Thursday, November 06, 2008

Garden Tomb

Wednesday afternoon, we made three brief stops just outside the old city wall for visits to the Room of the Last Supper, King David's Tomb and Dormition Abbey before driving a bit to the Garden Tomb.

The Room of the Last Supper was very simple, undecorated room on the upper level of a church built by the Crusaders. I personally didn't find anything special about any of the three stops.

Our tour of the Holyland ended with a stop that we will all remember for the rest of our lives - the Garden Tomb.

While there are stops on the Via Dolorossa that commemorate possible sites of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection, the Garden Tomb is another site that could have been the site for all three. During excavations many years ago, archaeologists discovered a large rock in the side of a cliff that looks like a skull (Golgotha). According to the Bible, the place where Jesus was crucified was called Golgotha.

There is also evidence that the location was previously a garden. Later, a series of Jewish tombs (burial caves) were found here, including some for 'wealthier' individuals. Remember, a wealthy man, Joseph of Aramathea, offered up his burial tomb for Jesus.

Anyway, our guide gave us an excellent description of the site - which opposed to the iconic churches is indeed a very quiet and peaceful garden - and its ties to the Bible. As we listened to his powerful explanations, other groups nearby were holding worship services - singing hymns and partaking in communion. Our guide reminded us, 'Don't worry that the tomb is empty. He is risen,' and 'We don't worship a dead teacher, we worship a risen Saviour.'

We went down to an empty tomb.

It was a very emotional experience for all of us, and the ultimate way to end our tour of the Holyland.

Via Dolorossa

We exited the underground tunnels at the end of the Western Wall and the beginning of the Via Dolorossa - a path commerating Jesus' crucifixion from trial to resurrection with 14 marked stations.

The first station is the Church of Flagellation - site of Jesus trial and condemnation. We took a moment inside the church to read Matthew's account of the trial and crucifixion.

In the courtyard, there was a Korean group praying, chanting and singing hymns.

Stations I through VII wind through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem - narrow alleyways that are a colorful marketplace. Many vendors offer rugs and scarves hanging from the doorways.

The last five stations of the cross are at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - a church that actually houses six denominations. It is filled with icons from the Orthodox and Catholics. One site has a hole in the ground that is supposedly the spot where the cross was placed in the ground. Another site has a rock slab that is supposedly where Jesus' body was laid to be prepared for burial. Many of the Orthodox were kissing it and rubbing their shoes or souvenirs on it.

As a Protestant, I much preferred the Garden Tomb (described in a later post).

Jerusalem Archaelogical Park

Our final day of touring was Wednesday, and it was a very intensive day inside the Old City of Jerusalem.

We started the morning at the Jerusalem Archaelogical Park exploring the excavations of the ancient city just outside the walls of the temple mount. One of the things that makes the biggest impression is the sheer size of everything. How did these ancient people move rocks that weighed tons and build these walls and structures hundreds of feet high?

The temple mount itself is the size of 12 soccer fields, surrounded by a wall that was hundreds of feet high. In its current state, the wall is only about half of the original height.

The excavations found 54 ritual baths nearby. There were so many, so the huge number of pilgrims coming to make sacrifices at the temple could purify themselves before entering.

The park adjoins the famous Western Wall (Wailing Wall). The current section is only 10% of the original length. The rest is underground.

Earlier this century some British archaeologists discovered ancient pathways underground, and our next adventure involved descending under the current city and walking the remaining length of the wall. At several places, there were people worshipping, because it is the closest point to the Foundation Stone located under the original Temple and now the Dome of the Rock.

The Foundation Stone is said to be the stone that Abraham tied Isaac to in order to sacrifice him to God. Muslims also believe the stone is where Mohammed ascended into heaven.

The amazing thing is that while we were already underground, at certain points you could look down another 30 or 40 feet and see the original ancient road that would have been at the base of the wall.

