Pilgrimage, Day 7: O Brother, Where Am I?

For the previous entry, click here.

Today we left Galilee, traveling first to the Harod Spring (where Gideon had his men drink the water to determine who would accompany him in battle against the Midianites) and the Jezreel Spring (at Tel Jezreel in Samaria, where King Ahab and Jezebel would make their capital).

From thence to Beth-Shean, the site of the palace of Egyptian governors in the 13th Century B.C.E. and the site of Scythopolis, one of the Greco-Roman Decapoli founded near the trade routes. Scythopolis was founded by the Ptolemys after they took control of the Egypt and the Levant in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death.

This brings me to my first point today: After conquering Egypt, Alexander turned West to visit the oracle at the Siwa Oasis (known to the Greeks as Ammonia). It was here that the oracle pronounced Alexander the son of a god and the man began to incorporate divinity into his own identity. Alexander’s conquest enabled the Ptolemys to build the Decapoli. Between Alexander and Augustus–not to mention the men who came before and after Christ claiming to be the prophesied messiah–I am struck by just how much the shadows of human men declaring themselves to be divine loomed over this land.

Scythopolis itself was nothing short of amazing, reminding me very much of Roman ruins found in Italy. Of course, many cultures had built at Beth-Shean at least as far back as the aforementioned Egyptians until an 8th Century earthquake caused the settlement to be moved. The Greco-Romans had built the largest city there, which was followed by the Byzantines, who rebuilt and expanded in their own time.

I must admit to completely nerding out about the ruins there (is anyone surprised?). Running water, heated bathhouses, Cyclopean architecture, a 7,000-person theatre, marble-clad streets (marble is not often found natively in Israel, if at all), intricate mosaics–all of the standards for Roman achievement. But I also realized a great deficiency in my own learning (much to my chagrin, of course). The Byzantines must have considered themselves the inheritors and reconcilers of the competing cultures of the Holy Land, combining the best of Roman knowledge and achievement with Christianity. Despite this, I know relatively little about them. I’ve read Precopius’s Secret History (though I don’t remember much of it), can recognize the artwork and can name some rulers and events. But almost all of my learning about the Byzantines is tangential, a side-effect of my Western-Eurocentric historical focus and mindset. There’s no time right now, but I must soon make it a priority to study that culture and civilization for its own sake.

From there, we headed south along the Jordan to Beth-arabah, the likeliest site for Jesus’s baptism by John the–well, you know. In a power play against Syria and Jordan, after seizing the Golan Heights and preventing the former from having access to Galilean water, Israel built a dam at the south end of the Sea of Galilee, allowing them to control the outflow of the Jordan River. I’m told the river flow volume is about 5% of what it once was. Standing on a platform by the side of the river, I did not doubt it. A plaque commemorating the 2013 water level was a good fifteen feet or more over my head.

That journey led us through the West Bank–the first of several times we’ll visit that area. I was moved by the obvious difference between that place and other parts of Israel–increased poverty, dilapidated buildings, an atmosphere of desperation. We passed a sign warning Israeli citizens that the road next to the sign led to a Palestinian settlement and that, therefore, that road was not safe for them. To be clear, Palestinians are also Israeli citizens, so the sign spoke volumes about the deep divides here.

I titled an earlier post “The Ancient and the Modern;” the clearest example of that juxtaposition to date was in the West Bank, where we watched young shepherds lead their flocks in the same manner as has been done for millennia–while playing on their cell phones.

Once to the Jordan, we held a short baptismal remembrance service–keep in mind that Methodists consider re-baptism anathema–followed by singing “Down to the River to Pray” before dipping our hands in the water and making the sign of the cross on our foreheads. There is a spiritual resonance at that place (assisted by the presence of white doves and a strong wind that picked up soon after we arrived), but, for me at least, it was overshadowed by the present-day realities. This spot on the Jordan is also the border between Israel and Jordan. As such, we had to pass through a road lined on either side with warnings of the mine fields laid nearby. The detritus of past warfare littered those fields, rusted remnants of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. At the river, a buoyed line provided the border between nations–we were warned not to approach the border lest the guards on either side go to high alert. Those soldiers–Jordanians on one side and two eighteen-year-old IDF soldiers on our side–eyed one another like gunfighters at high noon. What caught my eye–and my cynicism–most about this standoff was that all of the soldiers (on both sides) were armed with American weapons.

After passing through some of the Judean wilderness, we arrived back in Jerusalem to the Knight’s Palace Hotel at about 4:30. With 2 hours to kill until dinner, we spread out across the Old City. After investigating some nearby shops that had been recommended to us (I have little desire to bring home souvenirs), we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m not fond of crowds, or waiting, so I resolved to return to the Church to see the things I wanted to see: Golgotha and the Tomb.

I cannot be certain, of course, that the spaces asserted by the Church are the actual locations of Christ’s execution and (attempt at) burial, but having done some research, there’s a very good case to be made here. As the Church opens at 4:00 a.m., I’ve resolved to make an early-morning trip in hopes of avoiding the crowds.

After the Church, we headed back to the Western Wall for a second look. It’s Friday, so shabbat is being observed today and the Wall was understandably crowded, and becoming moreso by the moment.

Tomorrow, we venture into the Judean wilderness itself, as well as the shephelah (the foothills). I’m convinced that yesterday’s experience at Mount Arbel will be the lens through which I see the rest of this journey–another seven days.

For the next entry, click here.

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