NOTE: It seemed like the simplest thing to do was to put the remaining days all in one post, so this is rather long. I also discovered that if I included the photos I wanted to post, it would make the whole thing impossibly difficult to load. So if you’d like to see selected pictures from the entire trip and are a member of Facebook, you can go there to see them. If you’re not, I’m open to suggestions as to where else to display them on the Internet. Enjoy.
Day 4: Jerusalem (Part 2)
From the Western Wall we plunged into the warren of streets that make up the Old City, and specifically to the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows), the traditional route followed by Jesus to Calvary. We did not walk the stone pavements that Jesus walked (remember, Jerusalem was destroyed 25 times in its history, including the Roman destruction of 70 AD, so the actual streets walked by Jesus are at best several layers below where we were walking). But it was, as always, fascinating to traverse streets that have changed little for centuries, where shops and restaurants are set into what look like caves underneath buildings, and where the past and present live side-by-side.
We didn’t walk the Via in its entirety today, but came back to part of it later in the week. Instead, we stopped at three or four of the stations of the cross, and then went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is one of the oldest church buildings in the world, and as if to mirror the fractured state of Christianity is divided between five different jurisdictions (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox). A marvelous metaphor for the condition of Christ’s Body is found in this ladder, which has not been moved for over 150 years, due to disputes about which jurisdiction is responsible for cleaning the front facade of the church.
The Holy Sepulcher houses the sites that since the early 4th century have been recognized as the locations of Calvary and the tomb of Jesus (and thus also the site of the resurrection). In many ways it resembles a house where the residents have kept adding knick-knacks and momentos until it positively overflowing with stuff, but it also includes some beautiful art, such as the mosaic near the entrance that portrays the crucifixion, Jesus being taken down from the cross, and His being taken to the tomb.
Our guide, Shraga ben Yosef, was outstanding, and showed us a number of things that were off the beaten path. One of them was actually inside the Holy Sepulcher, a Syrian Orthodox chapel that looked as if it had been basically abandoned for decades if not longer–the icons were covered with smoke, the altar in an extreme state of disrepair–but which also contained a treasure: burial chambers set in a cave, that are said to be the vaults of Joseph of Arimathea, and thus a possible site of Jesus’ burial.
From the church we headed to the Jewish Quarter, much of which has been rebuilt or refurbished since the Old City was recaptured by Israel during the Six Day War. We wound through lovely old streets up Mount Zion, to the traditional site of the Last Supper. The Upper Room is a Crusader-era facility that also happens to be over the site of King David’s Tomb. After the city was conquered by the Muslims, it was also used as a mosque, and retains some stained glass in Arabic:
Then it was off to David’s Tomb, preserved with loving care by the Orthodox Jewish community of Jerusalem. Odd thing happened there: in the tomb was a fellow in Hasidic clothes reading. There was another fellow in normal street clothes who suggested a donation for the rabbi (or rabbinical student, I’m not sure which). I gave him a dollar, and he nodded his thanks. Stuff like that also happens occasionally at the Western Wall (not this time, thankfully, though it has happened in the past).
Day 5: Masada, Qumran, Dead Sea
We spent the fifth day of our trip in the lowest area on the surface of the Earth. From 3000 feet above sea level omn the sevel hills of Jerusalem we dove over 4000 feet to the Dead Sea, and to two sites near it that are of tremendous significance to the Jewish people. The first was Masada, where the insurrectionists of the Jewish War of 67-70 AD made their last stand. It’s fortress built by Herod the Great that he intended to use as an impregnable redoubt if the Jews over whom he ruled by fiat of the Romans ever became too much trouble. He never used it, but in a marvelous historic irony, those Jews who revolted against Roman rule following the massacre of over 2500 Jews in Caesarea in 67 AD did. For months they held out against 15,000 Roman troops, in the end dying at one another’s hands (because of the Jewish prohibition on suicide, men took it upon themselves to kill their wives, children, and one another, rather than allow any of them to fall into Roman slavery). Set amidst a desolate land, Masada has become an Israeli national symbol of undying resistance against those who would enslave the Jewish people, or seek to reduce them to the level of sub-humans.
