So the family travelled first to Zaphon to bury Maacah and Manasseh, then along the Jordan Valley to Yericho. There they stayed for two days while Yusef conducted business. Miri liked the oasis at Yericho. It was green and lush, and villas stood amongst the palms, cool white palaces of the rich. The markets were filled with rich silks and gold utensils, catering to the tastes of those who could afford the best.
From there they walked to Bethany. Bethany was smaller than Yericho and not as rich. The people of the village were on the whole well off, and most sold their wares or skills in Yerushalayim and walked into the city to work, returning later before sunset to their homes.
The family settled in. The house was large, and had a second floor. A balcony overlooked the estate, and the workmanship was far superior to the mud brick walls of their house in Sychar. Yohanna attending to the estate vineyards, olive groves and palm trees and arranging the household to her liking.
Mermaat paid a visit on the second day of their arrival. She had procured lodgings and employment with a patron in the north of Yerushalayim, and promised to visit whenever she could. She left Re-en-Kaam excercises for Miri: magic spells to ward of runny noses and coughs and the recipes for each.
True to his word, Yusef visited often. He spent most of his time in Yerushalayim attending to business and politics, for he had become influential in the Sanhedrin and the business affairs of the temple.
Soon after they arrived, he took them all to the temple. The first sight of the temple on Mount Zion took Miri’s breath away. Never had she seen such a magnificent building. As they stood on the Mount of Olives, she drank in the sheer size of Yerushalayim. Its walls were of dressed and bossed limestone, and shone brilliantly in the hot sun.
Yusef pointed out the buildings.
“There, on the south side of the temple mount is the public gallery. There is a great meeting hall. The outer court, that is the Court of the Gentiles. There, you see in the centre. The open area behind the first gate, that is the Women’s Court!”
Sister Miriam made a disapproving sound, but Yusef continued.
“And there in the centre, all gold and white, the Holy of Holies! To the North of the temple, adjoining it, the Fortress Antonia. The Roma garrison is posted there. They hold the vestments of the High Priest and release it to him only for festivals. There, you see, the soldiers along the ramparts, they can enter the gallery from the fortress overlooking the temple courtyard in case of public disturbances. To the north of Antonia is The sheep Pool and Market! There, the large long building to the south of the Temple, that’s the Hippodrome! They have chariot races and games there! Those large buildings in front of it, the Adiabenian Palaces! The other, there, further west is Herod’s Theatre!
“You see those towers? At the far western edge of the city? Yes, well, the one on the right is Hippicus Tower, the one on the left Mariamne tower, named after Mariamne, Herod’s wife he had executed for supposed adultery. The other behind Hippicus is the Phasael tower, built by Herod for his brother Phasael. South of the towers, Herod’s Palace. South of that, the High Priest’s Quarters, and between it and there up against the wall, the dyers’ quarter. You can just make out the vats and the drying racks. In front of that, the Essene Quarter. They keep a different calendar than the rest of us. That pyramid, the Tomb of David!”
“King David?” asked Sister Miriam.
“Yes! Though some say his bones have been lost and the tomb is merely a hollow memorial. They say the real tomb is filled with the gold of Solomon, but it is lost. And there, south of the Adiabenian Palaces, the Synagogue of the Freedmen, a wonderful meeting place!”
“It’s beautiful!” declared Yohanna.
“Is that a cemetery? asked Sister Miriam, pointing down the slope of the Mount of Olives.
“Yes!” said Yusef. “All who await the Messiah are buried here, for it is said he will appear on the Mount of Olives, and those who await the resurrection have had themselves buried here to be first in line! The closer to the right spot, the sooner they’ll be resurrected!”
“What’s down there?” asked Miriam pointing to a grove of olives near the floor of the Kinnom Valley. “Over there, beyond the cemetery!”
“The Garden of Gesthemane!” said Yusef. “It is a sacred place. Some say the grove is older than the city of Yerushalayim itself!”
“Can we go there?” she asked.
“Of course, we shall walk under the grove as we approach the gate in the Eastern Wall, the Lion’s Gate.”
