03 November 2013


Tour stickers!

If tourists are to go anywhere in Israel, I cannot think of anywhere more religiously pertinent than Jerusalem. Paul and I had originally planned to see Jerusalem Monday but, bless my husband, he decided to cancel Monday’s trip to leave time for rest and free roaming. At first I was relieved yet disappointed that we were going to miss an entire tour day, but by this tour’s end, I was beyond thrilled that we had not hit the ground running.

Tuesday began early with a 6:30 breakfast and then a rush to be outside before our scheduled 7:15 coach….that ended up being a half hour late. Paul and I were joined by his colleague, LeeAnne.

We were taken from our hotel to another location where several coaches gathered to divide passengers according to tour locations and then gather them into the respective vehicles. This cattle call process was the most unorganized thing I have witnessed. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the tour company we used for booking purposes didn’t actually run the tours – apparently a commonality among tour agencies. We also realized once we got started that booking with a Christian tour company does not mean that we will participate in a Christian tour.

As Paul, LeeAnne and I made our way onto another coach, we squeezed into the last three available seats. LeeAnne took one in the middle so that Paul and I could take the two in the back. My eyes caught sight of a young mother with baby in tow seated in the back, so I offered Paul the window, saving my seat next to the baby. We each made jokes about me getting my baby fix while keeping Paul away from the child throughout the remainder of the day.

Our drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was roughly an hour. Looking out the windows, I expected to see desert, much like I saw in Dubai:

Instead, I saw green – lots of green: trees, grass…evergreens! Israel has evergreens! “Well,” Paul said at my amazement, “it is the land flowing with milk and honey.” Oh….yeah. Of course there would be fertile land in what God presented to his people as the Promised Land. Duh.

When our driver got word of traffic ahead on Highway 1, we took a detour into Palestinian territory. Paul and I were slightly nervous because we did not have our passports in our bag; we earlier confirmed with our first coach driver that the passports would not be necessary. His response, “No, you won’t be going into Palestine.” So he was wrong on one account. We did easily pass through the border back into Israel a while later so passports were not needed.

Border crossing

For our first stop, we drove to an observation point, only narrowly escaping large tour buses and hundreds of people hoping to see what we were about to see: the holiest site on earth.

A view of Jerusalem - click the photo to enlarge it

A Christian history we did not get but it was quite insightful to learn why everyone in Israel has been fighting over a certain piece of land – this piece of land – for millennia.

The plateau on which the buildings stand is known as the Temple Mount and holds religious significance to Christians, Jews and Muslims. That hill, now flattened and built upon, is Mount Zion. Technically speaking, the area outside the wall is now known as Mount Zion but that’s way too much history to explain.

Now, when Paul and I thought about Mount Zion, we ignorantly expected to see an actual grassy mountain. I don’t think either of us realized Mount Zion was settled. How did we not know that Jerusalem was built upon Mount Zion? This just proves that the more we think we know about our own religion, the more we realize we just don’t know.

The view was beautiful on a sunny, nearly cloudless day. We stood along a hill with desert behind us to our left and all of Jerusalem in front. After a few minutes of awe-inspiring gazes, our tour guide announced that we were not just standing on any hillside – we were standing on the Mount of Olives.

The Mount of Olives, now a popular cemetery

Did you get the chills? I did. Sadly, that was my only chill-inducing moment but, like I said, just because the tour company has Christian in the name, doesn’t mean one actually attends a Christian tour. We did, however, get a history lesson.

The wall outside Old Jerusalem was constructed 500 years ago. The wall, like everything else in Jerusalem, has been built and destroyed twice, maybe three times due to territorial and religious wars and an earthquake in the late 1920s. Since the beginning of time, people have fought over this piece of land now called the Temple Mount.

Way, way, way back in the day, when Abraham walked the earth, he is said to have walked on Mount Zion, then called Mount Moriah. It was on that mountaintop (actually a grassy mountain at that time, I imagine) that he set out to sacrifice the son he so longed to have. And here began the controversy.

According to our tour guide, “God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. The Bible clearly states that he was to sacrifice his beloved son, but no name was mentioned…It’s true, it’s true. So the Christians and the Jews believe he was to sacrifice Isaac, who came from Sarah, and the Muslims believe Abraham was to sacrifice Ishmael, the son of Abraham’s and Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar.”

