During the 6-week photoshoot for Israel Rising, there were many unexpected adventures and side stories worthy of the “Chocolate Fish Tales” title. With the intent of recreating some amazing historical landscape photography from the 1880s-1940s, we searched out the exact location of black and white photos, often with nothing but a town name and laptop file of old pics. In the process, we met some helpful yet eccentric characters who could have been ripped straight out of an Indiana Jones movie script and all while trying not to draw too much attention to ourselves. Some of these Tales, due to the sensitive areas, situations and people involved, may only come out among friends around a campfire and a late-night beer. Others, I briefly shared and scattered throughout Israel Rising titled “Personal Encounters”, yet there was much more to each of those stories. This is the expanded version of what really happened in Jericho.
Jericho is one of the oldest cities on earth but currently considered an “Area A” town in what the world calls the West Bank and what the Bible calls “Judea and Samaria”. “Area A” means, since the mid-90s, is under Palestinian Authority security and civil control, with no Israeli influence. In fact, Israelis are forbidden to enter under Israeli law due to the danger to Israeli lives as stated on big red signs at the entrance of these specific towns. That said, I’m not an Israeli, had an American friend in Jericho working for a non-profit and needed to track down some old photo locations.
I had a specific Jericho photo (above) from the late 1800s that showed old ruins with a beautiful stone arch surrounded by open desolate plains. I had no idea where it was and had low hopes of finding the arch still standing after 130 years. Hoping to find a lead, we found an open market and approached a group of older local men seated at a small table, drinking thick Arabic coffee and having what looked like their daily morning discussions. Seeing us coming, one charismatic Arab guy jumped up and boisterously introduced himself. “G-day mate, I am Jericho John!” he theatrically proclaimed in an Australian English accent. I was a little taken back that this weathered Arab guy knew clear English, let alone could speak his favorite English phrases in an Australian, Arabic and a US southern English accent on demand. I wondered what staged comedy show I suddenly stepped into. He enthusiastically grabbed and shook my hand, while offering everything in the market as if he owned it all. After exchanging pleasantries, laughs and still wondering if this guy was for real, I explained what we were looking for.
Jericho John took one look at my old photo, switched to a thick Arabic accent and confidently said “That’s the old sugar mill. Come, I show you.” as if he was the local “sugar mill ruins tour guide”. Still curious if this goofy guy was mentally stable, he appeared to pose no danger so I hesitantly allowed him into the front seat of our van. Knowing Arab culture, I fully expected that we were first going for Arabic coffee at his friend’s shop, a thought that soon proved true. The coffee was amazing as usual, even in the rising desert temperatures and after repeatedly turning down lunch, I gently prodded him on to “the old sugar mill.” When we got there, I was pleasantly stunned. Jericho John knew his stuff. We found the same arch now partially covered with trees and surrounded by buildings and orchards; the empty desolate plains are now full of life.
After a couple more hours of recreating several old photos around Jericho with the blazing afternoon sun beating down upon us, our new friend had an idea: Heat relief at Elisha’s spring! It is the same large spring as found in the Bible and the main water source for Jericho since ancient times. We arrived at a man-made stone channel tributary from the spring, took off our sandals and rolled up our pants to the knees. To the surprise and delight of the hookah-smoking locals, we waded in with Jericho John and had a seat on the side in the cool refreshing spring, the only white faces in sight. After some laughs, friendly hand signals, and broken English conversations with the locals, we were invited back to our host’s home for coffee. Not one to turn down Arab hospitality or wanting this surreal and unexpected adventure to end, I happily accepted on behalf of the team.
At his home around sunset, we had a seat at his outside table under a large fig tree in the warm evening breeze and learned about life in the “sleepy town” of Jericho. First came the coffee. Then the tea. Then news that chicken and kebabs were already on the way from the butcher. By 10pm, I was asked to help get the fire for the grill started, and before long, the meats were sizzling. The aroma was making my mouth water. Suddenly, our cook began angrily cursing at the kebabs and the vacant butcher in a couple languages and a few English accents, while complaining there was too much “white meat” in the mix. “White meat... .?” Rather embarrassed and still cursing, he pointed out the “white meat” to me, which I recognized as fat. I assured him that this “white meat” will improve the flavor of the meat and spices and that it all looked and smelled delicious.
Dinner didn’t begin until around 10:30 p.m., once some fresh pita and salads arrived on the table. The scents that arose from the spiced meats were intoxicating. The colorful salads were bursting with flavor. The soft pita, like it had been freshly baked in the oven, just for us. I was relieved I had ignored my Western sensibilities to excuse our small team “before it got too late”, a silly excuse in this culture. Truth be told, we weren’t that hungry from all the snacks we were given beforehand but the sights and smells in front us could not be ignored. Calling it “foodie heaven” would have been an understatement. We found ourselves chuckling at the involuntary happy sounds that accompanied every bite, much to the satisfaction of our hosts. That evening, Jericho John’s dinner and the kebabs were some of the best I’ve ever had anywhere. Even with the white meat.
That day was a wonderful lesson. People are people wherever you go. Even in certain restricted areas, most people respond to kindness, respect, and a level of trust. Even with a clear reality of current events, there are still good people willing to leave politics and cultural differences at the door and share some human laughs and a delicious meal with willing strangers. I, for one, am looking for more.
To read more of the Personal Encounters stories in the best selling book, Israel Rising and to see the photographic evidence of the land reviving through 100 stunning then/now photos throughout Israel, order you author signed copies at EzraAdventures.com/store today!
Doug Hershey is the author of Israel Rising, conference speaker and founder of Ezra Adventures, an Israel focused travel and education company. From years of hands-on experience, cultivating unique relationships in Israel and a love for history, Doug provides a rare perspective on the connection between the Jewish Scriptures and present day Israel. When he is not in Israel, he is speaking in churches and synagogues about the prophesied restoration of Israel.