Herodion, Hebron, Dirya, Ramalla

We left the Hotel this morning at 7:30 a.m.  Our first destination was a tourist event.  We visited Herodion, the fortress and summer palace of Herod the Great built South and East of Bethlehem on what was the ancient road and most direct road from Jerusalem to his Winter Palace South of Jericho.  This was also the principle route of the lucrative salt trade from the Dead Sea.  I had never had a chance to visit Herodion since it lies in a area considered to be Palestinian, even though it is under Israeli control.

The mountain looks volcanic, but it is manmade.  A hill existed there, but Herod the Great built it into a mountain fortress.  I am only guessing that Herod added maybe 70 feet to the top of the natural mountain.  It is one of the tallest peaks in the area, and it is possible to see the Jordanian mountains and ever over the escarpment on the Israeli side down into the rift valley to the Dead Sea.  The top of Herodion is about 800 meters above sea level, the Dead Sea is about 400 meters below sea level.  This is an impressive sight.  You can see Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Jordanian Mountains and the Dead Sea in an awesome panorama.  The bus can only take you about half way up the mountain, so there was a lot of huffing and puffing to make it to the top.  I got my exercise.

Down inside the mountain were the living quarters of the palace as well as a garrison.  Toward the bottom of the mountain were a couple of auxiliary palaces, quarters for servants and horses, a theater, and what became the tomb of Herod.  Not too long ago they found the sarcophagus of Herod.  One picture can hardly give the extent of the palace inside the mountain.  (See video post).  As we walked around the top of the mountain our guide, and Arab Christian named Sam, who is a resident of Jerusalem pointed out how Israeli settlements and Arab villages are intermingled in this area.  (See second video post.)  This makes negotiating a final border so difficult.  Also, there are people with different statuses that must be worked out in some final agreement.  Sam’s parents were granted Israeli citizenship and live in Jerusalem.  Sam has status as a resident of Jerusalem without being a citizen.  Many of his cousins are have Palestinian citizenship and must travel on a Jordanian passport.  His brother through no fault of his own was residency, and has now taken out US citizenship, so he travels on a US passport.  It is all very confusing and somehow part of the problem of trying to negotiate a final status for the region.

We went down into the mountain to see the ruins of the palace, and then we climbed down into the water tunnel.  Herod of course had constructed an elaborate water system including deep cisterns that the Jewish rebels enlarged upon.  In 66 A.D. the Jewish rebels seized the fortress and held it until the Romans conquered it and held on to it in 70 A.D.  The Bar Kochba rebels again seized the fortress in 132 A.D. and were defeated in 135 A.D.  The fortress fell into disuse for several hundred years until Byzantine monks began using it as a monastery between the fifth and seventh centuries.  After the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land Herodion fell into disuse and was not rediscovered until the 20th century. 

We left Herodion and began our journey to Hebron.  Along the way we passed through some entirely Palestinian controlled areas, and some areas that are still jointly Israeli and Palestinian. We drove through an Israeli settlement called Quriyat Arabah, that is a large town, many thousands of residents, and finally came to Hebron, where the combined mosque/synagogue of the Patriarchs know as Macpehlah is located.  The shrine is under Israeli protection.  Many soldiers.  Both Arabs and Jews have access to the site, but the two sides are strictly segregated.  Arabs are not allowed into the synagogue and Jews are not allowed in the mosque.  As tourists we were able to access both.

Inside we saw the symbolic tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.  Rachel is buried just north of Bethlehem.  Underneath the synagogue/mosque there is indeed a deep double cave, where we presume the Patriarchs were originally interred.


On the mosque side of the shrine an excited group of Palestinian little girls eager to use their English with people from America, asked to have their picture taken.  I have never been to Macpelah and I was grateful for the opportunity to visit, but the tension surrounding the shrine would make it very difficult for me to connect with any sense of the divine in that location.  But again the shrine was a symbolic representation of two people in conflict over the same land, even the same ancestors.  As our guide pointed out in the beginning Mohamed and his followers prayed in the direction of Jerusalem not Mecca.

