance of the geopolitical situation in the region started to make themselves felt when Serge began to explain to me about the Green Line: the demarcation lines set out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its neighbours after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and also used to mark the line between Israel and the territories captured in the Six-Day War, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula (the last has since been returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty). The name derives from the green ink used to draw the line on the map while the talks were going on.

The plan was that we would take a shuttle (one of the many mini-buses that ferry passengers to Jerusalem from the airport at Tel Aviv) to the line and then use one of the enterprising local drivers to ferry us through the checkpoint into Bethlehem. Each trip nets the company $200 although the drivers themselves, working 16-hour days might net $1300 in a month. Despite this, our chap was well happy and constantly laughing and smiling. When the ten well-travelled bodies in his van began to hum, he passed around a sprig of basil. A natural air freshener that I have made note to try.

When we arrived at the wall, I was glad I had company. We were five in all so the Macedonians (having waited for me at the airport for two hours) went in the first car. The driver was supposed to come back for us … but didn’t. As we waited on the side of the litter-strewn road in the shadow of the wall I was itching to take some photos but was advised not to. They’re serious about their military installations.

Eventually we walked through. We met old-fashioned steel turnstiles and a maze of cage-like passageways lined with high railings. Stumbling over uneven pathways I was grateful yet again that I wasn’t on my own. Even if it was Serge’s first time in 15 years make the crossing on foot, at least he could speak the language. The passageway opened into a cul-de-sac where half a dozen yellow cabs stood waiting. The drivers greeted us like old friends asking where we’d come from. Judging by their enthusiasm, Ireland is popular in Palestine. A couple who had seen us waiting on the other side approached and asked if they could be of help; they thought we were trying to go to Israel and had turned back. They offered to drive us to our hotel. I couldn’t help but be impressed at the genuine warmth of the welcome and the constant smiles of the people. It was like old home week. One of the drivers told me that John Carey was also expected to pass through later …

IMG_7633 (800x600)IMG_7634 (800x600)At the hotel, having checked in, had a beer with some of the others, and Skyped home, I ventured out to my balcony to check the view. Not quite what I’d expected. It seems that inside is more important than outside when it comes to aesthetics in this part of the world – the view mightn’t be much but the hotel itself is lovely.

As Day 1 of the journey dawns, breakfast beckons and suitably attired for what they’re calling a ‘church day’, I’m ready to see more of Bethlehem and what it might offer.

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