A Desert Epistle chiang mai, thailand, 5 october 2009

Thailand is outrageously green, damp and free-flowing after a fortnight in the Middle East. We are catching our breath here after an intense time of stimulation, challenges, tears and laughter. There is much to say and to share. We’ll do more of that later and on our website after we get home.

We travelled with a group—a new experience for us. There were ten of us, several of whom we knew already. It was not your ordinary tour group. Our ‘fearless leader’ was Ray, a former ecumenical worker who drew on his knowledge and contacts in the region, ably assisted by his wife and fellow priest, Erica. They made sure we not only visited holy sites alongside bustling groups of Romanians/Indians/Poles/Indonesians, but also arranged for us to meet refugees and church and political leaders and so understand a little more about the deep divisions in the land.

Ray plans our next move on the Mount of Olives

The wall is the most obvious division. It scars the landscape and makes daily living impossible for Palestinians. We visited a refugee camp in Bethelem where the children can no longer get to open ground to play soccer because the wall shuts them in. The windows of their school have been concreted over to protect them from Israeli bullets. Yet it is the children (but not their parents and grandparents) who can at least get permission to travel to visit their ancestral lands. They bring back photos and olive branches that make their families cry.

The wall snakes across the landscape

Some adults have passes to work beyond the wall and negotiate some of the hundreds of armed checkpoints that interrupt the country’s flow of life and work. They spend hours each day moving a matter of a few kilometres. We visited ‘ecumenical accompaniers’ who keep watch at the barriers to record harrassment and assist where possible. We also met with the chief of staff of the Palestinian Authority who said that the erosion of Palestinian lands to scattered dots on the map has now reached the stage where a two-state solution is almost impossible. Can hearts and minds change so as to allow people to live side by side in peace?

Most tourists do not see this side of the Holy Land. They throng into the many beautiful churches and chapels built on holy sites. In the Holy Sepulchre, for example, crowds push and shove to enter a narrow door into the chapel commerating the place of the crucifixion and it is an effort to remain focused on the cross of Jesus rather than the crossness of the crowd.

Crowds of pilgrims push forward into the chapel commemorating the Crucifixion at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Though the exact locations of holy sites are debatable, there is certainly a sense of place where Jesus and his disciples lived, walked and ministered. Geography, geology and archeology have an enduring physical presence that bring familiar Bible stories to life. It was powerful to experience the road through the desert from the heights of Jerusalem to the scorching heat of Jericho and the Dead Sea, imagining robbers in the hills ready to assault travellers of old. We climbed the Mount of Temptation in forty-plus degree heat and gave in pretty quickly to the offer of ice creams to quench our thirst. Our feet gathered the desert dust and we experienced wilderness, mountains and the shimmer of the Dead Sea. For some reason, we met no other tour groups attempting this climb.

Climbing the Mount of Temptation. Sadly, the monastery at the top was not open to visitors that day and we wound our way back down to our ice-creams

Another quietly memorable place was the archeological remains of Bethsaida, the fishing village of Peter, Andrew and Phillip, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Here we found a quiet spot reminiscent of rural New South Wales with parrots (rose-ringed parakeets) chattering in the eucalypts.

The deep and wide River Jordan is little more than a trickle now. As in Australia, water is more scarce than ever but it is even more highly politicised. The taps of Palestinian communities are dry much of the time and so the skyline is dotted with tanks on the roofs of buildings, where water is hastily pumped when it is available and rationed until the water is turned on again.

We spent a good deal of time wandering the alleys of the old city of Jersusalem. Our hotel was in the Christian Quarter within the walls. One afternoon, we walked the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. That day and at other holy sites Ray and Erica helped us to reflect prayerfully at each place of significance. We concluded most days with prayer in the little chapel of our hotel in Jerusalem. We happened to be in Jerusalem for several festivals—Eid, the end of Ramadan and Yom Kippur—and so got a sense of the rhythm of the festivals of other faiths of the city as well.

Our home away from home —the walled city of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock was one of the few places we didn't visit as it was closed when we tried

And, amazingly, there was time for birdwatching. We spotted twenty-five species, eighteen of them new to our eyes. Yes, they will be on the website eventually along with all the places we visited. A bonus sighting was of the ibex, a wild goat found in the rocky cliffs around the Dead Sea.

Chris birdwatching when she should have been examining the archeological site of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. (The bird was a blackstart.) This was also where we spotted the ibex in the surrounding rocks

It was with a mixture of sadness and relief that we crossed back into Jordan where we had begun our journey with a day trip to Petra two weeks earlier. (That’s another story for later.) For us, that short journey across the Allenby Bridge took ‘only’ four hours of negotiating checkpoints and officialdom. God knows, and cares, how long the buses full of Palestinians wait and wait ...

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