Returning home reflections...

After about 14 ½ hours in the air and about 24 hours of travel, we made it home last night. Thankfully, we were given an extra hour with the “fall back” time change!

We had the opportunity to see history from different eras:
-       From the time of the First Temple (8th – 6th Centuries BCE) at Megiddo, Jericho and Jerusalem,
-       From the time of Jesus and the Second Temple (60 BCE to 70 AD) at Caesarea, Capernaum, Galilee, Bethany beyond the Jordan, Qumran, Jerusalem and Bethlehem,
-       From the time of the Romans at all of the times for Jesus plus Caesarea Philippi and Jerash, 
-       From the time of the Byzantine empire (330 ~ 690 AD) and crusaders (1095 – 1291) – especially in some churches and left over strongholds,
-       From the time of the various iterations of Caliphates and the Turks, with a special nod to Petra in this period,
-       From the time of the British (early 1900’s to 1948),
-       And finally from the modern state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

We also saw a great diversity of landscape ranging from the coastal plain to the highlands on either side of the Jordan to the amazing wild of Wadi Rum, to the Galilee and the Dead Sea.

We have met wonderful people from every area, and found the Jordanians particularly hospitable. The guides were each full of information and also left us with fond memories of each of them as persons living in this tumultuous area. Of course we were also blessed with wonderful travel mates, and friendships were made or deepened by this experience.

On the political front, we are much more aware of the complexities of the area. Here is a Jewish nation who have been hardened by the experience of centuries, indeed millennia of discrimination crowned by the genocide of the Holocaust. It is not a united group, indeed more divided that what we see in Canada, between the Orthodox Jews, those who come from elsewhere to set up Jewish Settlements in the West Bank (substantially increasing tension), the majority of observant or non-observant Jews who wish to find a peaceful coexistence with the Arab community within Palestine, Israeli Arabs, Arab Christians, and a small (mostly Orthodox) Christian community. It is a complex world, surrounded by complex relations with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the remnants of Syria, and the rest of the Arab Islamic world. We have a sense of the tension over the Temple Mount, and the deep distrust on both sides.

We also have had a glimpse into a world where water is such a precious resource, and has been a deciding factor for thousands of years. We are blessed in Canada in just so many ways.

From the perspective of faith, it has been deeply stirring. To have been in the areas where Jesus grew up and where he did most of his ministry provides so much sense of context to the stories we have been hearing since our childhoods. To walk the areas of Jerusalem that Jesus spent his final hours and days within seems somehow more complex, but no doubt will have its own impact. Mostly, all of this history seems more real now. And it also leaves me with the full sense that Jesus is not to be found in these places, but maybe it can help us find our own connection with Him.

Gentle reader, thank you for coming with us on this journey. May this journey be a blessing to each of you as it has been for us.


We did make it to Jericho!

St George's Monastery
The plan had been to visit other areas in the West Bank today, but they are not considered safe, and we can now visit Jericho, so off we went. First stop was a view of St George’s Monastery from the hills between Jerusalem and Jericho. It was an isolated spot; close to an aqueduct that Herod had built to supply fresh water to Jericho… only 2000 years ago. It was truly in the wilderness, but had to be rebuilt more like a fortress after the Islamic invasion in the eighth century (not a good thing to be a cleric at that time apparently). We also saw a small flower in the desert that opens with water to take in the rain, and then closes again as it dries. A miracle of the desert.

We stopped for a short time at sea level... in the middle of the dry hill country. Of course there was a commercial opportunity as well as a camel photo op for those so inclined. 

The remains of the original Jericho consist of a hill (tel) which may be 200m across… not terribly impressive given some of the sites we have seen. But we went up the cable car to the Monastery of Temptation – reputed to be the site of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness before being tempted by Satan. The small cell high up on the cliffs is unimpressive, but at least not off-putting. The Orthodox monastery itself is modest, filled with icons and has a tremendous view. I am sure it does have a sense of serenity once us tourists disappear for the day.
The Monastery of Temptation

Looking from the Monastery over modern Jericho

We were treated once again to wonderful Palestinian hospitality and a lovely lunch that included kebobs – very tasty! We had the opportunity to thank Mossa, our driver and Ahuva, our guide for the wonderful time they showed us, not to mention keeping us safe from stones (apparently Jericho had been unsafe due to kids stoning cars a few days ago), and the traffic.

We arrived back at the hotel early to pack for our journey home tomorrow. I do not look forward to the long day and long flights, but I do think that I am ready for my own bed.