Israel Museum

Our final stop Tuesday was the Israel Museum. It's a very nice museum with a large collection of exhibits, however, much of it is closed and will be so for the next couple of years for remodeling.

We stopped here to see two things. First, there is a very large model of the city of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple (Jesus era). Seeing the model helped us make sense of how things were versus how things are now.

This is also the museum where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed, although certain scrolls are often out on tours in various countries. The scrolls are housed in a hall that looks like the type of jar in which the original scrolls were stored for centuries.

The museum is located very near to the Knesset (Parliament), Supreme Court and Prime Minister's Office.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Next on the itinerary was a trip to Bethlehem. Located just south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is located in Palestine, which meant we technically had to leave Israel.

Our guide - as are all Israelis - is forbidden to go to Palestine, so he dropped us off at the checkpoint next to the towering wall that has been constructed. Another man met us, walked us to the other side and then drove us to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. It's the site where Christmas Eve services are broadcast around the world.

The church itself has three sections - a Greek Orthodox section, Armenian Orthodox section and a Catholic section. Our guide here kind of rushed us, so we did't get a lot of explanations.

The highlight, though, was going down to the Grotto of Nativity, a small cave that would have been a stall for animals and a likely location of Jesus' birth. On the right was an altar with a 14-point bronze star. On the left, a manger said to be the manger that Jesus was laid on. We were down there at the same time as a group from Germay, who sang two verses of "Stille Nacht."

The Palestinians we encountered were very friendly. Several asked about the election. One of our group asked to pose for a picture with some policemen. They invited all of us in to the station for some tea, however, our guide was rushing us back into a taxi.

The obvious difference between Bethlehem and Jersulam is the poverty. The Palestinian side is very poor.

Jerusalem Market

Thank goodness we are a small group with a private guide. I don't think a bus full of 30+ people would have had the opportunity to do what we did next.

We drove to the largest market in Israel - it covers several square blocks - and had lunch.

Most of the market is under cover, but some of it is open air. There are vendors selling every imaginable type of fruit, vegetable, meat, fish and more.

There are a few cafes, and we found a Persian place that offered a plate with two large, spiced meatballs on a bed of rice and vegetables.

Yad Vashem

We spent about 3 hours at Yad Vashem, a Holocaust Memorial that opened in 2005.

You can't really call it a museum. It features a museum as well as several other exhibits and memorials.

One of the first things we viewed was the Children's Memorial, a structure erected to commemmorate the 1.5 million children killed during the holocaust. The couple that paid for it did so after guaranteeing that a motif of their son's face would be the first thing visitors saw as they approached.

Inside a dark room, there are five candles that burn continuously. A system of 500 mirrors reflects their light to make it look like there are 1.5 million candles burning. As you look at the lights, a narrator reads the names, ages and countries of every child killed (in three languages).

We also toured the Historical Museum. Architecturally, it is very attractive. It's a prism-shaped building. On the inside, there is a long corridor down the middle. The exhibits zig zag from right to left chronicling the begin of the Nazi era to the liberation of the concentration camps. There are photos, videos and artifacts telling the story at multiple levels.

The final room is the Hall of Names. A circular room about 50 feet in diameter has shelves and shelves of binders containing the names of people killed. There are 6,000 numbered binders and thousands more on the lower shelves without numbers.

It is very interesting, but also very draining because of its emotional nature.

Ein Karem

We made several stops on Tuesday on one of our longest days of touring yet. We didn't get back to the hotel until about 8:00.

First, we drove just outside of Jerusalem to the hills of Ein Karem, which is the traditional hometown of John the Baptist. We spent a few minutes at the Visitation Church (where the angel visited Elizabeth).

Jerusalem City Center

Our first night in Jerusalem, we just ate dinner at the hotel and then ventured into the Old City for a bit. Monday night, we headed to the New City.

There's an area of several blocks that are for pedestrians only. This area is lined with shops and restaurants. We found a nice cafe and ate outside.

