Holy Week in the Eastern Mode

Unlike a Catholic or Protestant church, there are no pews, no booklets, no projection screens.  No announcements.  Lots of icons; fewer stained-glass windows.  We’re worshipping in the lands where Christianity was invented: the eastern end of the Roman Empire.  The Mediterranean world of flat bread, wine, and olive oil.  The great centers of faith were places like Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, where people spoke Greek.  Rome wasn’t even the capital of the Roman after Constantine gave up trying to defend it from Barbarians.   He moved the capital to Byzantium, which he named after himself.

For the past ten days, we’ve been taking part in a course at St. George’s Anglican College in Arab East Jerusalem.  With twelve others, mostly Americans, we’ve traced Jesus’ last week and explored the liturgies of six Orthodox branches of Christendom: Greek, Russian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian.

Communion of Saints Icon, Holy Saturday, Russian Orthodox church

The worship services we visited were a kind of dance between solo and ensemble.  On the one hand, a choir or two and a group of clergy follow the service: an ancient sequence of chants.  On the other hand, individual people come and go, taking care of spiritual business around the church.  So you see people quietly whispering a prayer in front of an icon, crossing themselves or kissing the painting.  You see people bowing and even prostrating themselves, like Muslims at prayer.  They light long, slender tapered candles and place them in bowls of sand.  Scott Gunn Candle woman(Photo credit below: Scott Gunn)

And then someone in silk vestments catches everyone’s attention by swinging a thurible full of incense, three times in each of three directions.  As the choral music swells, the celebrant, perhaps wearing a crown or a brocaded hood, sweeps out of the doors from the mostly-concealed sanctum, and redirects the chant in a booming voice.


In the picture below, the Armenian Patriarch prepares to wash the feet of his twelve bishops, humbling his otherwise very exalted self on Holy Thursday as Jesus did.

Armenian Patriarch will wash the feet of his twelve bishops

Virtually every member of the cast is male in an Orthodox liturgy, though at the Russian service, a nun carried the Patriarch’s staff when he was not using it.  I was struck by the sacred seriousness of everything, but despite all the formality and traditions, people seemed at home.  It was like going to grandma’s for Thanksgiving: you dress up a little more, and remember not to slouch, and it’s just the same as last year, but that doesn’t make it boring.

We were surprised at the number of folks filming the services on their cell phones.  A young deacon, when he wasn’t moving a lectern or carrying a candle, seemed to be documenting everything.  I wondered if he would use the film later to prepare for next year, when he’d have a bigger role.  We were in our own private devotional worlds, where the veil between the visible and Icon of St. Gerasimus in Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Jerusaleminvisible worlds is thinner than usual.  You look at Mary’s sad eyes in a painting, or close your own eyes and listen to the singing.  It’s all in a minor key, which makes the prayer seem more profound, despite the fact that you don’t know any Armenian or Russian.

Most of the walls and ceilings are covered with paintings or mosaics: pictures of bearded men and veiled women, most with haloes and carrying symbols of their own struggles with the selfish distractions and obsessions of life.  Prominent are the fathers and mothers of the early church who retreated to the desert, seeking enlightenment in poverty.  The faces aren’t looking at you, but they are watching over you, somehow. Scripture calls them the great cloud of witnesses.  They chanted these very melodies, five hundred, a thousand, and even fifteen hundred years ago, in walled cities and caves in the desert.  Some were severe zealots trembling before a harsh divine judge, but many were open-hearted healers of the sick, or drum-majors for justice.

On the left is the monastic guru St. Gerasimus, who left his wealthy parents in Lycia, Asia Minor, to seek a more honest and compassionate life in the desert.  He was said to have tamed a lion by extracting a thorn from its paw.

One of the most dramatic rituals of Orthodox Holy Week comes when the Greek Patriarch enters the tomb where the crucified Jesus was laid.  He emerges with a new fire, which is transferred by candles, Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 11.53.38 AMlamps, and lanterns to waiting congregations all over Jerusalem, and also flown by jet to Athens, Moscow, and the New World.  We learned that archaeologists believe it quite likely that this, or one of the tombs within a fifty-foot radius, was the resting place of Jesus.  Here is the Holy Fire just after it arrived in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral a mile west of where it was kindled.

Compared to our westernized worship, the Orthodox are much more into the sacredness of beauty.  More interested in mystery than belief.  They are swimming in spirituality.

For me, the point of Holy Week is that by following the actions of Jesus and his followers closely, I can better understand why he didn’t flinch from a fate I am sure he knew was coming.  If God could take on human form, Huston Smith once wrote, this is what God would look like:

  • a suffering servant, to whom no one was too lowly to care for
  • a critic of the empires that worship wealth, violence, and dominance
  • a spiritual doctor of paradoxical wisdom who unerringly seemed to know when prescriptions of yin or yang were indicated.

Jesus accepted the phony trials, the mob’s braying, and Pontius Pilate’s cynical hand-washing gesture.  And a few days after dying, he began appearing in some strange new form, a resurrected being.  He had been divine, after all.  An icon.

This week has confirmed my intuition that something very mysterious and inspiring happened.  Before that, resurrection had just been a theory: at the end of time, God will reunite bodies and souls.  Hundreds and soon thousands of people became convinced that Jesus’ teaching, healing, and passion were, in fact, a vision of the eternal goodness, truth, and beauty of The One in whose image we are made.

At its best, religion gives us windows that help us see that One.  Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism parted company a thousand years ago.  It was really political, although there were church matters at stake: Latin or vernacular?  Pope or Councils?  Filioque or not?

They quit looking THROUGH the windows.  All they could manage was to look AT each other’s windows.  Or to use one of Jesus’ best metaphors, they complained about the speck in the other’s eye, ignoring the log in their own.

It’s been eye-opening for me to come to the East and look through some ancient windows which are new to me.

LM inside Christ Anglican Church, Nazareth

Lynnell and I met at Christ Church, Detroit in 1983.  We took this picture two weeks ago at our sister parish, Christ Church, Nazareth–Jesus’ home town–34 years later.


Why my Palestinian guide can’t take his seven year old to the zoo and other thoughts on being on the West Bank

SurfingPoem/grafitti on the Palestinian side of the Wall in Bethlehem

by Lynnell Mickelsen

We’ve spent the last two weeks in Israel, a country I long vowed to avoid until its government started doing right by the Palestinians.

It hasn’t. We came anyways. And I actually don’t regret it because I’ve learned a lot.

A preface: I know it’s risky to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So the recommended method is to carefully and delicately parse every word because, after all, the Holocaust was horrible; both sides commit atrocities, and a lot of people grew up with the whole “Land without a people for a people without a land” story via the young, blue-eyed Paul Newman as the heroic Ari Ben Canaan in “Exodus,“ (circa 1960) and really, who wants to mess with that primal piece of mythology?


So in America, we mostly don’t talk about this conflict, which, not coincidentally, tends to serve the status quo.

