January 24, 2020

Israel: Jericho to Jerusalem

Jericho Valley Jericho Valley © Sérgio Nogueira | Dreamstime.com

This segment of my travel will be from Jericho to places around Jerusalem.

 The old road from Jericho up to Jerusalem is really the western end of the ancient trade and invasion route from Amon. Today it is on a modern highway that we traverse out of the Jordan River Valley. We leave Jericho at 878 feet below sea level and will rise up to Jerusalem at 2,474. Thats a 3,352 foot gain in elevation in just under 16 miles. I contemplate how a city like Jerusalem can seem so far in the distance and yet be so nearby. I also think about the difficulty of the ascent when burdened with goods in the summer during ancient times.

But before we seriously begin our ascent to Jerusalem, we are taken on a quick side trip to St. Georges monastery. We are told that it is visible in the distance, but I cant see it from my seat.  Our buses turn off the main road onto a narrow, almost one lane affair in that direction. It follows the ridge of a small hill with a rise to the left and a steep canyon on the right. At times the road edges a little too close for comfort to the edge. There is a bit of drama as we squeeze to the side to let another bus pass.

We stop at a place where we can see the monastery in the near distance, and the road is possibly wide enough to let our two buses park and turn around.

We disembark and are lead up a gentle rise. The ground is covered with pale; mostly flat hand sized fractured rocks. A hundred feet away are a couple of children watching us approach. We are told they are from a nearby Bedouin family tending sheep in the area. A quick glance around verifies the nakedness of the land. This is extremely sparse forage for their sheep. It looks meager for any time of the year. But it is especially surprising for a late March after a record rain year. I wonder how many acres it takes to feed one sheep. And how often the family must move to find acceptable grazing? A hard life. To be honest, I expected the kids to try and beg or sell us something, but they did not that I noticed.   

Our guide leads us up the gentle hill until we can peer into the canyon. It is more of a cleft than a canyon. We are told that it runs with water year round. The walls seem too steep to easily reach the bottom, from here at least. We are told that along the steep canyon walls are caves that have been carved out by monks and pilgrims over the centuries. Their purpose was and is to facilitate the simple life of mostly isolation in contemplation of Christ. They are apparently connected with this Greek sixth century monastery. If it was built in the sixth century then it was here when the Byzantine Empire still held the land. And it survived both the Arab Muslim conquest in the seventh century and the even more difficult to survive Turk invasion of the eleventh century. Not an easy thing to do indeed.

We are instructed that the monks and pilgrims living in the canyon work for their keep for the monastery and retreat to their caves at night. I cannot imagine the difficulty and simplicity of their logistics. But if comfort was their goal, they would not have come here.

We are to soon discover the real reason for our side trip. It is far more interesting. This canyon is known on the map as the Kelt River Canyon. But it is biblically know as the Valley of the Shadow of Death referred to in Psalm 23. Looking into the deep shadows of the canyon, I can easily believe it. For a person trying to evade detection, this would be an excellent yet risky choice. On the positive side, there would be concealment, water and shade from the summer sun. But on the negative side, there would be certain death if your enemies found you. There would be no escape. There would only be a hail storm of arrows raining certain death. To trust that this place could protect instead of kill would require supreme faith in the grace of God that Psalm 23 speaks about.

There is something about the place. It screams ancient to me in a land where ancient is the norm. We have looked at a great number of historic ruins. And every one of them is but a hint of their former two thousand year ago glory. In the days to come, we will visit the Temple Mount, and not even that most important of places retains the form or style it possessed in the time of Solomon or Jesus. But this place gives me the feeling that nothing has significantly altered since the time of David. The only changes are the road, the addition of the monastery in the sixth century and the pilgrims caves. But those can be so easily ignored.

This area of Israel is a harsh but fragile land. It is harsh in its demands on whomever chooses to pass through or dwell here. Isolation and water are its only value that I can see. For it will provide nothing else in abundance except exposure to weather.

I was taught this strange combination of harshness and delicateness by my father while a kid. We would explore the desert roads in California between Indio and the Colorado River. My dad was what is known as a Rock Hound. The desert is inhospitably hot in one season and cold in another. It is a land of endless opportunity for destroying vehicles and sustaining injuries. Even the top of the rocks are varnished by the sun and sand. However, drive off of the road and the tire tracks will remain for a hundred years or more. General Patton trained his tank army in preparation for North Africa here. And decades after the war, the old tank tracks looked as fresh to me as the day they were made.

