Israel (Day 6)

Cave at Qumran

Our journey today took us first to Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. The uncovered ruins revealed much about a community that was able to thrive in a dry, barren, hilly wilderness. Ibex wandered ahead of us on the path to see some of the caves.

Ibex joined our tour

That wilderness seemed to go on forever as we drove to Masada, where we saw Herod’s fortress and the place of the Zealots last stand in AD 73. I remember watching the TV miniseries with great interest in 1981. (You can watch it now on Amazon Prime.)

Masada

We took the cable car to the fortress remains to see the palace complex, the siege ramp, and an amazing view.

En Gedi waterfall

On our way to a beach on the Dead Sea we stopped at Wadi David, or the springs of En Gedi where David hid from King Saul. We didn’t go too far in, just enough to see a beautiful waterfall.

I did get to float in a very warm Dead Sea under a clear blue sky. Some in our group applied lots of mineral rich mud in pursuit of younger looking skin.

Today was great from start to finish. Tomorrow, we’re back in Jerusalem.

Israel (Day 5)

We hit the ground running at 7:30 and got a bird’s eye view tour of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

Garden of Gethsemane

To save a little time (and energy) we drove the Palm Sunday walk to the Garden of Gethsemane. I led a communion service there for our group. I’ve done it hundreds of times, but never “on site” before. What a great experience!

Pool at Bethesda. You can see one of the seven colonnades.

St. Anne’s

From there we entered the old city of Jerusalem through the Lion’s Gate. We first stopped at St. Anne’s church and the Pool of Bethesda. Amazing excavations brought the story of John 5 to life. In St. Anne’s we sang a few songs (everyone knew “Jesus Lives Me” and the Doxology) in a place with remarkable acoustics. The hang time of each phrase lasted at least five seconds. I did a verse of “Of the Father’s Live Begotten” because you can’t take the Seminary Kantorei out of the kid.

A very crowded Via Dolorosa

Beginning at Pilates judgment hall we then walked the Via Dolorosa past the fourteen stations of the cross. This path takes you up and down through a maze of churches, shrines, and markets jam-packed with people of who knows how many nationalities.

The place where Jesus died on the cross

We finally arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, within which are one tradition’s location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The line to see that last station was three to fours long. We plan on going back there on our free day.

The stone of anointment, where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.

Today was also our day to go to Bethlehem. Our Israeli tour guide handed us off to an Arab tour guide for this part of the trip. We first stopped at a great restaurant for lunch of schwarma. We also spent a little time at a store selling olive wood carvings. We got a few gifts there, but many of the items were way up there in price.

Church of the Nativity

Inside the church of the Nativity. Long line to the right.

We got onto a smaller bus that took us up to the Church of the Nativity, but not after backing over a concrete barrier. This driver was definitely on the wild side. But then again, so was everyone else on the road.

The wait to see one traditional birth place of Jesus was two hours, and most of our group didn’t want to do that. The rest of the church was either under construction or not open to the public. So we really didn’t see much there. I wasn’t impressed by the town of Bethlehem at all.

Overall it was an up and down day. In some spots I saw more than I expected. In others I saw less. But we were right there where it all happened.

Israel (Day 4)

Even though many in Israel were observing the Sabbath, we had a busy day.

We were on the road at 8 and went to the site of John’s baptisms in the Jordan River. The Jordan is a modest river but the setting of this place was beautiful. At many locations along the banks, groups were baptizing and renewing baptisms. When Lisa and I dipped out feet in the water, lots of little fish tickled our toes.

The Jordan River

The gift shop there was a marvel of the tourist industry. Items for sale included small jars of water from the Jordan, vials of mud from the riverbed, shofar (ram’s horn trumpets), menorah, balms from the Dead Sea, replicas of the ark of the covenant, rosaries, jewelry, dates, honey, dates and much, much more.

We were most interested in the fresh juice drinks sold at a stand. Delicious!

Our next stop was the ancient ruins at Beit She’an. King Saul’s head was displayed there after his defeat on Mt. Gilboa (1 Samuel 31). The Romans built quite a “spa” complex there, complete with bathhouse, theater, amphitheater, hippodrome, temple and shops. The excavation was enormously impressive.

Ruins at Beit She’an

From there we stopped at the springs of Harold, or Gideon’s Cave and springs where he whittled his army down to 300 soldiers to defeat the Midianites ( Judges 7). The park here is a popular Sabbath destination. Tents and picnic blankets stretched as far as you could see. Kids splashed in wading pools as parents grilled supper. Women lounged in the refreshing springs just feet away from the cave itself. We ate our picnic lunch here too, with freshly baked pita, mango, olives, and homemade cheese and mango jelly.

