The Malls of Jericho (Part 4 of Our Adventures in the Palestinian Territories)

(In part 1 of this series, I detail how my wife and I end up in the old Hyundai of Assaf (not his real name), a well-meaning Palestinian guide, for a tour of Jericho and the West Bank. In part 2, we enter Area “A”, the area of the West Bank under Palestinian control, and pass a failed hotel and casino project that symbolizes the short-lived hope of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation following the 1993 Oslo Accords. In part 3, we enter Jericho and visit the ruins of Hisham’s Palace, where we see how Palestine struggles and fails to protect its historical legacy, while we hear the sound of its security forces being trained somewhere close by.)

download (1)As we leave Hisham’s Palace, our Romanian companions Dorin and Gabi (not their real names) mention to Assaf that they’ll need to visit an ATM before the tour is over. “No problem,” Assaf assures them. I guess that like me, Dorin and Gabi weren’t expecting Assaf to pay our tour site entry fees, and they’re also worried that they might not have enough cash to repay Assaf at day’s end. I figure, it wouldn’t hurt to piggpiggyback on their request, and withdraw a few hundred extra Israeli shekels when our little tour stops at an ATM.

We retake our seats in Assaf’s Hyundai, and Assaf drives us around the outskirts of Jericho. He points out the Quarantine Monastery, built into the side of one of the mountains that separates Jericho from Jerusalem. This mountain is reputed to be the Mount of Temptation, where Christians believe Jesus fasted for 40 days and was “tempted” by Satan. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has built a cable car up to the monastery; we can see cars travelling up and down the cable, all empty.

Assaf drives us up local roads to higher ground, then stops at a roadside so we can get a better view of the monastery. Assaf also points down to the floor of the Jericho valley, at a nondescript building with a blue van parked in front. “That is a synagogue,” Assaf tells us. “The van is Israeli defense force, or a group of settlers. It is not safe to go there.” I don’t feel comfortable enough to ask him which synagogue he’s pointing out. There are at least three synagogue sites in the Jericho area, the most famous of which is the Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue, named for its elaborate mosaic floor containing the Hebrew inscription “Peace to Israel.” The Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue dates back to around the year 600 CE. A second slightly older synagogue site, in Na’aran just north of Jericho, contains its own elaborate mosaic floor, with a large zodiac design.  A third site, the Wadi Qelt Synagogue, may be the oldest known synagogue in the world (if, indeed it was a synagogue), dating back 50 or more years before the birth of Jesus. These sites should attract a great deal of tourist interest. But my research cannot find a tour that visits Na’aran or Wadi Qelt. The Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue can be visited only once a month, and only with combined Israeli-Palestinian security protection.

As a Jew, it’s strange for me to think that our tour is “not safe” only in proximity to something Jewish. But I recall the advice I read on Wikitravel, about travel in the Palestinian Territories:

Because of the association of Jewish symbols with the Israeli occupation (Israeli military equipment often features prominently a menorah or the Star of David on them) wearing or displaying such symbols which the Palestinians see as hostile is not going to win you any friends.

I would love to see a synagogue or two (or three) in Jericho. But I have not come here to represent a military occupation, so I will keep my thoughts to myself and tour where Assaf takes us.

We resume our drive through the foothills above Jericho. Many of these roads have deteriorated to the point where traffic is only possible in a single direction. Assaf must occasionally pull his car off the road to let another car pass. I see two girls ahead, walking on the other side of the road towards us. This is another opportunity for Assaf to mention the burdens imposed by the Israeli occupation. “It is hard for us to get from one place to another,” he complains. “Just look at those girls, having to walk such a long distance.” Indeed, the Palestinians do suffer under Israeli-imposed travel restrictions … but these two girls do not appear to be victims. They are wearing t-shirts and blue jeans, and carrying European-style handbags. As we pass them, I see them talking to each other in an animated way that seems international. They could be two American teenagers heading to the mall.

I don’t wonder why these girls are walking. During our time in Jericho, the cable cars to the Mount of Temptation are the only public transit I will see. One source indicates that there are four public buses in Jericho, but as we travel through town I see no sign of a local bus or bus route. In Jericho there are taxis and tour buses, along with private cars, bicycles and a few carts pulled by mules or donkeys. For those who want to visit Jericho from Israel by public transit, Wikitravel advises taking a bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem or Ramallah, and looking there for a shared taxi going to Jericho. Naturally, nearly all outsiders arrive here on one private tour or another. But for people who live here, this doesn’t appear to be an easy place to leave, or return to.

We head back downhill and park at Jericho’s principal tourist site, the Tell es-Sultan. Here, at last, are other tourists! Tourists come to the Jericho Tell because it’s the place to see where “the walls came tumbling down.” But we do not proceed directly to the walls. Instead, we pause at the edge of the parking lot, underneath a large sycamore tree. This tree, Assaf assures us, is the very sycamore tree mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, the tree that Zacchaeus the diminutive tax collector climbed so that he could see and hear Jesus during his visit to Jericho. Could Assaf be right? It is possible for sycamore trees to live as long as 2,000 years, though of course the age of a tree is not proof that it provided anyone a seat to view Jesus. And, naturally, there are two other trees in Jericho claimed to be the Zacchaeus Tree. But … this particular tree is lovely … and it does provide Assaf with a chance to remind us that Jesus reportedly preached and healed in Jericho.