From the shrine we went into the town of Hebron and saw how difficult the situation between Arab and Israeli has become.  Jews have always lived in Hebron, but during the war for independence all the Jews of Hebron were slaughtered.  After the 1967 War, when Israel took over the West Bank some Jews returned to the area of Hebron.  Now there are about 400 Jews mainly religious who have take up residence in the middle of Hebron.  Several hundred Israeli soldiers are required to protect these Jews.  As a result several of the Arab markets have had to be closed, and commerce in Hebron is very limited.  The Hebron Jewish settlement will be a very difficult problem in any peace agreement.

From Hebron we drove to Bethlehem, where we met with Dr. Mitri Rahab, the Lutheran pastor of Bethlehem.  He has about 220 members in his church, but he has created an outreach ministry called Diyar that includes about 2500 people with about 60,000 people participating in its programs.  Diyar includes a K-12 Christian School, a college, a health and sports program.  Pastor Rahab became disillusioned with the politics of the Israeli Palestinian conflict and with interfaith dialogue.  They aren’t going anywhere.  So he likes to think that he is concentrated on changing and creating culture.  “We have far too much religion and too much politics here and too little culture.”  So surprisingly besides teaching tourism and a few other practical vocationally oriented programs, the college concentrates in the arts:  music, dance, art, drama and film making.  “Culture is identity and we are shaping culture.”

He said he no longer wants to discuss politics, but when he did he referred to the present situation as a “the most sophisticated apartheid the world has ever seen.”  He doesn’t see much hope in the present situation, and believes that the political leaders on both sides are incapable of bringing peace.  He claimed that Christians are leaving Palestine and Israel, and he made the claim that there is a parallel out migration of liberal Jews leaving Israel.  As a result he believes the land is losing very people needed to make peace.  “But there is use whining.”  So if he was going to stay, he shifted to working on culture.  “We have to move beyond victimhood both Israelis and Palestinians.  We need to focus on a culture of life and hope.  And so in the face of the senselessness of our situation today, the only option is to go out into the garden and plant a tree.”

He claims that I Bethlehem Hamas is not strong.  “Arab Christians want a separation between church and state, and so we are fighting Islamitization.  We need a pluralistic society that recognizes modernity.”  But he is not very hopeful.  He thinks after September and the UN vote on recognizing Palestine there will no longer be a two state solution.

As part of his attempt to “plant a tree” Diyar sponsors classes in civic issues and the training of future Palestinian leadership.  Their health program focuses on preventive health care, and they have the largest elderly care program in the West Bank.  They also sponsor women’s sports teams.  And with pride he announced that Diyar has the Palestinian Women’s national soccer championship team – 60% Christian, 40% Muslim.  “This provides role models for young women.”

Despite his lack of hope about the political situation, I had a real sense of hope hearing about what Diyar is doing.  When pressed he held the Israelis responsible for the impasse in the peace process.  He made the suggested that the two state solution he was advocating was for Hamas and the Shas Party (very orthodox very aggressive Jewish Part) to be given a state together and allow everyone else to live in peace in another state.

We did not have an opportunity to discuss what sustains him spiritually.  He is still the Parish Pastor besides everything else he does, and he had to go perform a funeral.  I suspect that despite his pessimism about everything political, he sustains hope by “planting trees.”

We had lunch in Bethlehem and drove to Ramalla.  Ramalla functions as the capital of the Palestinian Authority.  We visited Yassir Arafat’s tomb, and then walked through downtown Ramalla.  I have always pictured this City as a glorified depressed refugee camp.  What I found was a busy bustling commercial center.  People here have money, and they are very busy.  There is an energy in the air that is palpable, and in a way this too gave me some hope.  The people in Ramalla obviously had real lives, something to live for and something to lose, so different from the image of the suicide bomber, who has nothing to lose.  The prosperity of Ramalla gave me hope.


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