Anyhow, my response is as follows: It is complicated. Both sides have done horrible things. Anti-Semitism is alive and well.

And the current level of injustice is starkly lopsided. The numbers of dead, injured, jailed and dispossessed are overwhelmingly on the Palestinian side of the equation and Americans in particular almost never hear the Palestinian side of the story.

Soooo…. with all that as a preface: we spent our first three days in Israel traveling in the West Bank with a great outfit called Green Olive Tours.  I don’t know where to begin, so let’s talk about license plate colors, water tanks and walls.

1) The color of your license plate really matters. Israeli citizens get yellow license plates. Yellow plates rock. With a yellow plate, you are free to move about the country.

In contrast, Palestinians in the West Bank get white (or green for cabs) license plates. White or green plates are a drag because it means you aren’t allowed to drive on Israeli roads without a special permit from the Israeli army, which tends not to grant such things very often.  In the map below, Israeli plates get you onto yellow and red roads.  Palestinian plates keep you on white roads or carefully-watched on red ones.


image from TheOtherSite

But it’s not just about cars. Palestinians in the West Bank also aren’t allowed to walk on Israeli roads or take public transportation into Israel without the special permit.

For the record, we’re not talking about a small number of people. Three million Palestinians currently live in the West Bank. Under Israeli rules, they spend most of their lives confined to a chunk of land about the size of the state of Delaware. An additional two million Palestinians in Gaza live under even harsher restrictions in an even smaller space. But we didn’t get to Gaza, so in this post, I’ll just talk about the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The inability to freely move around makes it hard for Palestinians on the West Bank to hold a decent job or participate in any kind of modern economy. I mean, they are cut off from all major Israeli cities. Even working in tourism based in the West Bank is difficult.

For example, our Green Olive Tour to Hebron and Bethlehem started out from Jerusalem because that’s where almost all tourists are staying. But our guide couldn’t meet us there. Muhannad has a car and lives a mere ten miles from Jerusalem, but he’s not allowed to enter Israel’s second-largest city.

So in order for Muhannad to do his tour guide gig, Green Olive, which is committed to using West Bank guides, had to hire a driver with a yellow Israeli license plate to make the 20-minute trip to the military checkpoint where Muhannad was waiting for us. We transferred to his car, which was parked next to this large, scary red sign with a message in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

West Bank red sign

“Okay, just for starters. the Palestinian Authority doesn’t ban Israelis from traveling into the West Bank.”  Muhannad said, pointing to the sign. “The Israeli government bans them, in part because it doesn’t want its citizens to see what happens here. And it puts this sign up in English to scare as many tourists away as possible and convince everyone it’s too dangerous to be in the Palestinian territories.”

Muhannad is a trim man in his early 40s who speaks quickly and in perfect English. He was born near Bethlehem. He and his wife have two sons, ages 7 and 9. Like so many Palestinians stuck in the West Bank with its high unemployment rates, they went overseas to find work. Their nine-year-old son was born in Denver and is a U.S. citizen.

Muhannad and his wife loved living and working in Colorado. But they missed their families and as Palestinians they also felt torn about living abroad. Ever since capturing the West Bank in the 1967 war, the Israelis have been squeezing Palestinians economically and hoping they’ll immigrate. Living abroad felt like a form of capitulation. So they came home.

But it’s not easy living in a place where one’s daily life is subjected to the whims of the Israeli army, imposed by soliders carrying automatic weapons, most of whom are young men in their late teens and 20s with all the wisdom and maturity that implies. And as his kids get older, Muhannad sometimes wonders if coming home was the right choice.

“For example…. our seven-year-old son is just learning how to read and is crazy about animals,” he said. “So he went online and discovered there was a zoo in Jerusalem that had lions and elephants. He begged us to take him there. It’s only 10 miles away.”

Muhannad and his wife are Christians; the Israelis traditionally allow Palestinian Christians to apply for travel permits to Jerusalem twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. So they figured that was their best chance to take him to the zoo. “But he’s just a little boy,” Muhannad said. “So he kept saying ‘why do we have to wait until Christmas? Why can’t we go this weekend?’”

Which brought Muhannad and his wife to the dilemma that every Palestinian parent in the West Bank and Gaza faces: at what age do you tell your children that they are effectively sealed in? That simple trips like going to a nearby zoo…or playing on the sand beaches of the Mediterranean which are a tantalizing 50 miles away are difficult or impossible for them…simply because they’re Palestinian?

cycle palestine 2015 317photo: emtainbikeblog.blogspot.com

2) Ye shall know them by their water tanks. If you drive around the West Bank for any period of time, you’ll notice that in some towns, every house has a big black plastic water tank on the roof. We saw this on multiple trips and our Palestinian guides said it was because the Israeli government controls the water supply and regularly cuts off the water to Palestinian homes without notice.

So people use their water tank reserve supply until it goes back on, which is usually in 24-72 hours. The tanks are plastic because a) they’re cheaper; b) if bored Israeli soldiers decide to shoot holes in your family’s water tank, people have learned it’s easier and faster to glue on a plastic patch than try to weld on a metal one.

Cut-offs can happen weekly, so most Palestinians carefully ration and monitor their water use, especially in the hot summer. On the West Bank, no one takes long, leisurely showers.

Actually, let me re-phrase that. No one with black plastic water tanks takes long leisurely showers. About 400,000 Israeli Jewish citizens also live in the West Bank in so-called “settlements” where the only tanks on their roofs are small, white solar water heaters. Cut-offs don’t seem to happen in the settlements; their water runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Thus the fastest way to tell if a West Bank community is Jewish or Palestinian is to just look at their roofs.

A few years ago, Muhannad said he came home to find his wife near tears. It was a hot summer day and their sons wanted her to fill up their bathtub with cool water and let them play. But she was afraid to risk using so much water—there had been so many cut-offs, they needed to save as much as possible just for drinking.

Look at us, his wife said, we can’t even let our kids play in a bathtub. Meanwhile, the children in the settlements have swimming pools.

The word “settlement” makes these communities sound quaint and rustic, but they look more like large, sprawling gated suburbs, albeit surrounded by high walls and razor-wire fences, and guarded by soldiers. Settlements can easily have 10,000 or more residents. They often come with their own shopping malls, office buildings, schools, libraries, public parks, beautifully irrigated gardens, tennis courts, artistic fountains in roundabouts, and swimming pools.

settlement poolHilltop water tower (no tanks necessary), apartment buildings, and public swimming pool complex at Ma’ale Adumim, a West Bank Jewish settlement, population, 37,000, photo from 972mag.com

Under international law, none of these Israeli settlements are legal because they’ve been built on Palestinian-owned land illegally seized from its owners and controlled by an occupying army. But the Israeli government continues to seize land and build more.

In addition to the 400,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, another 350,000 settlers live in houses and land in East Jerusalem, almost all of it illegally taken from Palestinian owners. Combine the two areas and you have three-quarters of a million Israelis living on Palestinian land, in violation of international law.