The mention of the Lion’s Gate brought a vague unrest related to an old dream, but she shrugged it off, for she was excited about the prospect of reaching the grove of Gesthemane. She missed the sacred stone circle near Sychar, and she felt a twinge of homesickness which grew stronger as they walked down the narrow road towards the garden.
They shared the road with many others: tradesmen, pilgrims, scholars, tinsmiths, tradesmen of all kinds, soldiers of fortune, sailors from Tyre, rich men dressed in Greek style, poor men with onions for sale, beggars, thieves, courtesans and pious matrons. They passed through Gesthemane without stopping, for the girls’ excitement gathered as they neared the gates of the great city. The people were shoulder to shoulder through the gate portal. Yusef took Eliazar from Yohanna’s arms.
“First, we must sacrifice for Eliazar,” he said, “and redeem his life for the Lord. This way-” he said as they passed under the Lion’s Gate. Miri stared up at the soldiers on the parapets above her. The mass of Yerushalayim’s walls overwhelmed her. Yusef led them through the crowded streets to the bath houses south of the Temple Mount.
“Here is money for the mikvah,” he said, “I shall meet you here after I have cleansed Eliazar and me.”
They were ushered into private cubicles. “One each!” said Sister Miriam excitedly. There they were washed and rinsed. Miri’s attendant was a large woman, a Hin weight or two more than most, but pleasant if rather rough in her manner.
“My name is Hannah,” the woman said.
“I am Miri.” answered Miri rather hesitantly.
“Well, no need to be shy, Miri. I’ve seen more bare bodies than a Greek sailor! Let me help you with your clothes.”
First Hannah removed her coins and jewelled cover from her head , “You are quiet, Miri, you are not used to the ways of the Holy City. Remember, once you leave here, the rules may not be questioned. Follow the lead of the others.”
Then from her neck Hannah removed the small lapis beads. From her breast another double strand of beads was removed. From her chest the bodice was removed.
“This is beautiful,” said Hannah admiringly, “A present from a suitor, perhaps?”
Miri blushed. “Yes, but I rejected him.” replied Miri.
“But you kept the bodice!” replied Hannah. “Very wise! ”
Hanna removed the gold bracelet from her wrist. “Did he give you this as well?”
“No, that was given as a token of affection from a neighbour who wished his son to take me as his wife.”
“And you rejected him also?”
“Then you are not betrothed?”
“No,” answered Miri.
“Very impressive,” said Hannah. “That a girl as beautiful as you could remain unmarried speaks a scroll’s length of virtues! Your rings!”
Miri slipped off her rings and placed them in a bowl Hannah held out for her. After placing the bowl on a small stand, Hannah unclasped Miri’s tunic at the shoulders, her experienced eyes admiring the young body before her.
“Lord, that I should be as blessed as you!” she exclaimed.
Naked, Miri entered the warm bath. Hannah rubbed her with a linen cloth and a skin unguent to remove the grime of the outside world. Miri closed her eyes and allowed the experienced hands of Hannah to massage her body. She relaxed and fell into a strange twilight of consciousness, the massaging of her body bringing a warm, refreshing tingling to her skin and muscle.
“Mother, I could get used to this!” she said out loud.
Hannah chuckled, “Honey, there are many pious women who come here every day, and I don’t think it’s to talk to God!”
Hannah washed her all over, and Miri’s muscles felt relaxed and alert as she had ever felt them. Her skin tingled with cleanliness. Hannah brushed her hands and feet, then pared her nails, then brushed her fingers and toes again, particularly under the finger and toenails, and now, even Miri’s fingers and toes seemed to be alive with pleasure. Hannah finally shampooed Miri’s long black hair, her fingers expertly massaging the scalp, but the none of the washing lasted long enough for Miri’s taste; she wanted more! Miri rose from her bath at Hannah’s command and Hannah rinsed her off pouring warm water over her with a ladle filled from a large water jar beside the bath.
A small thin girl had entered during the massage and now stood holding an armful of towels which seemed to overwhelm her. Hannah took a towel and dried Miri with gentle patting. As the armload of towels dwindled, another woman, quite elderly, silently entered and smiled benignly at Miri. She carried a large white sheet.