We return to the buses in time to see one of them making a ten point U-turn on the narrow road. Fortunately there is no traffic. Each forward maneuver puts the front bumper on the dirt. Each backward swing puts everything behind the rear axle over the edge of the cliff. Cheers and praise are offered the drivers once they are pointed downhill.

Back on the highway we are asked to consider some of the biblical citations of this road. It parallels the route of what is called The Old Jericho Road. Historically it was noted for its steep twisted path along canyons and ridges. In the summer it would be oppressively hot. In the winter, it could be cold and muddy. But the numerous canyons always offered perfect ambush points for thieves. And thus lends well to the Luke 10:29-37 Good Samaritan story. Jesus likely used this road several times, as did David fleeing from his son and the last king of Judah fleeing from the Babylonians. There is a whole lot of history here.

Our pastor stands in the front of the bus and asks us to open our bibles to the Psalms of Ascent. He explains how approaching Jerusalem is an ascent regardless the direction. And that in the olden days, the Jews would sing these songs as they approached the holy city. So we sing each of them.

At the end of our singing we see some inhabitation alongside of the road. Then over a rise and around a corner, the buildings of Jerusalem fill the landscape. It is our first sight of Jerusalem and we are feasting on what we see.

Our first stop is so appropriate. It is at a museum where there is a model city of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, and a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit. The center piece of the model city that immediately demands my attention is the Temple Mount. Around it every street is filled with replicas of what is believed to have been there.

It is too much to take in. Our guide tries to help us by using a laser pointer to identify important places. These are the sites we are scheduled to visit over the next few days. He also guides us from the moment of Jesusarrest to both of the possible locations of His crucifixion and burial.

There are any number of maps and drawings of this city that we all studied in preparation for our visit. But that is one thing. Having a 3D representation of the city is very instructive and impactful. It brings to mind the warning to learn as much about Israel as possible before arriving. We tried, but it is not enough.

The real edifices these model structures represent witnessed the most important events in human history. What an excellent idea it is to start our tour of Jerusalem with this model city. I would have loved returning on the last day in Jerusalem as well. Unfortunately we did not have the time. I believe it would have helped cement what I saw.

From the model city, we walk around the end of a bunker looking building with a strange looking circular object as its roof. Bright white walls narrow to the dark entrance of the Dead Sea Scroll Museum inside. The inside matches the roof and is mostly circular in form. The bulk of the exhibits are displayed in small dimly lit alcoves. Some are scroll fragments, some are tools uncovered in Qumran that the Essenes could have used to copy the scrolls on display.

The center of the museum is elevated and mimics the upper handle of an enormous wood scroll. Behind the glass enclosure is a full sized facsimile of the very first scroll found, the Isaiah Scroll. It is long and its length spans the circumference of the exhibit. It is a dramatic presentation of a hugely important event.

Outside, our guide points to the roof. He informs us that the shape of the building has ignited rumors regarding a possible hidden function. A popular theory is that the Isaiah scroll exhibit is actually a hung cylinder that can be sucked into the ground in case of a nuclear attack. The main flaw in this myth is that the scroll is a copy. The real one is safely entombed far from here. In any case, he assures us that the building has no secret transformer-like abilities.

Many years ago, I joined a group from our church for a tour of the Dead Sea Scrolls when they were in San Diego. And all in all, I found that the San Diego exhibit to be more interesting and informative. We were given listening devices that explained each exhibit. This helped hugely. They also had a mock up of an Essene work room. It was complete with benches and authentic oil lamps, paper, inkwells and pens.

Soon, we are back on our buses. Perhaps the most appropriate site to visit next is the Mount of Olives.

The western side of the Mount of Olives is a 2.5 mile long hill that is covered by tightly packed residences and a large cemetery. From this elevated advantage we are enthralled by the panoramic overview. The Kidron Valley at the base of the hill is now the only thing between us and the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount as well as the old cemetery and Jerusalem beyond is a grand sight. It takes a few minutes to absorb just a portion of its magnitude.

As the buses maneuver through the narrow streets, we are told that this densely developed hill is prized by the Jews, Christians and Arabs alike. Why? It depends. For the Jews, this Mount of Olives is where their human Messiah will appear. And they anticipate that Yahweh will raise the seventy thousand in the cemetery to be alive again. So they want to live and be buried here if possible. But it is extremely expensive to do either one. We are told that many house rental agreements include a clause that cancels the lease the moment their Messiah comes. This is so that the owner can return to live here.