Now, when the guide said that the Bible did not mention Isaac’s name, I shot him a confused, I-think-you’re-wrong-there,-buddy look, which is why he paused and then twice said that he was correct. For my own sanity, and for blogging purposes (because I do my best to ensure that when I write things as true, they actually are verifiable), I did some research.

Thanks to Bible Gateway, I was able to consult various text translations, including the New International Version, the Amplified Bible (my translation of choice), the Young’s Literal Translation (meaning, literally every word translated from the original text), the King James Version, the Authorized King James Version (no idea what the difference is there) and even an online Torah. All versions specifically state Isaac as the son who was to be sacrificed.

Based on my uneducated Quran research, I have concluded that the Quran does not mention a named son regarding the sacrifice. My research indicates that there are many debates as to the validity and the origins of the story and, after doing a keyword search in an online Quran, I was not able to find the story of the sacrifice. I know basically nothing about the Quran and the Muslim faith so please don’t hold that against me here. I did my best.

In the Old Testament, Mount Moriah/Mount Zion is also where King Solomon built his temple. Both the temple and the city of Jerusalem have been destroyed over centuries due to religious and territorial wars.

One of the biggest disappointments, in our opinions, was not actually being able to see actual sites of religious significance. Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, in the third century took a tour of holy sites in order to find religious artifacts.

To make a really long story short, she ordered that a church be built on any piece of land holding religious significance in order to preserve the land. Thousands of years later, we were sad that the land was not actually preserved but I suppose I see her point.

This building marks the Garden of Gethsemane
What we did see was a beautiful old city with a lot of scars amidst ruins.

One of the first rooms we walked into was, according to our tour guide, “the site of the Last Supper. Now, of course this isn’t the actual room because the building was destroyed, so this was recreated, but this is what we believe the room to have looked like.” I don’t have many pictures of the room because, if it was the room, it was bastardized as features of a mosque and a random tree were incorporated into the room; the bronze olive tree was a gift from the Pope and the Catholic Association, which provided funds for the room’s restoration.

The Upper Room

Random bronze tree

Behind the bars is the room of the descent, which we neither saw nor learned about

After viewing the upper room, we went into the lower room where a large coffin believed to be King David’s resting place was installed. There were two entrances, one for men and one for women. Though the room was open to both men and women, a wooden divider approximately 6 feet high separated the two from seeing each other. Prayer books were aligned on a bookshelf opposite the tomb.

Half of King David's tomb; the other half continued onto the men's side

A woman reciting prayers beside the tomb

One of many shelves filled with scripture and prayer books

A man, visible above the room divider

A man in the courtyard outside the tomb

The courtyard

As we entered through the Zion Gate, I stopped for a moment to notice all of the holes in the walls – bullet holes, we were advised – and not small ones, obvious signs of five centuries of struggles and disagreements.

The Old City seemed somewhat surreal as we walked through the narrow stone-lined passageways. To me the city was reminiscent of walking through Disney World’s Hollywood Studios – bear with me here – in that it almost seemed staged as if no one actually lived there. But people did…do…live and work and eat and sleep and learn and converse and worship inside the walls. I watched women carrying strollers down stone stairs and thought about the families who lived inside. I thought about what it must feel like to live inside walls.

The wall's interior

Then I turned a corner and saw something so familiar, I laughed.

We toured one Christian church that I believe was labeled as an orthodox church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church is set on the traditional site of Jesus’ burial and contains what is said to be his tomb, along with several other markers including Cavalry, the spot where Jesus’ cross was found by St. Helena, Adam’s burial and many chapels dedicated to several churches including the Armenians, the Greeks and the Franciscans.

The columns and doors to the church

An arch over stairs leading to Cavalry on Golgotha

The station of the cross. The people are lining up to kneel at the feet of Jesus and kiss a circle on the floor depicting the place where Jesus' cross was positioned at his crucifixion.

The Stone of Unction, believed to be the table where Jesus was placed when he was taken from the cross.

Pilgrims, specifically Russian Orthodox Christians we were told, come to touch and oil the slab for healing.

A mosaic on the wall behind the stone
Lanterns and the ceiling facing the church's entrance

Jesus' tomb, placed in the middle of a rotunda. Surprisingly, we did not get much information on this station. I read last night that there are two rooms inside the tomb including the room where Jesus' body was placed. People can apparently enter the two rooms.

The ceiling in the orthodox chapel

The dome above the tomb

At this point, Paul looked at me and said for the first of three times that day, "Man, I can't wait for the real tour...when Jesus comes back. It’s going to be hilarious! I can just picture Jesus saying, ‘Oh, you think that’s where that happened? Nope, it was over there….You think I fell there? Actually it was three feet to the left.”

