Saturday 7 March 2009

A Near "Mis-adventure" Inside Hezekiah's Tunnel In Jerusalem At Age 21

A chaplain friend of mine named Mark - from Athens, Georgia - was recounting his spelunking experiences today on one of our chaplains' e-lists when he received a question from a queasy/claustrophobic member: "My anxiety level just shot way up! Were these little-tiny-crawl-space caves...or big stand-up & then crawl-because-it-got-dark type of caves?"

Mark's response: "You usually run into both. I have been in places where you had to exhale to move forward and in places where you are crawling on your belly bumping your head on the ceiling and trying to keep your nose above the water that half fills the passage. Then I have been in rooms the size of stadiums where you could not see the other end. Most are in between. The killers are those long passages where you are bent in half!" Some others joined in with their own stories about spelunking challenges in days of yore.

All this resurrected very strong emotions associated with an experience emblazoned in my own memory from way back in the spring of 1975. I was 21 years old, feeling invincible and adventurous, and in the last semester of my Bachelors Degree in Biblical Studies. But I wasn't on campus in the Shenadoah Valley. I had joined 40 other students spending those three months in a first for Eastern Mennonite University - a special transcultural seminar in the Middle East and beyond, under the leadership of Dr. Willard Swartley accompanied by his wife Mary and their two adolescent children, Louisa and Kenton. (The next three paragraphs are more detailed background, to help the reader gain the full impact of the "real" story.)

We first flew into London for a couple days at the British Museum, then spent six or seven weeks taking an intensive biblical archeology course based at the American Institute of Holy Land Studies in Old City Jerusalem which incorporated at least one exciting field trip each week. We ventured all over Palestine, studying the stories in context at Cesarea by the sea, walking around the ruins of Meggido near where Elijah encountered the 400 prophets of Baal, observing the border near Lebanon, watching the sun rise over Galilee, visiting original sites in Nazareth, dipping water from the Jordan River, hiking wadis going down from Jerusalem into Jericho, clambering up to and around Masada, floating in the salty Dead Sea, surveying the site where his disciples declared Jesus as the Messiah at Cesarea Philippi, looking at a Crusaders' castle in the Golan Heights, traipsing all the way down to Beersheva in the Negev -- and experiencing many other highlights in between all these places. I got to join in with a Good Friday procession to Golgatha, and witnessed an unforgettable ecumenical worship service Easter morning at the traditional site of the Garden Tomb.

Following this we spent two weeks under the guidance of Leroy Friesen, at that time the country director for Mennonite Central Committee, interviewing and studying the dynamics of the history and conflict among the Jews and the Palestinians - which involved interaction with leaders, ordinary people and families from all along the spectrum of political and religious life in Israel and Palestine during this time of relative freedom for groups like ours to do so. We rode a bus over to Amman, Jordan and from there explored the ancient Nabatean dwellings and ornate temples at the red rock city of Petra. The last month involved a week in Greece: Corinth, Athens etc, and a few days in Rome, then 10 days "on our own" before reuniting in Luxembourg and winding up our time in Paris for about three days focusing on treasures in The Louvre, and surveying ancient biblical manuscripts at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. My unicycle came in handy to "get around" during many of these explorations.

I graduated with my BA two days after returning from that trip. The overall experience impacted and enriched my entire world view and theological understanding in a profound way that I could not fully comprehend or appreciate at the time. However, the journal I kept of these adventures is one of my most prized possessions to this day. And all this is simply background and context for the strong memory triggered today by Mark's story:

Out of dozens of profound experiences, one of the most memorable - and exceedingly dangerous, as it turned out - was the one we still talk about at reunions of this group: the day we took a tour through Hezekiah's Tunnel, about 1/3 of a mile in total length.

NOW, BEFORE YOU READ ANY FURTHER, if you have not "experienced" this place for yourself, please get oriented to its significance by scanning this story and paying attention to the photos of this particular family's verbal and visual description of that ancient wonder. And by all means DO NOT SKIP absorbing the first two photos at the top of the third page, right here!

I remember the cool water flowing out of the Gihon Spring and through that tunnel in March of 1975 as being about exactly the same depth as described and documented in James Lancaster's story on "the web." Our group also descended into it via the long stone stairway, entering at the same place you just observed in the Lancaster photos. Out of the forty of us, if I recall correctly, about six or seven declined the opportunity to wade through, but said they would meet us on the other end where we were to emerge. Of course, being me, I was very enthusiastic about this adventure and got myself near the front of the line - not far behind Jim Fleming, our guide and archeologist from the Institute. Things went quite well for a while, as we held candles and cameras above the very cool water. We got used to it after a bit, and kept moving forward with the flow of the water, enthralled by Jim's description of the various features of this unique place.

But, what the local tunnel-minder who let us in had not thought about was the fact that since almost three dozen bodies were in there at once, we displaced a lot more water than usual as we got closer to that narrower and shorter section. Not only did those of us near the head of the line have to start bending down (it's only averages around five feet high about that point - and only 4' 9" at the very mid-section of the tunnel where the two teams who originally hewed this thing joined up) but the water couldn't flow as well to get past all those bodies, and we started to noticed the water "piling up" behind and around us.

Guess what happens when chilly water is rising up to your neck, some of the candles start going out when the air gets stale, and there isn't much room left to breath even when swimming, which a few short people near the front of the line had to do with ruined cameras still in hand?! It took us quite a while to convince the ones way back behind us to pass the message back that we ALL NEED TO TURN AROUND AND WALK BACK OUT WHERE WE CAME FROM - and that WE ARE NOT JOKING! (My heart is racing now - just remembering all this while I write.)

It was one of the few experiences in my life where I was emotionally on the verge of panic - and it became a real challenge to maintain one's cool while working with each other offering emotional and spiritual support including singing - and anything else we could think of - to a few in our group who actually did panic. We held each other up to survive, and it seemed like it was taking forever until we could get our entire group (especially the last ones in the line) convinced to turn around and our somewhat shaken group could all swim, crawl, walk, and push our way back out against the flow of the water coming at us from the Gihon Spring. We met up with the very worried and now relieved waiting members of our group, who knew we were long overdue, and walked around to the exit side of the tunnel to observe where we should have come out under normal conditions. We finally all began to relax right there at the Pool of Siloam - a place of healing!

Later we were told the water was actually flowing unusually high that season, and we should never have been allowed in that time of day in the first place. And we heard they had to close Hezekiah's Tunnel down for a while when someone in a tour group actually drowned in there not long after we were there. I would say it was a miracle that our own group escaped from disaster that day. I thank God, because quite a few members of that group have been leading very influential lives in the years since, and a different outcome could have put a real kaibosh on plans for future crosscultural excursions EMU sponsored in the Middle East and elsewhere over subsequent years.


1 comment:

  1. Beautifully told story, Clair. You really put me in that cave, so much so that in those last couple of paragraphs I had trouble breathing!

    Your reflections about your group’s good fortune in escaping tragedy -- and about the significant societal contributions many of you went on to make after that day -- are interesting. I suppose there could be comfort in the belief that God’s hand is forever guiding the plan, choosing which “players” to put in the game and which to put on the bench (or cut from the team entirely). But it’s a stretch for me, the notion of a highly engaged God. I would have far too many questions for (and perhaps too much anger at) a God that would employ such colossal favoritism. Or am I just over-analyzing the harmless and traditional, “Thank God” (as in, “Thank God I found a parking space!”)?

    Needless to say, I’m certainly glad you made it out unscathed!