To the Christians, this Mount of Olives holds enormous meaning. It was from here that Jesus approached Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. It was here where He was arrested while praying with His disciples, and was also the place from which He ascended into heaven after His resurrection. And it will also be the very place that Jesus will return to rule His kingdom. This is a hugely important place indeed.

To the Muslims, we are told; its importance is also in their end time teaching as I understand it. It is where good Muslims will be transported by a rope across the Kidron Valley with the help of angels, to the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. From there they will ascend to Heaven. Or so we were told. Bad Muslims will not succeed in making it across. 

The densely packed houses demand that the Mount of Olives streets are narrow and twisted. They seem much more like random sheep trails than roads for cars and buses like ours. On one such street, we offload from the buses and are escorted through a driveway gate into a small residents back yard. The whole of which has been transformed into a viewing area for twice as many people as we have in two buses.

Around us are small mostly wood, mostly old, mostly small houses. Down the slope from us is supposedly the largest Jewish cemetery in the world at 70,000 souls. The valley before us is the Kidron Valley. On Mount Moriah on the other side is the eastern wall of the huge Temple Mount. The shiny gold dome of the Dome of the Rock commands my attention. Farther still are the ancient and then modern cities of Jerusalem. And way off to our left on the peak of a hill is Herodium. It is the stone ruin that we will be visiting later in the day.

Where does my imagination take me? With Abraham and Isaac? David and the threshing floor before the angel of the Lord? Building up, destroying, building up destroying. Faithful Jews making their pilgrimages to the Temple? Armies surrounding the walls and burning the city. Jesus descending this hill on a donkey or being led away after He was arrested? It is too much to take in during the few minutes we are overlooking the city.

Pictures are taken and a lesson in history is given by our guides and our pastors. From here we walk back out to the road and continue down the hill. At the first cross street we encounter a man selling scarves and book-marks from the back of his car. And some people do buy something.

We pass the car and walk about another hundred yards to the next large cross street. There we find the same man with the same car hawking the same merchandise. Apparently, this is his business plan. He positions himself up the hill. Then as soon as one group passes him, he packs up and boogies around some back way to engage us a second time at the next street. By being fast, he doubles his exposure for a sale. Not a bad strategy.

Soon after the salesman, we turned left into a huge cemetery. It is a cemetery unlike any I have ever seen. I am used to seeing cemeteries that are manicured peaceful parks. They invite the survivors to feel that it will help those interned to better rest in peace. This cemetery is naked dirt on a steep hill covered by thousands of stone boxes. At home, a cemetery has roads, grass, headstones and benches to sit and contemplate. This cemetery has none of that. Here, the stone caskets are all above ground. There must be tens of thousands of them. I subsequently learn that its about seventy thousand. All are the same pale stone color and all are oriented east-west.

Perhaps it is so when they arise from the dead, they will be facing the Temple Mount. Perhaps, it is because it is to prevent them from rolling down hill during and earthquake. I was not able to find out why. Most of the caskets have a little open door in the bottom end on the uphill side. Im told it is to insert flowers. But that also means that no one will see them.

I ask why many of the caskets have small rocks on their tops. The answer is surprisingly simple. When someone visits a grave, they put a rock on the top of the casket. Its to indicate someone has come to visit.

Down the hill and to our left is a caretaker busily doing something. He would seem like any other custodian of a cemetery except that he is carrying a weapon. Apparently, when the largest Jewish cemetery in the world is located in a Palestinian neighborhood, it requires protection. 

In biblical days, it was a disgrace for the dead to be left unburied. So the dead who could afford it were rubbed with spices, wrapped in cloth and entombed in a cave. Ideally, a person would be entombed in a cave until only bones remained. Then the bones would be transferred to a leg bone sized stone box called an ossuary. This smaller box would then be permanently put to rest somewhere. Often, within the same cave. This is why families had private burial caves. Jesus however was placed in a new cave. He didnt require it for very long. That cave will be discussed in a later post.

