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Archive for December, 2008

Jerusalem & Bethlehem

I just got back from a day-long trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. My company was gracious enough to give me a day to visit Jerusalem and they arranged an excellent tour package for me. A van picked me up from my hotel lobby at 7:00 in the morning and whisked me away to a bus depot in Tel Aviv where I transferred to a larger tour van. There I met my tour group and the dozen of us fit comfortably in the bus/van.

We left Tel Aviv at the heart of rush hour around 8:15 and headed east towards Jerusalem. Since we were traveling against traffic, it didn’t take too long before we started climbing from sea level to the 300 meter elevations of Jerusalem. In little over an hour, the bus made its first official stop at a sight-seeing point that gave us all the first look of the Dome of the Rock and the ancient walls of Solomon’s temple. We all took our obligatory shots.

View of the Dome of the Rock

View of the Dome of the Rock

As we drove along modern Jerusalem, I was struck by the dry, mountainous terrain of the city and the many limestone buildings dotting the terraced hillsides. It had a much older feel than Tel Aviv even though many of the buildings looked like they were built within the last 50 years.

Our next stop was the Old City of Jerusalem. Until 1967, the Old City was under the control of Jordan. Before that, its ancient walls were built and destroyed many times over the centuries. The Old City is divided into four quarters: the Armenian quarter, Jewish quarter, Christian quarter, and Muslim quarter. We entered the Armenian quarter through the Zion gate and quickly made our way down into the Jewish quarter.

The Old City is relatively small and getting around the different areas took only a few minutes. What surprised me, however, was how recently-built many of the main structures appeared. I was expecting a truly old city similar to sights we saw in Rome. But because the city had gone through so much destruction, much of its latest incarnation is relatively new.

Shot of Old City alley

Shot of Old City alley

Our guide pointed out that we picked a great day to tour the sites. The weather was cool but clear and the crowds were minimal. He said this day next week will be a madhouse with all the Christmas revelers traveling to the holy land.

So we turned around a corner in the Jewish corner and then we saw the Western Wall. Built to support the western side of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall is the most sacred structure of the Jewish people. We had to pass through extra security to get down to the plaza where all the people were praying and wailing towards this wall. To approach the wall, men and women were separated and every man–including me–had to adorn a yarmulka. Reusable paper ones were conveniently available. I walked up to the wall, touched it, and took some pictures.

Not being particularly religious did not serve me well. I could not grasp the magnitude of the moment or the significance of where I stood. My ignorant disposition felt rather anti-climactic compared to the many orthodox jews who were passionately praying and wailing away.

Joe at the Western Wall

Joe at the Western Wall

I sneaked into the side cave area of the wall which appeared to be a synogogue or library. I believe I was the only gentile in this very serious space but my camera clicking did not appear to bother the many inside in serious prayer.

From the Western Wall, we regrouped and headed off to the Via Dolorosa. For those who took Sunday school, you’ll recall that the Via Dolorosa is also known as the “Way of Sorrow” or the “Way of the Cross.” It marked the path that Jesus took as he bore the cross on his way to his crucifixion. Through this via, each of his 14 stations are marked and adjoined by a small chapel. I did not go to Sunday school so I did not realize that the stations of the cross–those things I see in every church–happened right where I was now walking. It was pretty cool to realize that I was walking down the same path that Jesus took some 2000 years ago.

Following the path along, we entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, arguably the most holy church in all of Christiandom. This church was built in 325 AD by Emporor Constantine, who established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. This church houses the last five of the 14 stations. There was station 11 where He was nailed to the cross and station 12, the actual spot where his cross was placed. In fact, I knelt down and felt the hole in which his cross was allegedly inserted.

Station 11

Station 11

We took the stairwell down a level and turned the corner to view the tomb in which the body of Jesus was placed. This tomb had two chambers: the first housed a framed relic of the actual stone door that Jesus moved upon his resurrection and the second was the room where his body laid. Both of these rooms were very small and would not suit anyone with even a hint of clostrophobia. But hey, this little room is Christiandom’s holiest place so it was definitely worth a look.

After leaving this church, we went out to buy some souvenirs and have lunch at a nearby plaza. The schwarma I had was OK and a bit overpriced. We now reversed course and walked back to our bus to leave the Old City. Our next stop was Bethlehem.

Getting into Bethlehem was a little tricky. The city sits in the West Bank and as such, our Israeli tour guide could not enter. He dropped us off at a “checkpoint Charlie” type gate where we were greeted by tall barbed-wire walls and tough looking guys with large machine guns. Passport in hand, we went through their security and appeared on the other side. We were now in the West Bank.

Inside the West Bank

Inside the West Bank

Although technically not another country or state, the West Bank might as well be one. Its poverty and general state of deterioration was immediately clear. Our friendly guide greeted us as planned and we settled into two cars and headed to Bethlehem, which was only a mile or so away. As I looked out the car window, I could see Arabic on all the signage and storefronts and stern-looking men staring into our vehicle. I could not help but be reminded of the opening scene of the movie Babel.

We arrived at the Church of Nativity which Constantine also built some 1,700 years ago. Entering this church, I could tell it felt more “ancient” than others. Sure enough, this was one of the few churches that were spared destruction by the invading Turks, Persians, and Arabs over the centuries. So many of the frescoes and structure remain as original.

Our guide asked us to quickly follow him down some stairs. Before I realized where we were going, there I was, standing at the birthplace of Christ. The spot of his birth is marked with a silver 14-pointed star, which I touched and photographed.

The birthplace of Jesus

The birthplace of Jesus

A few feet away was a small room that was the location of his manger. Again, we were fortunate that the crowds were very light because this area is normally packed with visitors.

Back up in the church, I walked over to the Roman Catholic cathedral which in just 10 days will be telecast to the world as it’s been done every Christmas. We left the church, stopped by a Christian souvenir store, and then cabbed back to Jerusalem. The border check was a bit precarious as the Israeli guard inspected my passport for an unusually long time. Nevertheless, we successfully made it back into the bus which then took us back to Tel Aviv.

In summary, I have to say it was pretty cool to see the actual locations of Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection. I think I have enough “holy points” to cover me for several church sessions. 🙂

Click here to view a full gallery of my pictures of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

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First Visit to Israel

I landed last night in Tel Aviv in my first trip to Israel. Except for the use of Hebrew everywhere, the city pretty much resembled many other urban European towns I’ve visited. There weren’t as many people walking about as I would have expected for a Saturday night.

We went to a very nice restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean. My seafood casserole was delicious and the local Sauvignon Blanc was quite good. The weather here is very mild–about 70 degrees with little humidity and a slight breeze.

Tomorrow, I head out to for a visit of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which I think will be neat considering the time of year. I’ll be sure to take lots of pictures and post them here.

Shalom.

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