Thursday was a less strenuous day for the pilgrims following the very full day in Jerusalem the day before. We set off quite early, however, to visit the oldest city in the world – Jericho. As we journeyed, we saw a number of Bedouin Camps. That, of course, is a misnomer, since the Bedouin have ceased traveling as they are no longer allowed to return once they have left a particular place; thus, they live in very meagre circumstances.
However, they are still shepherds and tend their flocks of sheep, but they now live in ramshackle homes rather than the tents that most Nomads live in. We were particularly concerned to hear how difficult it is for the children to attend school, often having to cross a busy highway in order to find a ride to the nearest town.
As we entered the West Bank, we came under the control of the Palestinian Authority and we saw large signs saying that Israeli Citizens were forbidden to enter Jericho.
Jericho has a significant place in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament; it is, of course, the city that Joshua and the Hebrew Tribes conquered by marching around the city walls, the priests playing trumpets, and the walls came tumbling down. It is also a town that Jesus visited numerous times – he called Zacchaeus to follow him; he healed blind Bartimaeus; and he talked about Jericho in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
We celebrated mass at the Terra Sancta School for Palestinian children run by the Franciscans. As we arrived, the children were lined up outside and singing the Palestinian Authority National Anthem. The Eucharist was held in their school chapel; it was a dramatic contrast with the beautiful churches and chapels we had visited earlier, but it was very moving to hear the children playing as we prayed.
Also, near Jericho, Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, tempted by Satan. The desert is hot, dry, and we all understood immediately what it must have been like for Jesus to have been alone in such a wilderness.
After lunch, we travelled to the Jordan River just before it enters the Dead Sea. This part of the Holy land is very arid. We drove along the border between Israel and Jordan; the high fences protected us from straying off the road and into mine fields! In this wilderness, John the Baptist preached his message of repentance and, here, Jesus came to be baptized. There are several churches and a monastery here.
We walked down to the Jordan and it was a remarkable change with lush vegetation on either side of the river. We renewed our baptismal vows as a group of Ethiopians did the same, walking down the steps into the river.
One of our pilgrims also decided that he wanted to be immersed, so I found myself going into the water with him; it was a tremendously spiritual moment, and then all the pilgrims came down to the water’s edge to be sprinkled.
After the renewal of vows, we continued our theme of water with a little light relief by visiting a resort on the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is an amazing 1,412 feet below sea level – there is no place on earth like this! The sea is also very deep – almost 1000 feet – and is so salty; over 9 times saltier than any other ocean. Our pilgrims decided to join everyone in floating on the sea for a while. Yes, you float, you can’t really swim. And if the salt water gets in your eyes, it is very, very painful. We also rubbed some of the dark grey mud onto our skin – it was a kind of 2000 year old spa experience I suppose!
We journeyed back to our hotel and had a celebration in the hotel bar before dinner, sharing stories, and reflecting on our pilgrimage thus far. Tomorrow is the last day of Ramadan, and the city will be on high alert. Many roads will be closed, and so our guide had decided that we would leave the city early and visit Masada, where Herod the Great built himself a fortress, and then the caves at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
As suspected, there was a heavy police presence in East Jerusalem on Friday morning, and there were many check points on roads around our hotel. Our guide, Mike, was utterly prepared and took us out of the old City for the day. First, we travelled to the ruins of Herod the Great’s fortress and palace complex in Masada which we had to reach by a dramatic cable car ride.
A natural stronghold originally on the shore of the Dead Sea (now the Dead Sea has retreated several miles), it had all the usual luxuries of a Roman villa with terraces for the bedrooms, a bath complex, including hot and cold chambers, a columbarium, not used for cremated remains but its original roman use – a dovecote to provide meat and fertilizer, and an ingenious water system, that collected rainwater from flash floods via aqueducts that fed huge cisterns.
With massive storehouses, it could withstand a long siege…and it had to – for, after the Jewish revolt resulting in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD70, the Romans encamped around the fortress for THREE years. The remains of their square camps can still be seen 2000 years later, as can the huge stone ramp that they constructed to support their siege tower. The Romans eventually penetrated the walls only to find that the inhabitants had all taken their own lives.
The stronghold and palace remained derelict for many centuries until a group of monks took over the site in the 5th century, building a Byzantine Church for their use. For the first time, we had a real understanding of the desert fathers.
After lunch, we travelled to Qumran, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1950s. The Essene Sect were a fanatical Jewish community that lived in the wilderness and built a complex set of buildings in stone.
There are many ritual baths and we know that they bathed before prayer. They also had scrolls of the Law and the prophets. These they hid in caves that they had created in the mountains when word of the Roman suppression of the Jewish Revolt reached them. It is believed that the Romans found the caves and tore up many of the scrolls. However, they then lay hidden for almost 2000 years. They are some of the most significant biblical texts that we have. Initially, the fragments were pieced together, but those that were still rolled up were too fragile. Only in the last 20 years has technology allowed them to be scanned and today computers produce the writing on the scrolls without having to open them.
Our pilgrimage officially ended with a mass in St. George’s Cathedral where we were welcomed by Canon Richard Sewell, the Dean of St. George’s College which welcomes pilgrims.
Our final Gospel reading was the Road to Emmaus and Bishop Bauerschmidt preached beautifully about how the two disciples turned around and went back to Jerusalem, because things would never be the same again. He quoted from T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding (the last of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’) and suggested that our experience of pilgrimage would also change our own homecomings:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
God willing, see you on Sunday,
Affectionately, and with greetings from all the pilgrims,
your Priest and Pastor