From the Sea of Galilee to Jericho…and beyondOur London correspondent tom Aitken has recently been visiting Israel. In his third report, he gives a vivid picture of some of the oldest and most historic areas of the Holy Land.
Exploring Israel’s Eastern BorderBy Tom Aitken
The Jordan Valley is Israel’s longest land border, from the Dead Sea (400m below sea level) north to the outflow of the River Jordan from the Sea of Galilee (212 metres below sea level). Today’s border does not follow the river, but includes the West Bank Settlement Zone, administered jointly by Jews and Palestinians.
The arrangement has curious side-effects. Our Israeli guide Ronny had to be dropped outside Jericho, replaced by our Palestinian friend Ibrahim, whom we had met in similar circumstances in Bethlehem. (We backtracked to re-exchange before proceeding north.)
Geographically, the Jordan Valley extends from rivers north the Sea of Galilee to Aqaba and its gulf and across the Red Sea to the Great African Rift Valley, of which it is part.
Dead Sea problems
Modern times have not been kind to the Jordan and the Dead Sea. Much of the outflow from the Sea of Galilee, fed by the snows of Mount Hermon, is syphoned off for agricultural and industrial purposes. What remains is in places little more than a ditch, and an insalubrious one at that.
Accordingly, the water level in the Dead Sea is dropping. From the mountain fortress at Masada we saw exposed sandbanks, which divide its southernmost part from the rest.
Masada (another of Herod the Great’s gargantuan projects) marks the Jews’ last stand in their revolt against the Romans, after the fall of Jerusalem in AD/CE 70.
The Romans built a huge ramp and rolled up a siege tower. Exactly what they found when they got inside is disputed––but resistance was at an end.
Spartan life in kibbutz
We stayed overnight in Ein Gedi Kibbutz, attended to in relatively spartan conditions by young Israelis sampling the disciplines of communal life and work.
The highlight of our visit was being shown around its botanical garden by one of the world’s ecstatic enthusiasts. She explained the workings of the place, reserving her greatest delight for the flowers and plants. (We were there in the second week of February––the depths of winter.)
She herself had married into the kibbutz when it was more primitive than it is now. ‘Imagine,’ she exhorted us, ‘generating eight children in a living space divided only by a suspended blanket… No warning knocks when they came in!’
Home of Dead Sea Scrolls
Further north we looked around Qmran, peering across a ravine into caves where the Essenes––a hermetic Jewish sect contemporaneous with the Pharisees and Sadducees––stored their writings now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
On to Jericho, which claims to be, possibly accurately, the oldest city in the world. It features prominently, of course, in the Old Testament account of the Israelite conquest of Judah––but although there is archaeological evidence for other sections of that narrative, nothing known at present quite fits Jericho.
There is no question, however, that Rahab the harlot, described as sheltering the Israelite spies, could have lived in rooms built into the town walls. We looked at evidence of those walls, and visited Tell as-Sultan, a palace on the outskirts, built at an earlier period as a pleasure house for a playboy heir to the throne before he got down to the serious business of ruling.
Excellent Presbyterian accommodation
After dark that day we arrived at Tiberius at the south western corner of Galilee, to stay at a hotel (formerly a hospital) owned by the Presbyterian Church. Accommodation, food and wine were excellent.
North of the lake we visited Capernaum, where Peter ran his fishing business. We looked at the building that commemorates the feeding of the five thousand, the quaintly named Church of the Multiplication. It lies, however, in entirely the wrong locality––not ‘a desert place apart’, but nestling in (then as now) productive agricultural hillsides.
Fishing boat like Peter’s
A remarkable object we saw, dating actually from the first century, was a fishing boat such as Peter would have used. This was found on the bottom of the lake during an extended drought in 1986. It was recovered and preserved by archaeologists using chemical and other painstaking and risky means to reconstitute and lift the timbers to dry land.
Further north stands Safed, notable for ancient synagogues and an artists’ colony. An incident in the artists’ market encapsulated the human richness of this complicatedly troubled yet inspiring country. One showroom exhibited a number of large paintings, seemingly more oriental than Jewish. Camera in hand, I loitered in the doorway.
‘Come in,’ said the woman at the desk. ‘You can take pictures if you want.’
There you have it. Israel has a much-troubled, much-debated history. Its right to exist is bitterly contested, by people from all over the world driven by everything from an abstract sense of justice to glittering-eyed sectarianism.
Yet at every turn you see people getting on with their complicated lives while they dance on a knife-edge.
Next week I’ll offer comments on the threat from Iran and its implications for Israel and the world. After that, like everyone else, I’ll wait to see what happens.