Saturday, May 10, 2014

Weeks 3, 4, and 5: The Negev Desert, Jericho, 2 Jewish Holidays, and the Shephelah

Catch-up: the Garden Tomb

Soon after Yom Kippur began, all 80 students plus staff walked to the Garden Tomb on a Sabbath afternoon. It's located sort of across the street from the Damascus Gate into the Old City.
The tours are run by some kindly old British guys who remained non-denominational in their speeches. Several times they made it clear that this could be where Christ was buried, but that it may be somewhere else entirely. Our tour guide reasserted that the place is not nearly as important as the event and the man, and that when tourists press him for his own opinion, he answers, "I am 100% sure that we are not meant to know."

It may be because this was the hottest, stickiest, and most claustrophobic time in all of my study abroad, but I didn't immediately take to the Garden Tomb. I didn't feel much stirring inside of me, or any convictions that "this is it". Instead, with the words of the tour guide and with a few more visits later on when I had time to sit and think quietly, I felt that the Garden Tomb was much more a kind of symbol to me, reminding me of Jesus' life, his ministry, his atoning sacrifice, and most of all his unimaginable love for us. Eventually, the surroundings there were simple but potent reminders of Christ instead of a historical gallery, per se. I'd love to be able to visit it again and sit among the flowers.

Week 3: Bedouin Weaving Center, Tel Arad, & Tel Beersheba

Our field trips often involved several places all in one go. Sometimes for education efficiency, but often for geological efficiency.

To begin our field trip into the desert, we visited the Sidreh Weaving Center: a place which provides work, education, and more for Bedouin women who are otherwise unable to make their way in the world. They're a wonderful group of people doing things of great importance.

Our kind hosts gave us honey and mint tea and showed us how the rugs are hand made by the Bedouin women employed there.

If you'd like to learn more, they have their own website where you can learn how their carpets and such are made, about their initiative, and how to donate or purchase their products.

Next we went to Tel Arad. Really, a hill smack in the middle of a desert! It was very hot there, so thank goodness for the strong winds up on top.

Past the Gates of Arad, within the maze-like walls, are the remains of an Israelite temple which is fashioned and patterned after the first temple in Jerusalem. Below you'll see me in the area of what was the "Holy of Holies" or "cella", complete with stand-in replica stones of the pillars and incense altars which are now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

A view of the fortress of Tel Arad from the nearby Canaanite ruins.

Shortly afterward, we traveled to Tel Beersheba. This place is part of the namesake for my blog. In the Old Testament, often the writers would refer to the whole of the land of Israel as the area "from Dan to Beersheba"-- that is, from the furthest cities north and south, respectively, which the Israelites controlled.

Above is a well constructed immediately outside the walls of the fortress of Tel Beersheba (an oddity unique to this Tel). Wells are the root of its very name: "Beersheba" means "seven wells" in Hebrew, named such from the time that Abraham dug a well there and claimed it by making an oath with the local king. The alternative spelling "Beersheva" means "well of the oath".

Beersheba is famous for its water systems, and we got to explore the underground cistern. Cisterns became some of my favorite spaces in Jerusalem and later in Turkey. They feel mysterious and secret.

It was a long day, but we usually had a lovely sunset each night to help us forget the long bus rides.

Week 4: Wadi Qilt, Herod's Palace, & Jericho

Our first stop on the Jericho field trip was Wadi Qilt, one of my favorite spots thus far! "Wadi" refers to a dried up riverbed, and that's just was this was-- a deep crevice, not unlike the Grand Canyon, in the ocean of the Judean desert.

I have never before been in a desert this vast. I've seen plenty of desert spaces around Utah, but I have never been in a place where in every direction, nearly as far as I could see, there was only sand and sky. Descriptions of deserts as oceans of fire or sand struck home at last. I felt very little and insignificant.

Above is St. George's monastery embedded into the high walls of Wadi Qilt. It looked like something out of a fairytale or The Lord of the Rings, which no doubt is partially why I liked this place so much.

While we were there, we talked about the symbol of the desert and wilderness in the scriptures, and how the hills explode in flowers and plant life in the spring, very reminiscent of Isaiah talking about the rose blooming in the desert. (For an example of that change, here's a picture of the flowers blossoming.)

After the desert, we drove to king Herod's winter palace in Jericho. Interesting architecture was used there and we had fun gallivanting over very old ruins.