Hannah held a goblet out to Miri and she rinsed her mouth with the water. She tasted a touch of lemon in the water. She spat the water into a receptacle held by the thin girl, and the elderly woman wrapped the white linen sheet around her and tucked it in Roman style over her shoulder.
The two other attendants brushed Miri’s hair out and Hannah picked away any loose hairs which fell from their combs, then Hannah lifted a small bell from its place on a table and rang it twice. An answering bell came from beyond the wooden door at the far end of the bath room. Hannah guided Miri to the door and opened it for her. Miri walked through the doorway into the mikvah room. There under a single shaft of sunlight streaming down from a small grilled opening in the roof, the lady of the mikvah stood waiting at the edge of the mikvah pool. Steps from the plain marble floor into the pool, which was larger than most, about four cubits square.
As Miri stood before the the mikvah lady, Hannah removed Miri’s sheet and the woman’s eyes ran up and down Miri’s body quickly, searching for blemishes and loose hair.
“Your hands!” she said brusquely.
Miri held her hands out for inspection and the mikvah lady grasped them firmly and turned them over once, then let Miri’s hands go.
“Good!” she said.
Miri was somewhat taken aback by her businesslike manner, and glanced sideways at Hannah. Through the corner of her eye, she was aware of the girl and the old woman who attended her standing expectantly behind her. Confident their services were no longer necessary, they slipped away as silently as they had come. Hannah gave Miri a reassuring smile and retired.
“You have rinsed your mouth?” the mikvah lady asked.
Miri descended the steps before her into the mikvah pool. The water was cold, and Miri shivered as gooseebumps spread over her body. She touched the bottom of the pool, and she stood head, shoulders and chest above the surface of the water. Instinctively, Miri had lifted her arms to acoid contact from the water
“Feet apart.” commanded the mikvak lady.
Miri adjusted her stance.
“Hands at your sides”
Miro lowered her arms into the water. She held them out a little, not touching her sides.
“Good!” said the mikvah lady. He gaze softened a fraction. “You know the blessing?”
“Alright,” said the mikvah lady and Miri bent at the knees and took a deep breath.
She sank beneath the cleansing living waters of the mikvah. As the water surrounded her, her senses came alive, refreshed by the cool liquid which covered her. The water filled her ears and muffled all sounds of the outside world, and she could hear her own heart pounding loudly and steadily. She felt at peace. Her feet lifted from the floor of the mikvah only slightly, and for one golden moment floated serenely free of all else, as if she were flying.
Her feet touched bottom and she stood up slowly, revelling in the water flowing from her as she rose from the pool.
The mikvah lady deftly covered Miri’s hair with a clean linen headress and nodded.
“Blessed are you, Adonai Elohainu, Lord of the Asherah, who has blessed us with your law, and commanded us concerning baptism and the cleansing of our souls.”
The mikvah lady frowned for a moment. The blessing was not as she was used to in Yerushalayim, but she put it instantly down to the pagan ways of country folk. Her brief softening of her manner had vanished.
“Good!” she said after a moment’s hesitation.
Miri immersed herself a second, then a third time. The lady of the mikvah offered her hand to Miri and Miri climbed the steps from the pool on the far side. The old woman appeared again with another clean sheet and wrapped Miri as she had before.
The young woman appeared with another armload of towels. “Follow me!” she said and led Miri to another small cubicle. There, Miri’s belongings were laid out. Hannah reappeared with several alabaster and glass philtres on a silver tray. The smell of the aromatic oils within them wafted into the vacuum behind her, and filled the room with their essence. They sat Miri on a stool in the centre of the dressing room and Hannah knelt before her.
Miri smiled. “I feel like a queen.”
“Now, you’ll smell like one at least,” answered Hannah as she poured out oil into her palms. She rubbed the oil into Miri’s arms while the silent girl combed out Miri’s hair and rubbed oil into her long flowing locks. The heavy sweetness of jasmine closed Miri’s eyes and she revelled once more in Hannah’s expert touch. The narrow fingers of the young girl massaged the oil into her scalp as Hannah’s fingers moved down her legs to her feet. The smell of patchouli and myrrh joined the jasmine, a deep heavy musky aroma joined in the bouquet.
