Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Holy Land


Touring Israel

Lisa and I have returned from a very exhausting two days during which we toured the northern half of Israel. We saw and experienced so much in that time that much of it is still a blur in our minds. If I tried to write about everything that we did, it would run for several pages, so instead I am going to try and convey a sense of what we saw and experienced.

As you would imagine, security to enter Israel was tight, but frankly not obtrusive. Our ship made port in the northern city of Haifa, and during the next two days we would travel south and eventually end up at the port of Ashdod, which is located in about the middle of the country’s coast.

Judging from my map, Haifa would appear to be only 30 miles south of the border with Lebanon. We drove to the East to visit the town of Nazareth. At this point, I need to digress and explain some things. Our tour turned out to be heavily slanted towards a “tour of the Holy Land.” Therefore it included stops at all the major Christian religious sites. What you need to understand is that the land that Jesus trod is now a good 35ft. under the surface. Further, at every site of religious significance, there has now been built churches, basilicas and monuments, so that this, with few exceptions, turned into a tour of magnificent churches. Most have been destroyed over the centuries and rebuilt many times. There are only a few places where actual historical remnants from the time of Jesus still are visible, and as best as my memory serves, I will comment on them as I share our trip. Also I need to explain that at many of the sites, photographs were not allowed; when they were allowed the conditions were not good – crowds and cramped quarters. In addition, since so much of our tour was spent in a moving bus, much of what we saw simply could not be photographed. So, enjoy what we got, but realize that we saw a great deal more.

In Nazareth we visited the excavations where they believe the carpentry shop of Joseph was located.


Outside the excavation is the Church of St. Joseph, built to commemorate the home of Jesus, and adjacent is the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is the largest Christian church in the Middle East.


It was here that I had to put on a skirt to cover my knees. I was wearing shorts in the heat, but I quickly learned that was not acceptable. The next day I changed into trousers.DSC02412

We continued our drive to the east and slightly north to the shores of the Sea of Galilee and the town of Tiberias. From here we turned north and proceeded to drive around the Sea until eventually we went about ¾ of the circle. Along the way we visited Tabgha where the Church of the Multiplication is believed to occupy the site where Christ performed his miracle with the fish and loaves.


Continuing, we visited the Mount of Beatitudes, where Christ delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and next we saw Capernaum.


At Capernaum, we saw one of the few places where actual structures from the time of Jesus still exist. At Capernaum, there are remains of an ancient synagogue. It is built on the foundations of an even earlier synagogue, which is where Jesus preached. So, what you can see that is “original” is only the old foundations of the old synagogue.

Usually, we were told, the sky is so hazy that it is impossible to see the other side of the Sea of Galilee. We were very lucky in having a beautiful clear day with almost unlimited visibility. Right in front of us were the hills of the Golan Heights. We continued our journey around the Sea. At one point the road turned left towards the Golan Heights, at which point we were only 10 miles from the border with Syria. You will recall that prior to Israel capturing the Golan Heights, Syria would send shells into Israel from morning to night. You can clearly see that an enemy on top of those hills would have clear and commanding control of the Valley below.

Finally at around 2pm, we stopped for lunch at a Kibbutz. This was an interesting experience and most educational. I did not realize that a Kibbutz is not a religious entity at all. Shortly after the creation of Israel in 1948 groups of young idealist from Europe came to Israel with the idea of creating a truly socialist entity, the Kibbutz. These communities were originally for farming, and everyone worked to their abilities and the community provided for all equally.IMG_2271 The huge success at turning this previous desert valley into the large farming complex that it is today is largely due to the success of these Kibbutz. Over time the communities have branched out to much more than farming. They now have restaurants on their properties, hotels and resorts, and they are big into selling souvenirs to tourist. Anyway, our lunch was plentiful, served family style and quite an enjoyable experience.

After lunch we continued to drive south towards Jerusalem. At the bottom end of the Sea of Galilee, we crossed the river Jordan. This river flows out of the Sea and continues south emptying into the Dead Sea. The once mighty river Jordan is today merely a small stream of water. The fact that the river is drying up is greatly impacting the Dead Sea and threatens to disrupt the entire Valley. Anyway, we stopped at a huge complex of shops and restaurants run as a cooperative by several of the Kibbutz. Here they have built stairs so that you can go down to the river. For $25 they will rent you a white robe into which you can change, and then you can go to the river and be baptized.


Our drive continued south towards the Dead Sea ,and without fanfare we entered the West Bank. We were driving along the river Jordan, and on our left was the country of Jordan. Between the two countries were farms in the river valley. Occasionally we would ride along the border fence, but outside of that, there was no sign that we were in “occupied” territory. As we approached the town of Jericho, the road made a wide circle around the city. Jericho is under the control of the Palestinian Authority and is a closed city to tourists.

Sadly, we never made it to the Dead Sea. It was no more that a mile distant when our bus turned east towards Jerusalem. I am really surprised they did not make that small detour. At this point we were 1,300 ft. below sea level. The city of Jerusalem is 2,600 ft. above sea level, so in the next hour we were to climb 4,000 ft. My first view of Jerusalem was rather breathtaking. Approaching from the west, the city appears sitting atop a high rock formation. It is a very beautiful sight. However, everyone was becoming so dead tired at this point that the enthusiasm was muted. Turning a corner, all traffic came to a standstill. Ahead was the checkpoint to enter the city. When our turn arrived a heavily armed soldier came onboard the bus and checked everyone’s passport, while other soldiers opened the luggage doors and searched the bus itself. I must say, this is the fist time I ever had to go through security just to enter a city.

We arrived at our hotel around 6:30 pm which meant we had been going for 12 hours so far. Dinner was at 7, and afterward Lisa and I just fell into bed exhausted.

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