Travelling Hopefully

18 May

Usually I book airport parking and, as necessary, a hotel for my trips abroad. However, as I was only flying from Luton, it was actually less expensive to book a private taxi to/from the airport than hotel and parking.

So I had the pleasure of talking to a Muslim taxi driver during the hour long trip. He had made the Hajj last year, and it was a privilege to hear him speak of what the experience had meant to him. 

The flight tickets had been booked for me by the company, Maranatha Tours, and to my surprise these were ‘priority boarding.’ This meant a special queue for dropping off my check in bag (17.1kg against the 20kg limit) and, later on, being among the first to board. 

I filled the five hour long flight by reading, watching ‘Doctor Who’ on my laptop, and even doing a bit of writing. It was evening when we landed in Israel. Immigration took longer with my passport than I’ve experienced before, but I was allowed in. I collected my luggage just moments before the main group, which had flown from Manchester, appeared.

There are 34 in the group. I’m on the tour to take photos for the company’s brochure and website, and it’s wonderful that someone else is in charge. We travelled to our hotel in Bethlehem where I discovered that I had been given the better quality ‘leader’ room. A basket of fruit and a half bottle of red wine were waiting for me. 

No photos from today.

19 May 

The wake up call was at 6.45am Israel time, which was 4.45am British time—terribly unwelcome. As I am at the tail end of a cold, I decided to stay in my room, eat fruit (and drink powdered coffee, ugh) rather than go down for breakfast.

We had a short act of worship at 8.15am, then we hit the road. A rather scary angel statue stood outside our hotel. ‘Don’t blink,’ I told people. 

We drove past fascinating agricultural land, vineyards and fruit trees growing on human made terraces. We drove to Hebron, passing various check points, guard posts, and armed soldiers along the way.

Although this is my fourth trip to the Holy Land, I’d never visited the Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The splendid stone structure, build by Herod and added to by the Crusaders, is situated above the cave in which Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah were buried. The site is sacred to both Jews and Muslims and, sadly, has often been a place of tension. The interior is divided, one half open to Jews, the other to Muslims.

We entered the Jewish sector first. What could be seen through locked grills and hazy glass are cenotaphs of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Men and women prayed at the cenotaphs and nearby. We also witnessed what appeared to a child’s birthday. The toddler seemed a bit overawed at the family singing to her in such a setting.

We had planned to go into the Muslim side, but the security there demanded to see passports. Most people had left theirs back at the hotel, so we were unable to go in. Instead, we visited a glass blowing factory, and the shop next door, before going on to the Shepherds’ Fields.

At this site, we passed the lovely sheep and shepherd fountain before going into one of the caves. There our guide explained how the shepherds probably raised the lambs which were used in the temple sacrifices. We sang ‘Be Still, for the Presence of the Lord’ inside. A second, larger cave was nearby, and the modern church. 

Lunch break. We watched as two lads carried a lamb up and down the road, trying to entice people to part with money in return for taking a photograph. After lunch (a falafel or a chicken sandwich), we walked over a nearby gift store. I’ve visited the same place every time I’ve been to the Holy Land, and one of the proprietors said that he recognised me.

After this bout of retail therapy, we headed off for the Church of the Nativity. Sadly, the interior is covered with scaffolding and plastic as the place undergoes renovation. We joined the long queue to go down the the birth grotto. It looked certain that we were facing a wait of at least two hours. I tried to cheer us up by starting up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, but one of the guards on duty told me that no singing was allowed.

Half the group decided to head back to the hotel, including me, as I’ve been down those steps three times before. 

A couple of hours later, we piled back into the bus to be taken to a local restaurant. There we enjoyed a Palestinian meal, namely various dishes like hummus and salad with pita bread and, later on, some chunks of meat. Our British guide had arranged for a Christian dance troupe to perform whilst we ate. The eight young people showed us several dances, then pulled people up to join them. We returned to our hotel around 10pm.

20 May

An even earlier start, 6.30am. I finished off the fruit and winced my way through the powdered coffee. 

We left the hotel at 8am. The drive to our destination, the region of Samaria, took us through quite a bit of the West Bank. The Palestinian neighbourhoods looked much more basic than those on the Israeli side. Broken down cars, piles of old tyres, and rubbish gathered in street corners. This was in contrast to the much cleaner streets and better developed buildings on the other side. We also had several good views of the Wall. 

The roads were pretty clear. The weather, however, wasn’t. Rain splattered against the bus, much to the disgust of our British leader. It seems that he had reassured the group ‘It never rains in Israel in May’ so most people had not brought coats nor umbrellas. I had a waterproof, as I never travel anywhere without it.