Gideon Springs

As we made our way south to Jerusalem, we made a quick stop at Bet Alef, the ruins of a 4th century synagogue with a beautiful intact mosaic floor. The history and design we learned from a film was fascinating.

4th century flood at Bet Alef synagogue

As we drove south, we saw the mount of Jesus’ temptation in the distance and drove by the Samaritan Inn. The wilderness all around made me appreciate Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation (Matthew 4). The deserted road from Jericho to Jerusalem helped me picture Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan.

We finally arrived in Jerusalem and caught a glimpse of the city as we made our way to our next hotel, the Jerusalem Ramada.

First glimpse of Jerusalem

Tomorrow we begin to explore the city.

Israel (Day 3)

We headed out a little bit earlier today to get a jump on all other tours. This morning’s journey was to several places on the west side of the Sea of Galilee.

Church of the Beatitudes

Our first stop was the Church of the Beatitudes and the site of the sermon on the mount. At a small shaded chapel area we read from Matthew 5 and talked a little about how differs Jesus’ kingdom is from any other.

We then had ten minutes to visit the church along with throngs streaming in and out. My favorite part was the mosaic floor depicting water flowing from the altar.

This site did a brisk business selling intentions for $15 and rosaries beginning at $20.

If you used your imagination, you could picture thousands sitting on the hillside as Jesus taught one afternoon.

The next stop was Capernaum. We saw ruins of Peter’s house where Jesus healed his mother-in-law’s fever. The excavated ruins here were extensive and fascinating.

Ruins at Capernaum

A very short drive from here brought us to Tabgha, the traditional site of Jesus’ miracle of the multiplication of the fish and bread. The old mosaic floors were amazingly well preserved.

Site of the Multiplication of the Bread and Fish

Our last stop on this part of the trip was The Ancient Boat, a fisherman’s boat preserved from Jesus’ time. Here we also got to go out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. We meditated on Jesus walking on the water, sang a few hymns, and enjoyed a breezy time on the water.

A short distance away we stopped for lunch at Kitsa Halahal, a roadside Lebanese restaurant with some excellent tilapia. Washed it down with some Maccabee beer.

They thought my fish was too small, so they brought me a second.

It then took us an hour to drive up to Caesaria Philippi where Jesus told Peter he would build his church on the rock. The massive stone cliff still loomed Over rubble ancient remains of temples, fortresses and churches.

Caesaria Philippi

Since Jesus was in Galilee for so much of his ministry, this was a good day. Just not long enough to see enough of everything, though!

Israel (Day 2)

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee

Ruins at Caesarea

This was our first real full day of touring. After an amazing buffet breakfast, we were on the road at 8 am to Caesarea. Tali our tour guide used our hour drive time to review the religious and socio-political history of Israel.

A nice video helped us understand the history of Caesarea before we stepped out to the edge of the Mediterranean to see what was left of the harbor, hippodrome, amphitheater and Pilate’s lake house.

On our way to Megiddo we passed Mt. Carmel where the prophet Elijah had his showdown with the prophets of Baal. The visitor center at Megiddo is being renovated so many of the structures were temporary. A little bit of an uphill hike took us past twenty-seven layers of ancient cities until we reached the top of the tel where we had a great view of the Jezreel valley. The panoramic view from the top of the tel was awesome. On our way back we went down many flights of steps to the springs far below the surface that provided water to the fortified cities that once stood there.

Ruins at Megiddo

Lunch at a little restaurant near Megiddo gave me my first taste of falafel. Not too bad, especially when you spice it up.

Church of the Annunciation

Mary’s house; place of the annunciation

Our next stop was Nazareth. I was surprised to learn that the population of Nazareth is mostly Islamic, with a few Arabic Christians mixed in. Jews do not live in Jesus’ hometown.

The city of Nazareth was old and kind of dirty. The closer we got to the Church of the Annunciation, the more souvenir vendors lined the street. This church is amazing. Beautiful stone architecture and artwork. The grotto on the lower level, supposedly where Gabriel told Mary she would be the mother of our Lord looked liked little more than a small cave. Many tourists knelt there to pray.

Our last stop for the day was Cana, where Jesus did his first miracle of turning water into wine. The church itself and several side chambers were filled with couples renewing their wedding vows. We headed into the basement to see a twenty gallon stone jar, like the one Jesus told servants to fill with water.

