A Lion and a Thorn

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The last part of the Jordan runs from the baptismal site at Kasr el=Yahud to the mouth of the river where it empties into the Dead Sea. The waters flow quickly between the place where believers are reborn and the dramatic end of the river, where the waters that just gave life plunge into the every receding Dead Sea.

Mined Monasteries

The Desert of the Jordan was the name of the area between the oasis of Jericho and the Jordan River during the Byzantine Era: a desolate plain with a place of honor in early Christian annals. The New Testament relates that when Herod ordered the killing of all the young babies of Bethlehem, the Holy Family fled to Egypt. According to the Byzantine tradition the route of this flight took Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus through this desert of Jericho. The Virgin Mary, weary from the road and the heat, rested in this desert, in the shade of one of the many salt bushes. A narrative very similar to Hagar fleeing with her son Ishmael from the wrath of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. And like the story of Hagar, an angel appears to Mary and gives her strength to continue on her Journey. When Jesus is already a grown man he returns to this very desert, to be baptized by John – and thus the Desert of Jericho becomes a place of pilgrimage for thousands of Christians following in the footsteps of the scriptural narratives.

Among the early Christian pilgrims was a wealthy merchant from Lycia, in Asia Minor. After making a fortune as a business man, Gerasimus, as the merchant was called, decides to dedicate the rest of his life to serving god. In the year 455 he makes his way to Egypt to live as an ascetic among the first Christian hermits, in the desert around Alexandria. Eventually he decided that the deserts of Alexandria had become too popular with hermits and ascetics, and seeking out a much more desolate place, he settles in the Desert of the Jordan, near the banks of the river.

The Life of Saint Gerasimus is one of the best known accounts in the vast early Christian collection of lives of the saints. The most popular description of Gerasimus’ life is the legend of the lion which one day appeared out of the brush surrounding the river. The lion was in pain, a large thorn had stuck in its paw. Gerasimus, unafraid, removed the thorn, and the lion became his constant companion and guardian. Gerasimus dwelled in one of the caves of a small ravine leading down to the Jordan. As the news spread of the holy ascetic in the desert other hermits began to congregate in the caves of the ravine. Eventually, Gerasimus founded a monastic community, a lavra – with a central structure where the hermits would gather to pray and partake of ritual meals. Newcomers to the community would spend time in the monastery until they were ready to take on an ascetic existence in the desert. Gerasimus set down harsh rules for his monastic community. During the week hermits had to stay secluded in their cave or cleft in the rock. Their only property being a mat and a bowl for food and water. Food was limited to bread, dates, and water. In the cave no fire or candles were allowed or hot drinks.

The monks supported themselves and the lavra by making robes and baskets from palm fronds. On Saturdays and Sundays the hermits assembled in the monastery, ate cooked food, drank wine and prayed together.

As the news about this holy community spread and the number of monks grew, four additional lavras were set up in the Desert of the Jordan. In the 6th century, under the patronage of the emperors Anastasius I and Justinian I desert monasticism continued to grow. Anastasius built a large church near the Jordan – the Church of John the Baptist, and the two emperors erected hostels for pilgrims that arrived in their thousands to visit the dozens of monasteries that sprung up not only in the Desert of the Jordan but throughout the Judean Desert.

St Gerasimus’ monastery was abandoned in the 16th century due to the deteriorating security conditions of the Ottoman Empire and only a few crumbling walls mark where it once stood. But, in the marl cliffs overlooking the Jordan many of the caves dugout by the hermits still exist, a few of them were still inhabited by monks in the early 1970s. In 1885 the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem built a new monastery, near the ruins of St. Gerasimus, called Deir Hajla. According to tradition the monastery stands over the cave where Gerasimus resided with his lion friend. During the Six Day War the monastery was abandoned. In 1970 a monk by the name of Chrysostomos reopened the abandoned monastery, barely managing to hold on in the early years – but, beginning in the 1990s as the security situation in the area improved, the monastery, with its green roof and large murals of the fathers of Judean Desert Monasticism, surrounded by lush vegetation became a much visited tourist site.

