Archive for November, 2012

Tiberias: Day 3

November 15, 2012

Our final day in Israel.  Hard to believe that it arrived already.  In some ways, it seems like we have been here for a month.  In other ways, it seems like we’ve just arrived.  We’ve seen and done so much in such a short time!

This morning we didn’t have to leave until 9:00 AM, which was kind of nice.  We bid our hotel farewell, and packed up everything to leave.  We drove first to Cana, a small town not far from Nazareth and our hotel where Jesus performed his first miracle (John 2).  There was a church commemorating the event, and it was nice walking through the small streets to get there and back.  
We drove next to Mt. Carmel.  We stopped at a scenic overlook of the massive port city of Haifa.  Then we drove over the mountain, where we had lunch before going on to see the church that commemorates Elijah’s victory over the false prophets in 1 Kings 18.  This Carmelite nun church also had an amazing view of the surrounding valleys all the way to the mountains of Samaria as well as the hills of Galilee.  Then we went to see Caesarea Maritime, or at least the ruins of it.  This was our first time actually on the shores of the Mediterranean.  We were able to get our feet wet in the water.  
Part of our time was spent watching the antics of a group of guys.  One of them had – shortly before our arrival – driven a van onto the beach with his boat launch on the back.  In backing the launch into the water, his van sank a bit into the soft sand and he was stuck.  By the time we arrived a pick-up was trying to pull the van out of the soft wet sand before the rising tide swallowed it.  They didn’t seem to have a proper tow cable, and their efforts to use ropes and other things were not succeeding.  But finally, by switching angles, the pick-up driver was able to pull the van out of the mushy ruts it was trapped in and the day was saved.
It was a gorgeous sunset while we were there, with lots of beautiful clouds that turned pink and red and orange in the setting sun.  We stopped on our way out of the area to see a massive mosaic that remains from a Byzantine estate that once stood on the hillside before it was destroyed by Muslim armies sometime in the seventh century.  
We drove in the dying light to Jaffa and Tel Aviv.  We dropped two of our travelers off and sent them by taxi ahead of us, as their plane left earlier than the rest of us.  Then we proceeded to our final dinner.  We enjoyed a variety of Middle Eastern appetizers with our fresh-baked pita, and then either a whole grilled fish or a shish kebab of lamb and chicken.  Followed by Israeli baklava and a shot of very strong, very hot coffee!
By this time it was going on 8pm and we were beginning to feel tired.  We drove to the airport where we bid our guide and driver farewell.  We made it through customs without too much difficulty, though one of our travelers – a young man in the Army reserves – received a lot of questioning by the security staff before they let him through.  We had heard of the rocket attacks in Gaza during the past few days, and what we hadn’t yet heard about were escalated Israeli responses, so I’m sure that security was a bit tighter than usual.  
Our plane departed at 12:40 AM.  We were pretty exhausted by then, so we ate our in-flight meal pretty quickly.  People were already beginning to fall asleep.  I was trying to stay awake a little longer, to push myself back onto a California time-cycle.  I managed to watch two movies before falling asleep.  
We arrived in New York City where there were a few piles of snow at the airport.  While we had a four hour layover, it took well over half that long to make our way through the long lines of customs and passport control.  Then it was a five and a half hour flight from New York City back to Los Angeles.  Having had some sleep on the earlier flight, I was feeling a little better on this flight – particularly since I’d been able to have a massive hot tea at the airport in New York City!
We arrived back to a slightly drizzly Los Angeles right about noon on Thursday.  The drive home was painful, as I was getting pretty tired by then.  But it went smoothly.  It was so good to be home and to see my family again – and I slept like a rock!  Thank God for an amazing experience and wonderful people to share it with.
There has been some discussion of possibly doing another trip in a couple of years – this time to see some of the New Testament sites of Paul’s journeys, like Ephesus.  If you’re interested, let me know, and I’ll keep you posted!

Tiberias: Day 2

November 13, 2012

Today we spent most of the day around the Sea of Galilee, the western and northern sides specifically.

