View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives Israel

Israel & Palestine – A Journey Through the Holy Land

Just a few months before my and Tim’s scheduled trip to Israel, US President Donald Trump announced that the US would be relocating its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the internationally disputed capital of Jerusalem. Symbolically, this was the US saying that they recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The problem is that Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital. The world was certain this decision would spark heightened tension and violence in the region.

Unless you never watch the news, you probably know that Israel and Palestine have been at war over the territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for decades. You probably have also seen video and images of riots and violence.

People smarter than I am have written books upon books on the subject, so I won’t get into the details here. Suffice it to say, the Middle East doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to peace.

I’ve always felt drawn to this area, despite the ongoing wars. As a child attending Christian Sunday School with my grandmother, I knew all the great Bible stories. In my young mind, places like the Sea of Galilee and Bethlehem and Nazareth all sounded mythical. Whether the stories are real or not, the places exist, and I’ve never been able to shake the urge to see them for myself.

Under the wise words of one of my best friends who has traveled to Israel a few times, “There’s never a ‘good’ time to go to Israel,” we decided this year was as good as any.

I’m well-traveled and did a lot of research on travel safety in Israel. Everything I learned was reassuring, but I still felt apprehensive about setting foot in the Middle East for the first time. Knowing deep down that experience abates fear, the only thing left to do was go.

Itinerary:

  • Days 1-3: Tel Aviv
  • Days 4: Jaffa, Caesarea, Haifa, Nazareth, Cana, Jordan River and Tiberias
  • Day 5: Capernaum, Tabgha, Sea of Galilee and Mount Beatitudes
  • Day 6: Qumran, Masada and the Dead Sea
  • Days 7-8: Jerusalem & Bethlehem
  • Day 9: Return to Tel Aviv

Dates: August 24 – September 1, 2018

Our Odyssey:

Tim and I spent two weeks between Sri Lanka and Israel back home in the US to visit friends and family. He stayed in Wisconsin, where we live, and I split my time between there and Virginia, where my family lives.

We met back up at the JFK Airport in New York for a direct red eye flight to Tel Aviv.

Herzliya

We arrived Friday late afternoon – which we learned is technically the Sabbath. Israel is a predominantly Jewish country, and their weekend is Friday and Saturday. The Sabbath, or day of rest, starts at sunset on Friday evening. During this time everything basically shuts down, as religious Jews observe the day by “resting”.

This means restaurants and shops are closed, elevators stop on every floor (so no one has to press a button) and prices for businesses and services that are open up their prices (like our cab from the airport).

We spent two nights just north of Tel Aviv in a small city called Herzliya. I redeemed Marriott points to stay at the Publica Isrotel there. Herzliya is a bit of an upscale area with high end hotels and restaurants. It’s not our usual scene, but we figured it would be a relaxing place to get over our jet lag.

That first night (Friday night), we had just enough energy to walk down the street to a highly recommended but very expensive Chinese restaurant. Afterwards, we both fell asleep quickly back at our hotel, but thanks to jet leg, we both woke up in the middle of the night.

Having been up all night, I zombied my way through breakfast Saturday morning and then promptly went back to bed. I ended up sleeping all day, which is not helpful for getting past jet lag.

But, we figured we could just go out to a nearby nightclub Saturday night and embrace our nocturnal sleep pattern. We got dinner at a delicious Greek place next door then popped around to a few bars. Eventually we found an Irish pub.

If you’ve ever been to an Irish pub, you know you can generally expect the same things. Expat crowds, Guinness beer, drunk people and music that reminds you of high school. We walked through the main door in to a dark, smokey room. Blue lights from the stage illuminated the faces of the crowd raucously singing along and clapping to the live music.

This wasn’t a Drop Kick Murphys cover. This was distinctively middle eastern music. The melodic sounds of a language we didn’t know accompanied by musical instruments we didn’t recognize filled our ears.

I realized a few things in this moment, as we stood shocked by the stage. The first is that Israel knows how to party. The second is that this is not the behavior of a people who are worried about war and violence. And the third was that everyone was staring and laughing warmly at us. Apparently standing beside the stage with a stunned expression on your face draws a little bit of attention!

We shuffled our way through the crowd and found two open seats at the bar. We spent the next several hours clapping along to unfamiliar songs and putting back a few drinks. By this time I’d realized a fourth thing – I like Israel.

Herzliya Israel Irish pub

Our night out in Herzliya

Tel Aviv

The next afternoon, Tim and I moved to a hotel in central Tel Aviv. We’d booked our trip in the Middle East through Israel, Jordan and Egypt with a small group tour company called Noah Tours. This hotel, called BY 14, was our meeting point for the next morning’s departure.

Tim and I took advantage of our time in the city center by going on a long walk. We started by heading to the oldest part of Tel Aviv, a small artsy neighborhood called Neve Tzedek. We explored the quiet streets, stumbling upon colorful street art along the way.

Tel Aviv Street Art In Love We Trust

In love we trust

Tel Aviv Israel Street Art We were all once refugees

We were all once refugees

Eventually we popped out on Tel Aviv’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Rothschild Boulevard. We found a pop up exhibit in a 360° theater showing a film on democracy in Israel. We ate delicious hummus while chatting with an elderly local in Tel Aviv’s LGBT neighborhood. Finally, we arrived at the famous Tel Aviv Beach.

The sun was setting on the Mediterranean Sea, casting brilliant pink and purple shades up into the sky. The fittest people I’ve ever seen played a version of beach volleyball where using your hands is not allowed. Tim and I sat on the concrete steps leading from the street to the beach and took it all in.

Life in Tel Aviv looks pretty good.

Tel Aviv Israel beach

Hanging out on the beach just before sunset

Tel Aviv Israel sunset

The purple-est sunset I’ve ever seen

The next morning, we met our fellow travelers and our guide. We were happy to learn it was a small group of one other American couple (Rich and Janet) and an Italian woman named Serena. Our guide, Dani, was an enthusiastic Israeli Jewish man about my age.

We drove in a comfortable SUV just outside of Tel Aviv to the old port city of Jaffa. Considered part of Tel Aviv by many, this ancient town is known for its markets and charming streets. We didn’t have a chance to explore (I guess we could have done that the day we slept!), but we stopped at a spot amid the cobbled streets for a view over Tel Aviv city and its beach.

Tel Aviv to the Sea of Galilee

Our first stop on the trip was to the ancient Roman port city of Caesarea. King Herod had it built in 30 BCE, and at that time it was one of the most grandiose cities of the region.

Today visitors can see the Roman theater (where there are still performances), the floor of the palace and its mosaics, and the Herodian Amphitheater (a 10,000 seat hippodrome where spectators could watch gladiators, prisoners and slave battle to the death or watch chariot races around the oval track).

All of this sits right on the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean coast.

Caesarea palace

The ancient palace at Caesarea

The ancient port city of Caeasarea Israel

The ancient port city of Caeasarea

After Caesarea, we drove to Haifa, a relatively large coastal city on the foothills of Mount Carmel.

Haifa is the headquarters of the Baha’i religion. I had never heard of it, but this offshoot of Islam from the 1800s is the fastest growing religion in the world. Their “world center” contains a shrine which houses the mortal remains of the religion’s main leader, known as the Bab. Nineteen garden terraces frame the shrine. UNESCO designated it a world heritage site in 2008. While very pretty, it’s a bit overrated in my opinion.

Baha'i Gardens in Haifa Israel

Baha’i Gardens in Haifa

From Haifa, we drove inland to Nazareth, which you might recognize from “Jesus of Nazareth”. Jesus wasn’t born in Nazareth, but this is where his mother Mary (The Virgin Mary) lived. The Bible says that an angel visited her at her home in Nazareth to tell her she’d give birth to God’s son (Jesus).

Today, the Basilica of the Annunciation stands around the cave/grotto home Mary lived in.

Archaeologists can’t confirm the angel story, but they do believe with confidence that this is indeed the home of Jesus’s mom.

The 1960s church itself is stunning in its simplicity- so much so that it’s Tim’s favorite church we’ve visited. Clean lines and geometric patterns scream modernism, while inside visitors can actually walk to the ancient rock cave in the center.

Though this church is fairly new, it also houses ruins of the Byzantine (4th century) and Crusader (12th century) churches that once marked this spot.

Basilica of the Annunciation

Outside of the Basilica of the Annunciation

Mary's cave in Basilica of the Annunciation

Mary’s cave in Basilica of the Annunciation

Sanctuary of Basilica of the Annunciation Israel Nazareth

Inside the sanctuary in the Basilica of the Annunciation

We left Nazareth and Dani drove our group to Cana, the sight of Jesus’s first miracle. According to the Bible, Jesus was attending a wedding and the worst thing happened – they ran out of wine. Thankfully, Jesus turned water into wine and the party continued.

Like every significant place mentioned in the Bible, there is now a church on this spot as well. Inside, there is a 2,000 year old jar that some believe is one of the ones Jesus used. Archeologists discovered it in this place, and it’s the appropriate age to be consistent with the story. Whether Jesus actually turned water into wine, however, is a question best left to the faithful.

Before arriving at our lakeside hotel in Tiberias, we stopped at an overlook over the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River Valley. We could see Jordan and Syria from this spot.

View over the Jordan River Valley Israel

View over the Jordan River Valley

Our last stop for the day was the Yardenit Baptismal site in the Jordan River. Many believe that this is where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. We took a knee deep dip in the water, where so many fish tickled my feet that I could only stand there for a moment before retreating to dry ground.

Yardenit Baptismal Site on the Jordan River Israel

Yardenit Baptismal Site on the Jordan River

Once we got to our hotel on the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a large lake), we went for a brief swim in the lake and then in the pool before dinner. It was a great way to relax after a long day of travel and sightseeing.

Sea of Galilee

The next morning, we were back on the Jesus trail to visit Capernaum. Some call this the “Town of Jesus,” because this is where he based most of his ministry while living with one of his disciples, Peter.

Unlike the other spots that we had visited the day before that were primarily churches with hints of archeology, Capernaum is mostly an archeological site that happens to have a church on it. This meant that rather than exploring a church, we got to explore ancient ruins.

We started at Peter’s house, which, like Mary’s, was a cave. Now the church sits on top of it, but it’s raised so that you can still see the ruins underneath. I was fascinated by the remains of the small stone rooms imagining what it would have been like.

Peter's house at Capernaum Israel

Peter’s house at Capernaum

The most impressive sight here, though, is the remains of a fourth century synagogue. It’s tall white columns give it a Roman feel.

Synagogue ruins Capernaum Israel

Standing in awe of the synagogue ruins of Capernaum

Next, we visited the spot of the classic Bible story of Jesus feeding the five thousand in Tabgha. According to the Bible, Jesus fed 5,000 of his followers with five loaves of bread and two fish. Once again, a church marks the spot. On the floor inside the church, you can still see mosaics from the 5th century that depict the miracle.

Our third stop of the morning was to the Sea of Galilee itself. We sailed out onto the lake in a modern boat modeled from the style of 2,000 years ago. Admittedly it was kind of gimmicky, but we still had fun.

Sea of Galilee Israel

A boat on the Sea of Galilee

Back ashore in the museum, though, sits the real highlight. Through a painstaking and risky preservation process, archeologists were able to pull a boat out of the bottom of the lake that dates from Jesus’s time. People began to call it The Jesus Boat, even though there’s no evidence that Jesus himself ever used it.

The ancient Jesus Boat at the Sea of Galilee Israel

The ancient Jesus Boat at the Sea of Galilee

After the Sea of Galilee, Dani drove our group up to Mount Beatitudes, where Jesus gave his “sermon on the Mount”. This sermon produced many famous quotes, such as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Of course there’s a church on top of the mountain.

It’s a pretty church set among beautiful gardens and bushes of bougainvillea. What makes this church really interesting and kind of weird is that it was commissioned by Italian dictator and Nazi ally Benito Mussolini.

Golan Heights

After lunch, Dani drive us north of the Sea of Galilee to Golan Heights. This area sits on the edge of Syria, and some maintain that it technically belongs to Syria as it’s disputed territory. Israel took military control of the region in the 1967 Six-Day War with Syria. Syria then briefly took control again in 1973 in the Yom Kippur War, only for Israel to push them back.

Visitors still see signs of these wars. Unexploded mines dot the volcanic landscape amid abandoned Israeli and Syrian bunkers that are fascinating to explore.

We stopped by the Gadot Lookout and memorial, which marks the site of an old Syrian bunker and memorializes the Israelis who died in the conflict.

Our trip continued to the main Golan Heights lookout. Given its association with war, even as recent as this summer just a few months before our trip when missiles were fired from Syria over the Golan Heights, I expected it to be kind of scary and ominous to stand there. It’s also right on the border with Syria, and you can see very clearly a Syrian city, New Quneitra, that now sits mostly abandoned since its citizens have fled the country. Some have reported even seeing bombs going off in Syria while standing in Golan Heights.

As for us, we saw a pizzeria with a bubble machine in the window, kids eating ice cream, and an open air art exhibit of cartoonish animals assembled with scrap metal from the wars.

Golan Heights Israel

The playful atmosphere at Golan Heights

Golan Heights Israel

A sculpture at Golan Heights made from scrap metal

Of course, there are still more serious relics of the past wars in this spot, and aside from the wide-spanning view, the underground Israeli bunker is probably the biggest tourism draw to the site.

Still, it feels weird to eat pizza and ice cream in disputed territory (which, by the way, Israel doesn’t consider disputed – they consider it theirs) that has a history of past and present violence, all while looking over the border into Syria’s tragedy.

“Oh by the way, this place has the best chocolate in Israel!” Dani told us enthusiastically while we bought drinks in the pizzeria.

Like stepping out of a dystopian YA novel and back into middle class suburbia, we left Golan Heights behind and returned to our resort on the Sea of Galilee.

Israeli bunker Golan Heights Israel

Descending into an Israeli bunker

Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea

The next morning we ventured south through the desert to Qumran. On the way, we stopped by the quiet orthodox monastery of St Gerasamos, with its many paintings of saints and gold ornaments.

St Gerasimos Monastery Israel

I loved the colorful interior at St Gerasimos Monastery

Shortly after, we arrived at Qumran. Two thousand years ago, a small sect of Jewish men lived here in a life of ritual and simplicity. They spent their days transcribing the Hebrew Bible and other significant texts.

In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd lost one of his goats. Nothing I’ve read tells whether he found his goat, but while searching inside the caves of Qumran, he did find several clay jars with nearly 1000 documents inside. These are what we know call the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they are the oldest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.

Today, visitors can see ruins of the town and its numerous ritual bathhouses, the jars that held the scrolls, and views of the caves in which they were found.

Qumran Israel

Ruins of Qumran

From Qumran we continued further south and closer to the Dead Sea itself to the enigmatic mountain top ruins of the ancient city of Masada.

In 70 CE, nearly a thousand Jewish men, women and children who called Masada home made a desperate last attempt to avoid imprisonment by attacking Roman forces. Rather than be tortured, raped or enslaved by the Romans, they decided to kill themselves in a mass murder-suicide. When the Romans arrived to the top of the fortress, they were met only by silence.

Today visitors to these Jewish and Roman ruins have two options to get to the top of the mountain. The first is to take the gondola up. The ride is just a few minutes long and it’s without question the easiest option. The second is to hike up the steep and winding Snake Path. Due to the extreme heat of the area and lack of shade on the path, it’s actually closed much of the time. Thankfully, our group took the gondola.

Once at the top, we explored the many rooms and even saw some original tile mosaics that somehow survived all this time. Looking down to the desert around us, we could still see the remains of the camps where Roman invaders lived in the weeks leading up to Masada’s capture.

Further out towards the horizon, the bright turquoise line of the Dead Sea interrupted the expanse of yellow and orange desert that stretched out in every other direction.

The view of the desert, Dead Sea and Gondola at Masada Israel

The view of the desert, Dead Sea and Gondola at Masada

Masada Israel

Exploring the ruins at Masada

We ended the day at the Dead Sea itself. Not ironically, the area feels like it’s dying. The resorts are dated and sleepy, and there are hardly any open restaurants around. The whole area, sitting in the lowest point on earth at 408 meters below sea level, feels like it’s either been abandoned or like there was never much there to begin with.

The Dead Sea is literally dying too. It’s shrinking by about a meter each year as it evaporates away. Scientists predict that by 2050 all that will remain is a dense salty sludge.

Many of the most luxurious resorts have had to close down in recent years, as the evaporating lake leaves behind sink holes that swallow up anything standing on them.

In the meantime, vacationers will continue to visit this unique area for the opportunity to bathe in the mineral-rich waters. Aside from the strange sensation of being able to float at the top of the salty water, the Dead Sea is famous for its health-giving properties.

I’ve visited a float spa at home in the US several times before, especially when I was training for my marathon. Floating in salty water is great for relaxing muscles and speeding up muscle recovery. In practical terms, it made me much less sore after long runs.

Because of my experience, I was really excited to float in the Dead Sea. Right after we checked into our hotel, Tim and I put on swimsuits and braved the 100+ degree heat to walk across the street to the beach.

The beach itself is unlike any I’ve been to before. Instead of sand, the shore is a mix of bright yellow and beige chunks of salt. The hardened crystals are sharp on the feet, so there are boardwalks leading down to the bath-temperature water.

As advertised, I floated easily in the saline solution. I enjoyed it for a few moments before the pain started settling in. Gradually, a burning sensation intensified beneath my bikini bottoms. The minerals relentlessly stung those sensitive areas. My skin stinging and my forehead sweating from the combined heat of the water and the air, I felt like the main ingredient in a salty meat stew.

Maybe I’m just a wimp, because others have loved the Dead Sea, but I couldn’t bear it anymore. I got out and Tim went in to swim for a few minutes. It wasn’t long before the salt attacked him as well.

Within 20 minutes we rinsed and went back inside the hotel.

Dead Sea Israel float

Tim momentarily enjoying the Dead Sea

Rich and Janet had a similar experience, and they even wrote a (hilarious!) biblical style account of their Dead Sea float:

“Lo, the sun rose from the east and shone upon the land. The land became parched and the people upon the land. Now, Dick and his first wife Janet, were new to this land having come from the west. Dick said, “It is hot. Damn hot.” And Janet said to Dick, “Let us refresh upon the seas.”

Now in those days, at that time, the minerals of the earth were mighty within the water. Dick and Janet entered the sea and floated as a leaf. But lo, the sea entered Dick’s manhood and the vestibule of Janet’s womb.

Suddenly, there was an abomination upon their junk. There was great wailing and a gnashing of teeth. Alas, there was fire in their loins. “Come,” said Janet, “Let us refresh in the baths of water where the minerals are not strong and cool our asses.” Alas, we must retire and take a libation or more and remark upon the wonders of the land. Thus it is written. Dick and his first wife Janet.”

Jerusalem (New City)

The next morning Dani picked us up and we drove west towards Jerusalem. We stopped on the Mount of Olives, where, according to the Bible, God will redeem the dead when the Messiah returns on judgment day. Thus, it’s a popular (and expensive) place for Jews to be buried. The entire hill is covered in over 150,000 tombs, and it may be the world’s oldest continually used cemetery.

Its history is interesting in its own right, but what really amazed me was seeing a view of the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time. So much history stretched out before me.

From this one view you can see the Ancient City of David, Temple Mount/Al Haram Ash Sharif, Dome of the Rock, Garden of Gethsemane, Church of the Holy Sepulchre/Calvary Hill, ancient city walls, Tomb of the Virgin Mary, Mount Zion, The Western Wall (inner part) and Hurva Synagogue. And so many more places I can’t even name.

View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives Israel

View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

After taking in the astounding view, we visited the Israel Museum primarily to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the originals are on display, but most of them are actually photocopies. Still, it was interesting to see what they look like.

After our brief time in the museum we went to Mahane Yehuda Market. This large outdoor market is lined with vegetable and fruit stalls, freshly pressed pomegranate juice, and international restaurants.

We ate lunch at a Syrian restaurant, with the somber realization that we might never actually get to eat Syrian food otherwise. We ordered a shamburak, which is a pastry filled with meat and vegetables. It’s similar to a chicken pot pie, but with different spices and sauces.

Our last stop of the day was to the heavy Yad Vashem museum, dedicated to the Holocaust. The museum tells the full story in chronological order, ending in a circular room called the Hall of Names. Shelves of binders line the walls, each binder labeled with the name of someone who died in the Holocaust or a blank label. The research center continues to search for the names of those who have yet to be identified. The museum and memorial are beautifully done.

Mount Zion

The next morning we explored Mount Zion, starting at the site that many Jews and Christians believe to be the tomb of King David. Crusaders built the tomb two thousand years after King David’s death. Aside from the fact that it’s difficult to keep track of anything for two thousand years, there are archaeological and Biblical reasons to doubt the tomb’s authenticity. The Bible says David was buried in the City of David, and most historians believe he was most likely buried east of the city.

After the tomb, we visited another site of unlikely authenticity – the Room of the Last Supper. It’s probably not where Jesus actually had the Last Supper with his disciples, but it is conveniently located just upstairs from David’s faux tomb. So at least there’s that!

Our last stop on Mount Zion was to the Church of the Dormition, which some Christians believe is the spot where Mary died peacefully in her sleep. The crypt has a shrine to Mary, and the main sanctuary features an elaborate mosaic depicting the names of the saints and prophets, as well as zodiac symbols.

Bethlehem and the West Bank

From Mt. Zion we crossed into the West Bank to visit Bethlehem. As I’ve been writing this blog post I’ve been putting off talking about Palestine and the West Bank, because it’s complicated. But now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get into it.

The British mandate created Israel in 1948, using territory Britain had already promised to the Palestinians. Obvious conflict ensued and continues to this day. To bring a sense of order to it all, there are two main areas designated as Palestinian territories: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Gaza Strip is located in the south of Israel, on the border with Egypt. Gazans voted Hamas, which most of the world considers a terrorist organization, into power in Gaza. This area is off limits to tourists, and when you hear about violence between Israelis and Palestinians, this is typically where it’s happening.

Life is difficult for those who live there. They have no airport (Israel bombed it during the Second Intifada, a period of heightened violence, in 2000, in response to Palestinian attacks), and they have no legal border crossings with Israel or Egypt. Dani explained that Hamas had damaged its relationship with Egypt and had cut legal border crossings in response. As a result, they are essentially stuck in Gaza.

The West Bank, on the other hand, is controlled by the Palestine Liberation Organization (NOT Hamas). When you hear about controversial Israeli settlements, they are located here. Palestinians from the West Bank can enter Israel for work only. Christian Palestinians can enter Israel anytime. Otherwise, Palestinians must travel through Jordan to leave Palestine and access an airport.

There are three kinds of territories in the West Bank, conveniently called A, B, and C. “A” is under full Palestinian control. “B” is under joint Israeli and Palestinian security. “C” is under full Israeli control and is where the Israeli settlements are. B and C areas fully surround the A areas, and the Israeli government waives taxes for those Israelis who settle in the West Bank.

To me, it seems pretty clear that Israel has positioned itself strategically to control most of the West Bank.

West Bank A B C

My attempt at visually explaining the West Bank

Bethlehem, located in the West Bank, is an A area, so visiting there is like going to a different country. In fact, many consider it one. Palestinians have their own passport and governance completely separate from Israel. But, both parties lay claim to this region and that’s why they are technically at war. Day to day life, however, is pretty mundane and peaceful in the West Bank.

Bethleham Palestine Israel

Charming streets of Bethleham

I was excited to visit Bethlehem, and not just because I was curious what it would be like in an A area of the West Bank. I was also excited to see the “little town of Bethlehem” so famous in the Christian Christmas story.

In order to visit the sites of Bethlehem, we had to meet up with a Palestinian guide. Dani, our Israeli guide, is allowed to lead tours in Bethlehem, but a local Palestinian can get our group special access to shorter lines and secret spots.

We rode with our new guide into Bethlehem and parked in Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity. This church, such dates from the 300s CE, marks the spot of the cave where Jesus was born. Visitors enter via the short Door of Humility (so short you have to duck). Inside is an elaborately decorated sanctuary. To the right is the entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity, or the cave where Jesus was born.

Once down in the cave, you can see a 14 point star that marks the spot where he was born. Just across from it is the place where they believe he laid in the manger.

Church of the Nativity Bethleham Palestine Israel

Church of the Nativity

Church of the Nativity Bethleham Palestine israel

Door of Humility at the Church of the Nativity

Church of the Nativity Bethleham Palestine Israel

Touching the star where Jesus was born

Afterwards, we had a traditional Palestinian lunch at a local restaurant, with lots of hummus and tzatziki to go with what was probably the best grilled chicken I’ve ever had. A strong shot of espresso and a piece of syrupy baklava topped it all off.

Old Jerusalem

That afternoon we returned to Jerusalem and visited the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus spent his last night before his arrest. The Church of All Nations stands beside it, and is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve been in. The ceiling inside is navy blue with gold stars to resemble the night sky.

Outside of the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane Israel

Outside of the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane

Ceiling Church of All Nations Garden of Gethsemane Israel

The beautiful ceiling of the Church of All Nations

Inside Church of All Nations Garden of Gethsemane Israel

Inside the Church of All Nations

Our last stop for the day was to the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, an Armenian style church where many believe Mary is buried. The Armenian style is different from the Catholic or protestant church styles. The church is dark but there are many colorful glass and metal lamps hanging from the ceiling.

Tomb of the Virgin Mary Israel Jerusalem

Tomb of the Virgin Mary and its Armenian style

The next day, our last in Israel, we returned to the old city to explore inside the ancient gates. We started at the Jaffa Gate and visited each quarter of the old city – Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian.

We started at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. Jewish people believe this to be the site where the Second Temple stood. It’s the holiest place of prayer in the Jewish religion. Sadly, like much of the Middle East, it’s been a source of conflict as well.

In 1948 the Jordanians took control of the Old City and expelled the Jews, forcing them to lose access to the wall. Nineteen years later, Israeli paratroopers fought their way to the wall. The first thing they did was bulldoze the neighboring Arab houses, creating the sloping plaza that acts as an open air synagogue today.

Western Wall Wailing Wall Jerusalem Israel

The Western Wall

We then visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is where religious followers and historians alike believe Jesus was crucified and buried. The church is under shared administration by Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian Christian groups. You can see signs of each style throughout.

Inside the church, visitors can wait in line to touch the rock believed to have been beneath the cross. It now sits inside a wooden box and sadly I think there was chewing gum inside when I touched it. Tim didn’t get to touch. A grumpy priest refused to let him when it was his turn, because he was wearing shorts. He wrapped a shawl around his waist but that still wasn’t good enough (even though he was allowing others to do that).

After I touched the stone I saw the priest grabbing lit candles out of people’s hands and blowing them out. He was literally puffing out their prayers. This really annoyed me. I felt sad for the people who come here as a pilgrimage but then cannot worship or show their respect based on the whim of a mean man and his unwritten rules. Leave it to humans to muck up God’s unconditional love.

The church also contains an original Jewish tomb from two thousand years ago. It’s a good example of what Jesus’s tomb would have looked like. As for Jesus’s tomb, it’s completely bedazzled with gold and jewels. I enjoyed seeing the original tomb much more, since it felt closer to the historical reality.

Outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher Israel Jerusalem

Outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

ancient jewish tomb church of the holy sepulchre

A tomb from 2000 years ago that reflects the way Jesus’s tomb would have looked

Jesus's tomb church of the holy sepluchre

Standing in front of Jesus’s bedazzled tomb

Upon leaving this church, Tim and I joined Dani at the most delicious little hole in the wall hummus spot in the Muslim quarter. It was the best way to wrap up our time in Jerusalem – inside pita bread and chick pea spread!

Hummus feast in Muslim quarter of Jerusalem

Hummus feast in Muslim quarter of Jerusalem

That night we returned to Tel Aviv. Our group had a final night of dinner and drinks. Serena would be going home the next day, while Rich, Janet, Tim and I would continue on to Jordan.

Visiting Israel was a dream of mine since I was a little girl going to church with my grandmother. I loved the stories in the Bible and often wondered what those places looked like. Getting to see so much of this amazing and complicated land, culminating with the cultural and religious melting pot of Jerusalem, was more wondrous than any dream.

Shalom, Israel. Until next time…

 

 

4 thoughts on “Israel & Palestine – A Journey Through the Holy Land

  1. Madame Writer says:

    I’m so jealous! I’ve always wanted to visit Israel. Like you, I grew up hearing Bible stories and to visit the actual places referenced in the Bible would be surreal. Ah, well, I just live vicariously through travel bloggers. Amazing post and what beautiful pictures! I can’t wait to see where you travel next!

    • our21stcenturyodyssey says:

      Thank you!! Israel was a special visit for me, and my grandmother (who taught my Sunday school classes when I was little) especially was excited to hear all about it! I’ll be writing about Jordan next!

  2. Madame Writer says:

    I’m so jealous! I’ve always wanted to visit Israel. Like you, I grew up hearing Bible stories and to visit the places referenced in the Bible would be surreal. Ah, well, I suppose I will have to live vicariously through travel bloggers until I can save enough money to go there myself. I love your posts so much and your pictures are breathtaking! I can’t wait to see your travels to Madagascar!

Leave a Reply