The settlements are a huge barrier to any hope of creating an independent Palestinian state. Which is precisely why the right-wing Israeli governments keep building more.

The stark contrast between the lives of Palestinians (whose families have lived on the land for hundreds, if not thousands of years) and Jewish settlers (who are often recent immigrants from the U.S. or Russia) can make the military occupation even more unbearable for the Palestinian side.  Jewish settlers get yellow license plates and are free to commute back and forth from Jerusalem on yellow-plates-only roads like this one we took to Nablus:

The government builds these special highways to let settlers more easily drive around or through Palestinian areas. It posts thousands of soldiers and guards at military checkpoints, to make sure Palestinians stay in their restricted zones.

And then there’s the Wall. Even though I’ve read a lot about the Wall, I was still shocked by the massive barrier that snakes, and stretches, and envelopes the West Bank.

West Bank wall yahooWest Bank Wall; photo: Yahoo News

3) With a length of over 400 miles, the West Bank Barrier is four times longer than the Berlin Wall; nearly half the length of the old barrier between East and West Germany. Built at the cost of $2.6 billion, it’s the single largest infrastructure project in Israeli history.

The Israeli government started building the wall in 2002, during the second Palestinian uprising when Israelis were being terrorized by suicide bombing attacks. The government first said it needed it for security, but it soon started also using the wall as a way to advance and secure more settlements, which is why the wall has kept expanding.

The wall has made the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank even more miserable and prison-like, cutting off more roads and turning what was once an easy ten-minute commute to schools or work or to visit elderly parents into hour-long detours.

LM Bethlehem wall jpggraffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall in Bethlehem

But has it worked for the Israelis?

In the short run…. maybe. The suicide bombings have drastically decreased, although whether that’s due to the wall or better security and infiltration of terrorist groups by Israeli’s Shin Bet is hard to say. Hundreds of Palestinian laborers regularly sneak over the wall to take day jobs in Israel, so it would still seem possible for someone to climb over with a vest full of explosives. And random acts of violence still happen here—as they happen all over the world.

In the long run…honestly, I don’t know see how any of this is sustainable.

In two months, Israel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its “victory” in the 1967 Six-Day War, which led to its capture of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. But how has that victory turned out?

For 50 years, Israel has kept millions of Palestinians in these captured areas in limbo; not allowing them to become citizens of Israel or a free Palestinian state; controlling them ever more ruthlessly; and building bigger, longer walls. But this the process has also transformed Israel into a country that veers ever farther from functioning as a democracy and ever-closer to an apartheid state.

Jerusalem, South Africa Bag

Israel is also facing a demographic dilemma. This year, the number of Palestinians living in the occupied territories and Israel proper is about 6.5 million—or roughly the same number as Israeli Jews. But Palestinians have a higher birth rate; by 2020, they are predicted to outnumber Israeli Jews, putting Israel on a collision course with the very reason for its existence.

Israel was founded as Jewish state; it gives preferential treatment and refuge to Jews, who have historically suffered from discrimination around the world.  This systematic bias has always been problematic. But what will it look like as Jews increasingly become a powerful, well-armed minority that denies basic human rights to the majority of people it controls?

I’m writing this in Jerusalem during Passover, when Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh and it’s hard not to ponder how things change over history and roles reverse.

A protester holds a placard as she stands next to Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements in Beit Fajjar town south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem

And I’m writing this on Easter morning, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, one of the biggest plot reversals in human history. And it’s hard not to wonder about how death becomes life and vice versa.

little Palestinian boy

This is a place with a history that goes back thousands of years. So 50 or 100 years is just a blink of an eye. I don’t know what will happen next or when. But as W. B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem: the center cannot hold; the ceremony of innocence has drowned.

Meanwhile, Muhannad’s nine-year-old son is  thinking about his Second Coming. He was born in Denver. He knows he’s an American citizen. He’s already imagining a life without checkpoints and soldiers. His dream, says Muhannad, is to live in a country where he can drive to the beach.

——Lynnell Mickelsen

This Year In Jerusalem

At the end of Passover seders all around the world, Jews express a fond hope: “Next year in Jerusalem.”  This is not, I have recently learned, a geographical aspiration.  It is a spiritual vow: may we find ourselves a year from today in peace, living with integrity with our neighbors.  My friend Rabbi Avi Olitzky told the kids at Breck a few years ago, don’t think that Passover is just about how ‘we were once slaves, but now we’re free.’  There is a part of each of us that’s Pharaoh, too.  

Wise words for a financially-fortunate, white, Christian, American, heterosexual couple in good health to ponder as the moon reaches full this Passover.

Just because you are in Jerusalem, the holiest of cities, does not mean you’ve arrived.  Jews living here don’t say anything different at the end of the meal.  They, too, say “Next year,” because “Jerusalem” refers to a state of shalom, peace, nirvana, or wholeness that, Lord knows, is not yet here.

Walking home from dinner last night at St. George’s Anglican College in the Holy City, I snapped this photo of the Passover Moon:

Passover Moon

Lynnell and I are taking a ten-day course at St. George’s called “Easter Fire,” referring to the tradition of kindling a new flame on the eve of Easter in churches all over the world.  By coincidence, Passover, Orthodox Easter, and Western Easter all fall in the same week this year.  Every day, our group of thirteen pilgrims from the US, Canada, and Australia visits several sacred places in or near Jerusalem to get a clearer sense of the meaning of Jesus’ life, teachings, healings, death, and resurrection.

Today, for example, we visited the place of his baptism, and saw these two white doves:

Flying Doves at Jordan Baptism Site (Israel Side)

We renewed our own baptismal vows, promising to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to persevere in resisting evil, and to work for peace and justice in the world.  All very sobering vows.  Later we sat in silence atop this mountain in the desert above Jericho.  Our Chaplain reminded us that the prophet Elijah had found refuge in a cave right here, before traveling to the mountain where he heard the “still, small voice” of God.  Another translation calls it “the sound of sheer silence.”  Jesus also sought the quiet of the desert in these hills, trying to make sense of his vision of a dove coming down on him at his baptism, and a voice calling him “Beloved Son.”  We only had a half hour, but we looked down on cliffside caves, huts, and a modern monastery where for 1700 years monks and nuns have sought the voice of God by fleeing the noise of daily life.   I felt serene and wise until a pushy teenager who’d pestered us on the hike up the hill mocked the way I told him “no thank you.”  He was having a bad day, I guess, frustrated at not selling anything.  Jesus wouldn’t have laughed at him like I did.

Yesterday, we climbed up and down the Mount of Olives with thousands of others recreating Palm Sunday, passing this Jewish cemetery along the way.  Visitors leave stones instead of flowers, honoring the dead.

Jewish Cemetery on Mount of Olives Facing Dome of the Rock Shrine, Palm Sunday

We got to the bottom of that steep hill and then began climbing again, through a Muslim cemetery.  Since the Messiah is expected to take this very path, being resurrected on the last day on the slopes below the Holy City puts you at the front of the line!  Our Palm Sunday procession ended up at the Lions’ Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.

