“And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem”

Tuesday, 20th November, 2012
Petra to Jerusalem

For all photos from today, use this link to my dropbox account. To sign up for Dropbox, use this link: http://db.tt/rvgBYop

“And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!”

And indeed they are. We have landed at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre, and it is about 8:45pm. We have been to the 6:30pm English Mass in the chapel, and had dinner, and now are preparing to get a good night’s sleep before an early rise in the morning.

It has been quite a day. The only “attraction” we have visited today was “Qumran” (more of that in a moment), but getting into Israel was the main event of the day.

I was awake by 5pm, and, not being able to sleep, went to the lobby to keep working at uploading photographs. By 6:30am, breakfast was on the go, so after eating (and drinking several cups of tea – they had teapots with canisters of tea for you to mix and make your own!), I went up to finish packing. We left at 9am. I had taken out my map of Jordan, and, using my iPhone compass, checked our direction: North. North? Were we not going south to Aqaba today? Maybe the bus driver was going by a different route and we would soon be turning around.

“I wonder if any of you have noticed that we are not heading south?” Fadi asked after a few minutes. Yes, I had noticed. “Well, we have been told that the border crossing at Aqaba into Israel has been closed, so we are heading north again to cross at the King Hussein Bridge at the North end of the Dead Sea.” So we headed back up the Kings Highway and the major North-South highway on which we had come down to Petra, back to Amman, and back down the road we had taken to the Baptismal Site and Mt Nebo two days earlier. We made one stop on the way, at about 11am, where I had a cup of Arabic coffee and a pipe, spending the last of my Jordanian dollars (I have a coin or two left for souvenirs).

Otherwise it was an uneventful journey. The best part was listening to Fadi give us information about the area and the history of Jordan. He showed me the manuscript of the book he is writing, which appears to be quite a labour of love. As it turns out, it is in English (we had a discussion together last night whether it would be English or Arabic), and he actually offered it to me for proof reading. I think I will take him up on this offer.

As it turned out, I should have taken the opportunity to have a bite to eat at our stop, because we never did get any lunch. We arrived at the border crossing – which is something like a country bus terminal but more heavily armed – at about 1pm, and then began the wait. Fadi took our passports and went off to organise our departure permits, and we sat on the bus. At about half past 1, I decided to curl up on my seat (there was a vacant placed next to me) and catch some shut-eye. Mum used to say that I was like a cat, being able to go to sleep just about anywhere. I woke just after 2pm when Fadi returned with our passports and departure slips. We said farewell to him, and our driver took us on to the crossing. We passed through the gate to the Bridge, officially leaving Jordan and entering into what once must have been a no mans land. Our Israeli guide told me later that the area around this crossing was once very heavily mined by both sides, and there was evidence of old artillery bunkers on the side of the road.

We crossed the King Hussein Bridge over a rather miserable looking Jordan River at just about the same point that Joshua would have led the people of Israel across. Honestly, if the river had been this small and sluggish in the time of that crossing, it wouldn’t have taken a miracle to stop the flow of water. In fact, all it would have taken is for them to throw a few of the local stones into the river and they could have walked across on that.

At the other end, we passed through another guarded gate and then into a much bigger terminal on the Israeli side (like a country airport), the arrival point in Israel. We disembarked from our bus, got our luggage and then proceeded to the customs point. There were perhaps only one or two other busloads of people seeking to enter at the same time as us. I had the impression that this was one of the less busy entry points into Israel. We had put our watches back one hour with the time difference between Jordan and Israel (we are now 9 hours behind Australia and will remain so for the rest of the journey), so it was now about 1:30pm, and proceeded to the first desk manned by a rather attractive young Israeli woman.

Rosemary and several others of the pilgrims went through before me without any fuss, and little more than a cursory glance at the passports. I approached the glass screen, handed over my passport. She took it. Looked at it. Looked at me. And kept looking at me. Then the interrogation began:

“State your full name.” Despite being tired and hungry, I got that one right.

“Why are you visiting Israel?” I am on a study tour.

“Studying what?” The Bible lands.

“Whose bible? OUR bible?” (Think quick). Yes. (Right answer).

“Why do you want to do this?” (Interfaith dialogue was probably NOT the right answer). I’m a theologian (I hoped that the next thing she asked for was not a copy of my PhD thesis).

“Are you alone?” No, I’m with this group here.

This was followed by a long pause, during which there was more looking at me. “What is this hat you are wearing? Our military wear hats like these.” (Aha. This was the problem). It’s a beret. I wear a beret. I’ve always worn a beret.

Another pause and more intense scrutiny.

“How are you?” What? (Wasn’t this normally where a conversation started? Was this a trick question?)

“How are you?” Um, tired. And hungry.

Another long pause + scrutiny.

“Have a good stay in Israel.”