We drove through narrow streets up to the ancient city of Sebaste. Herod the Great was given the city in 30BC by Emperor Augustus. We walked around the ruins of the colonnaded street, and up the hill to view the remains of the theatre and the base of the temple to Augustus. Rain fell from time to time, interspersed with sunshine. Very much like British weather, actually.

The hill was covered with olive trees. A donkey was tied up nearby, and workers were among the trees. One tried to interest us in buy olive oil. Rubble was being burnt on a bonfire, and we had to plunge through smoke to continue down the trail.

The views over the nearby towns were very good. Flags of the Palestinian Authority flew from every high place. A small chapel dedicated to John the Baptist (tradition has that he was buried nearby) was down a set of steps. Then back at the car park, where a camel awaited customers, and the owner of the gift shop gave us small cups of black coffee. We visited the very clean loos before going on.

Our progress slowed as we entered the city of Nablus. Traffic was heavy, and many of the drivers seemed to think that they alone had rights to the road. We were supposed to arrive at Jacob’s Well at noon, and we managed to arrive outside the church at 11.55am. The priest came to open up for us, and then bopped our local guide on the head. (I assume that they know each other!)

The church is modern. Many churches have been on the site, and the construction of the most recent was spearheaded by the current priest. He took us down a set of stairs to the well. While we listened to the story of Jesus speaking to the woman at this well, and our local guide pulled up a pail of water from which we all drank, the priest filled small flasks with water and then sealed the stoppers in place. Many of us bought one, at the price of £4.00 or US$5.00.

We had a little time to view the modern church upstairs. The walls were covered with icons, and in the right hand chapel was the tomb of Archimandrite Philoumenos. He was the priest in charge of the Well, and was hacked to death with axes in 1979. 

Again we battled with traffic to go visit St Philip’s Arab Episcopal Church. The priest took inside, and told us how St Philip had come to the region as a missionary. Peter and John followed, and laid hands on local believers to pass on the Holy Spirit. The priest had managed to find the two wells built for the two apostles, and we admired these before enjoying the lunch prepared for us by church members. 

Then we left the West Bank. At the checkpoint, we watched as men and children tried to sell items to those queued up in their cars. Our bus was pulled over by the armed soldiers, and we all had to show our passports. Then we were back into Israel, and driving through rolling countryside of terraces and olive trees. The motorway was pretty clear. 

Another long drive, now to Nazareth. The land flattened, and many of us found our eyes shutting as the early mornings caught up with us. We arrived at the Nazareth Village at 4pm. A guide there showed us the reconstruction of village life as Jesus would have known it. 

Our hotel was nearby. Once again I’ve been given a leader’s room, complete with a plate of fruit, but sadly no wine. The view down into the valley was lovely. 

Dinner was the buffet style I’m used to in Israeli establishments. After dinner, most of us joined our British guide for a time of worship and sharing. Then I went back to my room. This will be a shock to those who know me well, but today has been an alcohol free day!

21 May 

Wake up call at 7am today. I drank some powdered stuff pretending to be coffee whilst taking photos of the morning light from my hotel room. 

We left at 8.30am for the short drive to the Annunciation Church. From past experience, this is a favourite amongst the groups I’ve led, and with good reason. Depictions of Mary and baby Jesus line the courtyard and are inside the church. Many different countries have donated the images, and most are in the style of that country. So, for example, the one from Japan shows a Japanese Mary and Jesus. 

The lower church is dark and atmospheric. At the centre of the huge space is the remains of an ancient church, and beneath that is the place at which, by tradition, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. We were the only group in this part of the church when we visited. 

After everyone had taken photos, and some had stopped to pray, we went upstairs. This area is much lighter, and filled with large images of Mary and Jesus. A German group were celebrating Communion near the altar. I paused to listen to the sermon, pleased that I could understand most of it (German being my second language). 

The church bells were ringing for Sunday service as we left. After admiring both the remains of the original village, and the nearby toilets, we went on to Christchurch, the Anglican church in Nazareth. We arrived in time for the 10am service, and found seats in a packed church. The day’s hymns were given to us in English on a sheet of paper, along with the liturgy in English. There appeared to be a number of pilgrim groups in addition to the usual congregation. 

The service started at 10.20am. John Pritchard, the now retired Bishop of Oxford, took part in the service, along with the priest and a deacon originally from England. The service was a mixture of Arabic and English. We all sang the hymns (traditional British ones) in our own language. The liturgy was sometimes in Arabic, sometimes in English. The priest gave a long sermon in Arabic, and a shorter one in English. 

The service finished at noon. We were all invited to have a small cup of coffee, or a larger one of tea. 

Lunch was in a nearby cafe. I asked the British guide to fetch me a beer. The first bottle was alcohol free, the second an imported lager! I fired him, and went to choose a local brew. Which didn’t taste much different to an imported lager.

Our local guide then took us on a walk through the older parts of Nazareth. This included a visit to his home church, in which he had been baptised and married. This church is built over a spring, and the Orthodox church claims that Mary had been drawing water here when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her. (Yes, there are two differing places claiming to be the site of the Annunciation. Welcome to the Holy Land.)

We ended up in the shop which one of his cousins owns. The cousin has excavated the ruins of a bath house, and we were served water and dates whilst watching a DVD of the area. We had time to browse in the shop before returning to our bus.

On to the ancient city of Sepphoris. It is possible that Jesus and Joseph would have worked here, both in wood and stone. The site has many wonderful mosaics, along with a rebuilt theatre and a crusader fort. The white stone and the bright day made us all rather warm as we trudged up the hillside. 

Then on to the Sea of Galilee. We paused to take in some views before driving on to the holiday complex in which we’ll be spending four nights.  The chalets are set near the sea shore. Mine features a large front room, small kitchen, bathroom, and then a double bedroom. 

Shortly after we arrived, a coast guard helicopter hovered near the shoreline. People were lowered and retrieved from the sea, presumably to practice rescues. The sound was rather irritating after two hours, and it was a relief when night fell and the helicopter moved off.

But by that time, I was watching the latest episode of ‘Doctor Who’…

22 May

Another 7am wake up call. Lack of fruit in my chalet meant that I went over to the dining room in search of breakfast. And coffee, of course.

We rolled out at 8.30am. Not a cloud in the sky, and the temperature was already beginning to rise. Our goal was to board one of the replica Galilee fishing boats which chug along the sea, allowing us to feel what it’s like to be out on the water. We admired the shore, sang some songs, and were given a demonstration of how fishing nets would have been thrown over the side. 

Afterwards we had time to admire the 1st century AD fishing boat which had been removed from the lake bed and preserved. 

Our next stop was Magdala. Excavations have revealed various parts of this ancient town, including the synagogue. An enthusiastic man from New York showed us around the archaeological site, and then to the chapel built near the shoreline. The lower chapel features a stunning painting of woman who touches Jesus’ robe and is healed. The upstairs chapel is dedicated to women of the Bible. The church which looks out over the sea had all twelve disciples depicted along the walls, including Judas Iscariot. Mind you, he wasn’t given a halo.

After a quick stop for lunch, we drove on to Mount Arbel. A slog up a sloping path, in the hot afternoon, brought us to a fantastic look out point over the region. Across the valley were sets of caves, in which Jewish zealots hid (unsuccessfully) from the Romans. I have walked through that valley on a previous trip to the region. 

We started the drive to our last site for the day, the Mount of Beatitudes. We were halfway there when the bus turned back. Our British guide had left his Bible behind in the loos at Mount Arbel! Bible was successfully retrieved.

We still had plenty of time around the Mount of Beatitudes when we eventually arrived. I was thrilled to see Ring-necked parakeets flying between the date palms. They have migrated from Africa in recent decades, but are considered an invasive species. Of course, this made me miss my own little parrot.

When we returned to our holiday complex, I saw more of the parakeets. A rather fulfilling end to a rather full day.

23 May

Another day around the Sea of Galilee.

After another welcome lie in until 7am, we left at 8.30am to go to our first stop, the ancient city of Hippos. This was occupied between 3rd century BC and 7th century AD, and was in the hills high above the sea. We faced a long walk uphill to get to the start of the city, which was a wonderful paved street. Beyond were a number of houses, although we discussed where we could sensibly site the TV. Our local guide was able to check his emails whilst there, so obviously the 3G signal is decent enough.

There were a couple of (ruined) churches on the site, as well as the market square. The views over the area were stunning. 

Back down to bus and sea. We called in at Kursi, which by tradition is the site where Jesus healed a man of his demons. The demons begged to be driven into a herd of pigs, and the pigs promptly threw themselves off a cliff. The remains of a Byzantine church grace the site, and the cliff is visible above. A metal roller can be pulled along a sand pit to tell the story in various languages.

On to another site which required a bit of imagination, namely Bethsaida. This was a fishing village in Jesus’ day, and it is thought that Philip, Andrew, and Peter lived here. The sea is now further away, the nearby region having been silted up by the river. Bethsaida is also the city to which Absalom fled after arranging to have his half brother killed. (Said half brother had raped Absalom’s sister.) We walked past the city gates, noting the defensive walls. 

Lunch was in Tiberias. We had the opportunity to eat ‘St Peter’s fish’, the same type as was caught by fishermen of Jesus’ day. The room in which we ate had a vaulted ceiling. Pita bread with various salads was our starter, and the fish came with chips—I’m pretty certain that bit isn’t authentic. A tasty, rather boney fish, which went well with a glass of white wine.

A number of people needed to restock on cash. We walked through the city to visit a cashpoint for some, a moneychanger for others. This took a bit of time, so it was mid-afternoon by the time we were back on our bus.

We stopped at Tabgha. By tradition, this is the place at which Jesus appeared to his disciples, some time after his resurrection. He gave them breakfast, and then challenged Peter three times with ‘Do you love me?’. I watched a Jackdaw bathe in the shallows, hopping from stone to water to stone a number of times. We heard the relevant reading, and then visited the nearby church. Several people, not from our party, were keen to be photographed in front of the stunning statue of Jesus and Peter, but others kept getting in the way. 

Our last stop was at Capernaum, where the house of Peter’s mother-in-law was sited. The house has had several churches built around it, and the latest is one which I’ve known someone describe as ‘a giant space ship’. Whilst we were preparing to pray, a group of Chinese Christians paraded around the site, singing loudly. Several of them busily filmed the occasion on their mobile phones. Our British leader spoke to their leader, who informed him that they have a great vision of China turning to Christianity. They burst out into song yet again. Our local guide had to drag him away from the enthusiastic Chinese!

We looked around the site, had another session of reading and prayer in the ruins of the synagogue, before heading back to the bus and going back to our accommodation. 

Annoyingly, the helicopters returned that evening, and didn’t depart until just before 11pm.

24 May

We had a stop not on our schedule. One of our party had accidentally left her iPad in Capernaum, and this had been located and kept safe by the site staff. The bus paused in the car park for collection, and then we headed north.

Hulah Valley Nature Reserve was our first stop. This area forms an important resting place for migrating birds. The entire area used to be marsh land, but most of this was drained for agriculture. Just a relatively small section has been set aside for wildlife.

In a small movie theatre, we put on 3D glasses to watch a film (in English) about bird migration and the importance of places like Hulah. Our chairs juddered and shook as we followed birds on their flights over deserts and around mountains, and air was blown against the backs of our necks as the flocks flew into the wind. 

Afterwards we walked around the site. We were visiting at the wrong time of day and the wrong time of year to see many birds. There were a pair of Bee-eaters in the distance, and a large number of turtles. Catfish swam lazily through murky water, looking smug in the knowledge that they aren’t considered kosher and are therefore safe in Israel. Coypus, which look like beavers, paddled past. These rodents were brought from South America to be raised for their fur and, as so often happens, they escaped into the wild and are now considered to be a pest.

The walkway headed out into the lake. There we saw Arctic terns fighting for space with pigeons on various small islands. Cormorants sat on stumps to dry their wings. Huge catfish meandered around, as well as some large fish I couldn’t identify. I was so busy taking photos that I didn’t realise the group had moved on. So I had to move quickly to catch them up.

Several large groups of schoolchildren were arriving just as we left. I felt sorry for the animals as we climbed back onto our bus. 

We drove on to Caesarea Philipi. At the source of the Jordan river, we sought shade from the fierce sun and listened to the Gospel story of Jesus challenging his disciples, ‘And who do you say that I am?’ Our guide explained to us that we were standing near a temple, carved from a cave, dedicated to the god Pan. People would throw human babies into the river as a sacrifice to Pan, and so the area was viewed by Jews as the gate to Hades. This then makes sense of Jesus telling Peter, ‘…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’ 

We had a little time to gain a closer view of the remains of the temple, and the niches carved into the stone for images of the gods. I purchased an ice cream before heading back to the bus, which meant that several people warned me, ‘You’ll ruin your appetite.’

I’ve never been this far north in Israel. We drove past Druze settlements, built on hills which used to belong to Syria, not Israel. Fruit trees lined the road, cherries nearly ripe and nectarines not far behind. 

Our lunch stop was in a small town. I took the option of what is a traditional lunch in these parts. A long, thin piece of bread, like a crepe but not sweet. It’s folded in half, and creamy goats cheese is smeared on the bread, then a mixture of ground up thyme and olive oil. The bread is rolled up, and then crisped on a heated metal surface. It did taste rather good. We sat outside and admired views over a nearby lake.

