Sunday, 26 May 2013

Israel Past and Present

This piece is from "The Pilot", which was the monthly magazine for the Anglican Churches in Jersey. It was written by Terry Hampton, who was given a sabbatical working on archaeology in Israel; at the time, he was Vicar of St Aubin on the Hill Church in St Brelade. Terry was a gifted communicator, and reading this article, I can easily hear his distinctive voice - his humour, his chatty style, and the sheer enthusiasm which shine through. It's also very different from the traditional Christian pilgrim trail to Israel, and brings the country and its people very much to life.
Israel Past and Present
Through the eyes of Terry Hampton
(from the Pilot, 1984)
"Eight Weeks in Israel? You Lucky Beggar." I'd been hoping and trying to go back for twenty years, being last there as a student in 1963. Then, while still working in St Aubin, a friend came in one day and said our family holidays were far too strenuous, and would we like to go to a Christian holiday centre for a change? We talked about this for some time, and then the thought: would they be willing for us to use their marvellous gift towards the cost of an Israel trip? Yes they would, and then we began to talk about taking all our gear in rucksacks, and camping all over the place, and worry lines began to appear on our friend's face again.
From then on, everything began to roll, other friends heard about our plans and gifts came rolling in. One friend's gift was for the hire of a car for a month, which meant that we could go anywhere at any time and carry our gear in the boot. Another gift paid for our camp fees (quite expensive in Israel.) Anonymous gifts dropped through our letter box, and St Aubin's church council chipped in with a very generous cheque. It was a wonderful experience and very humbling to receive so much kindness and generosity. And so, off to Luton airport, numerous checks that I wasn't carrying guns or explosives, and then the longish flight to Israel.
Jerusalem was fascinating. I had two weeks there studying on my own at the Albright Institute; a marvellous place with 18,000 volumes on archaeology and associated disciplines. Chance to read books I should have read as a student, and to see some of the new material coming out. No one took any notice, and it was several days before I found out where the washrooms were. (My thanks to an elderly American archaeologist, who, seeing me sit silent for three hours wondered if I'd become stuck to the chair in the heat!).
I also met there one of the archaeologists who have been digging up Capernaum, and I took him to see the Herodium fortress in the hired car. We picked up Roman pottery sherds just lying about, and Dr John became a good friend. My hotel I wouldn't recommend for those who enjoy good food; I'd fondly thought we would start the day with a sort of French breakfast, crusty bread and coffee. The bread was hard, and one trick was to turn the pile top to tail in the hope that the lower levels might not have succumbed so badly to the heat. The coffee, usually with-out milk, until a fearsome German lady bought us all some Ideal condensed milk. She had studied Egyptology in Germany, and we got on famously.
Once the family arrived we had two glorious weeks camping by the side of the Lake of Galilee. Very hot, a beautiful camp site, and milk 10 shekels a litre. (At that time the shekel was 70 to the £). We drank litres of it a day, and ate grapes, local fresh bread which was very good, and avoided the beer which was 50 shekels a small bottle. The wash places were superbly looked after and often had a praying mantis in them as well as other interesting local wild-life. Mark was invited out to a wild Israeli party with the transport being a souped-up tractor. We met a very friendly group of young people who invited us to share their own caught Galilee fish, and who talked very seriously about the sadnesses and joys of living in Israel.
Once rested we went up to Jerusalem by bus to pick up the hire car (the steering was so light we visited ditches on various occasions) and then back down through the heat of Jericho, which has the worst road signs anywhere, almost non-existent. We went north to see Banias, the area where the Jordan begins, and the great mounds of Hazor and Megiddo.
Trousers Stolen
On to Caesarea by the Sea, the copy of the Pilate inscription, and the ruined town where Paul was once a prisoner. There we had one of our small bags stolen from the car as we slept a few yards from it. The clothes we lost included trousers, so when visiting mosques we went in pyjama bottoms and no one objected. What was serious was that all my research notes went, and presumably made an evening bonfire for some thieves gathering.
We had several days looking around Jerusalem, including the magnificent National Museum with its Shrine of the Book, and the recent Bar Kochba finds, which include a lady's will, and personal letters from Bar Kochba himself ordering grain from Galilee to be brought to him immediately. I took the family to see the holocaust shrine, Yad Vashem, and that is an experience we shall never forget. One and a half million children were killed, and their toys and grave, old faces are there recorded in photos.
Masada was a must; I'd already climbed it on the hottest day of the Israel summer, but with the family discretion came first and it was up by cable car, and walk down the Snake path at the end. The ruins are fascinating; you can see Herod's bathroom mosaic, and rooms within the walls where the Zealots lived.
We had the shock of returning to our car to find it had been opened and all our cash stolen plus camera. Our swimming in the nearby Dead Sea was rather subdued, there weren't any police there to report the theft to, so on through the desert to Eilat, camping in No Man's land between Israel and Egypt, and reporting our loss to a quite unmoved local policeman.
Horrendous Coach Trip
Walking about 30 ft below the sea with the most beautiful fish swimming inches from you was one of the experiences of the trip. And the marvellously cool Red Sea, just 20 yards away, which you jumped into every ten minutes or so as the temperature got to around 107 degrees in the shade. The coach trip to St Catherine's monastery, where the Codex Sinaiticus was found, was horrendous we had an Egyptian driver with an obvious death wish, who drove at 40mph down dried river beds. We were nearer the roof than the seats most of the trip! But it made Moses and events of his life a lot more real to us.
Our eldest son Mark was now becoming an accomplished barbecue cook, and we found that chicken was cheap, and meat horribly expensive. Prices in Supermarkets were not written on the items but each item had a code number and you had to find that on a long list with the day's price. (Day's price because with soaring inflation everything went up every few days.) Ben and Rowan picked up some basic Hebrew and Rosemary even got a smattering of Arabic -as well as Hebrew.
One outstanding memory of Jerusalem was meeting an Israeli Doctor called Beni. He invited us to supper at his house, and also took us around his research lab at the Haddassah Hospital. A lovely family and our evening with them, plus a later drive round looking at floodlit Jerusalem, was one of the memories of the trip. I hope very much they will come to have a holiday with us in Jersey.
We had hoped to visit the West bank and some of its historic places, but there was rioting and shooting, so we went to the outskirts and looked for the three possible Emmaus sites. Running dangerously low on petrol, and quite lost in a maze of hills and villages, we were given some litres of petrol by an Arab who siphoned it out of his car for us, and would not accept any gift or payment. I shall always remember that act of kindness.
If you decide to drive in Israel, do have your heart carefully checked out first, it needs to be in tip-top condition. The locals drive like maniacs, and much of it is a form of `who's chicken" as you hurtle towards one another on a narrow road and the ditches either side beckon you. You can live cheaply on fruit, milk and dairy products, bread and felluful (a pitta bread filled with vegetable balls deep fried.) Ladies hang on tightly to your handbags, and men hide your cash in clothes not normally used for such purposes  Don't believe more than a fraction of the history you are told by locals, and politely disbelieve tales of "I dug up this coin over there." (My Bar-Kochba bronze coin was a fake, albeit a very good one.)
It's a fascinating country, full of tells (ancient mounds of cities,) beauty, rogues and some of the nicest people I've ever met. Most of the traditional sites associated with Jesus I wouldn't bother to visit, but if you get off the well beaten tourist track you can sit quietly, and think of Him walking those dusty roads, climbing those hills, and swimming in the waters of Galilee.

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