Chapter OneThe caravan train consisted of eighteen stately camels, and a number of obstinate donkeys, wending their way along a well-worn route through deserts of ochre landscapes, rock strewn valleys and across the dried river beds of the vast Sinai. The merciless sun treated the rich and poor travellers with equanimity, as they journeyed from Alexandria in Egypt, through Judea, and on to Assyria. This was a trade route that stretched from north Africa, on up to Damascus, to link with the routes travelling East, such as the Silk Road.
Water was the ‘scarcity’ commodity between the few oases and water holes, on this slow torturous route taken by merchants and travellers for centuries who, invariably consisted of people representing various middle-eastern tribes and cultures.
Some of these desert wells could be extraordinarily deep. Leather buckets and straw ropes were needed to bring the water to the well-head, where it was tipped into a trough, from which empty goatskin water-bags were replenished. All Bedouin families carried their own buckets and rope for this vital purpose, and would removed them immediately after use. A traveller without such life-saving implements, could possibly die of thirst at the well’s very edge.
Travelling this dry deserted landscape by oneself would be a foolish venture indeed, which is why most travellers chose to join with others for the security of a caravan. One could encounter many dangers travelling by oneself on such a journey; indeed, affluent merchants had their own well-armed guards to protect them, but all, rich and poor alike, were provided with the protection of fierce scimitar-wielding Arab outriders, being part of the package which guaranteed a high degree of safety for which the traveller had invested in the trip. These guards also went on ahead scouting the route for marauding Saracen bandits, who chose to see the barren Sinai territory as their domain and the merchants, and travellers, as easy prey for their rich pickings.
Most of the poorer families had to either walk alongside the camel train, or share the humble donkeys from time to time. They were not treated with the same degree of consideration as those better-off families. Sometimes they would fall behind and would be encouraged to keep up upon hearing loud whip cracks splitting the air.
And so it was that on this occasion one of these poorer families was that of Murree, whose family consisted of sons Yeshu’a, James, Joses, Judah and Simon; and three daughters, Fatima, Anna and the youngest being Miriam, now returning after a long exile in Egypt to their old home outside of Jerusalem, in Judaea.
Murree was a tall, refined, good-looking woman, of barely thirty years - not beautiful, but she radiated goodness. She had a cousin, Elizabeth by name, who lived in Judaea, whom Murree had not seen since she and her husband Joseph, fled Palestine - formally Canaan - twelve years previous. They had journeyed to the land of Egypt after the birth of her son, Yeshu’a, to seek sanctuary from a country which was in turmoil, and ruled by Herod the Great, the despotic King of Judaea.
Her husband, Joseph, was a skilled wood-carver and carpenter and a prominent member of the Essene Jewish sect, and a direct descendant of King David. But now the family’s homeward journey was prompted by the changes in the country’s ruling structure. Joseph had gone ahead to Jerusalem to prepare a home for the family.
In her deep spiritual nature Murree had once retreated to a nearby mountain-top where she stayed for twelve days in meditation to enquire into the nature of attachment, eventually reaching the clarification that it is of our own making. Attachment is not a gift from God, she concluded, unlike bliss, peace and truth, which are the gifts of God. Everything else is as passing clouds!
It was Murree’s reluctant wish to leave the hospitality of Egypt and return to the homeland few of the children had only heard of, but had never seen. Three of the children were Joseph’s from his first marriage, for he was a widower when he was betroth to Murree. While Yeshu’a was not the eldest he did assume the role of most responsibility; caring for the younger ones and helping his mother and Joseph, where possible.
Travelling in the searing desert heat, with its cutting sandstorms, and freezing nights, made for an arduous journey. But the children never complained. They were sustained with good humour by their brother Yeshu’a, whose name means “The Help of Yahveh.” He was a tall, lean young man of twelve years, and strangely wise for his tender age. He dressed in a short plain tunic, tied at the waist with a twisted wine and gold cord, and beneath this he wore a linen loincloth. Neither did he wear jewellery, amulets or any ornaments, and like others, he walked bare footed. His brothers and sisters would tease him and ask, “Who is your best friend, Yeshu’a?,” knowing all too well his reply would be, “the Lord,” for he was a devoutly religious young man. With shoulder-length hair almost a pale orange in colour, he stood out as being different from the rest of the family, with a calm countenance and a far-away look. During the periods of rest along the journey, he patiently taught his brothers and sisters, the Word of God. Others would join them while seated on the sands, in the cool starry evenings, glad of the cool air after the blistering heat of the day, and would listen in a respectful silence as they soaked up the spiritual wisdom imparted to them. When the caravan party made camp for the night, the chattering groups huddled close together around the many camp-fires that were strung-out along the desert valley, against the chill of the late evening.