Mined Monasteries

Driving north from Deir Hajla along a new segment of route 90 that circumvents the Palestinian controlled area of Jericho, the road crosses Wadi Nahil, a small ravine with remains of monks cells carved out of its cliffs, a small spring and a few palm trees standing out in the white marl desert around. On the other side of the ravine is a grove of palm trees belonging to the Deir Hajla monastery with some old adobe houses in between the trees, ruins of a pre-1967 Jordanian army camp. A few kilometers further on the road reaches the turnoff to the baptismal site of Kasr el=Yahud.

The baptismal site was recently reopened for visitors. For nearly fifty years it was inaccessible behind the security fence and the mine fields along the border. A new approach road leads through the fence and the mine fields to the place where John the Baptist called on the people of Judea to come and purify themselves. Just before the baptismal site, on a hill overlooking the road, looms the large Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint John the Baptist. The building is off-bounds, for fear of mines and collapse.

The baptismal site itself, Al Muartas in Arabic, is maintained for the Israeli Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. A small Catholic chapel stands in the center of a paved esplanade, from which a wide stone staircase leads down to a wharf along the Jordan. Until the site was refurbished the approach to the water was slippery and dangerous. Getting into the water from amongst the bushes was not easy, climbing out, up the muddy and slippery bank, was hard and dangerous.

Today the physical aspect of baptism in the river is simple. The pilgrim dons a white cotton robe and goes down the steps into the water. Once in the water a priest performs the baptism ceremony, in the name of Jesus. The pilgrim will keep the robe for the rest of his life – some will ask to be buried in it.

A fascinating mix of people can be seen at the baptismal site. A group from Japan, all its members in uniform robes, lines up on the wharf to listen to their pastor. Pilgrims from Bulgaria and Rumania, in traditional dress, accompanied by their priests bedecked with golden chains, holding large wooden crosses, and wearing ceremonial dress and headgear make their way down the steps to the river. A group of Muslim girls, from a small village near Jenin, ascend from the wharf. White veils over their heads and in blue school uniform, they march up the steps two at a time. Under a shaded awning near the small chapel in the center of the esplanade, a group of Christians from Bethlehem listens attentively to a lecture and prayer from one of their lay leaders, a woman. Above them, on the awning, two white doves coo at each other.

Aviam Atar, director of the District of Judea for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, is my host. We are about to drive along the river through the closed area behind the security fence, all the way to the river’s mouth at the Dead Sea. At the entrance to the old Jordanian road along the river, today behind the security fence, are the remains of a round Franciscan church, in the middle of a compound surrounded by a crenellated wall and a massive wrought iron gate. The towers at the corners of the compound wall turn out to be cisterns into which water was once pumped from the river, to water an avenue of palm trees that led to the baptismal site. The pump is still there, in a small stone building, with it Hungarian origin marked on the casing. But the palms are dead. Just their stumps remain. The Franciscan monastery, like all the other churches along the Jordan, was abandoned in the early 1970s.

In 1935 a large pilgrims’ hostel was built inside the Franciscan compound. It collapsed in the earthquake that struck the Jordan Valley on December 18, 1956. The church was rebuilt the following year but today only a small portion of it is still standing.

500 meters down the road, behind the security fence, stands the Syrian Orthodox monastery. It is the first in a line of abandoned monasteries, all surrounded by fences with mine field warnings and all in danger of collapse. Next to the Syrian monastery stands the Coptic Monastery, both of them large compounds surrounded by a line of outhouses. On the other side of the road is a small monastic compound, with a picturesque chapel with a pointed roof in its center. This is the monastery of the White Russian Orthodox Church. Next to it is the Romanian monastery. The last in the line of monasteries along the road is Deir el=Habash, the Ethiopian monastery. It was consecrated by 1933 by Mennen Asfaw the Empress of Ethiopia and wife of Emperor Haile Selassie. The emblem of the emperor of Ethiopia still adorns the main building, while in the compound around it are small rooms for pilgrims and cells for ascetic monks.

