A journey to the Middle East and an unexpected glimpse of beauty and tranquility in the desert…………………
About a year ago I met a fabulous woman, the artist Mary Lou Peters. A year later I’m proud to call Mary Lou my friend. I asked her to paint a picture for me. I had a very specific scene in mind. I’d visited Jericho just north of Jerusalem a few months earlier. I wanted to capture the essence of this bleak and barren countryside. I wanted a lasting memento of this West Bank landscape not far from the River Jordan.
When I was growing up we were taught about The Holy Land the land of the Bible. We were taught about Jesus being baptised in the River Jordan. Then centuries later the Crusaders marching fearlessly across Europe to reclaim Jerusalem in the name of the Christian Church. We learned about Henry VIII establishing the Church of England with himself as it’s head. Proudly booting out the Pope in the process. Our religious education was delivered to us as an incontrovertible truth. We were right, everyone else was wrong. From about the age of eight I felt uncomfortable listening to the priest on a Sunday morning extolling the virtues of the Roman Catholic Church whilst dismissing the beliefs of the Anglicans, just up the road, many of whom were my friends.
Years later when I finally visited the Middle East I was overwhelmed by the beauty and history of the old city of Jerusalem. My priority however was Jericho in what is now the West Bank. They say that the ‘tell site’ of Jericho is one of the oldest inhabited sites in the Middle East. There is archaeological evidence that people have lived here for at least 10,000 years. Kathleen Kenyon, a British archaeologist was instrumental in excavating at Jericho and introducing the ‘stratigraphical approach’ to excavation. In other words a careful, highly methodical approach to digging – making sure every detail and every artefact is recorded carefully and accurately. I’d wanted to pay my respects to Kathleen Kenyon, a pioneering female archaeologist for many years. It was a real achievement to find myself there in Jericho that March morning. I loved being at the site standing where Kenyon had stood, observing the surroundings, the ground, the famous trench.
Now interestingly, what happened next had a far greater and more profound influence on me than anything I saw at Jericho. My Palestinian guide Rami insisted on taking me to Hisham’s Palace, the extensive ruins of a spectacular castle built more than 1200 years ago. Rami explained to me that the palace was possibly a hunting lodge or desert castle, one of a line running from Syria in the north to Egypt in the south. You can still see a fabulous ‘Tree of Life’ Mosaic possibly the decorated floor of a bathhouse. It shows the abundance of the river valley at the time. A tree loaded with fruits, numerous animals beneath the tree, a scene of verdant and lush imagery.
But what really took my breath away as we emerged into the daylight was a random collection of stones, tumbled down stones, pillars broken in two, dry earth, brown earth, and then in the shadow of the ruins there was a tiny group of spring flowers, cascading over the stones in a profusion of colour and joy. It was this scene of colour and abundance that I wanted Mary Lou to capture. This stark contrast between the monochrome barren earth and the rainbow shades in the delicate spring flowers. Of course for me this was also a metaphor for life. Here in the bleak, stony, inhospitable land a community of beautiful delicate flowers was flourishing. Mary Lou had been charged with reproducing this image for me (from a photo) as a physical painting, a piece of art. There is beauty in the desert and all you need to do is to pay attention, to observe carefully. To keep your eyes open. Mary Lou did a wonderful job of transforming my photo into a water colour……..
My painting hangs on the wall in my ‘inspiratiorium’ I look at it every day to remind me of the beauty of the West Bank. My flowers in the desert – thriving in an inhospitable environment, against the odds. And so an excursion into the desert primarily aimed at discovering Jericho had turned into a different kind of adventure – the discovery of an Islamic palace in the desert built more than twelve centuries earlier. The symbolism of those flowers in the desert. I think of my son marching in London yesterday – along with hundreds of others, desperate to avoid further conflict in the Middle East. I think of my daughter spending her ‘year abroad’ in Paris. The need for dialogue and discussion. The need to educate and ’empower’ women. The need to recognise that the majority of people are kind and considerate with the same concerns and values as us………….
My pre-occupation with tolerance, love and respect, continues. Brought up as a Roman Catholic but now effectively estranged from the church, I find myself drawn to certain biblical sentiments, for example ‘it is in giving that we receive’. We must dig deep into our souls and see beauty and love however challenging that may be. Conflict is not the solution. Honour and respect just might be.