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The oldest city in the world

IMG_8151 (800x599)Billed as the oldest city in the world, Jericho was one of the few places that saw little action during the two intifadas (Palestinian uprisings, 1987-1993 and 2000-2005)  As a result, the Israeli presence is notable by its absence.  Translated by the Canaanites as the Moon, in Syriac the name Jericho meant scent and odour. Today, the city is known as both The City of Palm and The Garden of God. Ruins discovered here date back 10 000 years, depending on whom you listen to.

I’m a little annoyed at myself that I didn’t find the sycamore tree which the tax collector Zacchaeus climbed to get a better look at Jesus when he entered the city. But then, that’s always a reason to go back.

IMG_8193 (800x600)IMG_8180 (800x497)We visited the city to see the Monastery of the Temptation perched on the side of the Mount of Temptation. This particular Greek Orthodox Monastery allows women in … which was a relief.

IMG_8158 (800x600)To conserve time rather than energy, we opted for the 5-minute cable car ride rather than the 30-minute hike up a steep path. The monastery is built over the cave in which Jesus is supposed to have spent his 40 days and 40 nights being tempted by the devil. The cave is tiny – with barely room to stand up inside. The hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have trooped through it have left their mark. It was mentioned as far back as 326 when Helena of Constantinople identified it as one of the holy sites she visited on her pilgrimage that year and the present monastery was built at the end of the nineteenth century.

IMG_8187 (800x600)IMG_8189 (600x800)Interestingly, it was the first holy place that actually felt any way holy. I touched the actual rock on which Jesus is supposed to have sat during his fast and wondered, not for the first time, why we are so obsessed with tangible things. Why do we need rocks and relics and statues and churches? Why isn’t it simply enough to be in the place that it all supposedly happened, to commune with spirit that’s present, to soak up the memories and take time to reflect onIMG_8196 (592x800) what has been.

I’m as guilty as anyone of taking photos and perhaps not spending more time in silent contemplation, but this monastery, like so many other places I visited, didn’t allow time for rumination. It’s like being on conveyor belt – with priests pulling you in one end and pushing you out the other. And yet perhaps because of its situation, perched as it is on the side of a mountain, this monastery felt just a little closer to heaven, to what I had expected of the Holy Land.

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The tree of life

For years, local builders had been helping themselves to the spoils of what has since been discovered to be an eighth-century desert castle. Hisham’s palace lies about 5 km north of Jericho in Palestine’s West Bank. It amuses me to think that houses built in the area prior to the excavation in the 1930s could well feature pieces of the palace.

IMG_8131 (800x599) I like old books, old furniture, old buildings and old people, but there’s something about archeology that doesn’t quite do it for me. Yes, of course I can appreciate that so much has survived the ages and I can appreciate the glimpse such finds offer us to the past. But I rarely get excited about unearthed ruins.

IMG_8129 (800x600)IMG_8132 (600x800)Hisham’s palace, while beautiful in a weird sort of way, has been firmly categorised as archeological in my mind. I wandered the grounds (which are eerily 260 metres below sea level) and saw the ancient carvings. I admired how the Rosetta stone had been put back together. And I gave due credit to the inventive signage on display. I recognised the importance of the place in terms of history and have since read that the Global Heritage Fund, in its 2010 report Saving Our Vanishing Heritage, has included it as one of twelve worldwide heritage sites most ‘on the verge’ of irreparable loss and destruction. And were that to happen, it would be a shame.

IMG_8138 (800x599)IMG_8144 (600x800)For me, though, its magic lies in its mosaics. It is here that the world famous tree of life was discovered, a mosaic depicting the mythical tree with two deer grazing peacefully on one side of it, while a third deer is attacked by a lion on the other side. Those images certainly gave me something to think about.

There are plans afoot to construct a 18-metre tall structure that will include walkways over the palace to shield the mosaics while at the same time allowing visitors to fully appreciate them. Work was supposed to start this year but I didn’t notice anything much going on.  Award-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor is the man heading up what he calls an ’emotional reconstruction’. Once the rest of the mosaic floors are exposed, it’ll be on my list of places to revisit.