On the 19th of January, when the Epiphany is celebrated in the Eastern Churches, hundreds of Ethiopian pilgrims gather at the baptismal site and march down the out of bounds road, opened for them once a year, to their abandoned monastery, to pray.

Ethiopian monks lived in the monastery until 1970, when two monks were killed by terrorists who infiltrated from across the river. During the funeral terrorists hiding across the border opened fire on the participants. Following the attack all the monasteries were abandoned. Some claim that the monasteries were booby trapped so that they would not serve as hiding places for terrorists.

In the 19th century and until World War I, on the flat marl plain between the monasteries and the river, thousands of pilgrims used to set up a tent city every January – arriving in long processions from Jerusalem. The 9th and 19th of January, the two dates of the different eastern churches Epiphany celebrations, pilgrims from all over the eastern world arrived. Among the throngs were Russian kulaks living in huge tents that could house dozens of people, members of the Russian royal family with a troupe of Hussars guarding their tents, Ethiopians in gleaming white robes, Assyrians priests with their conical hats praying with their flock in Aramean, white bearded Copt elders in grey robes adorned with golden chains wearing their typical pumpkin hats.

Nearly everyone held a cross. Gold and silver ornamental crosses, huge wooden ones, simple crosses made from the reeds and bushes along the banks of the Jordan, and heavy hand held wrought iron crosses. On the day of the Epiphany this huge multitude made its way to the river, descending to the waters in white cotton robes to emerge pure in spirit with their soul cleansed.

Today, at the end of Summer the flow in the Jordan is weak. The distance between the two banks, Israeli and Jordanian, is a mere ten meters. But, until the Deganyah Dam was built on the outlet of the Jordan from the Sea of Galilee and the Yarmuk Dam in Jordan the river flowed strong in a channel that was over a hundred meters wide. Boats sailed on the waters and during the baptismal celebrations the heads of the Christian communities, preached to their flock from colorful decorated floats while a line of priests stood in the water baptizing the faithful.

Today the only color on the gleaming white plain is the yellow and red mine warning signs around the monasteries. On the other side of the Jordan stand the massive new churches built in the last few years near the site where remains of the Byzantine baptism churches were discovered – the place that is believed to be “Bethany beyond the Jordan” – where John baptized Jesus. Gold and green domes top these grand edifices, but they are also empty. No priests or monks, not even a guard. UNESCO and the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches have declared this site in Jordan as the real site of the baptism, a world heritage site. History and religion never were devoid of politics.

The old Jordanian road leads southward. Crosses the mouth of Wadi Kelt where it Joins the Jordan, and continues through the white marl hills to the Abdullah Bridge. As we enter the al=Rashidiya salt marsh we come across remains of a pumping house and a few rusty water pipes that had brought water to the vegetable fields of kibbutz Beit Haarava, abandoned in 1948.

The Lowest Point on Earth

The road along the Jordan ends at the Jerusalem=Amman road. The road is closed. Behind the security fence. An old Jordanian stone signpost reads in Arabic and English “To the Baptismal Site”. From the signpost, it is a short distance to the Abdullah Bin Hussein bridge, constructed in the 1950s on the Jerusalem=Amman road – the Jordanian highway number one. In 1968, when the Israeli raid of the PLO training camp in the Jordan Valley failed dismally, the Israeli army blew up the bridge.

A bored Jordanian soldier watches us from the other end of the bridge. We do not arouse his interest. The only people who cross the border here are smugglers. And they don’t cross during the day.

A few hundred meters west of the bridge, on a small hill, are the graves of four members of kibbutz Beit Haarava and a Palmah fighter who was killed in a training accident. The kibbutz was located a little south of the hill, at a site where today an abandoned Israeli outpost stands. Beit Haarava was founded in 1939. Most of the members of the kibbutz worked in the nearby Dead Sea Works Potash Plant. As they were part of an agricultural settlement movement the members decided, against professional advice, to try and farm the parched salty land around. Water was in abundance in the Jordan and together with experts from the Volcani Agricultural Research Station they developed a method to flush the salt out of the soil. Their efforts yielded good crops of vegetables, fodder for cattle, banana groves, and fish ponds. The vegetables, especially the tomatoes and dates that arrived on the markets in winter, earned the kibbutz a nice profit. In a few years, the houses of the kibbutz were surrounded by lush vegetation, eucalyptus groves and fichus boulevards.