Then on to Mount Hermon. During the winter, this is a small ski resort. A chairlift took us up to the top, where we were glad to have heeded our guide’s advice and put on a fleece or jumper. We could only take in the views in one direction. Other sections of the top were for military only. Mount Hermon could be one of the sites of the Transfiguration, and we listened to the Gospel story as the cold wind whipped around us.

It was good to get back down again to warm up. Several young backpackers were at the bottom, looking for a lift. We would have liked to take them, but the pesky matter of insurance reared its ugly head, so we had to decline.

We drove to a lookout point at which we could see the border fence between Syria and Israel. It was sobering to stand there and think of what Syria has gone through in recent years. We prayed for peace in that troubled nation.

The bus driver chose a different route back. We drove over a high plain, which had been a place of battle during the Six Days’ War. Destroyed buildings and burned out tanks hulked in the dry grassland. 

Our return to the Sea of Galilee was down a winding mountain road, with views across the valley to the country of Jordan. My iPhone advised me that I was actually in Jordan, and helpfully told me how much calls and data would cost. Barbed wire fences along the side of the road marked the border.

Our last night at the Sea of Galilee, so we went back to our chalets to pack. After dinner, there was the opportunity to listen to the manager of the holiday complex. The complex is part of a kibbutz, and he explained the history behind the settlement and the current challenges. We finished with him playing the accordion and taking us through some traditional Jewish songs.

Thank goodness, no helicopters tonight. Instead, the complex was invaded by a large group of teenagers. Not sure which is noisier.

25 May

I seem to be getting more used to 6.30am rises. But at least I was allowed to sleep through the night. A number of group members had telephone calls in the middle of the night, and on the other end were giggly teenagers. Some thought it was their wake up call, and headed for a shower before realising their mistake. 

We headed away from the Sea of Galilee. After a ninety minute drive, during which our local guide talked at length about Israeli politics, we arrived at Bethany beyond the Jordan. By tradition, this is where John the Baptist baptised Jesus. For a number of years, it was out of bounds due to the proximity to the country of Jordan. Israel and Jordan are separated by a thin sliver of river. There were some soldiers on the Israeli side, but they kept a very low key presence.

A series of steps leads down to areas set aside for baptism in the slow moving, murky water. One man was baptising a queue of people, asking them, ‘Do you love Jesus? How were you saved?’ and listening to their testimony (translated as necessary) before lowering them under the water. Some people were lowered once, others were ducked under seven times. I couldn’t quite work out what led to the greater dunking.

As for our group, we were much more restrained. After a reading and prayers, people took off shoes and socks and waded up to their ankles. Some went to our British guide for prayers, others used water to cross each other’s foreheads. I was baptised at the age of 20, so the memories are still very clear to me. Crossing myself with some of the water was enough for me.

The day was already quite hot. We drove through the desert to Masada. Herod the Great built a palace here, which clung to the mountainside and commanded views over the Dead Sea. Later, Jewish Zealots fled here, and managed to hold out against the Romans for some time. When the Romans broke through their walls, they discovered that the Zealots had killed themselves rather than be taken into slavery.

We squashed onto the cable car, and endured the trip up the mountainside. The top is pretty flat, bright, and was bordering on hot. We were shown around the ruins of Herod’s Palace (uppermost level), the storage area, and the synagogue. A rabbi in a sheltered area behind the synagogue ruins was copying Jewish texts by hand.

Tristram’s starlings, rather lovely black birds with brown secondaries, were common all over the site. I also had a quick glimpse of a raptor, either a small falcon or a kestrel. 

It was a relief to squash back into the cable car and return to the modern benefits of air conditioning. We ate lunch at visitor centre. I tried out iced coffee for the first time in my life, and it was love at first sip. All the flavour of coffee, but at a temperature perfect for a hot day.

We had a wonderful sighting of a large group of Ibex as we passed a plantation of date palms. The bus stopped, but we had to content ourselves with taking photos through the windows. The animals were much smaller than I’d expected, the height of goats rather than deer.

The heat made me decide against a walk in the En Gedi Nature Reserve. I went far enough up the path, sweltering in the sun, before I stalked some birds and headed back to the shade at the entrance. Around a third of the group had decided to stay behind. I treated myself to another iced coffee while waiting for the rest to have their hike.

After all that heat, a chance to cool off. Sort of. We headed to the Dead Sea where those who wished to could go for a float in the salty water. I’ve never had this urge myself, so I tried to take photos of those in the group who did. The beach and water were crowded, which made both floating and photography a bit difficult. I did my best, then walked back up to the bar to have a small beer.

