We set out on the Patriarchs’ Trail early on the morning of December 29 (2012), taking in many other interesting places along the way. We had done an exhaustive study of the story of Abraham (Genesis chaps. 11 – 25), as well as the references to him in the New Testament, and the significant place he has in the Jewish and Muslim religions. Our guide for the journey was again Fr Paco, from the Castile Province. He knew this trail like the back of his hand, having trekked it on foot several times with various groups, and sometimes on his own.
145 - Mount Gilboa
Our journey to Jerusalem brought us through the Jordan Valley. This would have been one of the (three) routes taken by Jesus and his disciples on their visits to Jerusalem. Before entering the Valley as such, we took note of Mount Gilboa on the right (Photo 145), of Saul and Jonathan fame, and Naboth’s Vineyard on the left, close to where Ahab had his headquarters at Jezre’el.
146 - Jordan River
The Jordan Valley is very fertile, and all kinds of fruit and vegetables grow there: melons, lemon, onions, tomatoes; there are vineyards, of course, and fields of corn and kale. We stopped at the site of the baptism of Jesus (Photo 146), which is also the reputed site where the Chosen People crossed into the Promised Land, and the place from where Elijah went up in his fiery chariot in the presence of Elisha. The Jordan river divides Israel and Jordan. The Jews have opened an entrance to the baptismal site on their side in recent times (free of charge!), and this has taken from visits to the more authentic site on the other side of the river on Jordan’s side (where there is an entrance fee!). A couple of busloads were there when we visited. A few people were wading into the river and immersing themselves (you can purchase special white gowns for this – Photo 147).
147 - Baptism Site
Once you come away from the site of the Baptism, the desert opens out in front of you, so Jesus would not have had far to go “into the wilderness”, though the likely site of the Temptations is about 5 kilometres away, the high “Mount of the Temptations”, where the Greek Orthodox have a monastery half way up, built several centuries ago (Photo 148)
148 - Mount of Temptation
From the Jordan Valley, and after a brief stop to view the “Mount of the Temptations” from a distance, we went to Jericho, which was a very important ancient city, so when Joshua conquered it, that gave the Israelites a significant foothold on the land. Major excavations are taking place in an attempt to identify where the famous collapsed walls might have been. At the site of a beautiful spring in the city (purified by Elisha the prophet), there is a quaint sign, stating that you are in the oldest city in the world (10,000 years), and the lowest point in the world, at 1,300 feet below sea level (Photo 149). We managed to stop by Zacchaeus’ sycamore too (hardly the same one, though).
149 - Jericho
Our next stop was the intriguing Qumran caves, site of the famous discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls back in 1947. A helpful video introduces you to the curious lifestyle of the Essene community that existed here around the time of Jesus; the commentary indicates that John the Baptist may have been a member of the community for a time. The community had an obsession with purification, and vast quantities of fresh water from the mountain-side were stored in massive cisterns near the refectory. The Essenes were convinced that the coming of the Messiah was imminent, but only a few of them seem to have become followers of Jesus (Photo 150).
150 - Qumran
Qumran is right beside the Dead Sea, and a visit to this phenomenon is a must, as is a swim in these most exotic of waters. Quite a number were bathing, in spite of this being the off-season – though the temperature was a very pleasant 22 degrees, under blue skies. Even non-swimmers can manage to stay afloat here, such is the vast quantity of salt and other minerals, which make the Dead Sea such an international industry and scientific curiosity (Photo 151).
151 - Dead Sea
Our final port of call on this day was Bethany, where we had a Votive Mass of St Lazarus (!) close to the tomb of the man himself, in a church in the care of the Franciscans. A mosque now covers the site of the tomb, but we were able to descend some narrow, precarious steps and literally squeeze ourselves one by one into the tomb. (Photo 152).
152 - Tomb of Lazarus
We got hospitality in Bethany, on the Mount of Olives, with the French Sisters of Charity. In fact, the hospice was only 500 metres from the tomb of Lazarus but, such are the complexities of life in these parts now, that we had to make a round trip of several miles to get to the hospice because a huge wall separates Palestine from Israel. This wall, 8 metres high, encircles most of the Palestinian territories for over 400 kilometres, and is both unsightly and menacing.
Heading north out of Jerusalem is the area of Ramah, spoken about by Jeremiah, who was born near here (Anathoth), and who is quoted by Matthew in his account of the slaughter of the Innocents: “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loudly lamenting; it was Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they were no more”.
Ramallah, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, is the capital of the Palestinian Authority, but there is a massive military presence of Israel everywhere, controlling everything, even on Palestinian land. Israeli check-points abound at various intervals, on Palestinian land, even capricious blocking of roads, again on Palestinian land.