I wish I had asked how the bodies of all those on the hill were put to rest. Were they embalmed or not? Are they in clothes like we do in the US? Or are they dressed in a robe and wrapped in linen? Are valuables such as rings included or not? But whether there are valuables or not, it does not matter. The above ground caskets of predominately Jews in a predominately Arab community would make theft or vandalism a good reason to maintain a security force on the property.

Just inside of the cemetery gate, we are assembled for a group picture. We are promised that for a nominal fee they will be ready in the lobby of our hotel that evening. So we all stand together and say cheese. Sue and I order a 14 by 17 copy.

We return to the road to continue our descent to the Kidron Valley floor. At the bottom we see dozens of white buses just like ours parked in the shadow of the Temple Mounts eastern wall. But as efficiently as the old Pony Express, our buses swoop in and gather us up with only a minimum of horn honking.

From the Mount of Olives, the Temple Mount dominates the view and our attention. It even overshadows the holy city of Jerusalem beyond. Now at the bottom of the Kidron Valley we are directly under the Eastern wall of the Temple Mount. It is impressive. We are understandably eager to get closer. Imagine the disappointment when we are told that it wont be today. 

The buses are delivering us to Bethlehem. We are to begin at the beginning. The birth place of Jesus. Bethlehem is only 5 miles southwest of Jerusalem and is just off of an ancient main road to the Negev.

We are also told that visiting this mostly Arab community is not always possible. However, for now, the political climate seems peaceful, so we are going.   

The buses loop through the east side of Jerusalem and migrate south through the traffic. We take a small detour from the main road to drive by the Jerusalem location of our new U.S. Embassy. We are told that it is located away from the center of town because it occupies over 50 acres of land. I am not sure what I expected it to look like, but I was not impressed. The Embassys front building are not important looking. But that they are where they are is. It is very important.

Bethlehem is only about five miles along the road. It is both a city and a territory. Both are in the West Bank. The West Bank is all of that land east of Jerusalem and west of the Jordan River that was lost by the country of Jordan in the 1967 war.

Why? In general, the Muslim nations harbor a fundamental rejection of the idea of an Israeli state and people. Their resolve to remove Israel generated the ignition of the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973. Jordan wisely sat out the 1973 war. Unable to win in outright war, their hatred was channeled into terrorist acts on the Israeli people. As a solution, Israel built the walls along the East Bank boundaries. The vast majority of the wall I am told is a minimal affair. However, around areas thought to be the source of trouble, the wall is substantial. The city of Bethlehem is surrounded by the substantial kind. The wall has largely achieved its purpose of stopping the terrorist attacks. However, the wall is a heavy burden on the remaining population, and fuel for continuing resentment.

Approaching the wall, I read a large red sign that warns Israeli citizens that it is illegal for them to enter this area. We pass through an inspection point before we are allowed to pass into Bethlehem. I wonder how our bus drivers are exempt from this rule. Once inside, the outskirts of the city have the same appearance as any of the other Arab majority communities weve seen. The roads follow the contour of the hills that the Bethlehem area is built upon. We are told that the area remains impoverished because of the wall which limits education and business opportunities. But on the other hand we did pass a Lexus and Mercedes dealerships. So I do not know what to make of that.

The buses enter an area of the city that looks to have a long history. I am thinking back to the trouble we had with traffic and parking in Nazareth. I am ready to run for it again. Then, the most unexpected thing happens. On a street in the old part of the city that seems like all of the other narrow twisted lanes, our buses turn into a dark hole in a hill between two buildings.

Inside is a modern underground bus parking structure that likely holds twenty or more buses. We are given Nazareth like instructions to keep tight, no stragglers, and walk briskly. We safely pass through the maneuvering buses into an area of small, tightly packed, brightly lit modern looking shops. Ahead of us is an escalator. We take it. The floor above is flush with more opportunity to spend money. There are even bathroom signs in English. But this is not the time for a bathroom break we are told. Fifty feet beyond the escalator is a double door. It transports us from that modern parking structure to the old city of Bethlehem in one step. It is a shocking experience.

Once we are gathered outside the door, we begin walking. It is a three block uphill walk on a narrow shop filled sidewalk to our goal. The Church of the Nativity is by tradition, built in the location where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Much like Nazareth, Bethlehem has a Christian community and a Christian church of impressive size. Both of which have somehow survived in an occasionally hostile theological environment.

 

If we could look back in time to right after Gods wrath via Titus in 70 AD, we would see that not much was left standing anywhere in the land. Even so, Christians still trekked to pay homage at the holy sites of Jesuslife. One of these sites was the supposed cave in which Mary gave birth to Jesus. But that was about to change.