Finally we went to the old ruins in the heart of Jericho and saw what many people consider to be the oldest man-made structure in the entire world. Wow!! I mean, it doesn't seem impressive at first...

But when you think about how these mud bricks were the first things to build up a long-lasting structure, how hands molded them so long ago, it's pretty dumbfounding. 
This tower is fairly large, but when they say "tower", it's only around 28 feet tall.

We also visited the springs of Elisha nearby, where other tourists and religious devotees would take off their shoes and wade through the shallow fountain of blue and white tiles.

Sukkot & Simhat Torah

The students in our group were fortunate to be present for a series of Jewish "holidays" which all follow each other in the fall. Rosh Hashanah is immediately followed by Yom Kippur, leading right into Sukkot, or "Feast of the Tabernacles", and then straight to Simhat Torah.

In the very most basic of explanations, Sukkot is something of a Thanksgiving holiday. Jews build small huts made of very simple materials and more or less live there during the week-long holiday. This is to represent the transitory homes the wandering Israelites had in the wilderness after the Exodus, and helps them remember their fortunate positions. 

My Hebrew teacher brought us the objects associated with Sukkot's conclusion: the lulav and the etrog. The lulav is a closed frond of a palm leaf, a branch of myrtle, and a branch of willow all held together. An etrog is a citron-- something like a lemon mixed with an orange. Each item has symbolic significance. They shake and wave these at the close of the holiday.

A pretty big number of students went to the Western wall early in the morning to see the traditional "whacking of the willows", where they really do whack willow branches on the ground.

The day after the close of Sukkot was the holiday Simhat Torah, which means "joy in the Torah" or "rejoicing with the Torah". It's a holiday celebrating their scriptures, and remembering how important they are. In synagogues, they sing and dance around with the scrolls.

Our Judaism teacher, Mr. Yarden, told us that we could go to a synagogue in Western Jerusalem to see their celebration of Simhat Torah. It kind of made me nervous at first because there were a lot of us who chose to go and I didn't want our numbers to overwhelm the synagogue, but it ended up being absolutely packed with Jews singing and dancing around all night. Everyone was very very kind to us and we had a great time!

It's a lovely idea, holding a holiday of respect for the scriptures that mean so much to you... 
food for though, huh?

Shephelah Field Trip: The Five Valleys

The Shephelah is the group of valleys and lowlands stretching out to the coastal plains from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Mount Hebron. 

I've seen other references talk about 6 valleys, but we learned and memorized 5 primary valleys. From north to south, they are as follows: Aijalon, Sorek, Elah, Guvrin, and Lachish valleys.
We visited 4 of these in one day plus a little extra-- WOOF. That was rough.

Our class started at the lower end and went up, so Lachish (la-KEESH) was the first. I liked it a lot because it's featured in other stories I know about the Assyrian king, Sennacherib. I remembered seeing a huge bas-relief sculpture of an army awfully killing and skinning people in the British Museum several years before, and it turns out it was a depiction of good ol' Sennacherib sacking the Tel at Lachish. 

This very event is talked about in the Old Testament (2 Kings 18, 2 Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 36). It records the fear that swept through the Israelites after seeing Lachish 100% crushed under Sennacherib, and their worries that the same would happen to Jerusalem. When Jerusalem survived and conquered Sennacherib, this was the point at which the Israelites started having thoughts of invincibility and divine protection because of a building instead of the people's righteousness.
Spoiler alert: they ended up being unpleasantly made aware of their mistake. (The sacking of Jerusalem ensued.)

So anyway. Lachish was great.

Awesome pottery shard finds!! Unfortunately for tourists, if one "souvenir" of a valuable historical pottery shard is found in your luggage, you are detained in the airport and get into huge trouble. So we had to make do with just pictures, haha.

Next was the Guvrin valley, overlooked by the fortress of Mareshah. Probably my favorite, because it had an amazing columbaria (dovecote for keeping sacrificial or message-bearing pigeons) underground, a few olive presses, a huge stone quarry complete with bats up in one corner, and a necropolis.

Nate, Lydia, and I in front of the massive quarry tunnels.

Next was Elah valley, famous for being the battlegrounds of David and Goliath. So we were allowed to practice our slinging skills. 
.... I was a little rusty.

Last of all was Beth Shemesh and Sorek Valley. Sorek was the setting for some of the biblical Samson's daring exploits... all before Delilah cut his hair of course. Unfortunately, there was a little less to talk about here and not much to photograph. This was pretty much the coolest sight at that site: