Day 3: On which we set our faces towards Jerusalem
We are up early today to say goodbye to the gentle landscape around the Sea of Galilee: it seems too soon. I love it here. I haven’t had anywhere near enough time even to identify the birds we have seen and heard, and there isn’t enough time in all the world to have enough of drinking in the view from our balcony. Our original itinerary would have taken in the frantic pace of Jerusalem first, and ended with the peace and tranquillity of the quieter north, but last minute changes reversed the plan. It’s true that this way round we can follow a little more closely the direction of Jesus’ own ministry, but I’m still sad to leave so soon. Is it too fanciful to wonder how Jesus felt the last time he packed up and journeyed south? And to think how amazing it is that we have a God who understands our very human attachment to place, the thought of ‘home’?
We board our coach and travel down the Jordan valley towards Jericho. The countryside very quickly becomes harsh and barren. My thoughts turn towards Old Testament stories of battles and flights from enemies: there are many ravines and caves in the bare hillsides, and it’s easy to see how a fugitive could hide, or an ambush be set.
We catch a glimpse of the River Jordan and Khalil points out a crowd of white-robed people making their way down to be baptised. “But,” he says “That is not the place!” We take a turn off the main road and pass barbed wire and warning signs around mine fields ...
... before arriving at Qasr al-Yehud, a place only made accessible to the public within the last few years. We are right on the border, so close that we could almost jump across the river into Jordan itself. The armed soldiers standing around, apparently casual but with fingers on triggers, suggest that this might not be a good idea. This is thought to be the very place where John baptised Jesus. The river is narrow and muddy, and a barrier has been erected to make sure we don’t try to wade across. In the hot morning sunshine Jordanian pilgrims paddle in the river on their side, and we take off our shoes and socks to do the same on ours. In my thoughts is the repeated whisper, “He was here!”
We continue through the Judean wilderness, the scene of Jesus’ 40 day fast and his temptation. We lunch in the open air in dry, shaded heat that reminds me of Africa. The restaurant is lovely, with trailing plants, good food and cold beer claiming to be ‘The finest in the Middle East’, though the view across barbed wire is of a scruffy residential area surrounding a mosque, from which the call to prayer echoes around us.
We stop at a roadside stall to buy Jericho bananas and dates, which are the best. Jericho oranges are also the best, but we are warned that the crop is very small and oranges are currently out of season, so if the vendor tells us that his oranges are Jericho oranges, he *may* be lying. The bananas and dates are certainly good. We resist the oranges. We can see the mount of temptation, where Jesus was allegedly shown all the countries of the world by Satan. Mr Barton eyes the cable car. “We don’t have to go up there do we?” he asks. We don’t.
After lunch we drive on, and after a time Khalil asks us to look to the right. We look. There is really nothing to see. “I lied to you!” He says. “There is nothing to the right! Now look to the left!!” And there it is – a panoramic view of the golden city of Jerusalem laid out in all its glory. By far the best thing about this is the delight on Khalil’s face. He is so proud of this city, his birthplace and that of his fathers and their fathers. It is beautiful, and to him it is home, and more than home. My heart is strangely warmed.
We stop at the Mount of Olives and look out across the Kidron Valley to Jerusalem. Then we walk the path Jesus took on Palm Sunday – if not the same path, one very similar. It is very steep, down into the valley and up the other side, and I imagine the donkey struggling to keep its footing in places, particularly with the unnerving shouting and waving of palms going on.
Eventually we come to the Garden of Gethsemane.
I gaze through railings at ancient olive trees, so ancient that the roots were certainly witnesses to Jesus’ agony, even if the visible trunks and branches have gradually renewed themselves over the centuries. Of all the places we visit this is the one where the devotion of the pilgrims is most naked, almost raw. A girl lies prostrate on a rocky outcrop in the garden. There is weeping. Inside the church (of course there is a church) another rocky outcrop is preserved and has an altar over it. We kneel to pray, shyly reaching to touch the rock. Who’s to say if this was the precise place? It doesn’t really matter. We thank Jesus for being willing to suffer for us.
Later we arrive at the Golden Walls Hotel in Jerusalem. Our room looks out onto an old fridge, and some barbed wire with an abandoned sofa cushion caught on it. I miss Galilee, and wonder if Jesus felt the same.