Qumran, site of the Essene monastery from whence came the Dead Sea Scrolls, is not far from Herod’s fortress. This was a Spartan community that believed it was holding to the true faith of Israel in contrast to the decadence of the Jerusalem leadership, and saw the world in apocalyptic terms. In addition to providing priceless copies of Old Testament Scriptures (the oldest extant), the caves around Qumran also were the source of some very interesting texts that governed the life of the community itself. Check the pictures for some of those texts.
We ended the day at the Dead Sea, where many of those on our bus got in the waters to experience the sensation of floating without effort, and where some covered themselves in the mud that is said to have healing and restorative properties. Great fun was had by all, perhaps most of all by those of us with cameras.
There is something about this area that provokes conflicting responses. On the one hand, one looks upon the unforgiving mountains and the undrinkable waters of the lake and wonder why anyone would have ever lived there. On the other hand, one marvels at the beauty of those stark hills, the placid lake set amid them, and the peace and quiet that dominate the landscape, and yearn to be one of those who turns this place into a haven of prayer and contemplation.
Day 6: Jerusalem
While our first day in Jerusalem felt as though it had a trajectory, this day was a miscellany of sites. We started the day back on the Mount of Olives for the purpose, of all things, of riding a camel. It was great fun, and I gained a real admiration for the stolid patience of these animals:
We passed through St. Stephen’s gate, traditional site of the saint’s stoning, and then on to the Pool of Bethesda and St. Anne’s Church. The pool is an imposing structure that would have held millions of gallons of water in its heyday, and is where Jesus would have healed the man who had been an invalid for 38 years (John 5). St. Anne’s is a Crusader church that, unlike most from that era, has been essentially untouched by conquerors, and present a stunning example of what the acoustics of medieval stone churches would have been like. We took the time to sing a stanza of “Be Thou My Vision” and four of “Amazing Grace” there, and felt taken away to the heavenlies by the echoes of our voices.
From there we went back to the Via Dolorosa, to the Antonia Fortress, site of Jesus’ trial by Pilate. We saw the Lithostratos, the room (then an open area) where He would have been flogged. It now has a low, Crusader-era stone ceiling that, in a very different way, conveys the horror of what happened there.
After this we continued our walk through the streets of the Old City, stopping at a couple more of the stations, finally ending up at the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, the traditional site of the house of Caiaphas the High Priest, and where Peter denied Jesus. We saw a dungeon where Jesus might well have been held after His arrest in Gethsemane, and the church that has been built to commemorate the place. The church itself is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.
Day 7: Jerusalem and home
Our final day, we had the morning free, so about a dozen of us went to the Damascus Gate (the origin point for the Damascus Road), and the Arab souk or marketplace. We had a great time talking to merchants and looking at their wares, and eventually found ourselves back at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which unlike Sunday had relatively few visitors. We were able to climb the hill of Calvary, and get inside the tomb, places that are festooned with Greek ornamentation, but also places for prayer based on the events that they commemorate.
In the afternoon, we went to three more sites. The first was Yad vaShem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum. We weren’t able to see everything there, but saw the Monument of the Children and the Hall of Remembrance, and needless to say it was a solemn time of reflection for everyone. I think the thing that struck me the most was the circular Hall of Names, the last room in the Hall of Remembrance that contains nothing but thousands of books filled with the names and whatever personal information could be gleaned about the millions of victims of Nazi evil. I walked away shaken, wondering how many names of relatives of mine who never emigrated from Poland and Lithuania might have been enshrined there.
From there we stayed on the west side of the city, visiting the Church of St. John the Baptist in Ein Karem. It was built by the Franciscans, and is another beautiful church, though whether there is any real connection between the site and the birth of John is anybody’s guess.
Finally, we ended the tour back in East Jerusalem at the Garden Tomb. This is the Protestant “answer” to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a site discovered in the 1880s by a British general who noticed a rock formation that looked like a skull, which he took to be the biblical Golgotha. A tomb was later found, as well as evidence that a garden had been nearby, one that the administrators have taken great pains in recreating.. The British guide who took us through the area was quite intent on convincing us that this was the actual site of Jesus’ crucifixion and entombment, and did a good job of it, though not everyone came away persuaded. After seeing the tomb, we concluded with Holy Communion, and with prayer and anointing with oil of everyone who desired it. It was a fitting end to an incredible week.