And with that she handed me back my passport and sent me on inside the terminal. I have heard many stories about tricky border crossings into Israel, and this was indeed mild by comparison, but still… I’m glad I didn’t decide to wear the Jordanian headscarf I bought yesterday…

At the very last check point the man at the counter looked at my passport (now more than five years old) looked at me, sort of screwed up his face and looked at my passport again, with a sort of question on his face. “Yes,” I said, “I have grown my moustache since then.” He smiled and handed the passport back to me and I was through into Israel. Rosemary had said to us all not to do anything to attract attention to ourselves at the crossing. How was I to know that my trademark beret and moustache would cause such excitement?

Well, by this time it was about 2:40pm Israel time and we met up with our Israeli guide, an American-born Jewish woman, now a citizen of Israel, named Gila. She pointed out to us the immediate difficulty: If we hightailed it onto the bus straight away, we could get to nearby Qumran before it closed at 3pm. However, if we stopped for lunch, we would miss this opportunity. The vote was unanimous: we headed for the bus. We were just about to start handing over our luggage, when a siren went off. At first I thought it might be a vehicle siren, but then it became clear it was a warning siren. Folk came running from several directions telling us to turn around and head back inside the terminal. We were not exactly sure what was going on, but after a short wait, the siren ended, and soon after that we were allowed back out and onto the bus. Most of us thought that it was probably some kind of drill (it had the feel of a fire-drill at the Cardinal Knox Centre) but I overheard Gila telling Rosemary afterward that it was quite serious. Apparently it was a rocket launch alert and, although the rocket would have been aimed at Jerusalem, the firepower of these things is never enough to make it there, and often goes either short or awry, so everyone within cooee is put on alert. “I will show you the safe room at your hotel”, she said. Really? The way Notre Dame is built (solid stone) I have the impression that the whole building is a “safe room”!

We made it to Qumran just before closing, passing by the North end of the Dead Sea. We could see how far the shore line of the sea had decreased in the last fifty years or so – more than 80 feet lower according to Gila due to using the Jordan for irrigation and water supply on both sides. There was an old ruined hotel about a kilometre from thee water, which once used to be right on the edge.

Qumran is a simple place to visit, but well worth it, and easily accessible. It is on the Western side of the steep hills around the Red Se, and affords a nice view of Mt Nebo on the other side. I know that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has spawned an enormous scholarly industry, but it has also created quite a bit of profit for the tourism industry. There is a large tourist centre built right next to the site where the Jewish Essene monastic community had their centre. The excavated ruins are well marked out with a walkway through the site, leading past the large ritual bath cisterns and pools, and then on the other side to a place where “Cave No. 4” can be viewed easily. This is the cave where the most controversial scrolls were found (and jealously guarded by two or three individual academics until the 1990s), but that discovery only came some time after the excavation on the Essene commune was well under way. This cave was probably the “rare book room” for the community’s library, whereas the other caves, the earlier ones famously discovered by the Bedouin shepherd boy, was further to the north in a hidden crevice. These latter were probably put there by the Essenes for safe keeping at the time when the Roman army of Vespasian invaded Judah about 35 years after Jesus’ ministry. It was in one of those caves that a full copy of the book of Isaiah was found, dated to about 200BC, and hence more than 1000 years older than any other copy of Isaiah previously known.

We were back on the bus at 4:10pm and headed off to Jerusalem, on what our guide called “the steepest ascent on earth”. And indeed you did have this experience of “popping ears” due to the change in air pressure as we ascended the mountain of the Lord! We arrived in Jerusalem just after sunset and in the middle of peak hour. On the way in we could see the tower of the Russian Church on the Mount of Olives against the skyline and then came around a corner and caught the first glimpse of the Dome of the Rock. We were taken directly up to the top of the Mount of Olives (via Mt Scopus, passing the Hebrew University, the Lutheran Church of the Ascension and an old mosque from the crusader period built upon the foundation of a Constantinian Church), from where we were able to view Jerusalem. The Temple Mount area spread before us dominating the view. The guide told us that the temple of Herod was at least twice the height of the Dome of the Rock, and thus it must have been a most imposing presence in the city. Below us was the Church of Dominus Flevit where we will celebrate mass in a few days time, and the large ancient Jewish burial ground (which means that even in Jewish tradition, the Mount of Olives is regarded as the spot where the Resurrection will take place).

It was very cool, so after taking photos, we headed off to the Notre Dame Centre. This is not a conventional hotel, but a Catholic pilgrimage hostel, although on quite a luxurious scale. I understand it was built for a large pilgrimage of French Catholics back at the end of the 19th Century, but has only recently been fully restored as a pilgrimage centre. Fr Peter and I are sharing rooms again, smaller than the rooms from our previous hotels (no bath…), but by this stage bed is looking very inviting.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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