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.
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.
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 on 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.