Jerusalem: Day 3, Jericho: Day 1

I awoke early this morning, at least half an hour before our 6:30 AM wake up call.  Today we left our hotel in Jerusalem for a half day of sight-seeing in Jerusalem before heading out of town for the 30 minute drive to Jericho.

Our first stop this morning was to see the newer of two sites in Jerusalem designated as possible sites of Jesus’ burial.  This one was called The Garden Tomb, and it was probably two blocks from our hotel.  The site itself is rather new, discovered, as it were, about 150 years ago by a British military commander, with the site purchased a few years later and put into trust by a British non-profit organization.  
This was a beautiful site.  There was no church or chapel or major building.  The grounds were maintained as a garden, albeit a garden designed to accommodate a dozen different religious groups and their need for services and lectures at any given time.  We were given a brief presentation and shown the hillside believed by the non-profit to be Golgotha.  This is actually a section of Solomon’s Quarry.  The shape of the face of the hillside left by the quarry cutters when they hit rock that was too soft for further use is distinctly skull-looking, with two caverns that appear like the eyes of a skull.
We then went back into the garden to hear more about the evidence that convinces many people that this might actually be the site – or very like the site – of Joseph of Arimathea’s grave.  Evidence that it was a garden at the time of Jesus include a massive wine-press – the largest found in Israel – that dates to the first century and is evidence that the area was used for agricultural purposes.  There is also a massive underground cistern capable of holding up to 250,000 gallons of water.  They can’t date it earlier than the 12th century (Crusader period) because the Crusaders renovated it.  But it could easily provide proof that there was an adequate water supply for the garden/vineyard.  It was neat to see a 1st century tomb cut into the rock.  While nobody can say whether or not this *is* the site where Jesus lay in the tomb for three days, there were some good arguments to suggest it.
Arguments against it include the fact that it was only about 150 years ago that anybody thought that perhaps this might be the site.  That’s pretty recent compared to at least 1700 years of tradition associated with our next major stop, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  We reached this destination via the famed Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus allegedly traveled from the Antonia Fortress to Golgotha and the tomb.  
Traveling the Via Dolorosa was a bit of a blur, in part because we lost one of our members.  While making a quick turn into the first stop on the Way, one of our members didn’t see the others turn in and kept on going.  It’s my habit (in general, as well as on this trip) to always bring up the rear of the group.  This helps ensure that nobody gets left behind, but it doesn’t prevent someone from going on ahead of the group without me knowing!
We realized rather quickly that we were one short.  We checked in the two churches we had stopped to see and looked in both directions on the street we had entered from, but there was no sight of her.  After a few more minutes with no sight of her, I decided to head further up the road to look for her.  Several ‘blocks’ ahead, this particular road terminated, so that you had to go either right or left.  At this intersection also began a mass of roadside stalls and shops that would continue the rest of the way.  There were lots of people already in this intersection, between locals people-watching, merchants customer-watching, and pilgrims attentive to tracing the steps of Jesus.  
As I stood trying to peer over the crowds, a nicely dressed older Arab gentleman asked me what I was looking for.  I told him a lady.  
“Ah, I know her.  She is wearing a white tag on her shirt, and she has white hair.  I will take you to her.”
I couldn’t remember if she was wearing the name tag for our travel group or not.  I took a chance and followed.  He led me across the street and down a narrow flight of stairs into a chapel.  We descended more staircases, emerged in another church, skirted around the main area of the church and out another door and up a few steps.  We emerged on the exact same street as we had entered off of, perhaps 20 feet from where we had exited the street.  I figured he was trying to make the journey seem impressive.
Back on the main road again we continued weaving through the pilgrims and merchants until he cried out “Here she is!”  Unbelievably, there she was, standing off to the side and watching the road, undoubtedly hoping to see our group.  She wasn’t hurt or too bewildered.  I thanked the man, who graciously accepted my thanks and suggested a donation for his assistance, as this was his “job”.  I happily paid him a few dozen shekels and started walking back towards our group.  A few moments later our guide Shahdi came running up and nearly past us.  I caught his attention and the three of us headed back to the group.  
The rest of the Via Dolorosa was somewhat uneventful, thankfully.  We ended up at the massive Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Although our tour operator continues to insist that November is the off-season, several other people we’ve met have insisted that November is actually part of the peak tourist season – the other one being around Holy Week in the spring.  Whatever the explanation, the Church was packed.  Not as packed as it could be, I’m sure, but pretty darn packed.  
Tradition dating back to at least the early 4th century is that this is the location of Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb.  Although the actual church was built and destroyed several times, the basic location is the same.  Once again I marveled at the ornate decor of this massive structure.
Then we were back on the bus for the drive to lunch in Jericho.  The food wasn’t as good at this restaurant, but such is life.  We then drove to gaze across a small valley at the Mt. of Temptation, where Jesus is believed to have been tempted by Satan as recounted in Matthew 4.  There is a cable-car that you can take up to the mountain, but this wasn’t part of our itinerary.  We drove by a large sycamore tree – reminiscent of Zaccheus in Luke 19.  We just looked at it from the bus, and then continued on to our hotel.
I’m going to have to get some photos of the hotel – the Intercontinental Hotel Jericho.  It’s a very nicely appointed hotel.  Much more posh than our last hotel.  It seems oddly out of place in the general desolation of this desert region, and the comparatively humble shops and homes of the main section of Jericho.  It is such a nice hotel that neither I or my roomie knew how to get the power on in the room.  
Just about time for dinner at the hotel.  Tomorrow we’ll visit Masada and the Dead Sea.  Israel is about 10 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, for those of you keeping track!

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