St. Stephen's or Lion's Gate, Jerusalem's East Side

The day before, we had paraded from a church in Bethany, a couple miles east of Jerusalem, to the tomb of Lazarus, a tiny passageway into a stone tomb too claustrophobic-sounding for us.  These boys had a good perch, though, and we had a great cup of Arabic coffee while waiting for our braver fellow pilgrims to enter and emerge.

Boys above Processional Crowd at Lazarus' Tomb below the Separation Wall

The Separation Wall is visible above the white car at the far right, up the hill.  A guy who works at the college used to have a ten-minute commute from this town.  Because of the Wall and checkpoints, it now takes him an hour on a good day, and two hours a few times a month.

The day before that, before our course started at St. George’s, Lynnell and I paid a visit to Christ Anglican Church in Nazareth, an historic Palestinian Christian center of education and worship which was once the sister parish of our own Christ Church Detroit.  We had coffee with Fr. Nael, and I snapped this picture from behind the altar.

Celebrant's View of Christ Church, Nazareth

We also visited a replica (below) of the synagogue of Jesus’ youth in Nazareth.  In those days, synagogues were more community gathering places than houses of worship.  That role was played by the grand Temple in Jerusalem, recently expanded by King Herod.  But within a couple of generations of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jewish rebellions against oppressive Roman rule led to the catastrophic destruction of that Temple in 70 CE; and synagogues like this one took on the role of housing prayer, study, and celebration for Jewish communities all over the world.  Here some Christian pilgrims from Hong Kong heard about Jesus’ first public preaching in his hometown.  He didn’t win any converts.  In fact, his neighbors, having known him since infancy, didn’t buy his new role as rabbi, healer, and prophet.  He didn’t call himself Messiah quite yet, but that would have really angered them.

Model of Nazareth Synagogue

In Nazareth, we stayed in this guest house, called al-Mutran in honor of the Arabic word for Bishop, whose house is next door.  The Old City of Nazareth is full of great cuisine, amazing churches and mosques, and not nearly enough tourists.

View from guest parlor, al-Mutran Guest House, Nazareth


February and March in Pictures

You can see captions by hovering your cursor or clicking on each photo.  Most of these pictures haven’t been in the blog yet.  Thanks to our loyal readers.  Four Months To Go!

Crushed: one picture and 500 words

After lunch in Safed, the world capital of Kabbalah and for the 60’s and 70’s the Israeli art capital, Lynnell lingered at the table and read history and I went for a walk in the spring rain. We’d been talking about how Safed seemed cursed with instability. (thanks to Wikipedia and the Lonely Planet Guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories)

1099 The Muslim town of Safed captured by Crusaders; many killed.

1188 Saladin beseiged Safed for a year, then retook it from the Crusaders.  Christians were given safe passage to Tyre, on South Lebanon coast.  Safed’s walls knocked down 50 years later so Crusaders wouldn’t want it back, but…

1240 Christians got it back, and rebuilt the walls, but…in

1266 the Muslims retook Safed and didn’t destroy anything so if the Christians come back it would be harder to capture.

The Christians didn’t come back.

1500’s Jews, especially those expelled from Catholic Spain, began arriving in significant numbers and made Safed a world center of Jewish learning and book publishing.  Now ruled by Ottomans, Safed was about 25% Jewish.

1628 Safed conquered by a Druze army (a minority sect related to just about every religion you can think of in this part of the world).  In 1633 the Ottomans got it back.  In 1660 the Druze destroyed it, and very few Jews came back to rebuild.

1700’s plagues and earthquakes

1800’s Russian and Lithuanian Jews came, fleeing pogroms. Egyptians took over Palestine, but Safed’s Arabs resisted, and looted most Jewish homes in 1834.  The ones who remained had their hillside homes flattened by an earthquake three years later.  More plagues followed, plus Druze looted Muslim and Jewish houses just after they were rebuilt.

In 1917, the British defeated the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and made contradictory promises to Jews, Arabs, and (secretly) France about the future of the Middle East.  The first British census of Safed found 60% Muslims and 33% Jews, the rest being Christian, Druze, and Other.

Anti-Jewish riots in 1929 left 20 Jews dead in Safed.

In 1948, Jewish forces drove the Arab majority out of town, including the family of Mahmoud Abbas, the current President of the Palestinian Authority.  Since the declaration of the independent state of Israel, Safed’s been just about 100% Jewish.

As I walked around in the cold drizzle, I kept ducking into galleries.  The biggest gallery was in a decommissioned mosque.  The crescent had been removed from the spire, but an elegant quotation from the Quran remained, carved over the main doors.  Off to the right was what first appeared to be a whimsical, almost cartoonish sculpture (below).  Sandwiched between what seemed to me like the heavy stone blocks of the history we’d been reading are pale human figures.  Like beads on a merchant’s abacus, they get shuttled back and forth as he rings up a sum.  But when the abacus is upturned, the beads, people, and cubes become skewers (we had had kebab for lunch).  And the people are crushed.


I’m not sure whether the artist meant them to represent various generations of Jews in particular.  He or she (there was no label) might have been depicting just the people of this hilltop town or maybe all of us.  The blocks of stone might symbolize any of the oppressions that bear down on us, and the abacus itself could belong to any bean-counter, heavenly or demonic.  Safed has become once again a center of Jewish mysticism, and the deeds of G-d, angels, and Satan himself are all the subject of imagination.

The Western Wall

Our great Minneapolis friend Phil Freshman told us last year: when we get to Jerusalem, we have to tour the underground tunnels which uncover parts of the famed Western Wall.  He had taken part in some similar archaeology on the Southern Wall, near David’s City, uncovering 3000+ year-old Jerusalem.

A lost passport (mine) meant a morning of searching and then gathering materials to get a new one, so I missed the tour of Hebron which Lynnell is now writing about.  But after a delicious lunch, I joined a group of maybe twenty tourists to see the web of chambers whose arched ceilings hold up the Muslim Quarter.

We walked down a ramp which gradually put us twenty or thirty feet underground, which is the way these things work: cities keep building up layers so that two thousand years ago is a couple of stories down, and three thousand is buried deeper still.  Wall Tunnel Tour: Solomon's TempleKing Solomon built the first Temple around 950 BCE, on the second-highest ground in Jerusalem, a mountain believed to be Mt. Moriah (where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son) and for awhile also called Mt. Zion.  Our tour guide showed us this model.

She then pointed to a thick window built into the floor, through which we could see workers doing something down at the level of that very same first temple.

A very modest second temple was built after the Babylonian captivity in 519 BCE,.

Then she pulled up another model, showing how King Herod prepared the site for a grand expansion of the second Temple in the first century BCE.  He spent 46 years all told, and raised huge sums of money by taxing his subjects.  He also built a huge palace for himself.  Our guide wryly observed that since he had no army (puppet kings don’t get to conquer), and was obsessed with his reputation, he built large monuments with his name all over them.

