3: Where rank will not impress
The road to the magnificent Barluzzi-designed church atop Mount Tabor the site of the transfiguration snakes and winds by way of a succession hairpin bends. Tour buses cannot reach the summit. Pilgrims must, therefore, pile into taxis. Recently most of these have been upgraded; 8-seater minibuses replacing the old limousine Mercedes cabs. New vehicles notwithstanding, the Mt Tabor cabbies have retained their idiosyncracies. The taxi I took on the way up was specially modified to compensate for the driver’s missing left arm (a limb that ordinarily comes in handy when steering around the sharp bends). One-handedly our driver navigated the treacherous road with admirable dexterity. Without a doubt he’d do so with equal ease while engaging in the evidently mandatory activity of the Holy Land cabbie: smoking.
After our Mass, a group of us managed to catch one of the few remaining limousine taxis. Our driver informed us that he had driven taxis up and down Mt Tabor for half a century. My first cab, he told us, was a camel. With infectious exuberance he greeted every successfully rounded bend with an unrestrained cry of Hallelujah, sometimes accompanied by a ululation that was at once frightening and impressive perhaps a little like the transfiguration appeared to Peter, James and John.
Mount Tabor marked the end of our Galilean experience. En route to Jerusalem, we travelled to Jericho. There is not an awful lot to see in Jericho, unless one plans to take the cable car to the Mount of Temptation (the world’s longest that is entirely below sea level).
Jericho was long out of bounds for travellers. This West Bank city’s economy has been badly hit by the long absence of tourism and recent events in the region will knock it back again, just as the visitors were beginning to return. A glitzy casino, built mainly for Israeli Jews (whose own country bans gambling) remains closed. Pilgrims are therefore excitedly welcomed by the locals.
I lunched at the Temptation Restaurant with Fr Emil Blaser OP, our spiritual director, and guide Fr Garret Edmunds. We were served by two young lads, Muslim pupils at the local Terra Sancta Catholic school run by the Franciscans. The younger of the two, a precocious boy of perhaps 9 years, immediately recognised the Franciscan Fr Edmunds by his distinctive brown robe as an abouna (Father). Next he inquired of Fr Blaser: Abouna? The priest’s kindly affirmation was met with generous approval. He then quizzed me, a layman: You! Abouna? I shook my head. Perhaps the idea of a layman sitting at lunch with priests did not compute; perhaps the boy thought that I was a little dim. Slightly perplexed, he demanded: Padre? Again, no. Jokingly, I offered: Cardinal. The boy turned away with an aloof (and, indeed, appalled) shrug. Clearly to Jericho’s young, humble priests trump the Princes of the Church, fake or otherwise.
Having seen the world’s longest cable car below sea level, we moved on to Masada’s, whose cableway does not qualify for the record by dint of a few metres of cable peeking out above sea level. Masada is a tremendously popular tourist site. Built by the paranoid megalomaniac stooge King Herod in lavish style between 37 and 31 BC, it later became a symbol for Israeli independence ( Masada shall not fall again is virtually a national motto) on account of a story that seems be an embellished legend. It certainly is a place worth seeing.
Yet, Fr Garret is not a great admirer of Masada because it is of little spiritual value to Christian pilgrims; even less so in light of the glorification of mass-suicide pacts. As the Romans brutally put down the final Jewish revolt against their occupation, a group of Jewish Zealots (or more likely Sicarri assassins) came to Masada, seizing Herod’s fortress from the Romans. Holed up with rich supplies (stocked up by raids on Roman and Jewish camps), they repelled Roman attempts to take Masada. Eventually, after a long siege, the 10th Legion succeeded to build a rampart to the top of the mountain, ready to conquer the last of the Jewish rebels. What happened next on that April 16, 73AD remains a unclear.
According to the popular account of Josephus Flavius, the Romans withdrew for the night just as victory was imminent. Overnight, the Zealots decided not to be taken alive, entering into a mass suicide pact. When in the morning the Romans stormed Masada, they encountered no resistance, because nobody was alive to resist.
In the more likely version, the Romans entered Masada, and easily defeated the Sicarri criminals holed up there. Archaeological evidence and pure logic (which space does not allow me to expand on) support that view.
Nearby Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were produced, is a place of Christian interest. There is a suggestion that John the Baptist might have been with the community of Essenes one of the three denominations in Judaism at the time for a while. Indeed, the late scholar Fr Bargil Pixner OSB has persuasively submitted that Joseph and Mary had Essene backgrounds, and that Jesus himself had close links with Essenes. Some even believe that the Essenes were absorbed into Christianity. If so, then the male-only community of Qumran may well be described as the world’s first monastery which, in a sense it was anyway.