Jerusalem - the Old City

Today was our day to visit the old part of Jerusalem. We started early and drove from our hotel north of the Old City to the Dung Gate in the southeast, near the Temple Mount. Ahuva, our guide quickly saw that the line was growing rapidly for the Temple Mount, so rather than stop to visit the Western Wall (the Weeping Wall), we got into line for the Temple Mount (entrance only open to non-Muslims until 10am). The reason for the airport-style security check was the ongoing tension on the Mount between extremists on both sides. Orthodox Jews want to re-take the Temple Mount to re-establish a Jewish Temple, and fundamentalist Muslims still dream of a Palestine free of Jews, and a Jerusalem for the Muslim Arabs. Most want peace, but there are the extreme few and we saw not only a stack of riot shields ready for use just before we entered the area, but ever-present armed Israeli security. We also saw a group of Muslim women ready to make a fuss if anything happened which they did not like (such as seeing an orthodox Jew come onto the Mount) – and later heard them doing just that.

The Mount itself is lovely, and larger than I would have thought – probably 500 x 300m. At the south end is the El-Asqa Mosque. The Dome of the Rock with its golden dome and octagonal tile-covered base dominates the area. We cannot see inside, but the outside is truly inspiring. The fact that this area has become a symbol of dissent and conflict rather than a symbol of peace is truly tragic.

We descended through the northeastern corner close to the Lion’s gate of the city, and were aware that the Mount rises a number of meters above any other area in the Old City. From here on we seemed always to be either going up or down on the streets, sometimes with stairs, on the slippery polished stones of the streets.

Our next stop was St Anne’s church next to the pools of Bethesda within the Muslim Quarter. Stepping into the area was stepping into a garden within the city. It was a church going back to the time of the crusaders, stone and unadorned, but with magnificent acoustics. We did have a holy moment singing and feeling the sound ring though the simple domed nave. We then went to view the remains of the pools of Bethesda (“House of Mercy”) that have been there for 3000 years - at least 10m below grade. We recalled the story of Jesus healing the cripple who waited by the pools – and was criticized for doing so on the Sabbath.

A little further on we joined the Via Dolorosa, the path of Christ from his judgment by Pontius Pilot towards Golgotha and the Tomb. There are references to the Stations of the Cross on the wall as we moved, and we met other groups at times from Nigeria and somewhere in the Far East who sang as they processed down the street. The street at this point was walled, often with some shops on the side. It is wide enough that two cars could pass if they had to, but thankfully there are almost no cars in the Old City.

We broke off from the Via Dolorosa to head south through much narrower streets, lined with small shops and often covered above to head to the Western Wall. At this point, if everyone cleared the space, there may have been room for one car to pass through, but it was filled with innumerable people, mostly visitors. Then the space opened some and we were in a Jewish area, and came to another checkpoint 30m before coming to the back of the square for the Wall.

The Western Wall was confusing to me. On the one hand I felt I did not belong in this place of worship, yet here were hundreds of people taking pictures next to others fervently praying at the Wall. We saw at least 3 Bar Mitzvahs in progress (Thursday is one of the days this is allowed) with the women leaning over the divider between men and women while the celebration progressed. Each ended with the young man carrying the scroll of the Torah back to an area set for this at the side. Perhaps the most fitting prayer is what Wayne suggested; “peace in Jerusalem”.

We backtracked to the Via Dolorosa to catch an early lunch of pita with the usual offerings. Most of the group was happy with this, but some are starting to yearn for more typical Canadian fare.

Then back on the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This site has been the centre of an un-holy tug-of-war for centuries between various branches of the “church universal”. That is worthy of a chapter to itself, but suffice it to say that cooperation between the various groups who have staked a claim to parts of this site is less than ideal. In addition, today we had the opportunity of sharing this site with the occupants of at least two cruise ships, so its usual chaos was even greater.

On first entering, we were presented with a slab of stone on the ground which tradition holds was the site of preparation of Jesus’ body. On our immediate right was a massive lineup to ascend about two stories to the top of Golgotha (we passed on the line). Circling the church counterclockwise, we passed a flight of stairs that lead down to an Armenian sanctuary with thousands of crosses scratched in the walls, a leftover from the crusaders, and apparently the origin of the Jerusalem Cross. After circling ¾ of the way around the church, we came to the main dome; the site of the Tomb itself. Again, there was a lineup that would have required at least an hour to get a closer glimpse of the inside. The whole area was enclosed in a “cube” at least 30 feet high. Everything was dimly lit, crowded with uneven floors and far from peaceful. We were thankful that Ahuva had taken us to the Garden Tomb yesterday for a much more spiritual experience.

A final walk through the narrow streets showed us some Roman ruins as well as remains of the city wall from the time of the First Temple (i.e. Solomon). And then we trekked through more narrow streets to exit the city by the East through the Jaffa Gate.

What to make of this day, one of the key days of our journey? The Old City is certainly unlike any city I have every visited. The corridor-streets, hundreds of little shops selling their wares and polished cobblestones are unique. The experience of the Temple Mount will leave me disturbed with its mixed message of faith, distrust and anger. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has just left me cold. Or maybe it really has underlined the message for me that “He is not there”. Having seen it myself, I know that it will continue to work on me. I am glad that I came, and thankful for today.