The only thing that was a bit unsettling was the security guard at the entrance who was "wanding" certain people who he deemed suspicious. A gentle reminder that there is a potential for danger.

Ein Gedi Spa

With several days worth of history filling our brains, we had a chance to unwind with a two-hour stop at Ein Gedi Spa.

Floating on the Dead Sea is awesome. We walked out into the water (wear shoes because the lake bed is salt and rock and very hard on the feet). When we got about knee deep, we just kind of sat down and the rest kind of happens automatically. Your feet just kick up to the top of the water, and you just float.

It took a few minutes to feel comfortable and relax. For a while, I could feel that my stomach muscles were really tight, but after a bit I got used to it and relaxed and floated.

After about 30 minutes in the lake - the lowest spot on earth - it was on to the next step.

The mud there supposedly contains lots of minerals that are good for the skin, so it was time to cake ourselves completely in mud. As it dries, the minerals work their way into the skin.

We washed off in a hot sulphur shower from the nearby springs and then made the hour drive back to Jerusalem.


One of the most impressive things we've seen came at our next stop, Masada.

Masada was a large settlement built on the top of an isolated cliff more than 280 meters (700 feet) above the surrounding environment. The very thought of how anyone even today, not to mention, a couple thousand years ago could transport boulders and anything else up the sheer cliffsides to build a community is mind-boggling.

We took a cable car up from the bottom of the red rock and found an amazing settlement.

The top of the cliff is approximately 700 meters by 250 meters and features ruins of bath houses, deep water cisterns, food storage rooms, synagogues and more.

The site is highly regarded by Jews as the site of a last stand of 1,000 Jewish rebels in the Great Revolt against Rome. According to historical records, the Romans came and put the cliff under siege. Evidence of their encampments and a containment wall are still visible from the air. They then built a ramp and tower to the top to prepare to attack. Facing certain death, the Jewish settlers killed themselves on the eve of the attack.

It's a fascinating site with ruins from the Jewish settlers and then the Romans, who built palaces on the top of the imposing cliff.


Monday provided several touring and educational opportunities as well as a great opportunity to relax and have a "vacation."

First, I'll talk about some of the touring we did, and then to the fun in a later post.

Our first stop was Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. Qumran is located about 40 minutes west of Jerusalem, driving back into the desert past Jericho and turning south at the Dead Sea.

An ancient religious community that had separated itself from the main Jewish religious establishment settled there long ago. Some say that John the Baptist may have even been a member.

This group recorded many of the scriptures and their own community "rules" on scrolls. When they faced the advance of enemies, the group hid the scrolls in ancient jars in the caves nearby.

Some Bedouin goat herders accidently stumbled across one of the jars in 1947 while searching for a lost goat.

The area features excavated ruins, hiking trails and a short film explaining how this sect lived.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

First evening in Jerusalem - Garden of Gethsemane

We arrived in Jerusalem at sundown. After a quick panoramic view of the city from the top of the Mount of Olives, we drove down to the Garden of Gethsemane before it closed.

Gethsemane means olive press, and this garden is on the route between Bethany and Jerusalem, so churches have been built on this site since the fifth century as the site of the Garden of Gethsemane mentioned in the Bible - where Jesus went to pray after the Last Supper, the site of his betrayal and arrest.

Several of the olive trees in the garden have trunks 5-6 feet in diameter, so scientists estimate they could be 2,000 years old.

It was very powerful to pray in the Garden like Jesus did so long ago.

Driving to Jerusalem

Shortly after leaving Bet Alpha, we entered the West Bank in our drive to Jerusalem. The landscape shifted to desert with very rocky, sandy and hilly terrain.

We witnessed very poor Palestinians toiling in their fields, including shepherds herding sheep and goats on the back of donkeys.

We drove past Jericho. It is not permitted to stop there - some of the interesting politics that we are learning about first hand.