We head from the tree up to the Tell, the site of the ancient city of Jericho. The Tell is a mound around 70 feet high, covering about an acre. The Tell has been the subject of over 100 years of archaeological work, aimed mostly at confirming or refuting the Bible’s report of the Israelite conquest of Jericho under the leadership of Joshua. The primary archaeological work was done here in the 1950s by the renowned archaeologist Katherine Kenyon. Kenyon’s team uncovered evidence that the Tell was inhabited more than 10,000 years ago, making Jericho the world’s oldest town. Moreover, Kenyon found massive city walls and a tower dating back to around 7000 BCE, which means that Jericho was a walled city from near its beginning.  Kenyon found at least 23 layers of different cities on the Tell, each built on top of the other, causing the Tell to rise to its current height.

All of this is terribly important, of course, but the question of interest to most Jews and Christians is whether the site reveals evidence of Joshua’s conquest. According to most Christian scholars, Joshua conquered Jericho around the year 1400 BCE. The Jewish view seems to place the conquest somewhat later, closer to the year 1300 BCE. Either date places the conquest at the middle-to-end of the Late Bronze Age. But according to Kenyon, the last set of walls around the city dated to the Middle Bronze Age (1800 – 1550 BCE), indicating that the city was destroyed and abandoned at least 150 years before Joshua’s army could have arrived here. Then again, archaeology does not support there having been a Hebrew exodus from Egypt or conquest of Canaan. Then again, I’m no Biblical archaeologist. If you’re a reader who likes his or her Bible confirmed by dug-up stuff, I suggest you read elsewhere.

2014-02-16 11.00.00The site of the Tell is … kind of a mess.  The site was described in 1964 as “a sandy hill with a mishmash of excavated pits and stones,” and it hasn’t changed much in appearance in the last 50 years. I can make out the ancient tower, and (I think) a piece of the Middle Bronze Age stone wall. But much of the site is not labelled or marked. Assaf tries to help, pointing out this-and-that, but the nature of the site does not enable me to tell what he’s pointing to.

Assaf is momentarily distracted by a group of tourists who have crossed over the site’s boundary ropes to climb to the top of the Tell. Assaf winces at this behavior … but there is no one on site to prevent this sort of thing from happening. The Tell’s maintenance and preservation, like that of Hisham’s Palace, is not up to task. One observer calls the Tell site management “imbued with incompetence, under-funding and desperation.” The PA’s own Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities claims in a 2012 report that “irreversible damage” is occurring at the Tell. According to the PA report, Palestinian law governs how archaeologists must dig, but sets no standards for upkeep or rehabilitation after a dig. The report blames site deterioration on a lack of “financial and competent human resources,” and also condemns the PA and private developers for building projects that have undermined the Tell. As an example, the report condemns the construction of a shopping and restaurant complex just south of the Tell that resulted in portions of the Tell being “bulldozed”.

The shopping-restaurant complex is our next destination.  On the ground floor of the complex are two stores: a large tourist-oriented bazaar, and a smaller store advertising Ahava and other Dead Sea cosmetics. The second floor contains a large buffet-style restaurant, and this is where Assaf takes us. The restaurant looks large enough to seat 200 people. It is 11:30, and we are the only people there. Assaf indicates that lunch here is optional, he is leaving for prayer, and he’ll pick us up downstairs at 1:00 p.m.

We’re stuck in this tourist trap for the next hour and a half?

The owner of the restaurant places 4 trays and plates at the beginning of the buffet. I guess we are eating here.

The meal turns out to be a highlight of the tour – not because of the food, which is passable, but because of the company. Stephanie and I finally have a chance to talk with Dorin and Gabi and learn their stories. They are not, as I had suspected, 18 year-olds on a winter break from college (or high school!). He is an attorney in Bucharest; she is a bank economist. They are just beginning two weeks of touring in Israel and Palestine. They plan to take a second West Bank tour tomorrow, this time focusing on Bethlehem and Hebron. I think … I would love to see Hebron … but I am also looking forward to leaving Area “A”.

I am not sure I can share my thoughts with Dorin and Gabi, or what I can safely ask them. Most of all, I’d like to ask them why they are here, in Israel, and particularly why they would want to see Jericho. Is this place near the top of the places they think are most interesting … or like my wife and I, are they here for other reasons?

I am here, in Area “A” of the Palestinian Territory, to express my desire for peace, Palestinian self-governance, and the spread of human rights throughout the region. But two hours into our “alternative” tour, I am experiencing something else. I feel a sense of acute disappointment that the Palestinians have not done more with their (albeit limited) 20-year control of Jericho. At the same time, I feel a sense that the Palestinians are not here to conform to my expectation of how an oppressed people ought to act. Worse: I am starting to feel distinctly silly on this tour. Whatever tourism is, it seems inadequate to express my naïve and conflicted good intentions.

