To the Borders

27th November, 2012
To the Borders

For all photos for 27th November, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

I woke this morning feeling decidedly off. I seem to have ate something that disagreed with me, and made like a gate in a Roman Theatre (called by the vivid title a “vomitum” before breakfast. Thankfully we have a pharmacist on the team, and he had something to settle my stomach. This together with some other medication offered by other members of the pilgrimage had me feeling more settled by the time we set off for the Mount of the Beatitudes on the North shore of the Lake for Mass.

The grounds here are run by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and they have developed very beautiful gardens around the octagonal church by Antonio Barluzzi. I really like his churches, and this is the last that we are visiting on this tour. The Mount is the traditional location for the Sermon on the Mount, and hence not only a site for the teaching of the Beatitudes but also an alternative site for the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer. I like the suggestion of some commentators that there is no reason to choose between the two locations – Jesus could have taught this prayer more than once, more than twice even. The location is on the hill above Tabgha, the traditional place of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Like other countryside holy places, it was much easier to pray here than in the city locations, although one cannot really say that the place is as it was in Jesus’ day. The banana plantations and the gum trees were not there originally for a start… See the photos for a sense of this location, and for the details of the Church (which features a very nice exterior cloister, and a central altar on which the blessed Sacrament is reserved, around which is a tiled floor featuring the seven virtues and above which is a dome with eight windows each with one of the beatitudes in Latin).

From here we travelled North East to the relatively recent and ongoing excavation of the ancient city of Hazor. This is rated as one of the most significant excavations in Israel today, as the city dates back to pre-Israelite times at least to 1800BC. From a biblical point of view it relates to the question of the entry of the Hebrews into the land. The book of Joshua records Joshua’s victory over the city and its king Jabin, and specifically credits him with burning the city with fire (Josh 11:10-11). Interestingly, the excavations of Hazor show exactly this – a massive fire (“the mother of all fires” according to the leader of the excavation) destroyed the “palace” and surrounding buildings at about 1200BC. You can see the blackened and cracked stones quite clearly today. Hazor (and oddly Jabin again) are mentioned once more in the book of Judges, in an incident in the time of the judge Deborah (connected to the gruesome story of Jael driving a tent peg through Sisera’s head).

The site today is a little like Jericho – it is a mound or “tel”, on and under which is the main administration centre of the city (it is the largest such “tel” in Israel0. On the lower side of the hill and surrounding are exploratory excavations, which indicate that the residential part of the city during the Canaanite period extended beyond the tel itself. One frustrating aspect of the excavation is the scarcity of documentary evidence found in the excavation thus far (and there is much more of the city still to be uncovered). The great hope is to discover the “archive”, the collection of clay tablets usually kept in such politically central cities in the palace. One reason I put palace in quotation marks above is that the building originally excavated as “the palace” is today thought to have perhaps been a temple – there is, after all, a great big altar in front of this building and the similarity to the Jerusalem temple would suggest that the building behind it is a temple, rather than a palace. Of course, in some places, the temple and the palace were the same thing because the king was worshipped as a god, but I don’t think that was the case here. Adding to the suspicion that this structure could be a temple, not a palace, is the discovery of another “palace” on the side of the city mound. Gila showed us the trench excavation that had been made. But no “archive” have been discovered in this building either. Still, early days…

The city of Hazor was significant as it lay on the main road leading from the coast to Damascus (Megiddo lies on this road too, and it is quite possible that Saul passed this way on his mission to persecute Christians in Damascus). It was rebuilt by Solomon (1 Kings 9:15) and used by the kings of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) right up to the time of its capture by Tiglath Pileser III of Assyria in 732BC. The front gates are referred to as the Gates of Solomon.

Being so near to Syria, Gila completed our geographical orientation by taking us as close as possible to the border. To get there, we travelled through the Golan Heights, control of which Israel wrested from Syria in the Six-Day War in 1967, and has been the object of contention ever since (officially, Syria and Israel are still at war, and, as I understand it). We crossed the Jordan at the Daughters of Jacob bridge (not named after the daughters of Jacob the patriarch – he only had one daughter according to the bible – but after an order of nuns in the times of the Crusaders who controlled this bridge and charged a toll to cross it). This was once the border with Syria and is the official entry point to the Golan Heights. This has been the crossing point of the Damascus Road for centuries. The bridge itself has been regularly destroyed and rebuilt, most recently in 2007 when a modern concrete bridge was built to replace the two Bailey bridges (one has been left stand).

Beyond this was an old Syrian customs house (camouflaged by eucalyptus trees), and on the fences on either side of the road were the ominous little red triangles indicating that the countryside around here was land mined from the time of the war. From this point on we were travelling through the hills of biblical “Bashan”, as in “Og the King of Bashan” (Numbers 21) and “the bulls of Bashan have surrounded me” (Psalm 22) (we did see some cows!). It is here that we had our first glimpse of the vineyards from which “Galilee wine” comes – it is in fact from the Golan Heights. Apparently it used to be called “Golan wine” but it was found that this name did not advance the marketing of the product.