After they finished massaging the oils into she dressed with the help of the slim girl, who attended her silently. Miri did not feel compelled to speak, so she held her tongue. After she dressed, she dropped a few shekels on the side table for the attendants, bakshish, a token of her thanks for their service.
The transition from the serene darkness of the mikvah into the real world was jarring. The antechamber was bright and noisy, full of women talking excitedly. She stepped from the dressing room as if she were arising from a deep interrupted sleep. She was greeted instantly by her family. Sister Miriam was beside herself with excitement. “Oh Miri, how was it?” she asked expectantly.
“Good!” Miri replied with the same tone used by the lady of the mikvah.
They laughed, and hugged, admiring each other’s cleanliness and smell. They straightened their clothing and Yohanna unwrapped four white shawls bundled together, gave one each to Miri, Martha and Sister Miriam. They covered their heads with the shawls and wrapped them around their arms. Bordered with a blue stripe, they resembled the men’s prayer shawls, but without the tassled ends.
“Yusef will be waiting,” said Yohanna and the four of them made their way toward the large expanse of steps which led up to the large double gates on the southern wall of the temple battlements. They climbed past the men’s ritual baths.
Sister Miriam spied Yusef standing above the bath house by the balustrade which encompassed it roof. He held Eleazar in his right hand and waved with the other. He turned away from his vantage point on the roof and met them as they drew level with him on the steps.
“Come, come!” he encouraged them and motioned toward the huge double arches which led to the ramp which ascended under the porticoed great hall to the temple mount. The size of the building took their breath away, it dwarfed the people who entered it with its sheer mass and grandeur. Yusef proudly pointed out interesting features of the temple.
“The Gentile Court!” he announced grandly as they walked from the passageway into a vast outer court yard. The temple was filled with noise and shouting as people called to each other: long lost friends, recently lost children and relatives, money changers calling their rates, and stockmen calling out the purity of their animals for sale for sacrifice. Miri longed for the dark interior of the bath house; the hustle and bustle was unnerving. Sister Miriam almost vibrated in elation at actually being at the temple of which she had always longed to visit.
“Oh, I wish I was a man!” she burst out.
“Miri and Martha exchanged looks, and Sister Miriam seemed embarrassed.
“I mean, so I could go past the Court of the Women and into the Court of the Isaraelites, and actually see the altar! and the Holy of Holies!”
“Well, come, we shall enter the temple immediately!” cried Yusef. They followed him across the vast expanse of the Court of the Gentiles. The main temple presented itself in the centre of the plaza as a fortress. They made for easternmost of four great gateways in the southern wall. The massive structure dwarfed the people entering the building. A low stone wall acted as a barrier demarcing the end of the Court of the Gentiles, and temple soldiers were stationed at the openings in the low wall to ensure that only Jews could enter the building.
“Look!” said Sister Miriam as she pointed at several large signs each written in a different language, then read it aloud, “No foreigner is to enter within the balustrade and enclosure around the temple area. Whoever is caught will have only himself to blame for his death which will follow.”
They passed the guards who scrutinized them with suspicious eyes. A glimmer of interest sparkled in the officer who stood closest to Miri as she walked by and his eyes followed her with more than just professional interest.
As they passed through the checkpoint, Yusef was joined by Melcart, his chief retainer and secretary. He was dressed siimply, his prayer shawl over his head and his teliffin attached to both his forehead and wrapped about his right hand.
“I have arranged for a fine white unblemished bullock to be sacrificed for Eleazar’s redemption as well as the two white doves, and-” Melcaart produced an embroidered cloth bag which clinked of silver coins, “a substantial offering. I have also taken the liberty of obtaining a fine golden menorah and presented it to the temple in your name. Ananus himself will perform the redemption sacrifice for your grandson!”
“That must have the city buzzing!” said Yusef grimly.
“I am beginmning to feel I am the Vizier of Egypt itself!” he said with a smile.
“We have come a long way, Melcaart!” said Yusef, “Today you have earned your freedom! Make up the necessary papers and I shall affix my seal on them as soon as we return to Bethany!”
“O Master! I am honoured, but how shall I earn my living? I have been in your family for so long, I would not wish to be disengaged from your employ!”