Wrapped in warm blankets the wealthy merchants, dressed in their dishdash robes, would eye young Yeshu’a, impressed by his manner and the knowledge he communicated to the younger children. They saw in him, even at that young age, a suitable suitor for their daughters, while the daughters giggled to each other, not unhappy with their fathers’ choice. Parents vied with each other in making their daughters suitably presentable, and would sweetened the proposals with offers of handsome dowries.
It was the custom, particularly amongst the Hebrew community, for the betrothal of their sons at age thirteen, but Yeshu’a was not desirous of such a commitment. He saw his destiny being elsewhere, and chose not to be entangled in the domestic affairs of others. He distanced himself from such talk and chose to follow his heart.
A mother would whisper in the ears of her daughter, and the graceful young girl would jump up immediately to dance to a slow evocative air played on a distant flute. She would slowly whirl and whirl, gradually increasing the tempo as her willowy arms traced snake-like movements above her head; she clapped, clapped and stamped her feet to the exotic rhythm as her shadow, cast from the light of the camp-fire, fell from time to time on the ground in front of Yeshu’a. Parents would smile and nod secretively to each other as the dance progressed. But when the realisation dawned that Yeshu’a was no longer seated in his place, their expressions changed; “What a strange young man,” they would whisper, “Has he no human longings for the girl dancing before him?” Their disappointment was now apparent and coupled with anger that their daughters were not pleasing to him. They saw it as a personal affront.
Each evening, Yeshu’a would slip away into the darkness of the night, to sit and pray under the stars, while the distant music receded from his consciousness. He would slip into a extreme meditative state, where nothing touched him while in communion with the Lord, until the first rays of the dawn sun would alert him to a new day, refreshed.
The sun’s golden rays moved slowly across the sand, with an undulating movement, down the valley to the sleeping encampments. The tinkling bells tethered to the necks of the camels was the signal to the travellers to rise and eat before once again packing their belongings for the recommencement of their journey. The sound of voices reached a crescendo as everybody busied themselves.
“Where did you spend the night, Yeshu’a. I was worried,” asked Murree.
“I was in communion with the Father,” he replied, as his brothers and sisters looked quizzically to each other.
“Please don’t go off like that, it could be dangerous.”
“There is no fear when you’re with Him.”
Murree sighed with irritation. “Help me pack up these things, or we’ll be left behind,” she said, as the caravan train started to move off. All were now busy rolling up tents and blankets and tying cooking utensils to racks on the backs of camels and donkeys.
Donkeys would, with mincing quick-steps, move quickly out of the way of roaring camels that refused to move aside from the straight route they were taking. Camels knew their importance to the train, and were not side-stepping for any lowly donkey. They could travel for days on one fill of fresh water, unlike humans, whose first duty each morning was to check the drinking-water supply. Since it was life and death to the caravan, the overseers of the train rode up to check each group, assuring themselves they had ample daily supplies. Those who travelled alone, with just a blanket over their shoulders, would have to resort to the generosity of their fellow travellers.
This, however, was not always forthcoming, and there were gruesome stories of lone travellers falling by the wayside and dying of thirst. “Charity begins at home, or at least with one’s own family,” was the defensive retort of the merchants, as they glanced back over their shoulders at the poor retch who succumbed to dehydration and a parched desert death. Each family, or merchant group, however, carried ample food supplies. There was no shortage of fruits, fresh and dried, as well as meats; some even had their own small flocks of sheep, baa’ing their way alongside the train.
The journey took many weeks, and required great stamina on the part of those who ventured. All were advised, indeed required, to partake of several swallows of fresh drinking water every hour to sustain themselves against the ferocious heat of the desert. Non-compliance could mean rising fresh at sunrise and lay dying by sunset!
While the journey’s stages were well placed along the way with water holes, or oases, governing the precise route to be taken, one could not always be guaranteed that there would be water available upon arrival. This meant severe rationing, as well as great anxiety, until arriving at the next watering stage, which could be several days hence.
So it happened upon this very trip, that a water-hold was dry, sending fear and trepidation throughout the entire train. Merchants demanded of the overseers that something be done. Their lives, and the lives of their families, were at stake, they exclaimed. However, the overseers could do little, other than advise them to conserve all water until they reached the next hole; for they too were gripped by fear of its lack. “We must give the children whatever we can spare,” mothers moaned, while fathers licked their dry lips in alarm. No amount of coins in their purses could change the circumstances that had now befallen them. Water was beyond price!