I learned last night that there were many places inside the church that we did not see, so we know what to hit next time. We had lunch in a little cafe where our options were falafel or schwarma, which were the same thing (pickled vegetables held inside a pita), except the schwarma came with chicken. After, we walked the Via Dolorosa from the site of the crucifixion out to the Western Wall, the holiest site for the Jewish faith. The wall is the only remaining structure that originally outlined the courtyard of the Jewish Temple and is a holy landmark for Jewish pilgrims. 

Station 7 on the Via Dolorosa, marking where Jesus dropped his cross a second time on the walk to Golgotha 

Our group, our leader in the blue plaid, walking down the Via Dolorosa

The fourth station, depicting where Jesus met Mary on his walk

Stairs leading down to the Western Wall

The Wall
 Men and women can enter the wall, commonly known as the Wailing Wall, from opposite sides, men on the left and women on the right. Prayer books fill bookshelves and chairs are available for those who choose to sit. Others wait to touch the wall, offer prayers and leave prayers in the crevices.

Paul observing the Wall

The Dome of the Rock behind the Western Wall

We had one more stop that afternoon – Yad Vashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration. We were advised to leave cameras behind as no photos or videos could be taken on the premises. We would have an hour and a half to move from one end of the building to the other. Looking at the museum from the opening, I figured we would be done in half an hour. We stood on one end of a triangular tunnel with concrete floors and walls, lit by glass sky lights and doors at the opposite end.

Along the tunnel were openings for rooms depicting different phases of the Holocaust. Unlike most displays, this museum, sponsored by a family in New Jersey, did not boast gory photos or graphic accounts. Instead, this museum focused on the facts, portraying a Jewish history from the days of the Roman empire to the years following the Holocaust. Children of the Holocaust era tell stories on numerous television screens placed on walls in each room; artifacts from families affected by the Holocaust are placed in display cases; placards recount the history in countries and specific neighborhoods across the globe.

Stories from Hungary, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Croatia, Poland, Turkey and others fill the rooms. Letters from countries like the United States and Australia, stating the countries would not admit Jewish refugees; at the time the U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression.

Before we knew it, we were a little more than halfway through the rooms when we realized we only had 20 minutes left. From what I saw, I feel the exhibits were much more informative than exhibits I had previously seen – and these were much more tasteful. Yad Vashem focuses on portraying history, not in-your-face awfulness. Yes, what happened was tragic on many levels and for many years, and walking through the exhibits released emotions in both Paul and in me, but the museum promoted a balance of emotion and historical education that I had not until then witnessed.

The museum floor dips in the middle, literally taking guests down into the tragedy. The floor begins to rise as the history takes a positive turn and focuses on the end of the war and beyond. In the final room, images of those lost in the Holocaust are displayed in a remarkable fashion and books dedicated to each of the known victims are displayed around the room. I highly encourage you to view Yad Vashem’s website to see pieces of what we were able to see in person: YadVashem.

Once through to the other side, with many displays quickly viewed due to timing, we were able to take a few deep breaths as we looked across the grounds to something beautiful, a view I never imagined we would experience. Let me just say that this photo does not do the view justice. Again, we were not allowed to bring the camera so this was a last-second camera phone shot. What we really saw was a complete, panoramic view of this, for miles. It was just beautiful and refreshing to see after experiencing most of what the museum had to offer.

The most moving display, in my opinion, was a separate building dedicated to the children whose lives were lost during the Holocaust. We entered a room where a single light was lit in the darkness. With the help of specially placed mirrors and reflective elements, the single light casts thousands of flames representing each child lost while sounds of children singing echo through the hall. I do not have children and I don’t know that I ever will but in that moment, I could not help but imagine what it must feel like to have a child and lose that child, no matter what the circumstance.

By the time we drove the hour back to Tel Aviv and dropped off everyone at their respective hotels, we were exhausted. We cancelled dinner plans with LeeAnn in favor of room service, and I nearly fell asleep before our food arrived. We were under the covers mere minutes after we finished dinner (wrong, we know but we did need to eat), with the knowledge that the next day would be filled with another tour.

As we prepared to sleep, lying in the dark, I heard Paul chuckle while he said something he had said earlier in the day: “I can’t wait until the real tour.” 

I drifted off to sleep, smiling, not realizing that the next day would be something truly, truly special.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great pics, good camera work, and commentary