Actually, that’s only partially true.  I was up at 4:30 AM today in order to be in the lobby by 5:00 AM.  Our tour host, Linda, got into the travel business somewhat by accident.  She started out working on archaeological digs here in Israel.  Her work in organizing groups to come over and help with the digs earned her a reputation as a go-to person for travel arrangements.  Across the Sea of Galilee from where we are staying in Tiberias is the dig site that she has been working at for years – En Gev.  Situated at the top of a hilltop that rises alone between two ranges of mountains, this was one of the cities of the Decapolis that existed in Biblical times.  The name of the city in Latin was Hippolus, and in Greek, Scythopolis, both referring to horses.  
Our guide Shahdi drove us around the southern end of the Sea of Galilee and up to the area of En Gev.  After a short, steep hike, we found ourselves on the plateau top.  While you’d never guess it from below, the top is covered with the stone ruins of Muslim, Roman, and Greek civilizations.  As we wandered the ruins the sun rose over the hills on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  It was chilly, but beautiful!
We raced back to the hotel in time for breakfast and getting ready to meet up with the group for the day’s ‘official’ schedule.  First off was a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.  We spent 45 minutes or so on a boat on the water.  It was peaceful for the most part, except for blaring Israeli versions of contemporary Christian music hits.  
When we got back to shore we saw a first century boat that was discovered in the mid-80’s at Ginosar.  Then we drove up to the Mount of Beatitudes, then drove to see Capernaum.  Capernaum is where Jesus seemed to operate from during a good portion of his ministry.  There are remains of a house purported to be that of John, son of Zebedee, as well as a synagogue.  Then we were off for a fish luncheon along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  While stray cats have been ubiquitous throughout our travels, they were all over the place at this outdoor restaurant!  
Afterwards we visited the Church of the Primacy of Peter.  We were blessed that Shahdi was able to secure from the sisters of this Catholic church a key to a gated, private path that led down to an outdoor altar and seating facing the Sea of Galilee.  It was getting close to sunset as I prepared the wine and bread for communion.  We had a short service, reading passages from Matthew and John related to the feeding of the 5000, and then had communion together.  We were joined by a hyrax family and several frisky lizards, and it was a beautiful ending to not only the day, but also the bulk of our trip together.
We drove back into Tiberias where the group visited a diamond showroom.  I checked out a music store in downtown Tiberias, still hopeful of finding a nice decorative souvenir for our (hopefully!) new home.  But, to no avail.  While they had some ouds, they didn’t have any lyres.  I had a nice walk through town before heading back to the hotel to begin final packing, then dinner.  Hard to believe that tomorrow is our last day in Israel before boarding a midnight flight that will take us all the way back to New York City and have us home by noon on Thursday.  I’m not looking forward to that massive flight, but the trip has been well worth the considerable travel discomfort on either end of our journey!

Tiberias: Day 1

November 12, 2012

We backtracked this morning, driving about 30 minutes south and then west to the archaeological site (and town) of Beit Shean.  We wandered through the Roman ruins of this town, marveling at the amphitheater and the patches of mosaic tile scattered through the ruins.  

Then it was off to Megiddo, an amazingly ancient site (ruins date back to roughly 3000 years before Christ!).  It goes by the name Armegeddon as well, and is the purported site of the future last battle between good and evil.  Given the volatile nature of this region, I can believe it!  But overlooking the Jezreel Valley, everything is so peaceful and beautiful – a patchwork of verdant green crops and deep, blood-brown soil awaiting cultivation – that except for the loud presence of Israeli warplanes crossing the sky every so often, I might believe that this would be the last place on earth for war.  But Megiddo has been destroyed and rebuilt at least 25 times over 7000 years.  Perhaps that is more than adequate testimony to the potential for war in this beautiful place.
Next we drove to Nazareth, the home town of not only Jesus, but our guide Shahdi as well.  We saw the Church of the Annunciation, built over ruins that are marked by second century inscriptions indicating that this was the dwelling place of Mary the mother of Jesus.  The newly built church is amazing in itself – very traditional looking from the outside, but contrasted with stark concrete on the inside and decorated by amazing, massive artwork from all over the world depicting Mary.  
We drove up the street to Mary’s Well and the Russian Orthodox church that houses it.  It also turned out to be Shahdi’s home church, and they were busy scrubbing and cleaning in preparation for a visit from their Patriarch.  
We left Nazareth and drove to Mt. Tabor.  This is the mountain traditionally associated with Jesus’ transfiguration, as it is close to Nazareth and the Galilee, and is the only free-standing mountain in the whole area.  We survived a rather crazy taxi ride to the top of the mountain where a church and monastary commemorate the holy mountain.  The taxi ride down in the dark was considerably less exciting, unfortunately!
Then it was back to our hotel for dinner.  The group surprised me with a thank-you gift of a beautiful olive-wood carving.  We had seen them at our first gift-shop stop in Bethlehem, where the artist had been on hand to sign pieces that people bought.  I was completely stunned at the gift and the thought behind it.  How blessed I am to be experiencing all of this with wonderful people!  We enjoyed wine with dinner, then it was time to blog and go to bed.  Although the rest of the group gets to sleep in late tomorrow, I’m actually getting up much, much earlier – at 4:40AM, to be ready by 5:00AM to drive off with our guide and tour host to check out a nearby archaeological site.  It will be fun, I’m sure – but painful!


