High priests, missiles and the desert

Mount Scopus, which sits on the rim of Northern Jerusalem, is about 850m above sea level. It hosts one of the world’s leading universities for r&d, two hospitals – one of which is run by Lutherans – and a British military cemetary.

At the back of the summit are the beginnings of the Judean desert. Travel 30km south east through the desert and you have dropped over 1,200 meters to the Dead Sea, the lowest point in the world. Between these two extremes, I took a cross terrain jeep ride yesterday.

What a fantastic adventure! Desert it is, dunes rising and falling, extending roughly from Jericho to Arad. And yet, because it is surrounded by hills on either side, unlike most arid regions, the Judean desert receives rain in the winter.

The journey took us to several vantage points. We saw a sheer drop, which looked like a snappling trail. In fact, next week, when the rains are due, it will turn into a gushing waterfall. We drove along some Bedouin encampments, waving to each other as we went by. We investigated a cave with inscriptions, and you realised that the place was used to collect water thousands of years back.

The most spectacular view was a peak approx 125m above sea level. Directly ahead we looked into Jordan, with the Dead Sea and the Jordan river separating the two countries. Immediately below was Nebi Mussa were Muslims believe Moses is buried and they come to worship annually. To the right in the distance we saw Herodian, a Roman palace curved out from inside a hilltop 2,000 years ago.

Continuing the panorama, but nearer to the Dead Sea, was the peak where the High Priest would make sacrifices every Day of Atonement. He would walk from the Temple to make this important journey. And if we looked up, we could see the outskirts of the Old City of the Jerusalem and trace the steps the old man would have made.

What was the contrast? It was not the many towns we saw going north, Jewish or Arab. Right next to us was a large crater. This was where the American and Israeli military had placed a patriot missile system in 1991 during the first Gulf War. My son also found some old shell casings, possibly even belonging to the Jordanians, when they had used the region for anti-aircraft training decades back.

It was a great day all round. It is clear how everybody is free to roam there today. It was also a reminder that the desert belongs to all. A future peace treaty, which ignores this fact, will not be worth the paper it is printed on.

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