Church at Cana

Upon returning to Tiberias, we stopped in the National Diamond Center where a crack team of salesmen leached onto us until we finally found the exit and escaped.

A busy day. Each site was full of tour busses just like ours. A thriving business for sure.

Tomorrow we head to Galilee.

Israel (Day 1)

The official day 1 of our trip was spent mostly in the plane. Nine hours in the air from Miami to Vienna, then another three plus to Tel Aviv, both on Austrian Airlines. Smooth flights all the way.

I watched and really enjoyed two movies, “Tolkien” and “Aquaman” The onboard meals were meh, but I didn’t expect much. I got about three hours of sleep. Not too bad.

We finally landed safely in Tel Aviv. There were a LOT of people in line for immigration. I’m guessing five hundred or so. But also twelve people checking passports, so we got through, got our bags and got on the bus in about 45 minutes.

Because it was rush hour, we had a two hour drive to our first hotel, the Lake House Kimberly in Tiberius. Our tour guide for the week, Tali, lives in Tiberius, and shared lots of info with us on the way. I think most of our group was dozing. She told us what to expect our first day out when we’ll get to Caesarian, Megiddo, Jezreel, Nazareth and Cana.

After we checked into our hotel room, we enjoyed a great buffet dinner on site. All freshly prepared, all typical regional food. Lots of veggies, olives, cous cous, hummus, wine, and a number of thing we liked, but couldn’t identify. Lots of seasoning, too.

The Sea of Galilee from our hotel balcony.

Israel (Day 0)

First leg of our trip may have been the toughest: getting to the Miami airport. A five hour drive south on I-95 is rarely a good time. But today, it didn’t get exciting until the last twenty miles through the heart of the city. We were glad to get through that last pulse-pounding stretch.

I was initially a little concerned about our choice of off-airport long term parking. A little sketchy. But once we pulled in, they took great care of us and got an entertaining ride to the airport that includes some advice on how to stay married a long time: always say “yes” to your wife.

We checked our watches and noticed we had a four hour wait till we boarded our flight. The ticket agents hadn’t even arrived yet. Once the whole group arrives, we were compelled to get in line. Our check in and bag check went smoothly, as did security. A great start to any trip.

Three hours to wait now. Time for lunch. After a bit of wandering, Lisa and I found a nice little sit down place when I had a beer and a remarkably good Beyond Burger, and Lisa a tasty salad with chicken. With airplane food to look forward to over the next twelve hours, it was worth a few bucks to enjoy a nice meal.

Two hours to wait now. I had to write early since I’ll be in the air till tomorrow. Next stop Vienna, then Tel Aviv.

Israel (Day -1)

My wife and I will join a group of seventeen other travelers to Israel tomorrow. Day zero will be all travel, from Miami to Vienna to Tel Aviv. So today is negative one on the trip time line. (I’m a math guy, so this entertains me.)

I finally packed today. The instructions said to pack light, pack casual, pack comfortable. I did. All of my stuff fits easily into a small rolling duffel. I am using packing cubes for the first time. Boy do they make packing easy! No computer, my books are electronic, my journal is ready, and the car is gassed up.

Tomorrow we drive to Miami where we will meet the rest of our group, most of whom are from our church. I believe we’ve been planning this trip for more than a year. We’re looking forward to eight days packed with all the popular destinations, from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea to Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

One of the things we keep reminding ourselves is that we are traveling to a first-world country. So much of our international travel has been to third world countries, where we can’t drink the water, travel on unpaved roads, and navigate throngs of people trying to sell us stuff, carry our bags, or simply receive a little American wealth. We checked out our hotels. They are nice. The food looks delicious, the water is safe, and we will join so many other travelers who have sought to walk where Jesus walked.

So what are my expectations? I hope to be able to picture the bible stories that happened in each of the places we will visit. I want to see fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, imagine myself at a wedding in Cana, walk through Jerusalem to Golgotha, stand where the temple must have been, and take in a history that goes back nearly 4,000 years.

Since I am a pastor, I expect to be peppered with questions about bible stories, places and people. That’s OK. I like the stories, the places and the people. I talk about that stuff all the time. But now I will be there. I will see it with my own eyes. That has to be an awesome experience, so I’m beginning to look forward to it.

Since I am a pastor, though, I fear that some of the trip will feel like work. I just want to listen to the tour guide, look at the amazing places, and imagine the people without being on the clock. We’ll see how that goes.