Saturday, June 02, 2007

West Bank: What Remains of Prophets Past

A few days ago, I had occasion to read some of the medieval Muslim geographer al-Muqaddisi, and since I had just been there, I decided to flip over and see what he had to say about Jericho. In rather brief comments he complained about the heat, before a few sentences later praising the taste of its water. I couldn't help but wonder if his opinion of the water was really reliable, or if it had been influence by the aforementioned heat; my own experience was that the normal bottled water tasted much better than usual after the burning sun of the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea affected me so much that I wondered vaguely if I might experience passing out before we left town.

In 1999, you could get sheruts running directly between Jericho and Jerusalem, though presumably because of the wall, you now first have to take a bus to Bethany, known in Arabic as al-'Azariya after Lazarus, whom the Gospel of John claims was raised from the dead there, and get a sherut to Jericho there. The city is surrounded by concrete blocks that seem to really be markers of territory more than a physical barrier. Before entering you go through first an Israeli then a Palestinian checkpoint. The Israeli checkpoint is the main obstacle for most people; we breezed right through both coming and going, but on the way out the car before us took a little while. One person told us about times when people have had to sleep in their cars because the checkpoint closes altogether, though he said that really happens only when gunmen attack it.

The Palestinian checkpoint seems to be mainly symbolic, though given the current strife between Hamas and Fatah, it might be more important. Jericho, with about 25,000 people, is dominated by Fatah, with posters of Yasser Arafat and Mahmood Abbas everywhere, but none of any Hamas leaders I recognized. Fatah's secular influence is also visible in the many alcoholic beverages on sale in shops and restaurants. The few people we talked to about politics were also pro-Fatah. One was angry about the Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, but said he also felt Hamas was being needlessly provocative. Another man said he thought Abbas had many good ideas, but that he was being encircled by Hamas with the support of other Arab countries.

As a visitor not travelling as part of a tour group, the best way to get around is to get a bike from a bike rental shop for about 75 cents an hour. Bicycles are all over the city, and at least one local was also renting when we were there. Because I hadn't ridden a bike in over a decade, I had a bit of relearning to do, though the skill is simple enough it came back quickly. The hardest part was actually watching where I was going while wondering what cars or trucks might be doing behind me.

Our first stop was the ruins of a palace from the late Umayyad period, probably the reign of the caliph Hisham. These were pretty impressive. The entrance to the palace was clearly visible, and opened onto a courtyard flanked by two classical columns between which stood a circumscribed six-pointed star, which often serves as the symbol of Jericho. You could also still see the remains of the mosque, with an intact mihrab (the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca), as well as an extremely well-preserved mosaic picturing gazelles feeding from a tree in exquisite detail. A nearby museum held artifacts found among the ruins, many of them Sassanid pieces scholars think were brought from Seleucia-Ctesiphon in what is now southern Iraq.

From there we took a taxi to the far side of town, to the Mount and Monastery of Temptation, associated with the Three Temptations of Christ from his forty days in the wilderness. The Ottoman-period Greek Orthodox monastery clings to the side of a mountain a 20-minute hike above the parking area; another path leading in that general direction is marked with a sign on which "Israeli Military Command for Judea and Samaria" is really the only legible portion, a probable remnant of the time before 1994 when Jericho became the first city handed over to the Palestinian Authority during the Oslo years. "Judea and Samaria" is the official Israeli name for the West Bank, though in practice using it is a conscious decision to signal very conservative views, and even Likud sympathizers usually just say "West Bank."

One inside, my friend and I paused to cool off while looking into a chapel carved out of the side of the cliff. After a few minutes, a old block-cowled monk with somewhat sunken eyes and a long, curly gray beard came over to us. I don't know if he actually began with a sigh or if my mind added that later as befitting his personality. In any case, with audible frustrated boredom, he gave a pat version of the Biblical temptations story and the monastery's history, the most interesting if predictable part of which was that before the monastery was built, the monks lived in the caves around it. He then said, turning away, "Now you will want to watch the praying in the chapel," and motioned for us to follow.

Wondering about the current state of the monastery, I asked how many monks currently lived there. Waving his hand at me over his shoulder he sharply commanded, "Don't worry about it, it is not important." Then suddenly he whirled, and pointing at me with such force I flinched, he declared, "You have destroyed the conditions necessary for monastic life!" Turning around, he waved back at us over his shoulder again, saying something about tourists ruining the peace and quiet which allows for spiritual contemplation. Taken aback, we followed, to a short hallways leading around toward the monastery's main chapel, where he said, "Now you must hurry to see the praying." I started forward, but not quite quickly enough to suit him, as evidenced by the strong push I was given as he went back to his seat near the entrance. Inside the chapel was a Russian pilgrim group having a service, which we decided not to interrupt, instead taking in the view of Jericho from a nearby balcony. After the Russians moved on, we ducked inside, saw the standard Orthodox icons and set-up, and then hurried back down to meet our taxi and head into Jericho for a quick lunch.

After lunch, we went to the ruins of ancient Jericho, most of which dated from the late Bronze Age, though the city was actually founded during the Middle Stone Age, around 8000 BC, making it a strong contender for the world's oldest city. In fact, archaeologists now believe, the city predates the development in this area of agriculture. The ruins themselves are apparently interesting only to those of us who are really into ancient history, though I rather enjoyed considering the remains of the city's walls and imagining the life that must have gone on long ago in the buildings whose foundations were still visible. On the way out, we saw the Russians, whose leading priest was blowing a shofar as some sort of commemoration for Jericho's Biblical events which, I must admit, I don't remember beyond the fact of conquest, as they lie in the gaping hole in my Biblical knowledge that is the Book of Joshua.

Right after that, we stopped for a drink at the Temptation Restaurant and Gift Shop, which was about on the same scale of an Ozarkland gift shop, only with a restaurant. It was an interesting example of how a name can sound appropriate in and of itself, and yet seem wildly inappropriate given the specific context it was meant to invoke. As we were leaving, we again encountered the Russians, who were heading across the street to a spring named after Elisha, who is held to have done something there in another Biblical story that has escaped my memory, as the only two things I know about Elisha are that he followed Elijah and once sicked a ravenous beast on some kids who were mocking him, a form of spirituality perhaps embraced by the monk we had met in the monastery. At the spring, the pilgrims sang a hymn in Russian that was beautiful even if I didn't understand it, and then proceeded to fill bottles with water, though they got distracted by a huge waterfight that left everyone soaked.

Our final stop on the trip was Nebi Musa, atop a mountain west of Jericho which many believe is the burial place of Moses. Historically it has been the site of the main local Palestinian religious festival, a march from al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem to the mosque built over Moses's alleged tomb which was built by the Mamluk Sultan Baybars and renovated by the Ottomans. During the 20th century it also took on political overtones, and so was suppressed during the Jordanian period between World War II and the Six Day War. It still takes place today, but seemingly on a much reduced scale. The complex itself has not just a mosque but many small side rooms where scholars give religious lessons; what sticks in my mind most, however, is the landscape. The area is a popular burial ground for Muslims, whose tombs dot the barren hillside, appearing stark and bleak in a dry and bleak land.



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