Wall Tunnel Tour: Herod flattens the Temple Mount

So, atop this newly-flattened mountaintop, Herod The Great built a wonder of the world, with retaining walls all around.  Unlike a lot of walls in this part of the world, this one was all about support, rather than separation or defense.

The western wall still sits on the bedrock made from stones bigger than a 1960 Buick.  The photo below is from a model of Jerusalem, 63 CE, at Yad Vashem.  The whole plaza depends on those big stones, which neither earthquakes nor erosion nor thieves looking for building materials have budged.

Model of Jerusalem, 63 CE

About a hundred yards of the Western Wall are now visible.  It’s the holiest Jewish Place in the world.  We’ve visited it a couple of times already, as did this group of cute Orthodox boys celebrating the occasion of receiving their first prayer books at the age of six or seven:

Kids on a siddur party

The invisible part of the Western Wall is a lot bigger.  It lies half-buried below the Muslim Quarter of Old Jerusalem.  Our friend Phil and thousands of amateur and professional archaeologists have uncovered the whole length of the Wall, and the woman below took a moment to pray, perhaps 50 yards from where the Holy of Holies used to be.

Praying at the Western Wall under the Muslim Quarter

When Muslims took over Jerusalem not too long after Muhammad’s death, they restored what the Romans had destroyed.  With a massive engineering effort, they built a new neighborhood on top of hundreds of stone arches and then put the most beautiful building in Jerusalem on the plaza: The Dome of the Rock.

Wall Tunnel Tour: Dome of the Rock

The Dome of The Rock still rises above the Western Wall, where we joined hundreds of mostly-Jewish worshippers, many putting folded paper prayers into the cracks between the two thousand year-old limestone blocks.


So we send you all our greetings from Jerusalem, known in Arabic as al-Quds, The Holy City, where Abraham, David, Mary and her son Jesus, and Muhammad all encountered God as a living presence.  Wikipedia defines Jerusalem syndrome as “a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem.”  Fortunately, we don’t seem to be obsessing, delusional, or psychotic so far.

Quite the contrary, we’ve been having a wonderful but exhausting time.  Tomorrow morning, we take a rental car north to Haifa, Acre, Capernaum, and Nazareth: the greener country of Galilee.  We’ll be looking at Baha’i, Jewish, Muslim, and especially Christian places–more trees than rivers, once again–before returning to Jerusalem for the confluence of Western and Eastern Christian Holy Week and Passover.

We will be taking a course together here at St. George’s Anglican College in mostly-Arab East Jerusalem called Easter Fire, in honor of the new flame kindled on the vigil celebrating Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  We’ll be retracing his steps and those of his Apostles 2000 years ago when the Western Wall still stood as a majestic foundation of worship of the God whose Oneness seems way too hard for us mortals to imitate.  It’s a wall of support and strength, a foundation wall mostly buried underground.

Lynnell took today’s last photo a few days ago.  It’s a poster on the Palestinian side of a much less holy western wall, the separation wall in Bethlehem:

What unites human beings is huge and wonderful and what divides human beings is small and mean

Why I love being on a Muslim beach

by Lynnell Mickelsen

women on th beach

We spent our last two days in Jordan on the Red Sea, snorkeling off the beach about 8 miles south of Aqaba. I love the beach. I love to swim, but I’m an extremely pale person who sunburns easily. So I pour on the sunscreen, but still have to spend a lot of time swathed in long sleeves and pants to avoid sun poisoning while everyone else freely cavorts around in swimsuits.

So I can’t tell you how great it was to finally be on a beach where where all the women were as covered up as I am….if not more so!  Which means, for once, I wasn’t the lone freak. 

Except I still sort of was. As a person with blonde hair and blue eyes, I’ve been a novelty in Morocco, India, Egypt and Jordan. Nearly every day, for the last four months, people have stopped, stared, pulled out their cameras and insisted on taking selfies with me.

 I don’t get it. Yes, we’re independent travelers. Yes we can get a bit off the tourist track, but not that far off. So I think surely these lovely people in these lovely countries have seen plenty of blondes before. Plus, I’m almost 60, and most of the people who want to take my picture are under 30. I mean, it’s just weird.

But yet, as a traveler, I like to take photos of local people. So fair is fair. Grin and bear it.

On the Red Sea, I wanted to take pictures of Jordanian women on the beach, but I was feeling shy because many Muslim women really are modest and do not want their photos taken by any Westerners. I was trying to work up the courage to ask, but it turns out, I didn’t need it because pretty soon,  a young woman came up and asked to take a selfie of the two of us. Then another woman came up. And then another.

Taking photos with women and kids is almost always cool, but I’ve learned to be somewhat wary of taking photos with men because too often they can pull me in a little too close and hold on a little too long and a few of times, I’ve gotten groped. Of course, this is nothing compared to what younger solo women travelers put up with. But still. It’s gross.

LM on Muslim beach1

LM on Muslim beach 2

None of the women on the beach spoke English. I don’t speak Arabic. But they were all very nice and after taking photos, each of them motioned me over to meet their friends or families and drink tea.  I declined because I was feeling shy and because John was snorkeling off by himself in the ocean with high winds and a strong current, so I was walking along the beach acting as his lifeguard.

 But on other days, I’ve gotten tired of being a novelty. In India and Egypt, especially,  the photo requests could be unrelenting.  A few weeks ago, in Alexandria, Egypt, I was standing by myself along an ancient fortress wall, waiting for John to buy entry tickets to the site, when a young woman, who had been staring at me for while, came up laughing and said, in heavily accented, broken English, “My friends and I want to put you in the zoo.”

 I felt a flash of irritation. Enough, people!  I wanted to say. Yes, I look different, but hey, talking about putting me in a zoo really crosses a line. But I don’t speak Arabic and even if I did, as Minnesotan, I’ve been long-socialized to stuff my anger and channel it into passive-aggressive brooding. So instead I just scowled at her.

 She hesitated and then said the same thing, covering her mouth and giggling some more. I rolled my eyes. And then I realized she was actually saying,  “My friends and I want to take our picture with you.” And she was giggling because she felt so nervous.

 Okay, Okay, I said. So we took the these photos and by the end, they were all so sweet and happy and goofy, my irritation evaporated.  This ain’t profound,  but one of my takeaways from this year of travel is that most people around the world are actually really nice if you just relax and hang out with them.Alexandria zoo

Alexandria selfies

LM Alexandria zoo 2

Alexandria zoo 3

——Lynnell Mickelsen

Everybody Loves Petra, almost.

You’ve seen this picture, right? A Roman-ish building carved out of rose-colored sandstone?  The Nabatean city of Petra is the number one attraction in Jordan, and for good reason.

Treasury at the end of the Walkway to Petra

You walk gently downhill along what feels like a slot canyon for a half hour.  Longer if you stop and gape at the immense beauty around every bend.  Even when it rains.

