Loay was a few minutes late this morning – we were concerned because he has always been on time for us but he explained that the Israelis had set up a flash checkpoint just outside Jericho that was causing delays. We were probably lucky that he was only a few minutes late and not delayed longer…
Nonetheless, this morning we were able to get to Qaser al Yahud just as it opened. It is a very simple holy site, a Greek Orthodox monastery, a tomb like structure, an altar and steps down to the River Jordan. The river is the border between Israel/Palestine and Jordan, the river is not wide here and I had never been this close before. I could almost reach out and touch Jordanian land – a competent olympic long jumper would have had no trouble in getting to the other side Also interesting was the number of holy sites on the Jordanian side. The Jordanian royal family is allowing a number of sites to be constructed along the bank of the river for pilgrims. But back to the Jericho site… there was a shop, of course, but only a small one and the site is nothing like as commercialised as the one at Yardenit near Tiberias. It was the first time that either Brian or I had visited this site (ergo anyone else in the group!) and I think it is one which I will try to include on future itineraries, despite the warnings not to stray from the marked paths as the ground has been land-mined.
But time waits for no-one, and we didn’t want to linger too long in the heat, so we were soon on the bus for the 75 Kilometre drive up the rift valley to our next stop: Beat She’an. We had no real problem at the checkpoint leaving the West Bank – mostly because Luay told the soldiers we had come from Jerusalem. Had we said we had come from Jericho, our passage might not have been so easy. One of my favourite archaeological sites in the Holy Land (therefore the group were going to visit whether they wanted to or not) the extensive excavations at Beat She’an reveal a complete Roman town with bath house, forum, wide avenues and the obligatory amphitheatre with vomitoria. In the Roman period it was the most important of the 10 cities, the Decapolis, and the only one on the west bank of the Jordan River. In the heat, nobody was going to climb the hill to the roman fort which overlooks the town but, at least there was an opportunity for a quick viewing – and an ice cream, of course. I don’t sweat much for a fat lad but Beat She’an is always guaranteed to soak my shirt. Still, better to perspire than to expire which, apart from staying on the bus is the only other option.
And so onwards, to Bet Gabriel on the southern shore of Lake Galillee where we were going to stop for lunch and a walk along the shore. An art and cultural centre for peace built in the early 1990s the centre incorporates a cinema and art galleries along with lecture theatres and a restaurant with a view north towards the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias, Lake Kinneret, Lake Gennesaret, Syrian Sea – take your pick!) It was also where Shimon Peres and King Hussein of Jordan signed the historic peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1996.
Up to the top of the Golan Heights, via a winding road that had the bus (but thankfully not Loay) protesting to kibbutz of Kefar Haruv to get a view of the lake from on high before plunging (metaphorically) down, past Ne’ot Golan, to Kursi. There’s a Byzantine monastery at Kursi. When Jesus ‘crossed to the other side of the lake’ it was to Kursi he came (called ‘Gergesa’ in the New Testament) and cast demons (‘we are legion’) into a herd of swine before driving them over a cliff into the lake.