Monday, September 14, 2009

Jerusalem, Israel

The Holy Land


Map picture

The next morning we started very early for our “day” in Jerusalem. It had dawned as a clear blue morning, and while the heat would build as the day matured, for the moment it was quite comfortable. Jerusalem is a truly remarkable city. Remember that to Jews the Western Wall, the sole surviving remnant of the Second Temple embodies their cultural and religious identity. Christians walk the Via Dolorosa and observe the Stations of the Cross to recall Christ’s sacrifice. And for Moslems, the city is home to the third holiest shrine in all Islam, the El-Aqsa Mosque, from which Muhammad ascended into Heaven to receive the teaching of Allah.

Our first stop was on the hillside of the Mount of Olives. IMG_2346 From here one can gain a breathtaking perspective of the Old City.


IMG_2376 Nearby was the Garden of Gethsemane which is where Judas betrayed Christ. Today it is home to The Church of All Nations.

Next we stopped at the Israeli museum, where we saw two fantastic exhibits.IMG_2420 The first was a full scale model of what the city of Jerusalem looked like during the time of Christ. The man who so meticulously constructed this model dedicated his life to its construction. Just looking at the model you begin to realize just how impressive the city of Jerusalem really is. Next we entered a special and very unique building where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed. This was a special moment for me because while in college I had done a research paper on the Scrolls, and now for the first time I would get to see them firsthand. The Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves between 1947 and 1956. Altogether there are over 900 documents. They were produced between 150 BC and 70 AD. Here scholars have found the first known text of the Bible, which is complete with the exception of the Book of Esther. I had always assumed that the Scrolls were long in length, but in fact, their height is about what a hard cover book would be today. I was also surprised by the excellent condition of the writings. As you can no doubt gather from my enthusiasm, I was enthralled to finally get to see the actual documents.

At this point, our guide had to depart our bus since our next stop was to be the city of Bethlehem, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. I will tell you right now that passing over to PLA controlled territory was somewhat unnerving. The enclave is completely surrounded by a high security concrete wall. IMG_2435 To enter the city, our bus was searched and we all had to show our passports to gun toting personnel. As we passed through the checkpoint, we also passed into another world. Behind us were wide boulevards and open spaces. Now we were into crowed narrow roads full of people everywhere walking to and fro. Our bus first stopped at a gift shop. It stopped within feet of the door into the shop, and we were escorted directly into the shop and when we had all entered the barred doors were locked behind us. Soon there was some kind of altercation outside the door and several very, very big guys showed up to stop whatever was happening. It was all rather unnerving. However, without Lisa knowing I begged my way outside and walked up the street to where there was a huge commotion taking place. There were police cars and ambulances and people pushing and shoving everywhere. Other than the street vendors, no one bothered me and in fact two teenagers asked me to take their picture. IMG_2458 What I had stumbled onto was the exit gate from the walled compound into Jerusalem. Today turned out to be Ramadan, a big religious holiday for the Muslims, and they were trying to get out in order to attend services at their mosque. Obviously the lines were long and tempers were short. I decided it was best to move on. Chruch of the Nativity Church of the Nativity

Our bus then navigated the narrow streets to the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the spot where it is believed that Christ was born.


Of course this church is itself built on a much older church structure. They have been able to open the floor to reveal some of the mosaic floors of the original structure, which dated from the 1st Century BC. Next to this church is yet another church. As I said yesterday, it was a “church after church” tour in many ways.

Leaving the city of Bethlehem was no small feat. Because of the religious holiday, cars had been abandoned along both sides of the only exit road, leaving at best a very narrow lane. Unfortunately this road had to carry two-way traffic. Our bus managed to make it about half way up the road before coming to a complete gridlock. It could not go forward, and it could not go back, and so we sat with horns blaring and tempers flaring.


Eventually a police car arrived and the hopeless officer tried to clean up the mess, but it took the good services of many locals to sort the whole mess out. Finally we reached the checkpoint to return to Israel. Once again our bus was searched and once again a gun toting officer checked our passports, but then we were back in an entirely different world again.

Lunch was at a Benedictine Monastery, after which we went for our two hour walk in the Old City. Here was a maze of narrow streets filled with vendors and overflowing with people. The sights, sounds, smells and constant jostle of people were overwhelming. The streets were very uneven and worn slick. Looking back it is almost a blur of activity. Lisa very wisely elected to stay with the bus, and in hindsight her knees could not have handled the walk.

IMG_2543 Church of the Holy Sepulcher

We started at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This huge Church, which has been destroyed and re-built many times, has within its wall the sites where Christ was crucified, entombed and was resurrected. The structure we see today was built in the 12th Century and is actually shared by several denominations, each having very specific areas and very specific tasks to perform. From there we walked the Via Dolorosa, which is the road that Christ walked on the way to his crucifixion. Along this walk are the Stations of the Cross.


The final stop on our walk was the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall. This is the most sacred of Jewish Shrines. Security to enter the area of the Wall was very tight, and armed soldiers were everywhere. The Wall is actually the sole remnant of the 2nd Temple which was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans. It was part of the Temple Mount foundation erected by King Herod the Great.

Finally, a very hot and tired group boarded our bus for the 90 minute drive east to the coastal city of Ashdod, where our ship would be waiting. More security checks and finally we were back onboard. I must say this was a very exciting and highly educational visit. For the first time I truly understand the plight of Israel. It is a small country bordered by the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, all in very close proximity. During the six day war all of these countries with the exception of Lebanon sent their armies to destroy the State of Israel. The emotional scar of that event still runs deep today.

So we are off to Port Said in Egypt, and then onto the city of Alexandria, Egypt. Believe me, we need some recovery time.

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