Escapade @ Qasr al Yahud

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Last night at our Bible study, I was deep into recounting an old adventure, when I realized it was exactly 40 years old, this past week.  So today, I searched the Internet and answered questions I’ve carried with me for two-thirds of my life.

Our study had looked at Moses and the Hebrews in the desert, as Yahweh had brought His people out of Egypt, but now intended to refine Egypt out of His people.  Then our leader asked, “Does anybody have a desert experience they would like to share?

In Christian parlance, the term ‘desert experience’ usually means a dry time in our lives when God works important changes in us.  My story was far more literal.

My future wife and my mother, seeing me off at LAX as my trip began, September, 1972.
At Thanksgiving time, 1972, I found myself in Israel, without much forethought.  I had been hitchhiking through Europe, with a goal of reaching Istanbul in time to mark my ballot.  I had missed voting in 1968, when it was restricted to 21-year-olds.  Then the Twenty-Sixth Amendment gave even 18-year-olds the right to vote, and at 22, I intended to cast my ballot for George McGovern.  Sitting at the US Embassy at The Haag, I had taken a leap in the dark, and asked for my ballot to be mailed to Istanbul.

A week later, after a visit to East Berlin and returning to the West, on a sidewalk in Braunschweig, I had what Christians sometimes refer to as a ‘Damascus Road Experience.’  I went into it as an agnostic, and came out a few minutes later as a servant of Jesus Christ.

One week after that, I sat in a student-travel office in Basel, Switzerland, trying to figure out how—once I had reach Istanbul—I could get back into Western Europe.  They offered a cheap flight from Tel Aviv to Rome.  On the map, Israel and Turkey look close.  How hard could it be to get from one to the other?

These are all stories I will need to tell sometime, but what is pertinent here is that during Thanksgiving week, I found myself in the Jerusalem Youth Hostel, carrying a much-diminished cache of traveler’s checks, but thinking I would like to take the bus down to Jericho.  (I will point out that I have no photographs of my own from this portion of my trip, because I couldn’t spare the shekels for a roll of film.  Thank you, Wikipedia, for the use of yours.)
Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, where I did spend some time.  Photo by Alex S at en.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons

A Jewish kid from San Francisco decided to join me, and so one morning we walked to the bus station.  Had I known, right behind that station is a rocky escarpment bearing Gordon’s Tomb, believed by many to be a more likely spot for Christ’s burial and resurrection than the traditionally recognized Garden Tomb.   However, at the time, I didn’t know, and so didn’t walk around behind the building to take a look.
Golgotha, the Garden Tomb, or "Gordon's Calvary," which I did not know to look at when I was at the bus station.  Photo by Footballkickit at en.wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

The journey through the Judean Hills doesn’t take long, and is interesting.  It follows the path on which the Good Samaritan came to the assistance of a man who had been beaten by robbers, and innumerable other Biblical accounts.

Once through the mountains, we could see the Dead Sea, in the distance, though we did not make that side trip.  The bus stopped once, so that a Palestinian woman with a live chicken under each arm could disembark, though no buildings were in sight.  We probably pulled into Jericho about 10:00 or 11:00.

There wasn’t a lot to see.  I remember one very attractive house, with a beautiful veranda of Bougainvillea.  There were some citrus orchards, and date palms.  There were archaeological diggings that one could visit for only a pittance, but I could spare not even the pittance.

Archaeological diggings at Jericho, which I did not get to see.  Photo by By Abraham at pl.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons

So I studied my map and realized it could not be more than six miles to the Jordan River.  At three miles an hour, we could be there and back in time to make the last return bus to Jerusalem, at 4:30.

Map based on
My friend was opposed to the idea.  The river was, after all, the border between two countries that now-and-again shot at each other.  I knew this.  I recognized we might not get all the way to the river, but I was going as far as they would let me.  He could either join me, or head back to Jerusalem on his own.  He decided to come.

So we set out, with the land becoming more barren as we walked, and my friend complaining all the way.  I believe it was the same for his ancestors who accompanied Moses.

By the fifth mile, the landscape had been come steep hills of soft sand, with some dry weeds in the gullies between them.  My friend was afraid we would not be able to get back to Jericho in time for our bus, and that we would be stuck in the occupied West Bank over night, at the mercy of the Arabs.  It was getting late.

But up ahead, there was a building.  We could go just that far, I told him, and ask for a drink of water.  Then we would go back.  He agreed.  As we approached the building, I noticed what appeared to be a periscope rising from the sand, following our movements.
Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, at Qasr al Yahud, photo by צילום:דר' אבישי טייכר, via Wikimedia Commons

From Google Maps, I now know that the building was a Greek Orthodox monastery, Saint John’s, and that only a third of a mile separates it from the Jordan River and the spot traditionally believed to be where John the Baptist baptized Jesus (though Jordan and Israel differ over whether Jesus stepped in from the Jordanian or Israeli side).  Some traditions also name it as the spot where Joshua and the Hebrews crossed the Jordon on their way to attack Jericho.  Also, somewhere very near is the spot where Elijah departed for heaven in a chariot of fire.  At the time, none of this occurred to me, and I recognized only that the monastery was some ethnicity of Orthodox.  I also couldn’t see that just beyond the monastery, the desert fell away rapidly to the lush bed of the Jordan.