Just past Jericho, we turned west for the final 30 minutes to Jerusalem. As we climbed fro 300 meters below sea level to more than 700 meters above sea level, we passed numerous bedouin encampments - basically very poor shanty towns with no electricity or running water with shacks or tents as living conditions.

Bet Shean and Bet Alpha

The remainder of Sunday consisted mostly of some interesting history lessons.

We drove south to Bet Shean where 17 layers of civilizations have been built upon each other over a period of 7,000 years. An important biblical event from the area - this is where the Philistines hung Saul's body after defeating his army.

More than 400 acres have been excavated of ancient Bet Shean and Scythopolis. Most is an expansive Roman city built on top of an earlier civilization. There are wide roads, shops, bath houses and temples. Archaeological evidence points to the city being destroyed by an earthquake because all of the columns and arches toppled in the same direction.

Thirty minutes further down the road is Bet Alpha, the site of an ancient synagogue discovered in 1928. The critical find here was an intricate mosiac floor dating back to the 6th century that was completely intact except for one small corner.

We also watched a 12-minute film that helped clarify the history of the area.

Jordan River baptismal site

We left Nof Ginosar and drove south along the Sea of Galilee back past Tiberias to where the Jordan River flows out of the lake. About 30-40 years ago, a local kibbutz built a baptismal site here. Previous pilgrimmage baptisms often took place further south, however, the damming of the river led to low water levels.

Our stop here was one of the most emotional of our journey so far as one of the members of our group decided to get re-baptized in the river. She joined a group of about 20 that had traveled there with a minister from the U.S. The service started with the singing of "Amazing Grace" and reading of the scriptures before the series of baptisms. It concluded with the group singing "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus."

Nof Ginosar

Another gorgeous day dawned on the Sea of Galilee. It's the first day of the work week here, so traffic was a bit heavier, although Tiberias isn't that big of a city so it wasn't too bad.

We drove first to Nof Ginosaur, a kibbutz that offers boat rides on the lake and has a museum that holds a boat from 2,000 years ago.

We joined a French tour group for a 40-minute ride on the lake, heading over to look up the hill at the Mount of Beatitudes church.

Back at the museum, we watched a short film about the boat that was discovered in 1986 during a drought when the water level in the lake was very low. Two fisherman discovered the nearly intact boat. Carbon dating proved it came from Jesus' time.

Saturday, November 01, 2008


It was now early afternoon on Saturday and we headed back from the north - Caesarea Phillippi - to Galilee.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the shore and ordered the special - St. Peter's Fish, a light, white fish that is the biggest and most common fish in the lake.

Can you imagine Peter and his fellow disciples fishing all night on the lake, catching nothing and Jesus telling them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat?

After lunch, we went just a few hundred yards from the restaurant to the ruins of Capernaum. Their are several sets of ruins - as we have seen in lots of locations, its one site built on another, built on top of another, etc. These ruins feature some ruins from the 5th century built on top of ruins from Peter's house. In fact, inscriptions have been found identifying the site as the home of Peter, who played host to Jesus.

Most fascinating were ruins from the time of Jesus. Several levels of ruins that had been built above it had been cleared away to get to black stone blocks that had formed houses for 100 or so families at the time.

A white-stone synagogue from the 5th century sits on top of more black stones nearby - likely the remnants of the local synagogue/temple where Jesus and Peter worshipped.


More to come in the next couple of days as we head to Jerusalem.

Dan, Golan Heights and Caesarea Philippi

From the Mount of Beatitudes, we left the Galilee area for the next couple of hours and drove to the northwestern tip of Israel - in fact, it kind of sticks up like a narrow finger with Lebanon on the left and Syria on the right. Needless to say, the area has seen a lot of conflict in the not-so-distant past.

The drive north featured the Galilee mountain range on the left and the Hula Valley on the right.

Our first stop was Dan - one of the tribes of Israel that was pushed to the north to settle. Genesis 14:14 references the fact that Abram chased some enemies as far as Dan.

