Today was a miscellany—archeology at Beth She’an, Palestinian life in Jericho, and a mob at Bethlehem. I’ll start with the archeology.
Bet She’an is the largest site in the country, a Roman city in which up to 40,000 people lived, one that came to an abrupt end after a devastating earthquake in the early 8th century AD. Among the buildings that have been excavated are the hippodrome at which the Romans raced horses and chariots, the theater where the put on spectacles of various kinds and which is still used for concerts and plays in the summers, public baths, private homes, and a pedestrian mall where merchants hawked wears of all sorts. One of the most interesting things about this place is that a lot of the elements of fallen structures have been uncovered and left in the position they dropped to in the earthquake, so that, for instance, we saw columns that had split into several pieces resting on the ground and one another just as they would have been seen by any survivor immediately after the ground stopped shaking. The folks I’m traveling with absolutely loved wandering around this old city, and raved about the context that it provided them for the times, and pagan culture, that the early Christians were immersed in once the gospel moved out of its native Jewish soil into the Gentile world.
From there we traveled south down the King’s Highway route to Jericho. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly one moves from a green and productive countryside to one that is among the starkest and most…silent in the entire world. The Judean wilderness, in which Jericho is situated in the midst of an oasis near the Dead Sea, is brown and hilly, with vegetation only rarely seen. One has no problem at all seeing Jesus being tempted by the devil in this lonely place, where in His day it would have been rare to see another human being unless one stuck to the main road through the region.
Jericho was a disappointment, and the places different from my previous trips. We made three stops, the first at a 2000+ year-old sycamore tree associated with the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus. This is one of those traditional sites that is also plausible, in that it meets at least some of the circumstances of a given event (in this case, the tree is certainly old enough to have been Zacchaeus’ perch, and it is in Jericho—beyond that, who knows?). This was our first encounter both with the “one American dollar” postcard and rosary salesmen and begging children. The latter, for reasons none of us can figure out, seem to make a beeline for me and then stick like glue despite my efforts to discourage them. It breaks my heart to do so—I’d like to take them all home with me and give them the kind of life they are unlikely to ever have in the Palestinian territories. But discourage them I must, because to give in to one’s instincts in this case could be positively dangerous, by encouraging more and more of them to surround not only me but my fellow travelers with kids whose dissatisfaction with the response can and has on occasion turned ugly toward past pilgrims. The second site was something referred to as “Elisha’s stream” that evidently is and has been for centuries a primary source of water for the area, but which really wasn’t interesting in any way that any of us could identify (the uninformative guide didn’t help—he temporarily replaced our Jewish Israeli guide outside of the town, which as Palestinian Authority territory is closed to Israeli Jews). Finally, we stopped at the largest pottery and glass outlet in the area, which features some of the most beautiful merchandise in the region.
Finally, from the 1100 feet below sea level of Jericho we made our way to Jerusalem, which is 3200 feet above sea level. We passed through the city, going past the Mount of Olives and the Old City, among other things, and headed on to Bethlehem. After lunch we went to the Church of the Nativity, traditional site of the birth of Jesus. Originally built at the instigation of Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, it has a fascinating and sometimes bizarre history, exemplified by the fact that the only door into or out of the main building is only four feet tall and three feet wide, a measure brought about by the walling up of the larger doors to prevent the stabling of horses and other animals in the church, something that had been done in a deliberate act of desecration by the army of the Muslim general Saladin after his triumph over the Crusaders.
We waited for what seemed forever to get down to the grotto (or cave) below the main sanctuary, a small area that has what is traditionally accounted as the manger in which Jesus was laid following His birth, which is marked by a gold star on the floor a few feet away from the manger. Regardless of whether one considers this site authentic (I’m doubtful, while one member of our group was quite certain that it is based on the spiritual feel of the place), it is a powerful reminder of the Incarnation. I especially found myself struck by one large icon on the wall near the entrance to the grotto, a Madonna and Child that was unusual in that Mary is smiling, a relatively rare occurrence in Orthodox iconography that seemed particularly appropriate for the occasion being commemorated.