The hour was late, so it was decided to make camp for the night, at the parched hole. No sounds of merry-making that evening. No music to send joy to the heart, only the low moan of prayers from small family groups, as they huddled around the fires fuelled by camel dung.
Murree was glad, indeed, that she chose to take the family goat on the journey; at least her children would have milk to sustain them should the water run out. She joined the nearby group by the camp fire, and pulling the cloak around her head and shoulders against the night chill, recited prayers with the other women, while their menfolk sat and grumbled about their misfortune.
The shrill bleat from a sheep split the night air, sending a start throughout the camp, as an elder slit the throat of the hapless ruminant animal, as an offering to God for their merciful deliverance. All looked skyward in fearful prayer, as they bargained with God for His help. “Deliver us, oh merciful Lord, from this plight that has befallen us,” a booming voice announced as he promised to help to feed the poor, and cloth them with his finest silks. “Have mercy, oh Lord, on your humble servant.”
Yeshu’a sat and listened to the hypocritical mouthing of the rich merchants fearing for their pathetic little lives, and knowing all too well that these prayerful promises would soon be forgotten when water was once again plentiful.
“Yeshu’a, will we die here in the desert, for lack of water?” asked Miriam, his youngest sister.
“Hush! Nothing shall befall you. Our Father, in heaven, is a merciful Father.” He arose and walked slowly away from the lights of the camp fires towards the nearby rock face, and placing both hands on the sandstone rock, he prayed silently. Miriam watched in wonder as he stooped and picked up a large boulder and slammed it with force against the rock face, the noise of which echoed down the valley, as he cried aloud something which nobody understood. A slight crack appeared upon the face of the rock and water began to trickle forth tracing its way down the side of the dry rock face to the sand beneath. At first it was small quantity, as Miriam rushed forward with her cupped little hands outstretched to catch the flow of crystal clear water. Yeshu’a pulled her back in time as the crack split apart sending forth a great fountain of water arching its way over their heads and appeared to hasten across the parched sands to refill the empty water hole.
A gasp of astonishment by those nearby, alerted others to the amazing phenomena that had taken place. For a moment everyone stood still, then, as if propelled by an invisible hand, they rushed forward to the hole to replenish empty water bags.
“The Lord has answered our prayers,” cried the elder, with blood- soaked hands raised skywards.
“Hamdullah,” cried the excited Arab crowd, as they rushed passed Yeshu’a, knocking young Miriam to the ground in their haste to the water hole. Yeshu’a wondered if the poor would now be enriched, as promised, and be clothed in the finest silks. Sadly he knew all too well such promises were as dry as the dust beneath their feet.
The following morning saw the approach of A’bel, the caravan train’s supervisor. He was a tall, lean man with aquiline features, dressed in the black robes and headdress of the Bedouin tribe. An awesome figure to behold. He commanded the respect of the overseers and merchants alike. While he rarely moved away from the side of the rich merchants, he now stopped in front of Yeshu’a and without dismounting from his white Arabian steed, looked down on the slim-built twelve year old.
“What is your name? To whom do you belong? Are you a holy one?” he asked, with a profound voice that seemed to come from a deep cavern. He spoke through the black linen cloth that wound down from his turban, covering the lower part of his face.
“I am called Yeshu’a. I belong to God alone,” replied Yeshu’a - a reply that startled his mother, who stood nearby shielding her eyes as she looked up at A’bel silhouetted against the glare of the early morning sun.
A’bel remained transfixed in silence with his dark eyes staring down at Yeshu’a, for several minutes. Breaking the silence A’bel said quietly as he lowered the black cloth to his chin, “I am told you have just now performed a miraculous deed. I have no under-standing of such things. We must speak.”
Yehsu’a looked up at a face with deeply etched features the result of many years exposure to the hot sandblast of the desert winds. He asked Yeshu’a to ride up front with him and the merchants, for the rest of the journey that they might discuss Yeshu’a’s beliefs. This was deemed a great honour by most travellers, so everybody was astonished at Yeshu’a’s refusal, as he indicated that he had responsibility for his mother and his younger brothers and sisters, on the journey, as he took his father’s place.
A’bel immediately wheeled his horse around and without a word, headed back in a cloud of golden sand to the head of the train. Murree was fearful that her son’s refusal of this honourable invitation might be taken as an insult, but choose to say nothing. She did not understand her son’s ways and his words. She was beginning to see him change under her eyes. She always knew him to be a pious person from a young age, but recently he had became distant, more solitary, even when with the family group. Maybe the responsibilities thrust upon him at such a young age was proving too much, she thought to herself. This worried her.