Holy Land — Day Eight
Today we boarded the bus for a trip to the south. We drove east out of Bethlehem and wound our way through the Judean Wilderness, which lies beyond the Mount of Olives. Since my first trip to the Mount of Olives in 2014, I wanted to see what that “wilderness” looked like…and I wasn’t disappointed.
The beauty of this wilderness, which would be called a desert anywhere else, is hard to describe…but I’ll try! It’s hilly…almost mountainous, covered with dirt and rocks. Lots of rocks. And every once in a while you’ll see scrubby little bushes.
Here’s a fun tidbit – the wisemen, the magi, who came to visit Jesus after his birth, would have traveled through this way. No wonder they were on camels!
Here’s a not-so-fun tidbit – we had to stop at a checkpoint…and it’s smack-dab in the middle of Palestinian territory. I don’t understand. But we didn’t let the unfairness of the system dampen our spirits – we were seeing parts of the Holy Land we’d never seen before!
We passed Bethany, the village where Jesus’ friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were from. Our guide told us that Bethany means “house of rest” or “house of sleep” because of its location right off a main road between main cities, so it’s where many a traveler made a pit stop or even found a room for the night.
Throughout our drive, our guide would point out Palestinian towns and Israeli settlements. Some of these Israeli settlements were not occupied by anyone, yet Israel keeps building new ones anyway. Maybe now is a good time to explain why.
In my own words and understanding after seeing and learning so much while here, Israel is trying to spread out across as much Palestinian territory as possible so that when the time comes for the UN to make a decision about how to do the two-state plan, it’ll be a muddy mess of Palestinians and Israelis all mixed in together – the two-state plan would look impossible on paper. In other words, there are no longer clear-cut areas of Palestinians and Israelis.
Enough of that for now – let’s explore some amazing historical and biblical sites.
First on the agenda today is Masada, one of Herod the Great’s fortresses. To understand why there’s a fortress in the middle of the desert on top of a very high plateau, one must try to understand Herod.
Herod was made king of a large region that included today’s Israel and a few surrounding nations by the Emperor of Rome. Herod had to rule over and navigate the huge Jewish population in Jerusalem and surrounding areas, and as he was of Jewish ancestry, he seemed the best man for the job.
Herod is not called Great because of his integrity or moral compass but because of all the great architectural feats he accomplished. In fact, he was not a nice guy at all. He murdered wives and sons and made life extremely hard for the people around him. It would be accurate to call this man egotistical, even narcissistic. He was wealthy and had a large labor force at his disposal. On top of that he was extremely paranoid. Hence, a magnificent fortress high on a plateau, deep in the Judean wilderness.
In fact, we learned that Herod, in his narcissistic paranoia, built several fortresses around his kingdom so that at any given moment danger presented itself, he could flee to safety in the nearest fortress.
Masada was one of these fortresses. And it was a really big one! It had two palaces for the royal family, giant storage areas for food, a most impressive aqueduct and cistern system for water, and a place to house lots of soldiers and servants. It’s said that Herod never actually went to Masada, but it was ready when he had need of it. (wink, wink)
What made Masada famous, however, had nothing to do with Herod the Great. About 62 years after Herod’s death, there was a Jewish revolt in 66 AD. A large group of Jewish zealots captured Masada from the Roman soldiers and used it as their refuge from all the fighting.
But this story has a tragic ending. When the Roman soldiers built a ramp up the side of the mountain (it took three years to do so), defeat was inevitable for the Jews. And rather than become slaves to the Romans, the 967 men, women, and children of Masada took their own lives.
It’s amazing to me to walk among the ruins of this mighty fortress 2000+ years after it was built and see Herod’s handiwork. But, it was impossible not to imagine what life must have been like for those 967, trapped on this desert mountain…for three years. Did I mention how HOT it was there?
We’d only been there an hour or two and were all too ready to wrap up our tour to ride the gondola back down to air conditioning and ice cream…
Back on the bus, we back-tracked a bit up the coast of the Dead Sea to another famous place. Amazingly, we’ve only known about this place since 1947 when a shepherd boy looking for a lost goat threw a rock into a cave and heard something break. That something was a huge pottery container – one of many – that held scrolls written by the Essenes of the first century. This is Qumran.
The scrolls found in Qumran are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they contain bits and pieces of the Old Testament books of the Bible – some complete and most in amazing condition. In all, 850 scrolls have been found in twelve different caves.
These scrolls are studied and compared to the Scriptures to a) verify the accuracy of what we have in the Bible and b) offer us insight into the Jewish society in which Christianity began.
I thought we’d walk into a cave at Qumran to see exactly where these famous clay jars had been found. Instead, we looked at several caves from a distance as we walked through what had once been a secluded community of families, known as the Essenes.