Fifty shades of … brown

It took a while for me to put my finger on what I was missing most – and then it finally dawned on me. Colour. The Judean Desert is practically devoid of colour. Jerusalem is built from the same brick – every building made from the same type of stone. Even old monasteries like St George of Koziba, which is located somewhere off the side of the road on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho, are of the same cast (and yes,  the road you see also features in the tale of the good Samaritan).

IMG_8063 (800x600)Built as it into the side of a mountain, it reminded me, somewhat bizarrely, of Popeye’s village in Malta. I think perhaps the heat was getting to me. Anyway, back in 614, the Persians passed through, killing the 14 monks who lived there. The Crusaders had a brief relationship with the place in the 1100s but it wasn’t until 1901 that  a Greek monk finished the restoration. And it was here, apparently that St Joachim wept when an angel told him that Mary had conceived.

IMG_8067 (600x800)The place is spectacular. Simply amazing. It wouldn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to envision Elijah in a cave nearby being fed by the ravens – which apparently is what drew the monks here in the first place. Accessible by foot, it’s open to visitors, who amongst many other things, can have a peak at the remains of the 14 massacred monks. We contented ourselves with a view across the gorge of the Wadi Qelt, lost in the majesty of it all. I think it’s one of those places better appreciated from afar (and I, for one, was glad we didn’t make 2 hour trek to the front door).

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So where did it happen?

Here are four words… immersion, submersion, aspersion, and affusion. When you read them, what one word comes to mind …. apart from ‘clueless’?  I had to think about this one for a while and although I did make an educated guess, given that I was standing on the banks of the River Jordan at the time, I couldn’t for the life of me explain the latter two. And I’m supposed to know this stuff.

They’re all methods of baptism. Immersion and submersion are self-explanatory. Aspersion is baptism by sprinkling. Affusion is baptism by pouring. Ya learn something new every day. And in Israel I learned something new every hour.

The bible has it that Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan. But… and in a region that is loaded with buts this might come a no surprise… the exact spot depends on your religion. The Catholics and the Orthodox church have one spot near  Jericho (relatively undeveloped) set across from a lovely church on the Jordan side of the river (it was rather amusing to see us taking photos of them and vice versa).

IMG_8098 (800x600)IMG_8104 (800x600)There was an Orthodox baptism going on with a strange ritual whereby the priest tied a piece of string to the cross and then threw it into the water, said some prayers and then pulled it out again. He did this three times.

There were two jetties. On one, the Orthodox lads were doing their bit while on the other, a Catholic priest was saying prayers with IMG_8086 (563x800)his flock. In the middle stood a couple of Israeli soldiers, young enough to still have their confirmation money. That’s one of the strangest things I’ve seen … kids, with guns nearly as tall as they are. Everywhere. Mandatory service is still part and parcel of life in Israel – three years for men, two for women. Interestingly though, the lambs are no longer going quietly to the slaughter. Profile 21 is a code used by the military to classify people not fit for service (physically or mentally) and rumour has it that there are increasing numbers of conscripts faking mental illness to get out of service. They have my sympathy. Honestly, some of them looked like they hadn’t begun to shave.

IMG_8112 (800x600)IMG_8092 (600x800)And, overlooked by these armed teenagers, pilgrims of all sorts made their way to the water, clad in the regulation white robes. The songs, sung in different languages, were haunting and the sanctity was palpable.

Upstream, the Protestants have a much plusher spot, landscaped, and reeking of money. And this, too, is said to be the place it all happened some 2000 and more years ago. I stopped agonising over the truth about lunchtime on the second day and decided that my sanity depended on being able to literally go with the flow and to stop analyzing.

IMG_8661 (800x600)IMG_8674 (600x800)Here, even the water is clearer. The banks of the river are lined with what’s called the Wall of New Life. Various countries around the world have erected plaques with the bible passage translated in their language. Everything from Hungarian to Hawaiian pidgin. I searched for one in Irish but couldn’t find it.

So, does it really matter which site is the real thing? Perhaps neither of them is. And in the grand scheme of things, it probably doesn’t make a dram of difference. I can’t help wondering though why the Christians can’t sit around a table and decide, once and for all, what’s what. Or just fess up and say that nothing’s for certain other than that it was somewhere in the River Jordan. Can it really be that difficult?

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