After Vespers yesterday afternoon, I walked around a bit and then headed back to the hostel. I said hello and chatted a bit with the new person at reception and then crawled into my bunk to write up the afternoon's excitement. Just as I was finishing up, Mousa tapped on the door to the room and said he was going to the market. I hit send on the message and went along with him. (I was the only person staying at the Bethlehem Youth Hostel last night, so he must have figured it would be okay to step out for a few minutes.)
On our return, we shared a meal together and got talking more. Mousa is an evangelical student at the Bethlehem Bible College. I didn't ask what his Catholic father and Orthodox mother thought of that, but he assured me he wasn't like some evangelicals -- he is convinced that non-evangelicals are Christians too. (I was quite gratified to learn that most of the students in the Biblical Studies department with him are actually Orthodox.) I doubt my finances will allow me to attend, but the Christ at the Checkpoint conference scheduled for 2016 is very intriguing.
christatthecheckpoint.com (This media-rich site works much better on a computer than a mobile device.) After verifying that I could leave my pack at the hostel and pick it up after Liturgy, I excused myself and began preparing for bed.
I slept well, and this morning I woke up a few minutes before my alarm. I was at the Church of the Nativity by 7:30 to find the chanters halfway through Matins. It was strange but neat to hear the service in Greek and Arabic. There was a brief pause at 8:00 when His Eminence Archbishop Theophylactos of Jordan entered the church, but by 8:30 the Liturgy had begun. Two hours later, we were done. When I tried to revisit the Grotto beneath the altar, I discovered there was an English language Mass being said in a side altar. The priests were performing the consecration of the Host, so I decided it was better not to intrude. Presumably the tour companies all know the church is off-limits Sunday morning, because I didn't see any groups. I'm not sure how many different sanctuaries there are on the site -- there's a large Franciscan church sharing a wall with the Orthodox church, and I believe the Armenians also have space there. The 19th century "status quo" agreement for sharing holy places is still in force, but the situation is much less confusing in Bethlehem compared to Jerusalem. Walking around town a bit I saw an Ethiopian monastery, a Coptic monastery, a Lutheran church, a Baptist church, and numerous Catholic churches.
After a bite of breakfast, I started going over my travel plans for the day. I dropped the notion of visiting Mar Sabbas Monastery, in part because of the expense of hiring a taxi, but also because the subsequent walk to the Dead Sea through the Judean wilderness is very daunting. It's one thing to make plans in the comfort of the hostel, it's another to see the parched rolling hills shimmering in the heat and haze. Instead, I took a shared taxi ("sherut" in Hebrew, "servees" in Arabic) to Jericho. I ignored the archaeological riches in this 10,000 year old town, and went to the beach. I'm sure most people reading this are already aware of the geological oddities of the Dead Sea, but at 402 metres below sea level, you can't get any lower than this while still working on your tan. I successfully avoided sunburn by taking several short dips, followed by a freshwater shower and a spell in the shade sipping water. It was wonderfully relaxing! (Jericho will have to wait for another trip.) While I was there, I was surprised to hear someone calling my name. Without my glasses on it took a few seconds to focus, but there before me was one of the Chinese students I'd met at the hostel in Jerusalem on Friday. We didn't talk long, but the encounter left me with a smile on my face.
Three hours after I arrived, I was walking back to the highway. Another reason for skipping Mar Sabbas and Jericho is the transportation situation. Looking at a map of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, I had assumed I'd be able to hop a bus or servees north along Highway 90 from the Dead Sea to Tiberias, on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. I leaned today that this isn't possible. The only option from Jericho is a servees to Jenin, and then maybe a bus or taxi across into Israel. That seemed rather iffy, so I put my pack down on the bench of the first bus stop I came to on the highway. According to my Lonely Planet guide, it's possible to get to Jerusalem by bus relatively easily. There was no schedule posted, so I began rolling down my sleeves to protect my forearms from the setting sun. I'd finished one arm when a bus appeared, and it was even the one I needed!
The landscape in this part of the country is surreal. There is no flat surface anywhere, unless it's been bulldozed into existence. The hills aren't all that tall, but they are many. The winter often sees heavy rain which creates flash floods that roar through the otherwise dry creekbeds between the hills -- yes, it's possible to drown in the desert! Some of the tourist guides refer to this region as the Judean wilderness, while others call it the Judean desert. For many people, the word "desert" conjures up images of sand dunes and camels, but the tough rocky hills, general lack of moisture, and temperature extremes of this region all fit the bill. And this is where Christ spent 40 days fasting after his baptism. (On the outskirts of Jericho, there's a summit known as the Mount of Temptation, associated with that time in the life of Christ.) There's an image of Christ, very popular in some Christian circles, which depicts him gently knocking at a door, illumined by the light of the moon. He looks soft and sweet, and very very white. Let me tell you, anyone capable of surviving in this wilderness alone for 40 days (never mind fasting) is gonna be tough and brown -- kinda like a walnut, if that's not too disrespectful a comparison to make. Yet another reason for me to put my pudgy white body on an airconditioned bus to Jerusalem!
When I arrived at the bus terminal in Jerusalem, I made inquiries about transport to Nazareth. Apparently the only way to do it by bus is to first go to Haifa and then hop another bus from there. It's not that long ago that I was walking in the opposite direction, and now I'm cruising along in luxury back the way I came. The bus even had WiFi, although the much smaller one from Haifa to Nazareth did not. My (tentative) plan is to spend Sunday and Monday nights in Nazareth, Tuesday night in Tel Aviv, and stay in Amman Wednesday and Thursday nights. That will give me all day Thursday to visit Petra. As always, this is conditioned by the Lebanese IBM - Inshallah, Bukara, Min shuuf. (God willing, tomorrow, we'll see.)