We had seen many jets flying overhead while we were at Hazor (“Don’t worry about that, its just training practice”, said Gila), but now the military presence was very strong. Many military vehicles were passing us (we were caught at one point behind a truck carrying an army tank up the hill very slowly), and there were UN cars all over the place. We stopped at a lookout: the valley before us was a virtual “no man’s land”, and over the hills on the other side was Syria. Below us in the distance was the old town of Quneitra, now abandoned because it was destroyed by the Israelis during the six-day war. The Syrians have rebuilt Quneitra, just a little further away from the border. From here we were looking straight towards Damascus. “I would like to visit Damascus one day,” Gila said wistfully. The chances, as an Israeli citizen, are small that she ever will. As for us? Well, pray for the peace of Syria and it may one day be possible. But not today. So close, yet so far. While heading back for the bus, we came across a group of UN officers, and one recognised us as Australians and came over to us. He was an Australian himself, deployed here for 12 months as part of the peace-keeping force. He spoke to us for a while about his work here.

Back on the bus, we continued north along the border road until we came to a T junction. Actually, it would not have looked like a T junction to the casual observer, rather it seemed that the main road simply took a sharp turn to the left and South West. But there was a small dirt track leading off to the right North West. “That’s the road to Damascus”, Gila said. It did not look like it had received a great deal of traffic in recent decades. We took the left turn (it seemed the wisest road to take) and then made our way further north into an area around the town of Masade. This area is home to a predominantly Druze population (the Druze are a very old Islamic sect – google them to find out more). We had lunch here, next to the apple orchards, under the looming presence of Mount Hermon (the highest mountain in Israel), and on the edge of a volcanic crater and lake, at a Druze roadside cafe, where they made for us a traditional Druze sandwich: a soft flakey flatbread, spread with goat’s cheese, drizzled with a dressing made from sesame seed, olive oil and (a secret ingredient) “kaatar”, then rolled up and toasted on a BBQ. Very nice washed down with a cup of black sweet spiced tea and finished with a piece of baklava. Outside, an old Druze woman was selling the local produce. Had I not been flying out the next day, I would have been very tempted to make a purchase. You could buy the “kaatar” mixture, honey, quince jam, goats cheese, “grape honey” (??), marmalade etc. etc. I had a little conversation with the woman (mainly consisting of pointing to things and she trying to tell me the name in English). Not being able to buy anything else, I settled for a cup of pomegranate juice for 10 shekels (rather exorbitant).

We then kept heading north until we were almost at the meeting point between the Israel, Syria and Jordan borders. We then headed South a little way, through the hills of Dan and past the ruined Crusader fort of Nimord. This is as far North as we were going within Israel, and as far North as Jesus ever travelled too, for we had now reached Caesarea Philippi, where a spring flowed in ancient times from a large rock cave (it still flows – being the source of the River Hermon and then flowing into the Jordan, but it doesn’t flow from the cave anymore). This place was dedicated in ancient times to the Roman god Pan. Pan (the half goat half human god) was the god of mysterious places, and all caves were regarded as such. Even today it is a beautiful glade, and it appeared a popular place among the locals picnicking in the grounds. We went up and looked around the ruins of the temples. The significance for Christianity is that it was in this region that Jesus posed the question to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered “You are the Messiah (the Son of God)”. Jesus commended him and said “On this rock I will build my church”. The reference to “rock” is often thought to be a reference to the towering rock face in which the Panion cave and shrine was situated.

Now was the long drive home to Ma’agan on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Along the way, we made one final stop at a location which we had not yet visited, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. Egeria mentions a shrine here in her travel diary during her travels in the late 4th Century. She refers to the spot as a place of “seven springs”, in Greek “Heptapegon”, from which the name “Tabgha” is derived. We had been in this region a few days earlier, as the Church of the Primacy of Peter is not far away. The fifth century Byzantine church built on this spot was destroyed during the Persian wars in the early 7th Century. The place remained deserted until German archaeologists excavated the remains of the Byzantine Church (including the mosaic floor and the famous loaves and fishes mosaic in front of a particular feature rock). Then, in the 1980s, the German Benedictine’s rebuilt the church in a simple Byzantine style, preserving the mosaics. The Church is very simple and uncluttered (only a few pews are in the centre of the nave with a large stone baptismal font at the rear). the only artwork inside is an icon of Jesus on the right and of the Theotokos on the left. I lighted three candles before the icon of Christ. The windows of the church are of alabaster, creating a dimmed yellow light. Outside is a cloister with a goldfish pond and olive tree.

That was to be our last visit in the land of Israel. On the way home, I snapped a shot (as we passed by) of the diggings at the site of Magdala (the home of Mary Magdalene), but this is not yet open to tourists. Back at the holiday village, it was time for the big pack up. Having discovered the kibbutz laundry, I decided to do some last minute washing. Fr Bhin and Fr Thin were at the laundry already doing some drying. I used five packets of shampoo from our rooms as soap for the machine and put my 12 shekels in to get an automatic wash. Versi came over and did some drying as well, while I waited for my washing to finish. I sat outside smoking my pipe and uploading pictures to Dropbox. It doesn’t take much to make a good place to stay on holiday: free and widely available internet and a good cheap laundry are two of them. After drying my clothes, I went back to my room and packed. We have a luggage limit of 20kgs on the Turkish airlines flights, to I put the heaviest items into my backpack. I paid up my bill before going to dinner, and after dinner went almost straight away to bed (at 8pm). We needed to be up at 3:15am in the morning to catch the flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul at 9:50am. I figured I could write up today’s events tomorrow while travelling, and I needed the sleep.

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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