November 12, 2012

Well, I didn’t manage to get pictures of the hotel.  Oh well.  It was a morning that went too quickly.  This hotel caters to a larger population of tourists from Asia, and the dinner & breakfast options reflected that.  While dinner was not very good, breakfast was much more enjoyable, and then it was off and running.  We drove south again, to the base of the Dead Sea.  The west coast of the Dead Sea was pretty interesting.  The water level is dropping rather markedly – up to a meter a year – and that exposes a lot of additional beachlands.  But because there are underground freshwater springs that meet the saltwater here, the land is unstable and prone to caving in.  It makes for a very eerie landscape at times.

We got off the bus at Masada, the site of the final stand of Jewish rebels against Roman forces in 70-73 AD.  Rather than making our way up the Snake Path, we were able to get on cable cars for the journey.  After a car arrived, we waited a few extra moments while they loaded two very cool looking stone benches into the car.  We all piled on and in just a couple of moments were at the top of Masada.
I hadn’t pictured Masada being as large as it is.  There was a lot of room up there, and both the Romans who first developed the mountaintop into a defensive site and the Jews who actually used it as such had some room to grow food, collect water, house animals, and generally wait out a rather long siege.  It was really windy though, on our particular day at the top.  Our guides told us it usually isn’t, but that was kind of hard to believe!
We made it back down via cable car and departed to the ruins of Qumran.  The wind was really whipping up down at ground level, so much so that we had to take momentary shelter from a dust storm.  Our guide informed us that Masada had just closed due to the high winds and the danger to the cable cars.  It was then that our tour host mentioned that she realized that the stone benches they loaded into the car were to weight it down so that it didn’t blow around so much.  I thanked her for telling us *after* the fact!  That’s an experienced tour operator, I suppose!
The wind didn’t last very long, though there were dark clouds massing to the west and south of us.  We toured Qumran and I was reminded once again that ruins all look alike.  I could take a gazillion pictures, and there’s that temptation to do so.  But I know from experience that those pictures are invariably the most boring (at least to me).  So I tried to stick with photos that had our group in them.  Qumran was also larger than I had envisioned, and that’s without taking into account the cliffside caves that were used for storage and perhaps for living areas as well.  
We had lunch in the cafeteria at Qumran.  There must be a lot of Germans who visit the Holy Land, because schnitzel is invariably one of the menu options.  I had a schnitzel pita, which was fine, and then we were off to the Dead Sea for a bathing stop.
The Dead Sea is mineral-heavy.  Not just salt, but other minerals as well that lend it an oily consistency and cause people to float effortlessly.  I had no interest in getting in, and was only too happy to utilize my telephoto lens to get photos of others in the group enjoying the floating sensation or experimenting with rubbing the grey mud on their skin.  It was a pretty busy little stretch of beach.  A sign at a bar above the main beach proclaimed “The Lowest Bar in the World -418 Meters”.  On our way out I bought beers for the guys (the ladies were pretty anxious to get cleaned off and dressed again).  I opted for absinthe instead of beer.  Not the flavor I expected (or the color – it was light blue rather than green), so I’ll have to try a better quality brand at some point in the future.  As it was, it tasted strongly of aniseed, and resembed the arak liquor I had tried the day before.
Our last stop was at the Jordan River.  We stopped at the traditional place associated with John the Baptist’s ministry, though there is another location further north that our tour host thinks is closer to accuracy.  This site was nice though, and not very busy when we arrived.  The other side of the river was the nation of Jordan, and there was a bored soldier busy texting on his phone, automatic rifle slung over his shoulder.  Jordan and Israel are on good terms, so there didn’t appear to be much worry about an Israeli invasion at this river crossing.
We went down to the waters’ edge and I reaffired the baptism of each of the group members.  A simple and uncomplicated moment, but beautiful in its simplicity as well.  It struck me again how blessed I am.  To be in this place, due to the enthusiasm of these people.  To be the one in their pictures, that they’ll show to their friends and family back home.  I don’t deserve any of this, but what a blessing to be there all the same, applying the water and reminding them of their cleansing in baptism.  
Then it was a 90-minute drive north to the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and our hotel in the coast city of Tiberias.  There was a bit of rain that started as we were leaving the Jordan River and that we followed for a few miles before outrunning it.  We arrived at our hotel around 5:00 PM.  Definitely not as nice as our place in Jericho, but still comfortable enough.  Dinner was much better as well.  Afterwards, I wandered out with a few members of the group to walk a few blocks and explore a bit.  Tiberias seems like a much newer, more Western, more affluent city than many we’ve seen thus far.  Western-style stores and strip malls dotted the street.  
Then it was back to the hotel and bed!

