From the viewpoint on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, you can easily see the vastness of the Judean Desert to the north and west. Leaving before dawn, we left Jerusalem for Wadi Qelt, a short drive from the heart of the city. The stark change in scenery is impressive, changing from a vegetative, mountainous, urban landscape to a yellow, rocky, desert scene almost instantly. A riverine gulch in the West Bank, once perhaps used to travel between Jericho and Jerusalem by individuals such as King David, Wadi Qelt eventually runs into the Jordan River near Jericho and the Dead Sea.
Stumbling out of the bus, we followed a dirt path up the hillside in silence. We gathered for a brief prayer and a reading of Psalm 23. Given almost an hour for our own time of prayer and reflection, we scattered to find our own ways to await the sunrise and listen for God, the air still cool. For those who climbed up to the top of the hillside, far in the distance was Jericho to the west, the oldest city in the world dating back 10,000 years, almost 900 feet below sea level. In July, there was no water running into the Jordan – no green pastures, no still waters, only valleys of shadow. And while this is a small desert in comparison to many others in the world, being in the midst of it was truly humbling.
Wanting to visit the many sites of the Holy Land where Jesus lived out his life and ministry is usually why Christians make a pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine. Seeing the places noted in scripture changed what had resided within my imagination from the years of childhood to that of adulthood. My trip to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the surrounding areas in Judea and Galilee shattered my idealized pablum version of biblical times while confirming the realism that he lived and breathed as a human.
Located in the West Bank, today Bethlehem is a town surrounded by separation walls in the Judean hills about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. Rising above the valleys below, it isn’t hard to imagine how magi traveling from the East might see a bright star “above” this city. From a distance, a star might appear as if it was resting atop a hill. Pilgrims have been visiting Bethlehem since the 1st century, so something had to have happened here. Visiting the Church of the Nativity, one has the expectation to stand where Mary and Joseph had sought lodging, giving birth to a son whom they laid in a manger since there was no room in the inn due to an overpopulated city because of a Roman census. Don’t get too excited. Yes, the church that commemorates the spot is beautiful: mosaics, oil lamps, icons. There are also hordes of people pushing and cramming into the little “cave/grotto” where the precise spot is marked by a 14-pointed silver star. Yes – X marks the spot. I climbed down into the claustrophobic space as my fellow pilgrims sang “Away in a Manger.” I bent into the niche on the floor and touched the star with the little window (plexiglass?) that showed the rock below. Not exactly a holy moment for me.
There is an old tale (which also shows up in early maps) describing Jerusalem as the center of the world, a city visit by kings and prophets, pilgrims and mystics, rulers and conquerors. Today we know it as a city claimed by three faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Physically, it is a divided city into four quarters that somewhat blend into each other as you cross from one quarter to the next: the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter. All areas are a mix of secular and religious. More than 4,000 years old, its walls were rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah following the Babylonian captivity, the Romans (1st century), Diocletian and Aelia Eudocia (Byzantine 4th century), and Crusaders (11th century). The actual “cardo” from Roman times is actually about 15 feet below the cobblestones we walked on today.
On our various days visiting the Old City, we entered through a variety of gates. The current walls around the Old City (which have spread out since Jesus’ time) were built by Sulieman the Magnificent in 1542. Most of the gates we entered were built by Siran, an Ottoman-Turkish architect who lived in the 16th century.
Entering the Damascus Gate (Nablus Gate) is a different experience depending on the time of day. At 7:00 in the morning it is quiet with shops boarded up, trash being collected, and cats everywhere scurrying to find the last scrap to eat. By mid-morning and throughout the afternoon the gate (as well as the “main street”) is a bustling enterprise of merchants selling their wares from grape leaves, bread, spices, t-shirts, Disney knock-offs, and within the city we even came upon a shop for University of Alabama fans. We used this particular gate frequently, built upon an older gate built in Roman times. The gate’s name in Hebrew is “Sha’ar Shkem” since one travels away from this gate southwards; in Jesus’ time one would have passed through the city of Shkhem (North/Nablus) north to Damascus (Zion Gate). The street was designed by the Romans in the 2nd century CE after the city was established and rebuilt by Hadrian, which razed the city following the failed Bar-Kochva’s revolt in 136 CE. Another route split from the north gate from this main street to the Valley Cardo, which ended near the dung gate.
One of the main reasons I wanted to be a pilgrim in the Holy Land was to visit the various sites that are mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Gospels. And I wasn’t disappointed. Often beginning with a wake-up call at 5:00am and returning to our room around 8:30pm, we walked many miles each day (or rode a bus to various locations, where we did more walking) taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Holy Land.
Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, it was dark as we made it by bus to St. George’s Guest House in the West Bank of Jerusalem. It was an uphill drive, following a similar route the Romans would have taken, coming from the east coast. (When entering Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples would have climbed to the City from the west. See Marcus Borg’s book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem). Jerusalem really is a city high on a hill – 2,000 feet above sea level with many surrounding hills and narrow valleys. Limestone rocks and cliffs abound. It is a forbidding land, nothing like “the land of milk and honey” I expected.
Day 1 started with Morning Prayer in the Chapel at St. George’s where we began to get acclimated to our new environs scripturally: Psalm 122 and Luke 13:34, and musically in four-part harmony: “Jerusalem, My Happy Home” to Land of Rest. We donned sunscreen, hats, scarves, and cameras to walk to the Damascus Gateand Salah Eldin Street to get the feel of the distance and view the wall of the Old City and how it had been built up from Roman (1st C) to Byzantine (4th C) to Crusader (11th C) times.