If you’re in Jerusalem someday, plan to hike the countryside some. And if you don’t know where to start, make it Wadi Qelt. The first time I came here, it was one of those things that was on my list but ended up getting cut as time ran down. Today, I crossed it off my “travel Bingo card”, and it was a greater pleasure than usual.
Why the fuss? A number of reasons! It’s just beautiful. Quiet, isolated, natural. I suppose this was enhanced by the fact that we began our hike at 6:00 AM! It also doesn’t hurt that the trail features one of the more spectacular monasteries you’ll ever see, built right into the cliff. St. George’s Monastery was built in the 5th century and is the type of building that makes its way into National Geographic photos here and there. For the first half of the hike, we were on a small but empty highway trekking through the hills of the West Bank. Then a short descent into the wadi led us to the monastery for a brief stop. The second half was along the wadi edge, midway up its steep, canyon-like sides. Charles asked that we walk that portion in silence—no trouble here. It was an easy place to simply let one’s eyes roam and mind wander. It also demanded some attention as the rocky path was safe enough, but also dangerous enough that one’s eyes were down a fair bit, looking for solid footing. It would be a shame to lose a Canadian to the rocky wadi.
But we all arrived safely on the outskirts of Jericho, where the wadi ends. Our bus driver met us and delivered us to the base of the Mount of Temptation, a peak traditionally associated with Jesus’ temptation experience in the wilderness. More specifically, I think tradition has posed this mountain as the one from which Jesus saw (and was offered) the kingdoms of the world. More generally, I’d say the whole area of Wadi Qelt and beyond would definitely qualify as “Judean wilderness”. Over his forty days, it seems fairly likely he at least passed through some of what we saw today. And that thought is more than a bit staggering.
A short afternoon breather back at Tantur allowed a few people to catch a nap or rest their feet. I took the chance to head back to the Old City for a couple final bits of gift-shopping. Then, I met up with the rest of the group at the Garden Tomb.
The Garden Tomb (sometimes called Gordon’s Calvary) is an unusual site in Jerusalem, or in Israel, for that matter. Basically, it’s an alternative site for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Most historians believe the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to mark these spots. However, the Garden Tomb sprung up in the late 1800’s as a “second option”, popular mainly among Protestants, and particularly among English Christians who first heard of the theory through the writings of a military man named… Gordon. The weight of centuries worth of tradition is on the side of the Sepulchre site. However, supporters of the Garden Tomb make some fascinating cases for their site’s authenticity. Many of them have some weight; a few not so much.
At the very least, the Garden Tomb IS a first-century tomb, which seems to have been located in first-century vineyard belonging to a very wealthy person. Those details, coupled with the peaceful atmosphere of the garden—a strong contrast to the crowds and coldness that some feel in the Sepulchre church—make this spot special and easy to enjoy, regardless of one’s persuasion on where Jesus’ death happened or didn’t happen.
Our group was led through a concise but excellent presentation by a volunteer. A brief tour was part of that presentation, after which we were given some time and a spot for some group discussion and some photos. We were there right until closing at 5:00 PM, at which point they nudged us to move along… right through the gift shop! It is standard planning to place every exit of every site on the other side of the gift shop. Today wasn’t bad—this is a better-than-usual gift shop with interesting books and maps. I settled for a few postcards, which I may or may not send, and called it a day.
Quick bus home, supper, and an evening to do with as we wish. For me: Some laundry, some reading, and some computer work (organizing photos and journaling).
Tomorrow, we visit a couple newer sites. One is Mount Herzl, named after a European Jewish journalist whose writings in the late 1800’s became the beginnings of the modern Zionist movement. We could debate the content and value of Zionism if we wished to. For now, let’s just agree that Herzl shaped the modern state of Israel profoundly enough to make his way on to our itinerary. The other stop will be Yad Vashem, a memorial site dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. Sigh. I’m already bracing myself the impact of that stop. And I think I’ll leave it at that until tomorrow.
For the moment, I hope those back home are loving their long weekend. May it be refreshing and filled with joyful pleasure!