Jerusalem: Day 1

Thankfully an exhausting day of travel made for a good night’s sleep!  I think I slept from roughly 9:00 PM until 6:30AM.  Much needed!

We’re staying at the Ritz Hotel Jerusalem, which I don’t think is connected to the Ritz chain of upscale hotels.  It’s a nice hotel located in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, a short walk from Herod’s Gated City.  We started the day with a buffet breakfast at the hotel  Lots of fresh fruit along with eggs, breads, and cheese.  No hot tea readily available so I had to settle for coffee, which seemed to work just fine.
Last night we met the driver, Sammi, of the tour bus that has been rented for our exclusive use.  We also met our Israeli guide for our trip, a Christian Arab by the name of Shadi.  Linda, the director of the tour company, Alpha2Omega Travel was also with us today.  We boarded the bus at 8:00 AM and headed up to the Temple Mount.  We had to stand in line for quite some time in order to get through the security checkpoint.  Shadi said that it was much busier today than the past couple of days.  It was warm and sunny – I think the official high temperature for today was 81 degrees.  We were able to tour the Temple Mount area, including the outside of the Al-Aqsa Mosque as well as the Dome of the Rock.  
Although it took a long time to get through the security checkpoint, once we did, there weren’t many crowds on the Temple Mount.  There were a few groups of Muslim women gathered for some sort of instruction, and there were classes of young Muslim children on field trip to the site.  Considering the contentious nature of the Temple Mount, it was an oddly underwhelming place.  
We made our way down to the Western Wall, the last remaining wall of the Second Temple that was expanded by Herod in the years prior to the birth of Jesus.  The women and men had separate areas that they were confined to – the men appearing to have the nicer and larger of the two areas.  Everywhere there were men dressed in the very conservative garb of Hasidic Jews, and multiple times small processions of singing and dancing men came through with a young boy in the midst celebrating his bar mitzvah.  
We then went to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and were able to tour through some of the excavated areas immediately outside the Old City Walls.  This included stopping by the Teaching Steps that lead up to the Huldah Gates.  
Afterwards it was off to lunch at the Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, which has a large dining area capable of hosting a pretty hefty number of people for lunch!  
After lunch we headed off to see The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.  This church was built over a Byzantine Church which tradition holds is built over the ruins of the house of Caiphas, the high priest at the time of Jesus’ arrest (Matthew 26).  As such, tradition holds that the lowest level of this structure, called the pit, could actually have been the area where Jesus was held as He was being tried by the Jews, prior to being sent to the Romans for sentencing.  Just a basic room carved out of the rock and reached by multiple staircases.
We ended the day with a trip to Bethany.  Now separated from Jerusalem by a wall of separation, it is reached by a rather roundabout road trip.  There was a marked difference in Bethany compared to Jerusalem – dirtier, more obviously poor.  We went to see the ruins of a Crusader Church built over or near what tradition holds to be the tomb of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11).  
We arrived back at the hotel two hours prior to dinner, so I led a smaller group on a stroll down to the Old City walls and the Damascus Gate.  We arrived at the Gate around 5:30 PM, and already it was dark and much, much cooler than it had been during the day!  The Gate is now a warren of shops and merchant stalls selling all manner of trinkets, candy, and food.  As with other places we visited today, some of the vendors are very persistent in trying to get you to buy something.  Two ladies in our evening expedition were looking at an olive wood nativity set.  The asking price was $90 US, but that was quickly dropped to $60.  As we began to leave, the price dropped to $40 US, and I think I even heard just barely as we rounded the corner an offer of $20 US!  
Dinner was another very nice buffet.  Afterwards the group gathered on the roof our hotel for a short meditation and time of prayer.  What a beautiful way to end the day!  But I suppose it’s about time for bed.  Good night.

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