Our home in space

Guy Ottewell

Mar Saba

Jerusalem and Bethlehem were only five miles apart by the road along the spine of Palestine, but we could not use that road because it was on the Israeli side of the line. So the Jordanians had had to build a new road, much longer, that sagged eastward through the crumpled wilderness, and came back up just before Bethlehem. At Christmas we were taken along this road in a night cavalcade of cars; as we ground up one of the ridges I glanced back and saw the lights prospering along the sinuous highway.
     A rougher road or track, starting from beyond the Mount of Olives, took an even longer and more sinuous dive among the brown slopes. One day I walked down this road and from its lowest part turned off on a trail farther down into the dry wilderness — overtaken on the way by a dust-devil that I thought was going to pick me off the cliff — to the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Saba. It came in sight, a fantasy of white walls and blue roofs clinging down the side of a canyon. (I don't know what has happened to the sketches I made of it.) The monk who admitted me was one of only three where there had been hundreds; the monastery was now something of a punishment station. At the foot of all the courtyards, a gate opened onto the floor of the wadi.
     I came back up a different way, toward Bethlehem. I had a map, compiled in the days of the British Mandate, but republished in Israel and overprinted with “Map of Israel” and some Hebrew text. As I passed some outlying houses, people fell in with me, walking alongside; undoubtedly they took me to be someone who had strayed over from Israel. They did not lynch me, but invited me in for tea, pressed me to accept a ride. I said I was content to walk; but I became surrounded by people and a policeman, ended in the police station at Bethlehem, being treated to more cups of tea, while they telephoned. The manager of physical plant at St. George's came to fetch me.