“You shall still be a member of my family, but we shall discuss salary at some other time, my friend,” replied Yusef, “I really have no wish to lose you either! Come!” he said to the others, “Let us go inside!”
Yohanna and the girls marvelled at the silver and gold gilded gates as they passed into the women’s court. The court was jammed shoulder to shoulder. Everyone spoke now in hushed tones as the women were as close to the Holy of Holies as they were allowed. many rocked in prayer. A large bronze gate in the middle of the western wall of the courtyard led into the Court of the Isarelites, and they could see the gleeaming white marble and golden pillars of the holy of holies itself. Smoke rose in black column from the altar before the sanctuary where the holocaust roasted.
They walked together as far as the bronzed Gate of Nicanor,
“Wait for me here!” commanded Yusef and he and Melcaart turned and carried Elezar into the Court of the Israelites. Miri, Sister Miriam, Martha and Yohanna anxiously strained and stretched their necks trying to see into the next court, but Yusef and Melcaart were swallowed up by the crowd.
“Hhmmph!” said Martha disgustedly, “What a lot of nonsense!”
Only Sister Miriam stayed peering into the forbidden area of the temple. Yohanna spied some benches along the wall at the back of the court under the portico.
“Come, let’s sit together!” she said.
Sister Miriam stayed put angling closer to the great gateway to improve her point of view.
They sat in the shaded portico and sighed in unison. “What a lot of fuss and bother!” said Martha.
Miri smiled at her. “You’re jealous!” she said impishly.
“No, I’m not!” protested Martha. “It just seems like an awful waste of time and money! We could just as easily sacri-”
“Ssshh!” said the other two in unison.
“Martha!” whispered Yohanna sharply, “Please don’t mention that here! We are not in our village anymore!”
“Well, I-” she began.
“For the umpteenth time, here is only one place where sacrifice is permitted,” explained Miri for the umpteenth time. “And that,” she said, pointing though the bronze gates, “is in there!”
“Let’s talk about something else!” said Yohanna quickly as she noticed nearby heads turning inquisitively in their direction.
“I’m going to Egypt!” announced Miri.
“Great Mother!” cried Yohanna out loud.
A shocked gasp went up around them as women turned to stare at Yohanna in disbelief at such blasphemy uttered aloud in the very temple itself.
“Let’s get out of here!” said Yohanna and stood up quickly grabbing both girls by the arm. She was still very strong and yanked Miri and Martha to their feet in an instant and pulled them through he crowd before they could resist.
She pushed through the crowd, leaving disgruntled worshippers grumbling about decorum and manners in her wake. Outside, she let the two girls go.
Yohanna stared at Miri.
“Are you mad?”
“No!” said Miri, “Mermaat has asked me to travel with her to Egypt!
Yohanna shook her head in disbelief.
“Egypt?” she asked, “Egypt?”
Miri looked back at her hopefully.
“Where in Egypt?” asked Martha.
“The island of Philae. She says I must travel there to discover the Mysteries of the goddess Auset. It is one of the few places where they still can read the ancient hieroglyphs.”
Martha and Yohanna stared open mouthed at Miri.
“It will be alright,” she said, “I’m approaching my sixteenth year, and Mermaat promises she will teach me a trade.”
“A trade?” asked Martha in awe. “You mean earning your own living?”
“Yes.” said Miri firmly. Her confidence was coming back to her.
“This island is in the Mediterranean Sea?” asked Yohanna doubtfully.
“No. It is in the very heart of Upper Egypt south of the city of Thebes. Mermaat said that she is honoured in Philae, and will find placement in a reputable house.”
Yohanna wrinkled her brow. The thought of Miri so far away left her feeling melancholy. But she also knew Miri was an able young woman, not likely to be browbeaten into compromise. And there was also the blessing of the Great Mother in Miri.
“When are you going?” she asked, her voice cracking slightly.
“Whenever Mermaat returns for me,” answered Miri.
The look in Yohanna’s eyes pricked Miri’s heart. “Yohanna, please! I promise I will not leave for another month at least.” she paused. “And I will be back! I cannot leave Canaan! I know that!”
“Very well,” Yohanna said finally, “But you must say nothing of this to Yusef! I will tell him when the time is right!”