We knocked, and the only man we saw inside got us water that tasted of too much time in cheap plastic containers, but we were thirsty.  Then the monk asked if we would like to see the chapel.  I did, though my complaining friend did not, so I followed the monk into a small-but-dazzling room, so full of art, icons, candled chandeliers, and mosaics that I could not take it all in, and dared not take the time to do so.  In gratitude, I left a few coins in an offering plate, truly a widow’s mite, but probably more than would have been the admission to the archaeological digs.

We stepped outside to find three Israeli soldiers examining our foot prints.  They insisted that there were three sets of prints, and wanted to know who the third person had been.  What could we say?  There had never been any but the two of us.

Eventually, they accepted that, but by now it was getting seriously late.  Would they give us a ride back to the highway so we could catch the bus?  They consented, and we jumped in the back of their pickup truck.  They also had a Jeep-type vehicle, which was good, because the truck quickly got stuck in soft sand, and came close to rolling down the side of the hill.  We jumped out.

The soldiers tried racing the wheels, but the truck simply dug itself deeper.  Then they backed the other vehicle in front of it, and tied a thin hemp rope between the bumpers.  I tried to squelch a laugh.  Did they really think that would hold?  Apparently they did, though of course it failed, twice, actually.  Finally, they took the other vehicle down into the gully and brought it up behind the truck.  That was impressive.  I never could have imagined a vehicle coming up that hill in the soft sand.  But they couldn’t get the truck to budge.  They decided to abandon the truck to the Arabs and the night.

The five of us crowded into the Jeep, and they drove.  But shortly the soldiers began arguing among themselves.  They stopped, took their map, and walked to the top of a hill, making it quite obvious they were lost.  Was this the army that only five years earlier had beaten the combined armies of Islam in only six days, outnumbered thirty-to-one?  (And they would, within a year, need only three weeks to repeat the feat.)

The soldiers dropped us off beside the highway, with about fifteen minutes to spare before the bus came by.  By my birthday, in December, I was back in England, and by Christmas I was in California.  By the end of January, I was engaged, and by July I was married.  I did not have a lot of time to ask questions about what I had seen.

But today, I poked around on the web.  Bouncing between Google maps, Google search, and Wikipedia, it was pretty easy to settle on Saint John's Monaster (Kasser, or Qasr, Al-yahud), and to realize how close I'd gotten to the Jordan River.   At the time, Israel forbid access from its bank, though I don’t know how much closer I might have gotten.  We’d stayed on a dirt road, but if we had drifted too far into the fields, we might have encountered land mines.  (Americans go blithely, where even fools may fear to tread.)  Today, both countries allow access to the baptismal site, and I know people who have visited there.

Someday, I would like to visit Israel again, and should that every happen, I will go better prepared to understand what I am seeing.  But that will not take away from the adventure that Israel was the first time I was there.

In the meantime, I pray for Peace in Israel.  I once rode with the Israeli army.



Another wonderful story of youth in our naive state, but also our boldness. Oh, that we could have the wisdom of age and the dauntlessness of youth.


Steve said...
December 2, 2012 at 6:52 AM  

Sometimes I'd be happy just to once again have the knees of my youth. I was thinking about jumping out of the back of that truck, and realized landing like that today would put me in serious pain. I hope you and yours have a wonderful Christmas.

Brian said...
December 2, 2012 at 8:57 AM  

I enjoyed the bit about the Israeli Soldiers who seemed less competent than the reports of their prowess in the 6 Days War. It sounds much more realistic than the propaganda that appeared in the press.

That is after all what the claims of 30 to 1 odds were. Israel has never been so badly outnumbered in battle against the Arab nations. gives the actual order of battle for each of the belligerent nations at the time. Given the complete lack of unity amongst the Arab nations, it is no surprise that Israel won in 1967. I remember reading Raphael Patai's book The Arab Mind, which my father highly recommended and noticing the differences between Israeli and western perceptions of the threat and actual Egyptian intentions. It was apparent that the level of hyperbole in Arabic lead Israel to conclude that Egypt wanted war when Nasser was not at all interested -- rather like Chavez today ordering 10 battalions of tanks to the Colombian border. It was only a speech designed for internal consumption to shore up domestic support and support in the rest of the Arab world. An actual war against Israel was neither desired nor contemplated.

The actual Israeli military forces were not nearly so competent as the victory would suggest. They were, united against a perceived threat that did not really exist to the extent they thought. Your experience with those Israeli soldiers shows what the IDF was really like.

Ben Wheeler

Ibnyamin said...
December 2, 2012 at 9:59 AM  

Interesting. I had heard a similar thing about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, in 1979. They intended to pull up to the border in bluster, but their maps were so poor, when they finally pulled up, they found themselves ten miles inside Afghanistan, and stuck in a war from which it took them ten years to extricate themselves. Many wars have been started by brinkmanship gone sour.

Brian said...
December 2, 2012 at 1:14 PM  

Knees! Oh, my. If the Roman legions were fouls by want of a horse shoe, then I, like you, are foundered by bad knees. Give you family our best wishes and enjoy Christmas also.

Steve said...
December 4, 2012 at 6:28 PM  

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