I’ll Drink to That…

November 10, 2012

A note of curiosity.  Both of the hotels we’ve stayed at so far here in Israel have a bar with a few major types of liquor and beer.  However, they don’t serve cocktails – just the alcohol straight up, with or without ice.  So my hopes of enjoying a margarita in the Holy Land have thus far been thwarted.

Tonight I decided to try one of the local liquors, a sweet, anise-flavored liquor by the name of arak.  A shot of the liquor is poured into a glass.  Then ice is poured into it.  Finally, the glass is filled with another two parts of water.  The clear liquor turns milky white with the water, which is sort of cool.  The flavor is distinctly anise.  Not my favorite, but acceptable, especially having been watered down.  The drink is similar to liquors like ouzo.

Jerusalem: Day 3, Jericho: Day 1

November 10, 2012

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!

Jerusalem: Day 2

November 10, 2012

We got an earlier start today.  Our tour host had found out that there was literally a shipload of tourists coming in that day on a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and she wanted to beat the crush.  

Breakfast was a hotel buffet.  Good stuff by and large, not the continental style I’m accustomed to in the states.  A selection of sliced salami and cheese, pita and other breads, scrambled and hard boiled eggs, and potatoes.
We were taken by bus up to the top of the Mount of Olives, and began our walk down the steep hillside at the Church of the Ascension.  As with many of the places we had and will see, this one dates back to a Byzantine church, was made into a mosque in the seventh century, was destroyed in the crusades before being rebuilt by Muslims.  This one has the added distinction of being the only place where a Muslim mosque is shared each year with Christians of all denominations.  The Muslims allow the Christians to gather there on Ascension Sunday (usually in May) for worship.  The building itself is rather small, and inside there is a small square of ground with the alleged footprint that Christ left as He ascended.
We started walking down the hillside, joined by hundreds of other tourists.  We stopped at an area overlooking a massive Jewish courtyard, and could stare across the Kidron Valley at the Eastern wall of the Old City as well as the Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount.  We stopped on the grounds of the Dominus Flevit church, where Jesus is believed to have paused on his descent to Jerusalem to weep for the city (Luke 19).  
We reached the base of the Mt. of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane.  There are a few pockets of protected olive trees, though it’s fairly certain that they aren’t the ones that were standing in that place when Jesus wept there.  Instead there is the massive Church of All Nations built on the site of a destroyed Byzantine church.  
Then it was time for lunch at a small restaurant in Bethlehem, the Christmas Tree Restaurant.  We enjoyed falafel and schwerma pitas before boarding the bus to go up to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity,  built over the site of Jesus’ birth.  At this point, we were ushered via a second guide to the side of the main (and growing) crush of people waiting to duck into the grotto where the location of the manger and Jesus’ birth are said to have been.  Our tour leader had connections, and it paid off in a much shorter wait in line.  I felt a little guilty about this, and at one point there was a bit of a complaint from some of the people nearby, but it passed quickly.  
Afterwards we went to a gift shop, then it was on to Shepherds’ Fields.  Finally we returned to the hotel for a little downtime before dinner.  Dinner seemed to be a bit of a remix of last night’s dinner, but it was still tasty.  
After dinner, and a failed attempt to Skype with my family, I headed out with our guide.  We went back to the Damascus Gate.  Shahdi brought me to a building built by the Austrian government in the late 19th century to commemorate a visit to Jerusalem by Franz Joseph.  We went up to the rooftop for a nice view of parts of hte Old City – or as nice a view as can be had at night.  The sounds of music and laughter from the Muslim-dominated area was a stark contrast to the silence in many other areas of they city because of it being the Jewish Sabbath.  
A plan to grab coffee at the cafeteria in the building (now a hospice and hostel, among other things), didn’t work out, but we were able to grab something to drink at the Jerusalem Restaurant not far from our hotel.  I had Morrocan Tea as we listened to a man singing and playing the the oud.  It’s a large-bellied guitar like instrument with ten strings.  A younger man played a type of Arabic drum.  It was a great evening, and a nice final night in Jerusalem.  