There are some old archaelogical digs from ancient cities here, although we didn't spend much time looking at that. Instead, Dan is also one of three sources of the Jordan River. There was rushing water in numerous places, a sound that our guide said can only be heard in a handful of places in the entire country.

From there, we took a short drive to Caesarea Phillippi. After Herod died, his territory was divided among his three sons. Phillippi ruled the area in northeastern Israel. The site at Banias is mostly pagan ruins where the Romans and others built numerous temples to worship their many gods. Caesarea Phillippi is also the location where Jesus told Peter to build his house on the rock - fitting since the pagan temples are at the base of a solid, rock cliff.

Mount of Beatitudes

After visiting Tagbha, we drove to the Mount of Beatitudes.

It's not always easy during the tour to feel a special connection to God and the scriptures. The guide is explaining so many things, there are so many other tour groups walking around - it can be difficult to slow down and enjoy a quiet moment and reflect on the significance of each place.

We did our best to create such a moment at the Mount of Beatitudes - a site up a hill on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is believed to have preached the Sermon on the Mount.

After looking briefly at the church and the view of the lake and surroundings, we took a few minutes to read the teachings from the book of Matthew. It was very meaningful.

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee

The trip is starting its third day and already it has featured several incredible moments.

One was watching the sun set over the Mediterranean on our first day in Tel Aviv. Saturday morning, it was waking up at 6 a.m. and watching the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee.

It's the Sabbath here in Israel, which means some things are closed, but it also means much less traffic.

We started the day just a mile or so from the hotel at the ancient hot springs bath and the ruins of one of the oldest synagogues in Israel, dating back to the 3rd-4th century AD.

After a brief visit, we drove past Migdhal (in Greek Magdala), the home of Mary Magdalene. From there, we continued to Tagbha where a Benedictine Monastery is located on the traditional site of Jesus multiplying the fish and the loaves. Under the altar of the simple monastery is a rock that is said to be "the" rock that the disciples used to cut the fish and the bread before distributing it to the crowd.

The monastery is on a site that has housed a church since at least the 5th century, and prior to that it was a Christian gathering spot.

Cana to the Sea of Galilee

We left Nazareth en route for Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Our drive took us past Cana, the site of Jesus' first miracle when turned water into wine.

As we drove through the hilly and rocky terrain, I couldn't help but think of Jesus spending 30 days in the wilderness.

Our drive wound us around the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee descending further and further. The lake is located 200 m below sea level. The drive, which took less than an hour, would have been a full day trip on foot or by donkey for Jesus.

We arrived in Tiberias just after sunset, and were immediately in awe of the Sea of Galilee. It's 12 km wide and 23 km long and provides 1/3 of Israel's fresh water.

With darkness setting in, we checked in for the first of two nights in the Holiday Inn. The hotel is very nice, comparable or better to most of the Holiday Inns in the United States. The rooms are fairly spacious, featuring a couch, desk and refrigerator - and best of all, a balcony with a view of the lake.

The dinner buffet featured three amply-supplied stations of salads, pastas, meats, desserts and more.

There is also a spa here, fed by the local hot springs, however it closed at 5:00 and we weren't able to take advantage.

Our final trip for the day was a five-minute walk down to the shore. It was a clear, starry night, and it was easy to think of it as the place where Jesus called his disciples to be fishers of men, walked on water and did much of his teaching.

A Druze lunch

After visiting the monastery, we drove toward Haifa, stopping a small Druze town called Dalyat el Carmel for lunch.

The lunches have been fairly expensive to far - $25 - but this one was definitey worth it, because our guide was with us to help introduce us to authentic local food.

We started with a round of "salad" which included several small plates featuring olives, pickles, hummus, eggplant, something similar to salsa, tabuli, and falafel - a ball of fried chickpeas. It came with pita bread and another very thin bread - thinner than a tortilla.

I especially loved the falafel, tabuli and hummus.