The day was not yet over. After the floaters had showered and changed, we climbed back on to the bus to be taken to Wadi Kelt. A gazelle, surrounded by starlings, was startled at the appearance of our bus. We drove to a look out point, at which we admired the gorge and St George’s Monastery. There we heard the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.

We arrived at our hotel at 6.30pm. I’ve stayed at this hotel every time I’ve come to Jerusalem, so I know it well. My room has a balcony, which sadly does not face the city. But a welcome screeching let me know that I had something even better. Four Ring-necked parakeets in the tree nearby! I rushed onto the balcony, camera in hand, and they posed for me.

The British guide offered to walk people to the Old City after dinner. I decided that the day had been long enough, and I went back to my room to work on photos and get annoyed by the ropey wifi.

26 May

After a fight with the pillows (one not high enough, two far too high), I managed to have a good night’s sleep. 

We had a 9am slot at the private part of the Garden of Gethsemane. As we arrived a bit early, we had time to go into the Church of All Nations. Although I’ve been to the Holy Land four times, this was the first one in which we could go up to touch the stone near the altar of the church. (In previous occasions, a service had prevented this.) The stone is said to be the spot on which Jesus knelt and prayed the night he was betrayed and arrested. Many of us found it moving to kneel down and touch the stone.

Afterwards, the gate keeper unlocked the private part of the Garden and we went in for a time of worship. Then we wandered past the olive trees and spent time in our own thoughts. I was fascinated by a set of small red poppies, which made me think of Jesus sweating blood as he prayed.

We boarded the bus for the long drive to Bethany. The town is only a short distance from Jerusalem, but is cut off by the Wall. For this reason, many pilgrims don’t visit the site. 

The church depicted scenes of Jesus’ visits to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It is thought that he must have been close friends with this family. The tomb is nearby, down a set of 27 steps to the burial chamber. Only 15 people at a time can comfortably go down at a time, so we looked around the nearby gift shop whilst waiting our turn.

We returned to Jerusalem, and the bus took us to the Mount of Olives. While we admired the views, our local guide pointed out the churches which mark the time which Jesus spent in the city. Nearby, a man with a camel, and another with a donkey, tried to entice people to clamber upon the animals—for a fee, of course.

The Palm Sunday route goes down from the Mount of Olives. It is steep, and can be slippery underfoot. We stopped for a reading on the road, only to have to move whilst various cars used that spot to turn around. Sadly, the gardens and church of Dominus Flevit were shut (lunchtime). 

The bus collected us at the bottom of the route, and took us up to the Jaffa Gate. ‘Do you mean Jaffa cakes?’ I called out, much to the confusion of our local guide and the laughter of the group. We walked through the gate and into the Old Town, fetching up in the roof terrace of a cafe for a rather late lunch (2pm).

After being fed and watered, we walked the short distance to the Armenian Monastery. Their church is built over the tomb of St James the Lesser (brother to Jesus and considered the first Bishop of Jerusalem). We attended the 45 minute service of vespers, which of course was in a language none of us understood. The singing was quite nice. Instructions before going into the church had shown that taking photographs, sitting with one’s legs crossed, or wearing shorts were all forbidden. We saw people ejected for incorrect dress, and being told to uncross legs, but photography was not stopped. Although I hasten to add that our group obeyed this rule.

After the service, the priest came to talk to us. He knows our British guide, and arrangements had been made for him to show us around. The icon of Jesus’ birth showed James the Lesser as an adult because, in Orthodox tradition, Mary remained a virgin and so the brothers and sisters mentioned in the Bible all come from Joseph’s first marriage. (Not a stance I agree with, but I kept my mouth shut as the priest described James as ‘Joseph’s son’ without any mention of Mary.)

We walked through part of the monastery, and in a small sitting room we were served water and various nibbles. The priest explained about the schism which had created the Armenian Orthodox Church, although I think his talk about being a ‘non-Chalcedon church’ and the ‘one nature’ and ‘two natures’ of Christ went over most heads. 

Afterwards, we headed back to bus and hotel. The last visit, however, led to some theological talk at the dinner table! As ever, I find talking about God goes better with a glass of red wine to hand.

27 May

A 6am rise so we could leave for 7am. The hope was that walking the Via Dolorsa at that time in the morning, we’d avoid the crowds.

The streets were indeed free of many people, although there were more cars than I’d have expected driving through the Lion Gate. We made our way up the streets to the first station. We had a reading, and I watched as the area custodian put food out for a wandering cat. After a quick view of the church, we started the Way of the Cross.

