Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pilgrimage 2: It’s All About the Water

--> Entry for 13 May 2015:

We don’t start in Jerusalem:  That’s where the story ends. 

Instead, we find ourselves in the middle of the Wilderness, or in this case the modern Israeli city of Arad, not far from the Dead Sea, an old stopping place or encampment.  We arrive in the middle of the night, after a long journey, as if landing on new planet.  The rooms are plain, almost Spartan.  Black Ethiopean jews, or jet-lagged American teenaged tourists, sit outside looking at their smartphones as we collect our luggage.  There are tuna sandwiches in our room.  Another 4 hour night.

We spend the next 2 days exploring parts of this Wilderness: 

We begin at Ein Avdat, descending by switch-backs into a stunning canyon of light-coloured rock. There we imagine Moses facing insurrection and striking one of these rocks with his staff to produce a spring of life-giving water.  Water becomes the main theme for these two days, as we are shown ancient water water systems for channelling run-off from rare rainstorms and flash floods into underground cisterns in Be’ersheva (on the southern border of ancient Israel near the Negev desert) and Masada (Herod’s towering hill-fortress in the Judean desert, overlooking the Dead Sea).  Along the way on the first day we visit the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat (which didn’t have enough water), before having lunch at a kibbutz, which has its own pond of water out front like an advertisement of plenty for all to see.  On the second day we also visit Jericho, touted as the world’s oldest city, founded next to natural spring.  Water is power.

Ritual Bath, Qumran
But the water issue really comes home for us at Qumran, the site of the ancient ascetic Essene community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This whole community was organised around twice-daily purification rituals, involving full immersion in water, so we see 6 or 8 different purification pools, water channels feeding them from multiple underground cisterns.  It’s as if the rarity of water eventually led to a kind of obsession with washing and by extension purification of all evil thoughts. 

We know where such obsessions end: The more you clean, the more your skin itches, making you feel dirtier, and thus the more you have to clean. Maybe you even pick up a skin disease from the communal bath.  Next perhaps you start hoarding water, or stealing it from others.  People notice the conspicuous consumption of water; there are water shortages and maybe even “water wars”. Or maybe you are prone to allergies because your house was too clean or you weren’t allowed to play in the dirt, so that your immune system didn’t develop properly.  Or your excessive use of antibiotics leads to a C diff infection.  Ultimately, your hunger for physical or ideological purity isolates you from others or narrows your repertoire of adaptive emotional and behavioural reactions, which leads to fundamentalism and more bad things.
Floating in the Dead Sea

To cleanse ourselves of this cleaning obsession we instead go down to Dead Sea for a swim.  We initially were quite leery of the idea of doing this, because the Dead Sea is where all the raw sewage from the Palestinian-controlled West Bank goes.  On the other hand, the Dead Sea is so salty that it’s hard to know what sort of bug might be able to survive that, so we allow ourselves to be swept up in a wave of general enthusiasm, and go cavorting around in the black mud and super-buoyant waters.  I guess that we are not cut out to be Essenes, but we are left feeling itchy and in need of a good shower…

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