A voice calling in the wilderness: A journey to the ‘Castle of the Jews’

Five hundred words and three photos from one place. This time: a church in the middle of a minefield, water you can walk on, an international border with no soldiers and a legal limbo that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else.

What is the strangest place in the world? Depends how you define “strange.” In English, one must differentiate between strange, weird, bizarre and my personal favorite: eerie.

If there ever was an “eerie” place in this delusional country between the river and the sea, it can be found close to the Jordan River. In the following photo one can see tourists waving hello at a site called “Qasr el Yahud” (“Castle of the Jews” in Arabic). These women are sitting in the Kingdom of Jordan, but the photograph was taken from the West Bank of the river, under Israeli control.

Photos from Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

Two years ago, Israel began granting access to the river east of Jericho, once it realized that many tourists could visit the place Jesus was baptized by simply going through Jordan. There is already a road leading to the river between minefields, and once a year the Greek patriarch leads a procession through it. All that’s left to do is grant access to anyone who wants it, build a parking lot for buses and place a soldier to ensure that nobody walks across the river to the other side.

Yes, I wrote “walks.” There is no need to swim. The depth of the “river” at this point is approximately a meter and is, on average, only five meters wide. It is surrounded on both banks by one of the less predictable views this world has to offer. John the Baptist was, in the words of the Gospel, “a voice crying in the wilderness.” The desert remains, flat and rocky, full of churches removed from any city, town or village. One is made of fortified concrete, while three others have sparkling, golden domes. An onion-shaped Russian dome decorates a large building as if it were uprooted from St. Petersburg and gently placed here.

Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

Another church, near where the buses park, is entirely surrounded by mines. The small, destroyed chapel is surrounded by a rosy, stone wall. Near it are signs that read “beware of mines.” Not a soul has stepped into the garden since the sixties. Its tall, iron gates are locked. The palm trees that used to stand here are now trunks.

Photos from Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

The beauty of a religious soul is its ability to skip over the strangeness and jump right into the water. Like the worshippers at Rachel’s Tomb, who ignore the fact that the place has turned into a bunker at the edge of a narrow fjord in the shadow of the separation wall, the white robe-wearing pilgrims immerse themselves in rancid water, filled with sewage and waste. Girls from the religious Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva stare at them from the bank of the river (according to tradition, this is where the water split in two and the Israelites followed Joshua to the promised land), while American Protestants singing and guitar accompaniment fill the air. “Michael, row the boat ashore,” they croon, while those sitting on the wooden deck in the kingdom across the river respond: “Hallelujah.”

To me, this is the eeriest thing here, this echo coming from another country. The soldier patrolling the border is nowhere to be seen today, and his Jordanian counterpart is missing too. It seems so simple to cross the river, yet it is forbidden. Should the soldier appear out of nowhere, it could end in shots being fired. An imaginary line in the shallow area of  the river and a keen sense of danger keep us at a distance. For me, the Israeli who cannot cross Allenby bridge, reaching the other side means spending many hours driving and waiting, as well as hundreds of shekels for visas and customs. Once it was totally inaccessible. Perhaps one day it will be so once more.

More strangeness: the line in the water is not the internationally-recognized border. Jordan does not recognize Israel’s control over the West Bank, and the Temple Mount still appears on the former’s currency. Even according to Israeli law I am not in Israeli territory. So where am I? Which inaccessible place are these women waving at? Nowhere? To whom are they responding “Hallelujah?” Without answers, I wait in the heat for Acheron, the the river of souls, to sail my soul on its raft toward a more logical reality.

Read this post in Hebrew on Local Call.

More journeys by Yuval Ben-Ami:
Between elegance and desolation: A short journey to Qalqilya
Bringing the Green Line to Sir Paul McCartney