We passed close to Bethel, formerly Luz but renamed by Jacob after the episode of Jacob’s Ladder (Gen. 28). Ai is close to Bethel, on the eastern side; we are told in Genesis that Abraham built an altar here. This is Maccabees country too.
153 - Hill Country of Judah
This is certainly “the hill country of Judah” – endless rolling hills and valleys, but very picturesque (Photo 153). But the landscape is blotted by numerous “Israeli settlements”. This is literally Palestinian land taken over by the Israelis, who proceed to build houses on the land, and usually on prime sites. It seems the Jews consider they have a divine right to the land, as having been given to them by God on their entry into the Promised Land. But one has to feel for the Palestinians, who are being squeezed out of what they consider to be their land.
154 - Shiloh
We diverted to Shiloh to see this famous Old Testament landmark, site of the sanctuary for the Jews for 400 years, before the Temple was built by Solomon in Jerusalem (Photo 154). Here the ark of the covenant was kept, and here too Samuel got his first call from God, as he ministered in the temple with Eli (1 Sam. 3). Major excavations are taking place around the hillside, in an attempt to find the original sanctuary, though several churches have been built in the meantime, the present ones administered by the Greek Orthodox Church.
155 - Ruins of Moreh with Mt Ebal behind
From there we moved on to Nablus, which is a thriving Palestinian city, and was very prominent in Old Testament times, going by the name Shechem. This is where Abraham first built an altar after he had set out from Haran, “by the oak of Moreh”. The reputed site can still be visited, though there is the usual evidence of layers of occupiers building and destroying (Photo 155). As an authentic site, it is convincing enough, with Mount Gerizim on one side and Mount Ebal on the other, both of these prominent in the book of Joshua, when he renewed the covenant soon after entering the Promised Land, writing the ten commandments on stones, and pronouncing blessings and curses, with the people ranged on either side, looking towards the respective mountains. We went up Mount Gerizim (by car!) and there is a wonderful panoramic view of Shechem from the top (Photo 156). There are still about 5000 Samaritans around Shechem, and they have their Passover every year on Mount Gerizim.
156 - Shechem from Mt Gerizim
Of course, the jewel in the crown of Shechem is Jacob’s Well, which is housed in the basement of a large Greek Orthodox church. The resident Padre brought us down to see the well, and the first thing he did was to take a cup of water and pour it down the well. It took fully five seconds before you could hear the splash in the well down below. Apparently, the well is 40 metres down, and the well itself is 8 metres deep after that. Besides, the water is always changing as it is part of a stream flowing underneath. We lowered a bucket and drank the cool fresh water, and then we read John 4 (Photo 157). (A feature of all our visits to the various sites was to read the relevant Scripture passages).
157 - Jacobs Well
While we read and sat by the well, the Padre worked on his candle-making. His story is almost as remarkable as the story of the Samaritan woman (Photo 158).
158 - Fr Justinus
First of all, not only is he the only priest administering the large church, he is the only Christian in Shechem! His predecessor, Father Philoumenos, was murdered by some very aggressive Jews who have “settled” in the nearby hills. After several attempts to get him to leave the area, he was murdered with an axe, and cut into several pieces. This was back in 1979. His remains were brought back recently to this church from Jerusalem; he was found to be incorrupt, and is now a saint of the Orthodox Church, which is by acclamation of the people (Photo 159).
159 - Shrine of St Philoumenos
The present man, Father Justinus, came in his place, and has totally restored the church, which had been in a very dilapidated state. Not only that, he painted all the icons in the church (which are numerous), his only complaint to us being that he found the painting of the cupola the hardest because of the strain on his neck! All this time, he has been labouring on his own, and he too is a target of the same aggression. He told us he has been attacked 16 times – a year ago he was hospitalized after a particularly violent attack. He must be in his 70s now, and he has prepared his tomb outside the church for all to see (Photo 160).
He has all the hallmarks of a martyr but, having survived this long, it looks like the colour will be white! As a matter of interest, St Justin Martyr was born a few miles away around 100 AD. Incidentally, a precious water-jar, retrieved from the Vatican museum and now mounted in the church, is said to be the very water-jar used that day by the Samaritan woman!
Our final trip of the day was to a remarkable site on the top of a hill further north in Samaria. It was the old city of Sebastiya, with layers of successive cultures going back 10,000 years. It was rebuilt by Herod the Great (he had his two sons strangled here!) and had all the characteristics of a Roman city: palace, temple, amphitheatre, hippodrome and a network of roads. In Constantine’s time, there was a huge Byzantine church built here, which was destroyed by an earthquake in the eighth century – you can still see the ruins (Photo 161)
161 - Sebastiya Ancient Byzantine Church
On the way back from Sebastiya, we called to Shechem again to see the tomb of Joseph (of Egypt, that is). It is totally guarded by Palestinian soldiers, and we had to show passports. We were not to take any photos (being a military zone); the anomaly was that, while we were venerating the tomb, the accompanying soldier lit up a cigarette! Apparently, the Palestinians do not encourage people to visit the site – they are afraid that, if there are many tourists, the Israelis will see its potential and simply take it over – which is likely enough, given what we have seen elsewhere. Yet another twist to the complexity of life here.
