Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Desert

Qumran Cave 4 (Greene photo)
We've spent portions of two days in the Judean desert.  While parts of the desert are what Americans think of as sandy desert, other parts are more rocky hills and crags.  Either part may have dry stream beds (called wadis) running through them that will be sites of flash flood during the couple of inches of rainfall that come each year.  Caves can also be found there, and at various times people have lived in them, including Jewish Essenes and Christian monks.  

On Monday morning, we left the hotel at 5:00 am to go out to the desert overlooking the Wadi Qelt that runs from Jerusalem to Jericho.  While the old Roman road that Jesus would have walked on has long since been covered by shifting sands, the paths that are there today look most uninviting.  Mounds of either sand or very small stones make up both sides of a valley that drops thousands of feet from the hills of Jerusalem to a town on the edge of the lowest point of dry ground on the planet.  A narrow line of green vegetation followed the stream bed at the bottom.
Sunrise over Jericho Road (Greene Photo)

While not perhaps the first choice of places to want to walk, or to stop to provide help like the Good Samaritan did, the ridge we were on was an incredible place to watch the sunrise.  After about a half-hour of silent contemplation, the diffuse light around us increased until it seemed like morning had come.  Then an arc of burnished gold rose over the mountains of Moab along the eastern horizon.  Slowly the sun crept up until it formed a full circle above the peaks, and then it continued inching its way toward the sky.  After sunrise, we celebrated Eucharist in the wilderness, reading Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as the gospel.  

Cable Car (Greene photo)
Monastery at Mount of Temptation (Greene photo)
From there we went to the Mount of Temptation near Jericho.  This spot is believed to be where Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness.  The Jordan valley surrounding Jericho is fairly lush, with lots of agricultural products.  The mount itself, however, was high enough to be a dry, desert-like area, although the steep cliffs and drops wouldn't have allowed farming anyway.  To get up to the monastery built on the side of the cliff, we had to go by cable car to a small hospitality area.  The cable cars looked more like a Disney World ride than something on a pilgrimage to Israel.  The bright red cars held six of us, and three cars moved together as a group.  By the time they approached the Mount, the cable cars were way up there (not to be too technical).  Then we walked the equivalent of a couple of flights of stairs up to get to the monastery and the spot itself.  We read the relevant gospel together, as we have at each of the sites we've visited, and then had an opportunity for prayer and reflection.  The monastery has a small chapel with a flight of stairs up to a small room where the temptation is believed to have occurred.  One interesting piece is that the walls in the upstairs room were getting new icons written onto them.  We could see white outlines of figures that will soon be complete.

The other time we spent in the desert was today (Thursday).  We drove south on highway 90 which on the eastern coast of Israel.  Much of what we drove through was desert country with spots of irrigation or a lusher valley.  We paralleled the Jordan River for much of the ride, and could see the Jordanian Mountains.  During one stretch, the Israeli side of the Jordan was dry hills covered with what looked like a brown grass.  Between the roads and the hills was an electrified fence.  On the other side of the Jordan River, in Jordan, we could see lush vegetation and farms.  Our guide told us that the hills between the fence and the Jordan contained minefields.  Suddenly we remembered that the modern state of Israel has been attacked from Jordan in the past.  Even though currently the two countries have signed a peace treaty, remains high.  As Americans, we don't expect to see such military preparations at a border, since our last invasion from Canada came in 1812, and only after we attacked them.  Here, however, the Six Days War, as well as many more recent terrorist and other attacks, are etched in people's minds.

At the edge of the Dead Sea, we came to Qumran.  During Jesus' time, Qumran was an Essene community in the desert.  The Essenes were a radical Jewish group that kept a strict purity code and considered themselves the Sons of Light preparing for the final battle with the Sons of Darkness.  Like many later monks, they also kept copies of scriptures and other holy books.  In the late 1940's a Bedouin searching for a lost goat found a jar containing ancient scrolls in a cave near the Dead Sea.  These scrolls, and hundreds of others found in nearby caves, became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls and are probably the most important scriptural find in generations.  Before their discovery, the oldest extant copy of the Hebrew Scriptures dated to about 1000 AD.  But the dry desert preserved texts containing much of the scritpures, including the complete Book of Isaiah, and many other religious works.  They can be found on-line at  Most of the scrolls came from cave number 4.  (If you want to know more about the Dead Sea Scrolls, leave a comment.  I can talk about them with great excitement for a long time.)

Tim and Vanessa floating (not sitting) in the Dead Sea (Greene photo)
From Qumran, we went for a float in the Dead Sea.  I've never felt anything quite like it.  The water is hot, warmer than bath water, and very, very, very salty.  Trying to stand up or move around takes a good bit of effort.  What your body wants to do is just float, primarily on your back.  Getting out was actually the hardest part, since the water pushed us out on our backs even when the depth was only to our knees.  We'd seen the "Dead Sea Salts" for sale at many gifts shops, and Jane said they worked well.  After getting a mini spa treatment by covering herself in dead sea mud, her skin was quiet soft and she felt good.  At the same time, the salty water let you know of any little cuts or scrapes you might have with a bit of a tingling burn.   

No comments:

Post a Comment