Following the salad round, we had a choice of chicken kebabs or lamb kebabs. We tried both and both had favorable reviews.

Our lunch was topped off with small pieces of baklava - delicious.


Following our lunch, we continued east toward Haifa and had a beautiful panoramic view of the city and bay from the Mount Carmel mountain range before looping back east and heading to Nazareth. Most of the Mount Carmel range is recognized as a nature preserve. We saw lots of people on bicycles.

It took about 30-40 minutes to reach Nazareth, which in the last 50-60 years has grown into the largest Arab town in Israel with about 70,000 inhabitants. Compare that to Jesus' time when it's estimated that perhaps 100 families made up the village.

With all of the hustle and bustle in the town, it was difficult to get much of a spiritual connection, even as we visited the Church of the Annunciation. The church is built on a site where there has known to be a church since the fifth century. The center of the lower basilica sits above a cave, which is believed to be the home of Mary and the location where she was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her she would give birth to the Christ child. Under the altar in the cave are inscribed the words "it happened here."

We were fortunate to witness a private communion service in the lower basilica. It gave us a brief opportunity to listen to their prayers and reflect.

Around the courtyard of the church and the inside of the lower basilica are large murals from many countries, donated by Catholic communities.

One interesting item that our guide pointed out to us as we looked at the bronze door at the entrance is that some scholars believe that Joseph's occupation has been mis-translated. They think that he was more likely a stone mason rather than a wood mason (carpenter) because the local topography is very rocky and features very few trees.

Mount Carmel

From Caesarea, we headed north and west to Mount Carmel. It's actually a range of mountains and not one specific peak. As we ascended, the transitioned from the sandy dunes along the coast through pines, firs and cypress trees - many of them planted during the last century.

As we drove, we also found it fairly easy to identify different communities. Jewish communities tend to be a bit more spread out, while the Muslim and Arab communities have houses "stacked" upon each other. The difference between those two is that the Muslim communities feature the minarets of the local mosques sticking above the "skyline."

There are also several Druze communities in the area. The Druze have been accepted into Israel because they are known to be loyal to whatever government they are living under.

Our stop in the Mount Carmel area was at the Carmelite monastery in Muhraka. It is the site that honors and Elijah and the story from I Kings 18. As you may recall, Elijah challenged the worshippers of Baal to build an altar and call upon their god to light it on fire. After several attempts, they failed.

Elijah, meanwhile, built and altar and ordered it soaked with water. He called out to God who made it burst into flame.

Our guide, and the statue in the garden, reminded us that Elijah then ordered the slaughter of the priests who had led the people to worship Baal.

From the top of the monastery, we could look out in every direction. To the east, we could see the Mediterranean. To the southeast, our guide said Tel Aviv can be seen on a clear day (about 90 km away), however it was too hazy for us to see. To the west was a fertile valley, and to the northwest was Haifa.


Our official tour of Israel began Friday morning around 8:30 when we were met by our guide Shalom. As he explained to us later in the day, he was born during a time of war. He was going to be named after his grandfather, but his mother chose the name Shalom instead in hopes of peace.

We drove north out of Tel Aviv along the Mediterranean coast. Much of the coast is lined with huge sand dunes although there were numerous orchards of fruits and vegetables. Israel is small, but it has several climates and many varieties of plants have been successfully domesticated here.

An hour north of Tel Aviv is Caesarea, an ancient port city with ruins from the time of Herod the Great. Shalom pointed out that to this day, the Romans are still regarded as the most prolific builders in Israeli history.

The ruins at Caesarea include an amphitheater, palace, hippodrome and more.

From a Christian point of view, it was interesting to learn that Paul was imprisoned here prior to being sent to Rome to plead his case as a Roman citizen. It was here that he encountered Cornelius, a commander in the Roman army, who became one of the first converts to Christianity (Acts 10).

Another interesting find on the site was a tablet with the inscription of Pontius Pilate, the ruler who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.