Rainy walk out of Petra

The rain came late in the day, even though they’d run the desert zamboni that morning to keep the dust down.  Even at the time, it had seemed like a waste of water to us.  Your shoes are going to be beige with dust by the end of the day, anyhow.

Desert Zamboni

On our way down to the city, we stopped to have coffee in front of what locals call The Treasury, because of a rumor that money was hidden inside.  It was actually a tomb, carved–like everything in Petra–right into the mountainside.


We love Arabic coffee!   Later we stopped at a tiny shop where a friendly coffee-artist did the temperature-sensitive brewing with very hot sand, rather than an open flame.  Like Greek and Turkish coffee, it’s made from very finely ground coffee and cardamom, and needs a bit of sugar.  We have tried to order it with milk, but That Is Wrong.

Brewing coffee with hot sand

Petra was once a city of 20,000.  The citizens mostly lived in carved caves.  This one is now more of a garage.

Petra Parking

The Nabatean builders of Petra created ingenious water systems.  After walking in through the mile-long narrow passage, which has water channels carved into the walls, you find yourself in the main, open area, where once upon a time a broad Roman road and irrigated gardens sprawled across a flat valley floor.  Temples, a theatre, and residences, all carved into the rock, face onto the center of the town.  High above, you see tiny figures of people who’ve climbed up to the three or four “High Places.”

We climbed one day to the Altar of Sacrifice, which is about an hour’s hike, and the next day climbed to the Monastery, which is a little longer.  All along the way, seemingly at the top of every carved staircase, there are friendly Bedouin folks selling souvenirs.  Since we carry everything on our backs, at least between airports, cabs, and guest houses, we don’t buy souvenirs.  About every hundred yards is another friendly Bedouin, saying:

“want to have a cup of tea?”

“come just have a look.  Looking is free.”

“scarf for you, Madame?  Only one dinar!”

“business very bad.  Why tourists no buy?”

“please, my friend, very old coins.”

The vendors are members of a single tribe, allowed to live in what’s basically a National Archaeological Park.  They number between “a few families” and “hundreds,” depending on who you ask.  But we weren’t buying, so we tried not to make eye contact or look at any of the merchandise.  I took this picture furtively, having made sure no one could see me:


One woman put a cup of tea in Lynnell’s hands, and when she tried to say no, reminded Lynnell, quite accurately, “it’s not polite to refuse tea.”  After taking a sip, Lynnell said thank you and kept walking down the steps cut into the mountainside.

So we were nearing the end of our climb to the monastery when we met a big American man who was coming back down.  He wryly observed, “keep climbing.  It’s only about ten no, thank you’s to go.”  In fact, it was only nine.  Then we got to the monastery near the top:

Petra Monastery from donkey-cave

Back when this part of the world was Christian, young men were encouraged to spend at least a few months, if not years, in a monastery.  Learn self-control.  Develop constructive habits of cooperative work and regular prayer and meditation.  Stay away from temptations.  Monasteries were located far from distractions, and often way up in the air, closer to the heavens.  It was a lot of work to get there, and plenty of tiring exercise to schlepp supplies to the top.  The most extreme version of this monastic isolation we’ve seen was a pair of pillars in Umm Arrasas, Jordan.  The hermit lived alone on top for a long time. Food was hauled up by rope.  No one knows how toileting worked.

Lynnell walks away from Stylite Tower, Umm ar-Rass

Our climbs to the top at Petra were tiring, but the higher you get, the more the view opens up on this amazing Archaeological canyon-city.  People look like ants, walking along the Roman road or riding donkeys and camels 30 stories below.  For Lynnell, the reward near the top of the first day’s hike was not the glass of tea, but this Bedouin family’s puppy:


But everyone does not love Petra.  We had breakfast this morning with a woman from Europe, traveling on her own, whose travel agent had booked a bunch of tours and hotels for her.  She’s been to Egypt, too, and plenty of other places, but nothing in Jordan seemed worth the trip.  OK, so the Dead Sea is very salty and you float more.  She knew that.  OK, the Roman ruins are big, but most of the columns have fallen down.  And the food is always the same: the bus stops, and there is a tourist buffet.  Chicken and lots of salads and things to dip bread in (hummus and cheese).  And Petra, she complained, is too much walking and the animals leave piles behind them.  And yes, the Treasury is nice, and carved out of stone, but after that, it’s just more of the same.  Luxor (Egypt) was up here (hand gesture above her head) and Jordan is down here (hand gesture at table level).  And then, one time, their van dropped them off for the optional excursion by 4 x 4 into the desert.  They drove you for twenty minutes and you could climb a sand dune, and there was a gift shop.  Then another fifteen minutes to a place where there was a castle, and more things for sale.  Then some temple that was in Lawrence of Arabia, with more people selling things.  And then back to the van to find the next tourist buffet.  And the prices in Jordan….. It reminds me of Eric Idle’s genius Travel Agent sketch in Monty Python.

But the European woman was not “wrong.”

  • The temples and tombs in Egypt are more remarkable.  
  • There is a limited menu of Middle Eastern foods, but of course we don’t mind: we love them all, and she does not.
  • After a while, it’s true: if you’ve seen one great castle, others won’t measure up.
  • And there’s no doubt that Jordan is more expensive than Egypt, India, Morocco, or even Spain.
  • For that matter, here in the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, where we’re savoring our last two days in Jordan, the snorkeling is not as good as it used to be, twenty years ago, in the US Virgin Islands.

But if you want to keep traveling (and we do), you have to let go of comparisons and let each temple, museum, castle, meal, and hotel be itself.  Let Jordan be Jordan.  Enjoy the smaller fish in the Red Sea.  Sometimes it’s better not to read the guidebook or placards and just look.  And smell, like the ubiquitous fragrance of Bedouin incense in Petra.

Jordanians want tourists to come.  They have welcomed refugees: millions of Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians who may never be able to go home.  They have a prosperous economy and a fine tourist infrastructure.  Enough people speak English, and smiles and gestures take care of the rest.

We leave you with a picture of Lynnell and our hotel manager, Mr. Farijat, at the Cleopetra Hotel (It’s not a pun in Arabic).  He helped us with maps, internet, directions, restaurants, laundry, translation, and travel ideas.  He believes his family-run hotel will still be going strong when it reaches its 100th anniversary.  He’s a man of faith: it’s about to celebrate its 25th.

Abdairahman Farajat at Cleopetra






Travels With Jesus Among Muslims

We’re still on the east side of the Jordan, in the rocky footpaths walked by Moses, Ruth, John the Baptist, and Jesus.  We spent the week discovering a half-dozen sacred sites, but spent the weekends before and after in Amman with Lynnell’s childhood friend Doug and his wife Patti at their center for Middle Eastern studies.  With their sixteen or so North American students and Jordanian guests, we got to join in some wonderful conversations.

