Biggleswade couple find wonder and complexity on a special trip to the Holy Land
Biggleswade town councillor and former leader of Bedfordshire County Council, Madeline Russell, writes about her journey of a lifetime to Jerusalem with her husband Archie, just before Donald Trump got there. She found a land brimming with of biblical wonders, underwritten with complexity and conflict.
We stayed in Jerusalem just outside the walls of the Old City and I was surprised that within it is an Arab souk with just about anything you can think of on sale, Madeline tells the Comet.
Also within the Old City are Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian quarters, as well as the Temple Mount and Wailing Wall.
There were armed police at each of the city gates, but we felt very safe as we followed the Way of the Cross from Gethsemane to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
We left Jerusalem the day before Donald Trump’s visit and were surprised to hear from our Arab Christian guide that a curfew had been imposed on the Arabs – only – from midnight on that day until the evening of the day Trump arrived.
We crossed into the West Bank, to Bethany, and visited an orphanage and day school run by a charity founded by a Palestinian couple. The school is an elementary school for both boys and girls and we were privileged to watch part of an end-of-term concert with six to eight-year-olds singing and performing traditional Arab dances.
To the east of Jerusalem the landscape quickly changes to wilderness – sand and rock – where the only inhabitants are Bedouin Arabs.
These people are nomads and roam with their herds of camels and goats. The Israeli government wants to force them to settle permanently, blaming them for smuggling both drugs and guns.
Continuing east, the road falls to the Dead Sea, which is 430 metres below sea level. It is very hot – over 40 degrees – and the landscape is arid.
The water level of the Dead Sea has fallen dramatically through water extraction from the River Jordan further north and the sea is now in two parts. The water is very salty and it is possible to float in it as if you were sitting in an armchair.
The River Jordan rises in the north of Israel and flows through the Sea of Galilee (actually a freshwater lake) south to the Dead Sea. A long stretch of the river south of Galilee forms the border with Jordan. We visited the site of Jesus’ baptism in the river and were surprised on two counts.
First, the river has a lot of reeds either side but is not actually much wider than the River Ivel! Secondly, there were soldiers on either bank with automatic weapons. Christians still go there to be baptised by full immersion in the river – woe betide anyone who moves out of the area marked with buoys.
From our hotel in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, we visited the Golan Heights – scene of much conflict during the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel took over part of the heights. There is still a UN force there – the United Nations Disengagement Observation Force. We were within yards of the Syrian border and, further on, still in Israel, we could see both Syria and Lebanon.
We visited many of the holy sites mentioned in the Bible – Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Jericho – most of which have been in the care of the Franciscan Order since the Israeli state was formed, and which are very well kept. For me, though, it was the landscape more than the buildings which took me back to biblical times. Particularly moving was a trip across the Sea of Galilee in a simple wooden boat not much different to the fishing boats of Jesus’ day.
The visit left me with a much greater understanding of the complexities of Israel. Our guide explained that everyone has a cultural background and a religion. He knew Arabs who were Muslims, Christians and even Jews.
With Jerusalem being a cosmopolitan city but also a holy place for all three religions, it is difficult to see how the tensions are ever going to be resolved.