Garden Tomb to Holocaust

It is cooler now in Jerusalem – high teens for temperature, along with the ongoing question of whether or not we will see rain. We were lucky yesterday, and as it turned out, in spite of building clouds through the afternoon, we were lucky today.

We started with a ten minute walk to the Garden Tomb, an alternative site for Golgotha and possibly the tomb. Whatever the arguments, it was an oasis in the city to review the course of the crucifixion, burial and discovery of the empty tomb. We were lead through this by a volunteer from Belgium, who helped us focus on the importance of the facts that Jesus was crucified by the Romans, buried in a nearby tomb like the one in the photo, and then rose. The visit culminated in a modest celebration of communion, lead by Wayne. It touched deep feelings that struggle for words.

From this celebration of the triumph of love, we went to the Holocaust museum: Yad Vashem. We prepared to join with people everywhere in lamentation for not only those who died, but for the death of our own na├»ve belief in simple unguarded goodness. It was a remarkable piece of architecture (we understand it is by a Canadian) where although you can see a passage straight through, the path takes you from one side to the other. We viewed the progression of the Nazi program of removing rights from Jews in 1933, progressing to overt persecution and then to the “final solution”. On the way, we heard stories and viewed memorabilia of many of those who died, as well as survivors. It is truly disturbing to think of how easily complacency allowed such hate to flourish. It is clear that however troubling such memorials are to visit, the memory must be carried forward. There are times where it is difficult to deny the reality of evil. My own mind cannot suppress thoughts of our own First Nations and I wonder if I have been complacent…

Our lunch was a welcome respite from a heavy emotional morning. We welcomed “bagels” with hummus, cucumbers, haroseth (remember from sader meals?) and such. I put bagel in quotes because we each started with a quarter, given that each whole was a tight loop about a foot long! They were lighter than we are used to, but still warm, and very yummy. Ok, I went for seconds.
Jerusalem from the south at the time of Jesus

Our final stop was the Israel Museum, including a huge model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus (the Second Temple) and the Museum of the Book, dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was a chance to marvel at the continuity of the Bible (and other writings) over 2000 years. 

It has been another special day, one that has touched us deeply in our hearts. It seems that today, we have connected with the core of why we came with this group rather than just to “see the sights”. It has also been a day which has reminded me that however much I want to focus on the message of love and hope which Jesus brought, we each carry a very dark seed which can grow if we allow it room. It has been a day of hope – but not without caution.


An introduction to Jerusalem and Bethlehem

The morning began bright and clear, although we had heard of storms on the coast causing electrical outages. After watching a single intersection blocked repeatedly by drivers entering without being able to exit when the light changed, I will no longer refer to Calgary drivers as the worst. We were going a short drive to the upper part of the Mount of Olives in order to walk down after an orientation to the eastern city wall, most recently built by the Ottomans (so only 500 years old). It was an amazing view of the Temple of the Rock in the morning light.

We moved down (and the contours of the hills are impossible to see on a map) to the church of Dominus Flevit, dedicated to Jesus’ tears as he wept for Jerusalem before his own death. Then further down to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Basilica of the Agony near the bottom of the hill, where it is believed that Judas kissed Jesus to turn him in to the Romans. The churches were beautiful, but it is not a place to look for peace. I can’t imagine what this must be like on Easter week.

We took the bus about two kilometers across the valley, by the old City of David (below the Temple Mount), and up to the church of St Peter in Gallicantu, believed to be the home of Caiaphas, the High Priest, and the site of Peter’s denial (so a reference to the cock). Again, the views are remarkable, and steps are everywhere going up and down the hillside, focused on the water supply.


Then we headed to Bethlehem. Again, the traffic was challenging, but it looks like that is just going to be the way of things here, as it was again on the way back. We were introduced to the wall between the Palestinian and Israeli sides… and ate just inside the division. It is hard to imaging how this cannot breed more anger and in a few, more `hate.

And then to the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, in a cave under the Orthodox Church of the Nativity, and the next door St Catherine’s church (which is the site of midnight mass on Christmas Eve – televised around the western world). A star marks the site of the birth, and a stone manger a couple of meters away is surrounded by drapes and a marble floor (thanks to the crusaders). I found it hard to peel away the accretion of two millennia of well-intentioned embellishment to get to any spiritual depth here. Perhaps my problem…

Then of course, there is the opportunity to see and buy products from Bethlehem, especially olive wood carvings. We were well taken care of in the shop, and then escorted up umpteen stairs through the market to get to a Lutheran centre which sponsors arts and leadership training for both Christians and Muslims, mostly from the area. Unfortunately, we heard again of how the intolerant few make life so troublesome for the many who would love to live in peace and community together.

Altogether, and excellent day… and we are practicing patience with the traffic.