Of course, the city of Jerusalem has changed many times since Jesus carried his cross, and a number of the stations feature events which are not in any of the Gospels. But it’s still sobering to wind your way through the streets of Jerusalem, thinking of how common crucifixion was. To the family and friends of Jesus, watching him go to his death would have been agonising. To many others, they would have viewed him as yet another criminal going to what he deserved.

The Via Dolorsa sends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We made our way down two small chapels and went into the church. I have to admit, it’s not one of my favourite places. Even at that time in the morning, it was already rather busy. We headed up the steep steps to the place of the crucifixion, but our guide decided it was too busy and we’d head over to the tomb. However, the tomb was shut for a service, and there was already a queue to get in. So we headed back to the site of the crucifixion, where some people took their turn to kneel at the foot of the cross to touch the rock.

We had a reading outside, then headed back out of the city to take the bus back to the hotel. After a late breakfast, we headed back out again.

The day was already heating up when we arrived at the Pool of Bethesda. This was the site at which Jesus healed a lame man, and also an important source of water for the ancient city. Nearby is the Church of St Anne. By one tradition, Mary the mother of Jesus was born in a house sited below the modern church (Anne being her mother). The current church was built by the Crusaders, and has wonderful acoustics. Our group sang a couple of hymns. Then a German group took their turn, and their harmonies soared through the building.

We popped downstairs to look at the small chapels commemorating Mary’s birth, and then went outside to admire the ruins of the pools. After the relevant reading from the Gospel of John, we prayed for people we know who need healing.

The next stop was at the Lithostatos. These are the Roman paving slabs which could have been those on which Jesus stood when facing trial in front of Pontius Pilate. The mocking which was done to Jesus (the crown of thorns, the robe, etc) was from ‘The Game of Kings’. Roman soldiers threw markers onto a design on the floor to decide which way a prisoner should be tortured next. How Jesus was treated was not unusual. A lighted panel highlights these markings on of the stones, which are now underground.

We then had a long walk through the Old City, crossing all three quarters, Muslim, Christian, and Jew. It was both fascinating and a bit tiring, going up and down steps, passing shops and making room for other groups. We stopped to buy bread at a bakery, and then our local guide took us a monastery run coffee shop. The man on duty agreed we could eat our food in the shop so long as we bought drinks. 

After this picnic lunch, we visited the Upper Room. The actual room in which Jesus had the Last Supper no longer exists, but the 12th century room is said to be in the same location. We had a reading in one corner, made a bit difficult by the number of groups sharing the same space.

St Peter in Gallicantu was just a short walk away. We visited the cell in which Jesus was probably kept for his questioning in front of the Chief Priest. Nearby are the steps which he would have climbed to get to the Chief Priest’s house. 

The bus took us to the Garden Tomb. Although this is probably not the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, the setting is far more peaceful and welcoming than the Church of the Sepulchre. A local guide met us there, and showed us the skull formation in the nearby hill, as well as the nearby tomb. Afterwards, we had a Communion service in a (blissfully air conditioned) chapel.

Those who wished could back into the city for shopping. The rest of us went back to the hotel by bus to relax after the long day.

28 May

Another 6am rise. We had a strict entry time of 7.40am to enter the Western Wall Tunnel. The amount of police presence around the area was greater than I’d ever seen before. 

The reason was explained by the very apologetic man at the tunnel entrance. The ministers of the Israeli parliament were having a meeting in the area, and so the tunnel was closed for security reasons. The meeting had been planned for last week, but was moved due to the visit of President Trump.

We spent some instead at the Western Wall, then walked around the excavations around the Temple Mount. We sat on the steps which, at one time, had led up to the Temple. Although still rather early morning, the temperatures were already beginning to rise. We were pleased to find a water fountain. As it’s currently Ramadan, no food or drink can be taken on to the Temple Mount, so we’d left our water bottles in the bus.

The queue for the Temple Mount was shorter than I’ve sometimes experienced. The cars of the Israeli ministers rushed past, plus we saw the celebrations of a Bar Mitzvah as we waited. 

We got onto the Temple Mount at 10.40am. This gave us 20 minutes to look around before the area was shut at 11am. Large awnings covered the area so that Muslims can be more comfortable during their prayers. This site is the third most holy in Islam, as tradition has it that is where the Prophet Muhammed made his night flight to heaven. 

The sudden inability to visit the tunnel had led to a quick revision of the day’s plans. The afternoon had always been free time for individual pursuits. Four of us wanted to see Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. After we’d all gone to the Israel Museum and had a sandwich lunch, we four took a taxi to Yad Vashem.