Doug and Patti Magnuson, Lynnell, and John at MESP, Amman, Jordan

Last weekend, we got to meet Carl Medearis, a Gulf-based American business developer who started out as a somewhat bumbling missionary in Lebanon.  He talked to us about making friendships across cultures, letting religious doctrine go and focusing on our common humanity best exemplified in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  When you’re in conversation in the Middle East, he told the students, and the topic comes to religion, as it will, think of a good Jesus story to illustrate the way people ought to live.  He found himself on live TV once, asked a very one-sided question about Israel and Palestine.  He gulped and said what he always tries to say, “that reminds me of a story Jesus told.  A man had two sons and the younger one asked for his inheritance….”  The reporter and cameraman were wide-eyed at the shocking disrespect of the young man, and more so when the father agreed.  Carl proceeded to tell the Prodigal Son story, in which the father rejoices at having his son back, forgiving everything, much to the anger and dismay of the older one, who is obedient and hard-working.  Jesus taught that love is stronger than hate, and forgiveness is more powerful than vengeance.

Carl and plenty of other Christians active in the Middle East have discovered that asking Muslims or Jews to convert is like asking them to give up their families or change their gender.  But helping them to know Jesus, who in the case of Islam is a very important part of their religion anyway, is welcome.  The kind of radical love that fueled Gandhi’s anti-British campaign or the nonviolent Christian tactics of the Civil rights movement in the US, that is a part of Jesus’ genius that is not well-known.  Forgiveness rather than vengeance is rare in Islam, and I dare say in Christian America.  Shame your enemies by really loving them.

Carl reminded the group that Jesus was not a Christian.  He did not start a religion or define the Trinity or Original Sin.  He simply showed others what God is like.

The next day, we went to see where Jesus was baptized by John, beginning his public career as a wandering healer and teacher.  The traditional site has marble steps leading down to the cross-shaped place where for 2000 years pilgrims have commemorated Jesus’ baptism by John.  In those days it was really a river, with a lot of water in it.  There are remains of several churches from the early church there.  {Photo public domain from wikipedia,”Al-Maghtas”}


We also visited a nearby, muddier, section of the Jordan River where a Russian Orthodox group in white robes was going down into the water, one by one.

Further south, we came to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth, 1300 feet below Sea Level.  In fact, it may be lower than that, because almost no water is left to flow in after Jordan and Israel take the upstream waters for irrigation.  We stayed at a hotel built on the shoreline 30 years ago, and had to walk a couple of hundred yards to get down to the shore.

Dead Sea Level 2005

Of course, even though the temperature was in the upper 60’s, we had to go for a swim, or float.  Since the Dead Sea is about 35% salts, it’s hilariously buoyant.  A sign warns you not to put your face in the water, because it would sting even your closed eyes; and not to try floating on your stomach, I think because the buoyancy would arch your spine uncomfortably.  So we just floated on our backs:

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 5.47.22 PM

In the first centuries after Christ, the majority of people here were Christians, though members of denominations that we don’t hear of back in the west: Ebionites, Monophysites, Nestorians, Jacobites, and many others.  Around the Mediterranean, they worshipped in Greek, and further east in Syriac or Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke).

And then the Muslims came, bringing a great empire and religious tolerance, although nonmuslims had to pay a tax to support the military which ensured peace in the region.  Gradually, however, folks converted, finding few differences in belief and very much appreciating the use of their own language, Arabic.

Returning north toward Amman, we stopped in the mosaic-rich city of Madaba, which once upon a time was visited by Moses and the Children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land.  It’s flatter and greener country than the bleak gravel hills of Moab, and during Byzantine and Umayyad Muslim times, quite a few grand houses and places of worship were built, featuring mosaics on floors and walls.  Two earthquakes and years of settlements combined to bury these ruins, which laid underground until the 1880’s, when 90 Arab Christian families moved to Madaba from farther south after a dispute with their former neighbors, and while digging foundations for their new houses, they came across some fantastic mosaics.  The most famous one is a map of Palestine from the 500’s, on the original floor of St. George’s Greek Orthodox Basilica, now known as the Map Church.  It has more than 2,000,000 pieces, and the colors are still vivid.  The squiggly Jordan River and the Dead Sea are easy to spot, as is the town of Jericho [ΙΕΡΙΧω}.

Jordan River, Jericho and Dead Sea on Floor Mosaic Map

We also visited the Shrine of the Beheading of John The Baptist, which despite the grisly name was a very welcoming place.  King Herod had a palace in the area, and imprisoned John there for daring to criticize him and his wife, who until recently had been his sister-in-law.  The original church is now about ten feet underground, and in pretty good condition.  It has four wells, including this one, which still works.  We pulled up a leather bucket full of quite drinkable water from maybe 40 feet down.  John and his jailers may have drunk from this same source.

3000 year old well below St. John The Baptist Beheading Shrine

Spectacular floor mosaics in a restored building depicted churches in Philadelphia (Amman), Madaba, Jerusalem, Nablus, and Gaza, all towns with bishops and majority-Christian populations.

Our hosts invited us to look around the parish elementary school, see the icons and mosaics in the church, and climb the bell tower.  Here’s Lynnell about halfway up.

Lynnell in bell tower of St. John The Baptist Beheading Shrine Church

We were even invited to ring the bells for Evening Prayer, as twenty or more parishoners were already gathered, saying the rosary in Arabic…

Ya kadisa Maryam    (O Holy Mary)                                                                                                                           Ya Wahlidata Allah     (O Mother of God),                                                                                                             sahli ăzlinah nahanu ha’tah’ah       (Pray for us sinners)                                                                                ahlen wa fi sahati mahutina,  Amin        (Now and in the hour of our death, Amen).

Lynnell Ringing Bells at St. John's Beheading Shrine

The most important part of our week, though, was coming back to the Middle East Semester Abroad program in the capital city, Amman.  It was called Philadelphia in Greek times, which means City of Brotherly Love.  Our friends Patti and Doug have dedicated their professional lives to helping students from Christian colleges back home learn about Brotherly and Sisterly Love while studying the language, religions, history, food, politics, and culture of the Middle East.

The guests of honor were Safi and Iman Kaskas. Originally from Lebanon, they immigrated to the US in the late sixties, became American citizens, and went into business, raising three kids in Fairfax, VA, and later Saudi Arabia.  They now have four grandchildren and divide their time between houses in both those places.   They’re Muslims, and now travel the world helping Muslims and Christians understand each other by means of a terrific new translation of the Holy Qur’an Safi took six years of eighteen-hour days to complete.

John, Safi, Iman, and Lynnell at MESP, Amman, Jordan

Frustrated by Americans’ lack of knowledge about Islam, which is based on God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in the early 600’s, and seeing biased and hostile interpretations based on slanted translations of the original Arabic into English, Safi put his consulting business aside and developed a methodology for figuring out how to express all the shades of meaning found in the Holy Book.  For example, one word for the Maker of the Universe might mean “Creator,” but a different word is better translated “Programmer,” and yet another, “Everlasting One.”