With the beginning of the War of Independence the kibbutz together with the nearby Dead Sea Works Potash Plant were cut off from the rest of the Jewish community in the country. The 200 members and 40 children of the kibbutz were evacuated together with the workers of the Potash Plant, by boat, to the southern plant of the Dead Sea Works, in Sedom. The kibbutz was abandoned and completely destroyed by the Arabs. After the war some of the members founded kibbutz Gesher Haziv and kibbutz Kabri in the Western Galilee.

Today an abandoned Israeli army outposts stands where Beit Haarava used to be. Of the kibbutz itself nothing remains. As we continue southward we come across the remains of the evaporation ponds of the Dead Sea Works – lines of wooden piles, rotting away and covered in salt fill the marl plain as we approach the former shoreline of the Dead Sea.

The patrol road ends at the last Israeli guard post, overlooking the mouth of the Jordan where it empties into the Dead Sea. The post is empty, abandoned like all the outposts along the Jordan. From the post the effects of the receding waters of the Dead Sea can be seen. As the sea recedes and its surface becomes lower, the Jordan deepens its channel. In the last 40 years the surface of the Dead Sea has dropped by 40 meters. The lowest point on earth is today much lower. 90% of the waters of the Jordan do not reach the Dead Sea anymore. Since 1950 the northern shoreline of the Dead Sea has receded by 2 kilometers, and the Jordan has dug itself a 40 meter deep canyon in order to reach the new level of the Dead Sea.

The last outposts looks over this 40 year old canyon. It is a dramatic view. The canyon cliff is stepped, each step carved out by a winter flash flood that deepened the Jordan’s channel to reach a new level.

With a final serpentine curve the river enters the Dead Sea. The fresh waters of the Jordan float on top of the heavy salt laden waters of the Dead Sea. A dark ribbon on the waters marks the Jordan’s path into the saltiest lake on earth. Any living thing that is swept into the lake, fish or plants, will soon suffocate in the heavy salt of this Dead Sea.

On the old shore of the Dead Sea stands the ruin of a large building that before 1967 was a five story luxury hotel. The hotel was built in the 1950s with a large swimming pool on the shore of the lake and a round dining hall surrounded by windows that looked out on the blue waters of the Dead Sea. Sand brought in from the desert created a nice beach opposite the hotel and from the hotel dock boat trips were offered on the lake. After 1967 the Israeli army took over the hotel, which was dubbed in army lore “The Hilton”. Following the peace agreement with Jordan the hotel, like the outposts along the Jordan, was abandoned by the army. In January 2015 the upper floors of the building suddenly collapsed. The receding waters of the lake had unstabilized the ground under the hotel.

The dining room is still standing, as is the empty swimming pool. A rotting pleasure boat stands where the dock used to be and a pile of rocks mark what used to be a mysterious island that travelers in the 19th century used to remark on its sudden appearance out of the waters during dry summers. Today this is all dry land. The sea has long vanished from here.

A short distance from the hotel, at the Kaliya Junction on the main road along the Dead Sea, stands the Lido restaurant and beach resort. It was built by the Jordanians and in 1983 reopened by an Israeli entrepreneur. When the shoreline receded the once lively resort was abandoned. During its heydays artist Nachshon Kokhavi painted on the walls of the resorts main hall an exact replica of a Crusader map of the Holy Land adding the new settlements that had been established in the Jordan Valley. Along the center of the map runs the Jordan River, flowing strong as it did many centuries ago. All around are the crumbling walls of the abandoned restaurant, a stark reminder of this once mighty river and the dying lake at its end.

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