Lunch ends. We still have an hour to kill. My wife wants to buy Ahava cosmetics, so we head downstairs to the cosmetics shop. We search; we ask a sales clerk, we are told: the store does not sell Ahava cosmetics. I point to the copious quantity of Ahava signage. The clerk shrugs. Evidently, the signs are there for their pleasing appearance, something like the way a store back home might utilize Muzak or mood lighting.

We try the larger store across the way. They don’t carry Ahava either. They do carry just about everything else, including Jerusalem Tell t-shirts, placemats, mugs and commemorative dishes. They also carry t-shirts with pro-Israeli messages (including a shirt showing a fighter plane and the message “Don’t Worry America, Israel Has Your Back”). There is plenty of Judaica: mezzuzot, kippot and tallitot, along with Kiddush sets. There are items that I can’t see tourists buying, including a large selection of luggage (don’t most tourists arrive in Israel and Palestine with their own luggage?) I don’t see anything in the store that appears remotely Palestinian. We buy two sets of rosary beads for Catholic friends back home.

I wander outside of the store, and Assaf is there, looking for me. He says that Dorin and Gabi want to visit a local Romanian church. He can fit the visit into the tour, if we’d leave the tourist center now. Is this OK? Very OK, I assure him. The truth is, I love visiting churches. Truth is, I’d do just about anything to avoid another half-hour of shopping. Truth is, I’m a bit jealous of Dorin and Gabi, who can direct our tour to a religious site of their choosing. For all the power of the Israeli military in the West Bank, this power does not extend to a point where I can visit a synagogue in Jericho.

During the short drive from the Tell to the church, Assaf emphasizes how well Muslims and Christians co-exist in Jericho. “You will see here a church here across the street from a mosque. Everyone gets along.” Everyone, that is, except the you-know-whos, who worship in the synagogues where it’s not safe to visit.

74656432It being 12:30 on a Sunday, I expect the Romanian church to be crowded with worshippers. But when we arrive, the church is deserted, and the church doors are locked. Assaf volunteers to look for a priest to show us around. In the meantime, we explore the outside of the church. It is about 15 years old, but it looks newer than that – it looks like it has never been used. The church is surrounded by a two-story hostel, intended (according to Gabi) as a residence for nuns and priests, and appearing (to me at least) like a California motel built in a Romanesque style. From the outside, the church itself appears tall, narrow and quite beautiful. But Gabi does not appear to be impressed. “Jesus preached modesty and simplicity,” she tells me. “Not this.” Dorin later says that the Romanian Church was forbidden under communism from engaging in major construction projects. “They’re making up for lost time,” he explains.

Like just about everything I see in Jericho, this church has a history I won’t hear about on the tour. The history has to do with the politics of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is organized into jurisdictions. Jericho falls under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, meaning that the Romanian Orthodox Church is permitted to build a church in Jericho only with the permission of the Jerusalem Church. But the Romanian Church never received permission from the Jerusalem Church to build in Jericho. This led to a “mini-schism,” where the Jerusalem Church reacted to the construction in Jericho by “severing communion” with the Romanian Church. I’m not exactly sure what it means to “sever communion”, but whatever it meant, it was a serious matter that was finally resolved only recently. Under the terms of the resolution, the Jericho church must now operate “not as a Monastic Fraternity or any other form of Monastic Community, but as a ‘House of Pilgrims’”.

downloadI imagine that Dorin and Gabi must be the kind of pilgrims that this “house of pilgrims” is supposed to welcome. But it takes Assaf ten minutes to find a priest at the church, and the priest he finds appears distinctly grumpy, like we woke him from a nap. The priest wears a black hat and cassock, sports a long gray beard, and looks like Gene Hackman (pictured) in the movie “Young Frankenstein.” He opens the door to the church and finds a seat for himself near the doorway, where he sits impassively while we fumble to find a switch to turn on the church lights.

The church interior is magnificent. The walls and ceiling of the church are covered with icons – painted images of Jesus, the apostles and the saints. (Photos of the church interior can be found here.) Among the icons is a painting of Romania’s current Church Patriarch, who manages to blend in seamlessly with Jesus’ contemporaries. There are few seats in the church – worshippers (if there ever are or will be worshippers here) are expected to stand if they’re able.

We encounter the priest again as we leave the church. He seems to have cheered up. He chats with Dorin and Gabi in Romanian. Gabi gives him some money, to say a prayer for a departed relative. Following suit, Stephanie and I make a donation, and Stephanie requests a prayer for her late Russian Orthodox grandmother. I thank the priest without asking for anything – I’ll leave it to him to decide who or what to pray for.

And with that, we leave Jericho. I am not sorry to see Jericho in Assaf’s rear view mirror … but I am glad I made the trip. Soon, it will not be easy for a Jewish tourist to casually travel from Jerusalem to Jericho in the course of a morning. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is moving, slowly but inexorably, towards a two-state solution, where passage into Palestine will require permission from two hostile governments. I think to myself, the chance of my returning to Jericho is almost zero.

But I am wrong.

  • Wow. This whole series is intense. Thank you.

    • lbehrendt