Yet they spoke lovingly of their American Christian friends, including a woman who prayed aloud for Osama bin Laden at a church service Iman was brought to on the awful evening of September 11, 2001.  She had never heard of praying for your enemy, and it led her to an intense study of the life and teachings of Jesus who, as I mentioned, is a very important prophet in Islam but not well-known.

And you can see why.  Prominent American Christians are among the leading voices seeking to exclude Muslims from our country.  Crusaders spent 200 years attacking non-Christians in the Holy Land and non-Catholics along the way.  Colonialists whitewashed their economic exploitation with pious claims of saving people from hell through Christ.  So just like any one of us, when someone brings up Jesus, we know a sales pitch is coming, and we close our minds.

Iman and Safi love Jesus, but have no intention of ever converting to Christianity.  Safi prays five times a day, and produced this fantastic translation of the Qur’an with zillions of footnotes so American Christians (and Jews) could read it for themselves and see the underlying Biblical assumptions and references.  The Qur’anic Voice assumed that Muhammad and his followers would know the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, Moses bringing the Law, Jesus the Messiah, and his mother, the Virgin Mary.  The Qur’an comments on all those stories, but does not repeat them.

I’m hoping to be able to teach a new course at Breck called The Islamic World, if enough students sign up for it.  We’re definitely going to use Safi’s translation.  

Today, we hit the road for Petra, where some of King Herod’s ancestors came from, and then down to the Gulf off Aqaba, which is a branch of the Red Sea.  Next weekend, we’ll cross the Jordan ourselves and head for Jerusalem.  To all our readers, thanks for accompanying us and drive safely…


The Rift Valley & Its Tiny River Jordan

Tectonic Plates: they’re giant slabs of the Earth’s Crust that move maybe an inch per year.  California’s Coast, on the Pacific Plate is sliding north past the North American Plate.  The North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate are pulling apart, as I saw so dramatically in the middle of Iceland.

In this part of the world, the Arabian Plate is sliding northeast and away from the African Plate, which is pulling southwest.  The gap gives us the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the Red Sea.  Out in the Red Sea, a newer split is happening and in maybe 30 or 40 million years, a chunk of Somalia and Ethiopia will become an island.  The Persian Gulf will be no more.  The famous Great Lakes of East Africa are in the Great Rift Valley, which is part of the whole cracking rift system.  Dr. Leakey’s Olduvai Gorge is opening wider because of this rift, and the bottom of the Dead Sea, not too far from where we sit, typing away, is getting wider and deeper.

Deep River,  Michael Row The Boat Ashore,  Roll, Jordan Roll–all those great Gospel songs describe a major river like the Mississippi.  These days, the Jordan is a creek.  Israel and Jordan are taking about 90% of its water for irrigation, so rowing a boat ashore in the Jordan might take Michael one pull on the oars.  Here I am, standing on the Jordanian side of the river, while Russian pilgrims immerse themselves on the Palestine side.

John in the Jordan

The deep-and-wide feeling here is more about the Rift Valley than the Jordan River.  With all due respect to Moses, Joshua, Elijah, John The Baptist, Jesus, and anyone else Up There who know this stuff way better than I ever will.  Three days ago, we drove west from Amman, the capital of Jordan, through giant hills covered in fresh green grass and wildflowers.

We also discovered Carrot Towers:


With no warning, the land up ahead of our car opened up. Some of you might recognize the feeling when you first see Lake Superior and Duluth Harbor driving north from The Cities on 35.  Or the first glimpse of the Front Range driving west from the Colorado Prairie.
Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 11.18.44 AM

I wish I could describe it better than this, but the Rift Valley felt really important.  The other side is about four miles away.  You’re on a plateau on the Jordan side, maybe 1000 feet above the valley floor.  Across the haze in the valley is another set of bluffs, which looks greener, like the proverbial grass on the other side.

Down in the valley are farms.  Really intensive-looking farms with tomato plants under mesh quonset huts.

Concrete Irrigation ditches replace Roman aqueducts, and black plastic hoses snake across fields in all directions.

See that pale green band on the map, running north to south, between Israel Highway 90 on the West Bank and Jordan Highway 65 on the East Bank?  That’s the Rift Valley.  The beige on the right is Jordan, on the Arabian Plate.  The beige on the left is Israel, in the Africa Plate.

If there were a lot more water, there would be a long, skinny lake here.  There used to be one, 12,000 years ago, in rainier times.

The land to the east and west dwarfs the valley.  When Moses got there, looking down from Mount Nebo on the East Bank, he must have gasped.  They’d been walking up and down this parched land for years.  Suddenly, the ground dropped in front of them and it was really green down there, and the other side looked promising too.  But poor old Moses, he didn’t get to cross over.  He died there, in the gravelly hills of Moab.  Hundreds of years later, King David’s foreign great-grandmother Ruth would decide to follow Naomi from Moab to Israel, promising, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”

Make straight in the (Moab) desert

Our car trip down to the Valley floor was a series of switchbacks for fifteen or twenty minutes. The dashboard thermometer went from 15 degrees (59 for American readers) on top to 22 (72) on the valley floor.  Nice weather for starting tomatoes.  It should be 80 most days in April.

An hour later, we came to the Roman ruins of Umm Qays in the northwest corner where Jordan meets Israel.  A fellow flagged us down and offered to take us to some viewpoints, because, he said, the view across the Rift Valley is not as good from the ruins.  We said yes, and for the next hour, Amjad showed us one jaw-dropping view after another, and although he’s usually an Arabic-only guide, his limited English, combined with his friendliness and knowledge of the military checkpoints and unmarked gravel roads meant we saw some very cool sights.   Here’s a google earth screen shot.  The lake at the top left is the Sea of Galilee, and the brown oval in the top center is the Golan Heights.  We looked down on Hamat Gader, which has hot springs, a water park, and an alligator farm!

Google Earth Golan

Below is a view looking northwest toward the Sea of Galilee behind Lynnell.  Many of Jesus’ Disciples grew up on that lake, and were making a living there before he asked them to start fishing for people.  She’s pointing to the Golan Heights.  The road below, next to her right wrist, is the one we drove on to take the next picture (below).


Here’s a later picture which we took from the much lower vantage point, looking in the same direction, with the sun trying to come out.


And then we looked back east, with the Golan Heights on the left and Jordan on the right (below).  If you squint or hit command+ a few times, you might be able to make out the NATO station in the DMZ at top, left, and the bombed railroad bridge in the valley, center right.  The Israelis blew the bridge in the 1967 war.  It had been built by the Ottomans.

Golan - Jordan bridge bombed by Israel in 1967 – Version 2

It’s so amazing to be here.  We’re going to spend two weeks on the Jordanian side and then four weeks on the Israel side.  Our next stop is Jerash, a city with outstanding Roman ruins known as the “Pompeii of the East” and after that the Dead Sea, including very buoyant water, a spa with mud treatments, and the coolest mosaics we have ever seen.

Lynnell delighted, Golan in background, photo by Amjad our guide