About 60 years later, the Jewish remnant began to give the Empire problems again. Caesar Hadrian responded with troops around 135 AD to eradicate the problem, once and for all. The troops destroyed as much as possible. Hadrian added insult to injury by trying to erase any faith based reason to return. He decreed it illegal for a Jew or a Christian to be in the area of Jerusalem except on the anniversary of their defeat. He also changed the name of the whole area to Palestine. It was in reference to the Israelis ancient but extinct enemy, the Philistines. And for a final blow, his troops located and desecrated every holy site possible and build a pagan temple on top of it. For Hadrian, it was “problem solved.”    

These events were horrible. So horrible one might rightly ask why God would allow evil to erase the birth place and life path of his son so thoroughly like this? So I must consider a few things. First of course is that God is never surprised and His plan is always on time. Second, the location of almost every important thing and burial location of a person is purposely left unknown in the Bible. Perhaps this is a Second Commandment protection so that Christians will not be tricked into worshiping a place as an idol. Or third, perhaps the pagan temples erected by Hadrians men not only marked their exact location but protected them with a layer of rock for future generations.

And as God planned it, the unimaginable happened. About two hundred years later. Caesar Constantine pronounced that he had become a Christian. Instantly, Christianity became the identity of a government that had for centuries tried to eradicate it. And for the first time in history, Christianity assumed an earthly political identity it was never originally meant to have. And more so, Constantine commissioned his mother Helena to make a missions trip to the Holy Land. Once there she was to identify as many holy sites as possible and preserve them with churches. And who would have guessed it, but Hadrians pagan temples gave her direction at every turn. In 325, the Church of the Nativity was constructed where it is today.

Now jump forward another two hundred years and a group of what has been called Samaritans destroyed the church in 529. And Im sorry to say that I dont have any idea who these people were or why they did this. However, Byzantine Emperor Justinian rapidly rebuilt the church with a similar structure and it remains standing today.

After a quick look at the beautiful church, and a hole in the stone in the basement that is the reason for the church, we gather and prepare to return to the bus. It seems to me like we are returning by a different street. Near the church we enter a beautiful ancient narrow lane that is empty of people selling things. It is quiet. The building would be very photogenic if we were not rushing. Sue and I enjoy the sights here as much as anywhere.

Then our guide opens double doors in the wall of an old looking building. On the other side is the bus park. I must say that it so completely reminds me of Disneyland. For in Disneyland, you can walk through an area of a given theme, yet be completely unaware of what is behind the decorative doors. They can conceal restaurants, security, or access to the staging complexes underground. Inside the door a few feet are more or perhaps the same escalators, I cant tell. Im confused. It returns us to the level of our buses. We load, and we are out of there as easy as pie.

A question seems to beg to be asked. When I consider the contrast between the security concerns for us, verses the great desire to sell us things at every turn, again I am confused.

There is the twenty foot wall that seals off this Arab population. It has successfully stopped almost all acts of terrorism from that area. There are the tours that often cannot safely enter Bethlehem because of an outbreak of hostility. There were the strongly stated marching instructions for our safety. We were to not break from the group for any reason, no bathroom breaks nor trinket buying. 

In contrast, the bus park and the businesses in it were specifically built for attracting buses of Christian pilgrims. Every inch of the road from the bus park to the church was lined with mostly Muslim vendors, of all ages, selling Christian trinkets. They energetically held out carved crosses to us, and Catholic beads and called out the names of Jesus and the Virgin Mary to entice us to buy. 

There seems to be two strongly conflicting stories here. The theme of one story is that they will not rest until the Jews are out of the land and sometimes it is not safe to go there. The theme of the second story is that the buses of Christian pilgrims bring money that supports their economy. The bus park and the vendors prove this.

The answer to this apparent conundrum is likely simple. There are different factions with fragmented goals for how to approach a future without walls. The violent Muslim faction wants them down in order to have open access to the Jewish communities for violence. The business men of Muslim and dwindling Christian faith want the walls to come down so that their businesses and families can prosper. This then is not only two opposing views on how to reach that future without walls, it is also completely conflicted view as to what a post wall future might look like. The Israeli government is clear on the eventual outcome. When the threat of violence ends, so will the walls.   