The Dangers of Skepticism

November 9, 2012

Wandering around the Judean countryside is a fascinating experience.  It’s very hard to imagine Jesus here, because everything is so completely different.  Buildings and debris and crazy drivers abound.  I have a new appreciation for the very hilly nature of the area, but if I was hoping for a meditative experience where I could imagine following the steps of Jesus, I would have been vastly disappointed.  As it is, I’m just somewhat disappointed.  After having the Bible landscape in my mind’s eye all my life, I’m curious to see how reality resolves with imagination in the rest of my life reading Scripture!

We are taken to see the major sites in the area, and my skeptical 20th/21st century mind places major disclaimers at the bottom of things automatically.  Tradition says.  Generations of the faithful believe this is the place.  Best historical estimate.  But at the end of such statements or their more confident counterparts, I append the phrase But who really knows?  
There is some basis for this.  It’s hard to believe 2000 years on that the exact locations of these places are known.  It’s hard to imagine that ducking into the grotto of the nativity today and watching people kiss the silver star that denotes the precise spot of Jesus’ birth, that it really is the precise location.  
But there are grave dangers to this form of generic skepticism.
The biggest danger is that by dismissing any realistic notion of the actual sites of Biblical events, that our faith turns the events of the Bible into the equivalent of Greek myths.  By disassociating real places from the Biblical narrative, everything in Scripture can easily transform itself into Mt. Olympus – something that happened once upon a time, or in other words, never, no where.  By accepting tradition as somewhat reliable, I remind myself that the Son of God did come.  Here.  That He did walk this city and its streets, even if they seem unrecognizable to me.  He really did make his way down the Mt. of Olives, even if it is paved over and full of honking, impatient cars whipping past mostly oblivious pilgrims.  The idea that the precise location may not be known doesn’t negate the importance that there is a precise location, and as such, why not this place as another?
Another danger is that by dismissing these sites as tourist hacks, damage is done to historical value.  It’s not as though somebody just popped a sign up last year saying “This way to the birthplace of Jesus!”  These sites have been venerated for really, really, really long times.  Most of them have archaeological proof dating back to at least the Byzantine period of the 4th – 6th centuries.  Two of them have the archaeological ruins of churches founded by St. Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine.  
Helena showed up in the Holy Land in the early 4th century.  Did she just walk around randomly and pick out nice sites for churches?  That would be odd, since there were still Christians in the area.  Does it make sense that she would ignore those Christians and the traditions they held on important locations?  Or would she have figured out the places that Christians were already venerating, and then built churches there?
The danger of rampant skepticism is that it robs us of truth, both in actuality and in theory.  It reduces us to total dependence on the self as the sole source of truth.  If I can’t trust anyone or anything else, the scope of reality for me has shrunk to a ridiculously small area.  It’s not that we have to be naive and totally accepting of everything that everyone says.  But we examine what is presented and look for the evidence to support it and then place our trust in it.  
Here.  At a known place in human history and geography.  The Son of God became human.  For me.  For you.  Birth.  Life.  Suffering.  Death.  Resurrection.  Ascension.  Sola Dei gloria.  

Jerusalem: Day 1

November 8, 2012

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.

A Very Long Day….

November 8, 2012

I’m writing this from the lobby of my hotel in Jerusalem, Israel.  Today was filled with new sights and sounds.  But before that, there was a Very Long Day.

Flying from California to Israel is not nearly as quick & easy as it may sound on paper.  Though the day was uneventful, it was painful all the same.  Four hours to Atlanta.  Eight hours to Paris.  Another three and a half hours to Tel Aviv.  Another 30-minute bus ride to Jerusalem.  A loooooonnngg day.  I don’t have any desire to do that again any time soon, which is too bad because in another week I have to make the reverse trip.  Hopefully I’ll be better braced for it!
The strange thing for myself and my fellow travelers was having no news of the election results.  After what, six years of non-stop political discussion and lobbying for various candidates, when the actual election day came we were out of the country and coverage was non-existent.  Only as we prepared to board the plane for Tel Aviv out of Paris did I have time to fire up the laptop and find out who had won.  
Which brings me to the topic of obnoxious American travelers.  As we stood in line waiting to board the plane in Paris, this amazingly loud and obnoxious woman with a thick New York accent exclaimed how she couldn’t understand how anybody could vote for the conservative candidate.  At first I thought she was getting into an argument with some of the people in our group.  Then I realized that she wasn’t, but she was staring right past them in search of her husband who had gotten lost.  It was bizarre to hear the same invectives I’ve heard for the last six years regarding this election spouted in a French airport.