Today was one of the days when, thanks to McCabe’s and Albina Tours, I was to have a Guide take me around. Rami is known to some of you who have been on Southwark Cathedral or Diocesan pilgrimages. Anyway he collected me from the Cathedral at 8.00am and off we went to some places I hadn’t been to before.
It was a fantastic day and it took me from the top of the Mount of Olives to beneath the ancient City of David – from old to older. One place that I wanted to go to was Bethphage which is the village where the donkey was found according to Jesus’ instructions and the Lord mounted the animal for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Very few pilgrims go there nowadays. Between Bethphage and neighbouring Bethany, the security wall has been built and communities have been divided and roads blocked and cut off. The old pilgrim route is no more and the trip into the village is not that easy for big coaches. The Franciscans, who look after the church, are trying to negotiate with the authorities for a new road which could serve the whole community but that will take a lot of careful negotiation. The church is lovely and the block of stone to which the donkey was attached and which served as a mounting block, covered in Byzantine frescos was superb. In the slopes around the church are 1st century tombs, some complete with a rolling stone and we went into one with its wailing room and niches. But what was even more impressive was the lovely affordable housing that the Franciscans had built and which was providing lovely homes for local Christian families. They are in a difficult situation in what was once a Christian-majority village. It was good news in a difficult but holy place now off the beaten track for many.
From there we headed down into Jerusalem and to the City of David. This is not the Old City and not Mount Zion but the area close to Silwan where we find the Pool of Siloam. I had always wanted to go there but it is a tense area partly because of the archaeology that has been going on there for sometime and the presence now of settlers in the area. It’s a politically charged neighbour where tempers can flare up quite quickly. But it is a really important part of the city as this is where David settled and created his capital. Not that it was uninhabited when he arrived. The first thing we saw on this amazing site was the remains of the Canaanite wall to the Jebusite city that David conquered. It was an immense wall but beneath it is even more spectacular archaeology.
In order to bring water to the city a tunnel was dug known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Water still flows through it and to quite a depth. An inscription was discovered which are the first recorded details in this region about the construction of a civil engineering project of this magnitude. The inscription dates from the 8th century BC.
‘… the tunnel … and this is the story of the tunnel while …the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to cut … the voice of a man …called to his counterpart, (for) there was ZADA in the rock, on the right … and on the day of the tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, axe against axe and flowed water from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits. and 100 cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters …’
It is an incredible achievement. There are, however, two routes for visitors, a dry route or one in which you walk through water. We followed the dry route but both bring you out at the Pool of Siloam. That is well known to us from the story of the healing of the man born blind that we find in John 9. Jesus tells the man
‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). (John 9.7)
It was wonderful to stand alongside what remains of the pool but then something even more amazing was on offer. Over the last few years access has been made available to the Herodian Street. This is the street which went from the pool up through the City of David to the area before the Temple. It’s a hard walk through what is now a very narrow passage. The floor is uneven, wet in places and the walk took us almost 30 minutes in this tunnel. But this would have been the route that Jesus walked with his disciples because this was the route taken by pilgrims to the Temple. Walking up there, seeing the huge stone walls either side was deeply moving. So often you are not quite certain about the authenticity of certain sites – but this is authentic and puts you in touch with the time of Jesus and the world of the Old Testament. It was from here that David viewed Bathsheba; it was here that the prophets prophesised; it was here that the nation created by David and consolidated by Solomon was to be found. It is hard to describe how stunning and affecting it all is.
We emerged from the Herodian Street in the archaeological park that is now at the southern end of the Temple Mount. We walked round there, saw the remains of ritual baths, the steps that people walked up, the bricked up arches, and so much more.
The final part of this amazing visit took us into the Kidron Valley. I had seen down into it on so many occasions and the Guide in the coach has pointed out to us Absalom’s Tomb – but I had never walked to it. When you go into the valley, through which Jesus was led after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, you realise that it is a miniature ‘Valley of the Kings’, a little Petra. For in addition to the rock hewn, so-called Absalom’s Tomb there are other tombs of Zechariah and other officials and high status people. Whether these are the tombs of those they are called after I believe doesn’t matter, what matters to me is that these structures were there when Jesus walked this path. That is a lot to take in.
It has all made me want to read those history books in the Old Testament a little more carefully because these old and older stones bear witness to an amazing history that is also our history.
Lord, for the old stones that tell the story
and the Living Stones which add to its pages
we give you thanks and praise.