There is somewhat of a historic parallel here. Sometime during the seventh century, the Muslim armies pushed the mostly nominal Christian Byzantines out of the Jerusalem area. However, the Arabs soon and wisely recognized that Jewish and Christian believers retained a strong desire to visit their holy places. And for three centuries the Arab business men saw profit in hosting and facilitating their pilgrimages. There was stability.

Just after the first millennium, everything changed. There was a shift of control over Jerusalem from the Damascus Arabs to the Seljuk Turks. The Turks took offense to the intrusion of infidels into their city. After all, as Muslims, Jerusalem holds their third most holy site, the Dome of the Rock. So much so that initially, all Muslims prayed towards the Dome of the Rock and not Mecca.

As a result, the European pilgrims began to experience rough treatment on their journeys. Yet the pilgrims continued to make the journey. And Im certain that there were business men that enjoyed the profit that the pilgrims brought to them.

Whether they were true or not, the pilgrims also returned with horror stories of rape and torture. The stories began circulating through Europe. Outrage ignited a passion to liberate the Holy Land. And in 1095, Pope Urban III called for the first large scale European invasion of the Middle East since the Romans just less than a thousand years before. Thus began the first of many Crusades. Jerusalem was liberated along with many other significant cities in the Middle East. But all of the crusading efforts failed over the next two to five hundred years. The struggle over ownership of the Middle East ended with the Turks holding the power as the Ottoman Empire. This lasted until World War I. In both Bethlehem today and Jerusalem a thousand years ago, there were business men who made profit from peace, and zealots that chose conflict for the sake of purity.

Our buses travel a very short distance before we are presented with lunch. It is a Christian owned affair in Muslim dominated Bethlehem that caters to pilgrims. Again, the food is excellent. I would have loved to have had a long conversation over coffee with any of the men serving us. But there was no opportunity. Out the windows there is a nice view of the area. I see quiet looking groups of building I take to be mostly dwelling places. I wonder what their lives are like behind the walls of their houses. There is so much to know and experience!

This walled-in isolation is a big problem. Their ancestors helped to create it, and they are presently deciding how the next chapter will be written. Unfortunately, Israel will enforce their quarantine until this community decides that it wants to join the world in peace.

From lunch, our buses take us to a guarded parking lot across the street from the wall. We are expected and guided through a double metal security entrance. Out of our buses we are escorted into a higher end souvenir shop. It is bright and shiny inside. It is everything the outside is not. Around us is a Fort Knox of beautiful and expensive things that apparently must be protected from the citizens without. This place is a wall within a wall. The shop walls are to keep violence out. Across the street, the wall is to keep them in.

The hospitality of the shop owner is immediately pressed upon us with a table full of hot teas. There were obviously expecting us. All of this explains the rush, rush in the old city and at lunch. We were on a tight time schedule to make the restaurant as the food was hot, and here with the hot tea.

The owner introduces himself and his staff. He tells us in excellent English some interesting things. First, he points to a glass case next to him. The vase inside is one that held a Dead Sea Scroll. It was his grandfather that found the first ones. He tells us that because of that experience two generations ago; his family began trading in antiquities. And that he is the only antiquities dealer in Bethlehem to be licensed by the Israeli government. This I gather is to give us confidence that the antiquities for sale are genuine and legal to be sold.

A good 20% of the shop is devoted to antiquities and jewelry. The rest of the building is stocked full of Holy Land themed carvings. All of which we are told, are hand carved from aged Olive wood. And we are to expect a discount on everything purchased. Apparently our guide is related to the owner. We hear that a lot. True or not, I would bet anything that he will be getting a cut of our purchases.

The owner finishes his monologue by saying that everything in the building is hand made by members of the small surviving Christian community in Bethlehem. So, our purchases will be helping the few that remain. It is hard to find work within the wall for everyone. But it is doubly hard for a Christian. This is yet another good motivation to spend I suspect. Thus we are exposed to another consequence of how a minority of violent minded men can ruin the lives of many.