Our first port of call this day was to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Here too there is an armed guard, as it is literally within an Israeli fortress. Rachel, you will recall, died giving birth to Benjamin, and Jacob had her “buried on the road to Ephrath, at Bethlehem, where he raised a monument on her grave, and this is the monument of the tomb of Rachel which is still there today (Gen. 35, 19-20).
Picking up the Patriarchs’ Trail again, we set off for Hebron, about 25 miles south of Jerusalem. The landscape on the way down was beautiful, not nearly as hilly as the area north of Jerusalem. This is Palestinian territory – but the usual story, dotted with Israeli settlements in the best locations. Most of the military outposts we encountered were manned by Israeli soldiers.
Abraham’s burial place
We passed through the Valley of Achor and skirted Hebron, as our destination was the Cave of Machpela, burial-place of Abraham. In spite of the fact that Paco had been there before, we only found it with difficulty, as there were no signs, and most of those we asked didn’t seem to know. It is an impressive shrine. Herod had a large fortress built over the site – he often did this, as a way of ingratiating himself with the Jews, who always considered him an outsider (Photo 162).
162 - Machpela
Machpela is actually the burial place of several of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. When Sarah died, Abraham bought this plot for her burial, and insisted on paying the full price to the Hittites (which, in today’s money, was around $700,000!). It was the first piece of land owned by the Chosen People – another reason why they attach such importance to the site (Gen. 23) . The Bible states specifically that Sarah, Abraham and Jacob were buried here. Huge cenotaphs have been raised over the reputed site of their burial in the cave below, similarly for Isaac, Rebekah and Leah. The site was closed to Jews (and Christians) for 700 years, and only reopened after the Six-days War in 1967. As you ascend the steps to the eastern entrance, a moving inscription entitled “The Seventh Step” conveys something of what the site means to Jews: “Following the Mamluk conquest of Eretz Yisrael in 1267, the conquering Islamic regime forbade Jews to enter the edifice over the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Jewish access was confined to the seventh step leading up to the eastern entrance. There Jews prayed for 700 years. On June 8, 1967 Hebron was liberated and the Jews returned to their Patriarchal possession. The gate and steps, by which means Jews had been humiliated for hundreds of years, were removed by the Head of the Central Command, General Rehavam Zeevi, in 1969. All the same, many Jews still pray at that site, which has been hallowed by the prayer and tears of countless generations”. Even today there are separate entrances for Jews and for Moslems. In fact, when we got there, having entered on the Jewish side, and seen the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Leah, we were told that the tombs of Isaac and Rebekah were closed (Photo 163).
163 - Tomb of Abraham
But, undaunted, Paco brought us to the Moslem entrance round the other side, where we were greeted graciously by Moslems, and shown to the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebekah, which were splendidly mounted in a mosque. So you had a mosque and a synagogue side by side, separated by a wall! Nevertheless, it’s a most impressive place, and perhaps in due course it will be a productive meeting-place for dialogue between the two religions, whose common devotion to the Patriarchs is not in dispute.
We made an attempt to see some of the city of Hebron, such an historic place, where David ruled for seven years before he captured Jerusalem, but we were thwarted by road blocks. It is not much visited by tourists, as being too dangerous, so we were grateful for the sense of adventure shown by Paco and Jose. We did manage to track down the Oaks of Mamre, another revered landmark in the Abraham tradition, where he had pitched his tent for a while on his return from Egypt and set up an altar. It was here too that he encountered the three mysterious visitors that came to him with news of the imminent fulfillment of the promise that Sarah would give him a son, a scene commemorated forever in Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity. The instant response of lavish hospitality on the part of Abraham indicated his belief that these were special visitors. Needless to say, there is no sign of any oaks at the reputed site today, but there was ample evidence (again!) of a Herodian structure erected over what had become a revered site in Jewish tradition. Here too, Constantine (or his mother St Helena) had built a church, later destroyed by Saladin. Only a few discarded stones mark the spot nowadays, for again the Palestinians don’t want to draw attention to the place (Photo 164)
164 - By the Oak of Mamre Ruins
On our way home, about 15 miles outside Haifa, the gleaming white structure of our Muhraqa monastery stood out on the highest peak of the southern end of Mount Carmel. With Stella Maris beautifully situated on the northern end of the same mountain, we had reason to be grateful for the far-sightedness of our predecessors in choosing such precious locations in the land of our Carmelite birth.