The Holocaust Museum was sobering. Actually, it was almost too much to take in. The sections provided a history of the growing suppression of the Jews in Germany, the reluctance of other countries to give them refuge, the creation of the ghettos and then the transportation to concentration camps. 

Outside were various memorials. The one I found most striking was dedicated to the children who had been killed. The underground walkway led past mirrored fields of stars, with the names of children read out. The space was disorientating, as it was so dark, which I think was part of the plan.

I met up with the rest of the party at the entrance, and we caught a taxi back to the hotel. I think I prayed more intensely during that drive than at any other time during this trip. The driver was very adapt at weaving through traffic, and we only had one close call with a cyclist. 

A number of us walked to St George’s Cathedral for Evensong. I was rather perturbed that this Anglican church uses the prayer book of the USA province, rather than that of the Church of England. It was obvious that the cathedral wasn’t used to so many at an evening service, and extra chairs had to be brought into the choir area. Most of the service was spoken, although we sang the canticles in a setting I’ve never come across before.

Our British guide knows the man who has a small shop near the cathedral. I bought an icon of St George, the man insisting that he was giving me a special price. Well, it was a decent price, so I’m not complaining.

29 May

A lie in until 6.45am!

Our last day in the Holy Land. Our bags were packed and loaded on the bus, and we left our hotel at 8.15am. 

A short drive brought us to what was the village of Emmaus. A crusader church was built to mark the appearance of Jesus to two disciples on their walk home from Jerusalem. A service was taking place inside, so we entered quietly to admire the wall frescoes. The service reached the exchange of the peace, and I learned that the others there were from the USA and Canada.

Downstairs was the crypt. We admired the Roman structure over the spring, then left the church from the lower level. The shop nearby sold the usual olive wood items, plus interesting pottery. They did a good bit to of trade with us, but as the shop did not take credit cards, we all had to make careful calculations about how much cash we might need for lunch.

Then a 90 minute drive to Caesarea Maritima. This ancient port city was built by Herod the Great, and a short movie (in a small cinema inside the grounds) showed the great sea wall and the magnificent palace which he had built. Over the decades since, the Byzantine empire, the Crusaders, and the Muslims have all left their mark. 

We sat on the steps of the theatre (rebuilt in modern times, and used for concerts) as our local guide gave us some explanations. We know that a number of the disciples had come here. 

Very little remains of the palace or the sea wall. More intact is the hippodrome, used at one time for chariot races. We walked down onto the small beach. The sand was covered in small shells. 

Time for some lunch. There was the option of either a falafel or tuna sandwich, but a number of us hungered for something more interesting. So the party split. I went with those who wanted a restaurant meal. We simply picked the nearest, which had lovely views over what remains of the harbour.

We explained to the chef that we had little more than 45 minutes for lunch. He suggested that he would bring out a variety of dishes for starters and then for main course, which we should share around. We were delighted at which he produced. A watermelon and roasted red pepper salad, calamari in a sauce, and smoked salmon with sour cream. The dishes for the main course were lamb sausages with roast potatoes, sea bream with rice in a white sauce, prawns and scallops in an ouzo sauce with rice. Some form of white jelly (the chef said made from almond milk) was our dessert.

We managed to eat and pay and only be 15 minutes later than hoped. Back to the bus. A short drive brought us to the aqueduct built to bring fresh water to the city. I think the intention had been for us to spend some time at the sea shore. However, it was very windy, and gusts drove sand into our faces. In less than 10 minutes, we had all made our way back to the bus.

At least this gave us plenty of time to get to Tel Aviv airport. Our driver dropped us off at Terminal 3, and we made our way inside.

I checked for my flight details, and noted that Terminal 1 was listed. So I went back outside to try to flag down our bus driver, but he was pulling away just as I got near him. So I went back in. Our British guide went to make enquiries. It appeared that, although our flights were indeed leaving from Terminal 3, we had to go to Terminal 1 to drop off our check in bags. 

So we trudged to the free shuttle into which we crammed bags and selves for the trip to Terminal 1. We got through the security questioning, and then discovered that we were too early to drop off our bags. I had to wait around 15 minutes, the rest of them (who were on a different flight) had to wait 30 minutes.

But finally my bag was taken off me. I went through passport control and security, then caught a shuttle back to Terminal 3. There I treated myself to an iced coffee. 

The others caught me up. I said some goodbyes before going through to my gate. For the first time in my life, I was the first to board a plane! So very easy to find room for my two bags. 

The flight was uneventful, and I had the pleasure of travelling with another Muslim taxi driver on the way home. I collapsed into my bed at 1.30am.

Many thanks to the local and British guides for such a great trip!

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