This is the only place on todays travels that we are not rushed. When we are done, the locked security door is opened and we file into the parking lot. I walk to the street gate and look at the imposing wall. I have seen a piece of the Berlin Wall on the Chapman University Compass, in Orange, California. Both walls have/had similar purposes. Both walls imprisoned people. The Iron Curtain prevented people from leaving an ideology to freedom. The Bethlehem wall prevents people from entering a space to commit violence. I have seen the Berlin wall, and this wall is twice as tall. But besides their different purposes, both walls are painted with graffiti. The Berlin Walls graffiti is layered with spray painted words and symbols. The Bethlehem wall is clean by comparison, at least in this area. It is a collection of artistic larger-than-life political cartoon like figures. A good likeness of President Trump is represented with a fifteen foot tall image. My guess is that it is probably as a result of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Graffiti defaces the surface it is applied to, and is often defaced by other graffiti. This is not the case with the graffiti on the walls around Bethlehem. Each image is clean, well proportioned, and pleasant to look at. This is so, even if, each piece was placed there as a protest against the wall specifically and Israel in general.

Our drivers find the exit through the wall. Our guide tells us that we will soon be entering a check point. It is operated by the Israeli Defense Force. We are warned that the upcoming border inspection could be superficial or exhausting. And by all means, we are to totally cooperate with anything they ask.

Our two buses stop. Four armed personnel approach the front door of each bus. Two enter, as two cover. Inside, one covers as the other walks the aisle and exits the rear door. The front soldier politely says thank you and wishes us a safe journey. We are free to pass.

The next stop is an ancient place also built of walls. It is the remains of a hill top fortress not far away, called Herodium. Of all of the places that King Herod of Jesustime built, it is the only one that carries his name.

Once its distinctive shape is pointed out in the distance, it is easy to identify as we drive through the small hills.  And once we return to Jerusalem, we will be able see it from several places in the distance.

Herod picked a modest hill top for his name sake fortress. But it was not apparently high enough for his liking. So he had a nearby hill demolished and added to his hill. Imagine the effort that took?

Apparently, King Herod had this constructed as a celebration. The last Jewish Hasmonian resistance to Roman intrusion was finished around 37 BC. Fourteen years later, King Herod had this built.

We are told that it was a three story double walled affair. The upper floors were for the kings palace and to house important people. Under them, large cisterns were cut into the middle of the hill to hold water and supplies. The valley below was known as the lower Herodium. It is here that the workers and attending Jewish officials would have lived. Also in the valley and still visible today is the outline of a large shallow swimming pool with an island in the middle. And because there was no local water supply, all of the water had to be imported. Imagine the expense and effort to import water sufficiently to supply all of the residents and keep the pool water fresh.

At the entrance there are bathrooms and a small building that sells gifts, snacks and exhibits a model of the fortress in its prime. We take the service road to the top. It is a bit of a rigorous walk. I am thankful for spring weather. In the summer heat this could be brutal. At the top we enjoy the view and walk through various rooms. There is not much to see actually.

Now some 400 feet above the valley, the sights to see are pointed out. The nearby hill is the source of the dirt for this hill. At the base of this hill is the obvious outline the pool. Easily the pool was large enough to float small boats. We are told that the whole area was a magnificent entertainment area. Im sure it was. Today, there was a boy and some sheep making use of the space.

For our descent we are taken down through one cavity and cistern after another. Sometimes we walk on original paths, and at other times, we are gratefully on steel stairs. For years, I have read of cisterns in the Bible. They have been something that catches my attention. Water and grain can be kept in them. Occasionally prisoners are kept in them. Joseph was thrown into one to die before it was decided to sell him into slavery. Jeremiah is thrown into one and he writes of a cistern that is filled with dead Chaldeans. Ive always wondered how they were made to hold the water. And it is on this excursion that I find out. While descending through a water cistern that is about twenty feet wide and thirty feet deep, I am able to touch a damaged portion of the wall. I found that the inside of this cistern is covered with about two inches of plaster. That explains it. It feels like the inside of a swimming pool.

Again I think about the labor required to make a cistern. It would most certainly be a labor of necessity. But it would be brutal. One up side is that the necessities of life could be safely stored through lean seasons. Another is that this cistern would be a durable asset to the generations of the family that owned the land. A third, might be that the cistern could possibly be hidden from marauding thieves such as in the book of Judges. But in this case, the builders of the cistern would not benefit from it. Their contents were reserved for King Herod and his guests, not them.

We exit the inside of the hill about halfway down. A door opens up onto an area that overlooks lower Herodium below. It is an easy walk back to the entrance.

From Herodium, our destination is our hotel in Jerusalem.

My next post will be about what I experienced around the Temple Mount.

 

 

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