The day began early with a small group taking a sunrise walk through the neighborhood. Turns out we were in the cultural and governmental center of Jerusalem We walked by the construction site of the new National Library, the Knesset (national legislature), the ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israel Museum (where we’ll be in a week), Hebrew University, and the Prime Minister’s residence. It’s a wonder some security guards didn’t stop us!
Breakfast, like dinner the night before (and every hotel meal here yet consumed) was a huge buffet. Lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, egg dishes, pastries, and anything we could have wanted. After only our second meal we are beginning to realize that we could all gain some weight on the trip!
We left Jerusalem to drive to our first biblical site, Jericho. To get there we had to descend from the heights of the City of David to the Jordan Valley. We were reminded of the many psalmists who speak of “going up” to Jerusalem. It is high in the hills.
We also encountered for the first time the stark division between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. We passed the occupation wall and looked up at the Israeli settlements covering many of the hilltops on the Palestinian side of the barrier. It’s not clear in some ways who’s being kept in or locked out by the wall. Obviously its aimed at the Palestinians, but Israelis living in the West Bank reside in little walled-in conclaves of their own: highly-secured fortress villages within the walled-in Palestinian area.
The settlements appear as permanent suburbs around Jerusalem, built on land confiscated from Palestinians – illegally, according to international law. U.S. policy has historically not supported the construction of the settlements, until the current administration. More than 600,000 Jewish settlers now live on land agreed to be Palestinian following the 1967 war. From the Palestinian perspective this is a major obstacle to peace.
On the way down to Jordan, because we were ahead of schedule, we made an unscheduled stop at the St. George monastery. To get there we had to walk about a quarter mile on a narrow trail high above a gorge. As we rounded a corner suddenly we saw the monastery on the opposite cliff face. We stood in the blowing wind, gazing across the chasm, wondering how the monks managed to reach the caves they lived in when they first came to the desert. George explained that they stayed in the cliff-side caves and never came down. They received supplies by lowering a rope and pulling them up.
The monastery was built as the monk community-in-caves became more numerous and had more resources. Eventually, more than 800 such communities of prayer were established in the Judean wilderness. St. George’s is one of the few that still survives as a community of monks who live in relative isolation and pray as a vocation.
From St. George’s monastery we made our way to Jericho, a Palestinian town located at the site of the first city in the world, built 10,000 years ago. Jericho is on the Jordan River. When the Israelites crossed Jordan – following 40 years of wandering in the desert with Moses – Joshua led them into the land of the Canaanites. Jericho was their principal city. Of course, we burst into a rousing chorus of “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho…”
We stopped by a large, old sycamore tree said to be…well, like the one Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus when he entered the city. Then we went to a spot to view the Mt. of Temptation, said to be where Jesus was driven into the wilderness and tempted for 40 days. We took a group photo and shots of the monastery built high on that cliff face to mark the temptation of Jesus – and then we rode the camel that was for rent there. Lots of video footage if anyone’s interested!
We stopped at a store selling glassware from Hebron, soaps and creams from the Dead Sea, dates and nuts, and rugs and clothing and shoes and… Let’s just say that Team WPC helped the Palestinian economy on that visit. Lunch was eaten outdoors, under a canopy in the courtyard of a restaurant – which was good, because as it rained during our meal. It was a typical meal in this part of the world, hummus, salad, rice, chicken, and pita. Delicious!
Then back on the bus for the 1.5 hour ride to the Dead Sea. We got to our hotel in time to put on our swim suits and head to the beach. It was in the 60s and raining on and off; needless to say, the Minnesotans were the only ones on the beach or in the water. We all waded in and carefully sat back to float like so many Westminster bobbers. It’s the strangest sensation. One need do nothing to maintain buoyancy. More pics to share, if you’re interested. Some 30% of the water is comprised of mineral content. Nothing can survive in it.
While we floated there was lightening and thunder. Back home they would have made us come out of the water, but not so at that beach. Beautiful rainbows emerged as the sun chased the grey clouds and rain away. We all warmed up with an indoor float in the Dead Sea water piped in and heated. I actually fell asleep floating on my back and was awakened by a nice Russian Jewish woman into whom I had floated and who suggetsed it wasn’t a good idea to sleep while suspended on the surface of a body of water.
Our dinner was an enormous buffet, again. The group is mixing well; people move around at each meal and sit with different people. It’s a wonderful traveling community. Reinerio Arce, the Cuban from our partner church in Cuba, is having a wonderful time – although he has been concerned about the tornado that struck Havana.
At morning prayer we included Cuba, along with many other concerns.