As excavations of the area continue, it is quite obvious that this community was quite efficient and self-sufficient, despite the rough (hot) desert terrain!
We ate lunch there at Qumran – maybe our least favorite meal of the trip, but filling and refueling nonetheless. Then we hit “the road to Jericho.”
Wadi Qelt describes a deep, canyon-like area that stretches between Jerusalem and Jericho and was the main route/road during the days of the Roman Empire. This is the stretch of land that the parable of the Good Samaritan would have taken place on.
We’re still in the wilderness/desert, so it’s hard to imagine people living out here…but they did…and still do today. Along the Wadi Qelt are several monasteries and synagogues. One such is the Monastery of Saint George, founded in 480 AD.
The bus pulled over out in the middle of nowhere, and we made the short hike up a rocky, desert hill…
…and there was an audible gasp as we all saw an amazing sight.
Down in the valley of the Wadi Quelt was this huge, beautiful church (okay, monastery). We zoomed our camera lenses as far as they’d go to try to capture more detail of what we were looking at.
The juxtaposition of the barren, dry desert with the beauty and elegance of this man-made structure really was awe-inspiring.
Monks continue to live there, and both of our Oklahoma leaders have made the hike waaay down the canyon to visit this place. We all laughed at the thought of how many steps we’d earn on our Fitbits for a hike like that!
Probably the oldest city in Israel, Jericho is a mere 10,000 years old! Yup, that’s not a typo – 10,000 years old. Only Damascus rivals Jericho as the oldest city. Archaeologists have been excavating here for years and have uncovered 23 layers of civilizations thus far. That may sound strange, “uncovering layers of civilizations,” but what happened a lot in these parts was as invasions and natural disasters occurred across the millennia, new civilizations just built on top of what had been there before them.
In the Bible, Jericho became known as the city “flowing with milk and honey” when Joshua and Caleb went into the Promised Land as scouts for Moses, bringing back huge clusters of grapes as proof.
It’s also the city that Joshua later overtook for the Lord by marching his people around its walls seven times till the walls fell. Interestingly, excavations have proven that a great earthquake did cause the walls to fall around that time. Hmmmmm….
In the New Testament, Jesus passed through Jericho a number of times. Once he cured ten lepers there. Another time he asked Zacchaeus to come down out of the now famous sycamore tree so they could go eat some dinner. By the way…we saw THAT tree. Or at least a sycamore tree that the people of Jericho claim to be that tree…smack-dab in the middle of town.
Interestingly enough, the place on the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus was only six kilometers north of where we were.
I have to say that it’s quite an astounding thing to stand in a spot you’ve been reading and learning about your whole life and see it in person. But Jericho, overall, didn’t stand out to me. Was I distracted? Was it too much like other cities in Israel? Did it not live up to my imagination? I don’t know, but I can say I was there!
Mount of Temptation
On this stop we were to look up and into the mountainous area to the west of the Dead Sea in order to see a “gravity-defying” monastery clinging to the face of the cliff. This particular monastery is unique in that it allows women to visit – but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how I could get over there.
And as we looked upon this mountain, we were asked to think about the time Jesus went up and into these desert mountains for his forty days of temptation. And we did. But… we were easily distracted by Jamie. The camel.
Our poor guide. He was trying so hard to hold our attention as we glared into the bright sky, squinting to see the miraculous-looking monastery and imagining the hardships Jesus had faced, but that camel won out.
Two of the gals in our group were ready to ride this sweet giant. We laughed and took lots of pictures, then the locals broke out the old Arab style headdress and robes. And before we knew it our pastor and his wife were in full costume posing for more pictures. It was a lot of fun at a spot that was meant to be a little more serious. As our guide would say, c’est la vie. (He was always throwing out funny little foreign sayings. I wonder what he was really saying to himself as he lost our attention to a camel.)
As we made the trek back to Bethlehem, we were dozing and snoozing…when all of the sudden our tour guide comes on the speaker to tell us goodbye, explaining that the remaining days would be in a smaller bus with a new driver and guide. WHAT?! We were all shocked out of our sleepiness to tell him a quick farewell, then the bus stopped and he stepped off, bidding us a final adieu.
We looked at one another feeling a little bereft. No hugs goodbye? No final picture with our beloved guide? What had just happened?
When we got to the hotel, we were, at least, able to offer our bus driver a fond farewell and praise his incredible driving skills.
We exited and had just enough time to shower and go to dinner. And after dinner…gelato at the little café next door. This was quickly becoming a favorite of our group – gelato on the terrace as the cool breezes of Bethlehem’s nighttime blew in.