June 23, 2010

Trip to the Holy Land - Day 2

First Day of the Tour – Thursday 15th April

We woke up in the morning not knowing exactly when the tour bus would arrive to collect us due to an admin mistake by the tour company. I rang them and was told that it would be there in 30 minutes! We rushed downstairs for breakfast, and Doron Hoffman the tour guide eventually found us and we jumped aboard! We joined a tour group that had already been together since the previous Monday. After picking up a few more people, we drove up to the summit of the Mount of Olives for a postcard perfect view of the Old City. If you ever see a photo of Jerusalem, it is most likely from this spot, showing the Temple Mount area from the eastern side. Doron gave us an overview of the rich history of the city up until the present time. The most memorable point for me was when he explained the topography of the city and described how it was always from the northern side that the city was ever taken as the other sides had a great height advantage for defense. He then described how the Jews took the city from the eastern side during the 1967 war. We took some photos and all packed into the bus again. The next stop was the Church of All Nations located next to the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane. (Note the “tradition” word, as this was mentioned throughout the rest of the day!) I must say Gethsemane was not like I imagined, of course Jerusalem looks little like it did back in Jesus’ time. I had imagined taller trees but Olive trees are not that big. I don’t mind being corrected there, but the whole valley and mountain would have had olive trees according to Doron, and they have no idea where the garden was! The church which was only built in the 1950’s had a large flat stone near the altar and when we went inside there was a bunch of people kneeling down before it and kissing it. This was supposedly the place where Jesus knelt to pray “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” in Matthew 26. Does God want us to kiss this stone??
From there, we went on to a place called King David’s tomb, and again, it was admitted not where King David’s bones are kept. We were told that that place was kept secret so that the bones weren’t stolen. Besides that, the room was not anything special. In the same area was a place they called the Upper Room, even though it was again admitted it wasn’t the real site and was hopefully close by. I agree that how is anyone supposed to know really, but why call this place the Upper Room and bring us there then!! (tourism of course!) If there is anything I was glad for, it was that I’m glad I have the 100% true and accurate word of God to trust in! Going to Jerusalem was an experience of a lifetime, but if you “only” have your bible to picture these places, you have more than enough! (Matthew 24:35)
We entered the old city through the Zion gate which is still riddled with bullet holes from the 1967 Six Day War and perhaps some others. We passed a group of people celebrating a boy’s bar mitzvah. Four people held a small canopy emblazened with the star of David over his head. Another two people were playing what I’d describe as djembe drums and everyone was singing this tribal like song and clapping to the beat! They were on their way to the Western Wall perhaps to read the torah and pray. Doron took the opportunity to describe the bar mitzvah a little and we walked down into the Jewish Quarter of the old city. There was some excavations of a Roman street called a cardo that dated back to the Byzantine period (324-638). This would have been the main street in the city where business was conducted. We also saw the local synagogue, and some old pavement that dated back to the time of Jesus. At a certain vantage point, we stopped to view the Western Wall from a distance and Doron talked about it from there before we actually went down to it.
Nearby, there was a massive gold Menorah (seven-branched Jewish candlestick) and I went over to have a look. Funnily enough, this hassidic Jewish guy came up to me and put out his hand and said Shalom emphatically! I smiled and shook his hand, but suddenly as he shook my hand he bowed his head and started to pray in Hebrew. I could only laugh, and after a while he looked up at me and asked my parent’s names (he is still shaking my hand at this point!). He repeated the question so I went ahead and told him and he continued to pray and then stopped, looked at me, and put out his hand gesturing for money! I said that I had no change and he quickly retorted saying, I can give change! Ha, I just said sorry and he walked off coldly. However, I still enjoyed his swindling attempt :-) For about the 4th time, we saw the Western Wall and I think everytime I went to see it something different was happening. Today, there were a lot of boys, perhaps all having their bar mitzvah like the other one we see earlier. They were all reading the torah, and we saw so many people coming and going with a little procession of sorts from the large wardrobe sized ornate wooden containers that stored the scriptures (called Torah Arks I think), either putting back, or taking out the massive scrolls (approx. 3ft tall) encased in beautiful metal containers.
To be honest, I got a little bored for the next hour as we walked along the Via Dolorosa, said to be the route Jesus took to Calvary, and is marked by the Catholic stations of the cross, well, at least the old ones as Pope Benedict apparently adjusted them when he came into power, removing Veronica and something else I think. It’s true this route would have looked much different back in Jesus’ time as Jerusalem was smaller, the Bible says He “suffered without the gate” in Hebrews 13:12. But now everything is within the newer walls which are only 500 years old. The other thing I don’t like about the stations of the cross is they say Jesus fell three times, but I can’t find so much as a stumble my Bible! Anyways, we ended up in a church called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which contains the hole in the ground which Jesus’ cross was put into, the slab on stone His body was laid on when He was taken down off the cross, and a nice wooden sepulchre where Jesus body was laid, all according to tradition of course! The wooden sepulchre was falling apart with age, so there was a steel structure erected around it to clamp it in place and keep it standing. Perhaps they should just stick with the “sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid” (Luke 23:53). Notwithstanding, I still appreciate going there: the pictures of the people kissing the slab of stone where Jesus' body was laid, and rubbing their garments on it so that the garments would somehow become holy stay clear in my mind. How sad this was.
Next, we walked through the Muslim quarter and enjoyed a nice middle eastern schawarma for lunch. This was a tortilla wrap with shaved meat (who knows what kind!) and salad. We might call it a döner kebab from any Turkish fast food place in Europe. From there, we walked out of the Old City north through the Damascus gate. The final port of call for our whistle stop tour of the Old City was the Garden Tomb (the other place in town that has Calvary and the tomb of Jesus!). That being said, I agreed more with their hypothesis for the location of the tomb as it was based heavily on Bible evidence. They argued the evidence that it was indeed Joseph of Arimathaea’s. The site is owned and maintained by the Anglican community, and they were sure also to give the gospel in their presentation so I got to throw in a few amens while salvation through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ was preached. If you aren’t saved yet, the Bible says in John 14:6, Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. And again in Acts 4:12, Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. Confess and forsake your sin and call upon Jesus and ask Him to apply the blood of His finished work on the cross to your heart! For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Romans 10:13
It was late in the afternoon when we got back to the hotel, so we went for a quick swim, and looked around the hotel a bit. But we weren’t going to stay put in the hotel when there was still so much to see and so much of the day still left! They say that you should definitely go visit the Holy Land when you are younger and it can be quite physical walking around everywhere in the heat of the day, and I agree! The whole trip we went non-stop and I barely had time to write my journal at night we were so busy! We headed out to see Absalom’s Pillar in the Kidron Valley. This is on the eastern side of the Temple Mount very near the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane. It was fun to explore it, although it turns out that according to scholars it is not actually from David’s time (approx. 1000BC) but around Jesus’ time! I read that people would throw stones at it because it represented Absalom and his rebellion, and parents also were said to have brought their naughty children there and taught them what happened to Absalom!! Right next to the Pillar is a place I originally thought was called the Tomb of the Prophets. But researching it later, I found that it is the tomb of a priestly family called Bnei Hazir, and next to those tombs is a monument called the Tomb of Zechariah (from 2Chr. 24:20-21). Although, again, this is a traditional presumption, with no evidence to suggest it to be true. As we finished exploring the area it began to be dusk, and an adhan, or Islamic call to prayer began to be broadcast from a nearby mosque in the Siloam area and it echoed hauntingly throughout the valley mixing with another adhan coming somewhere from the Old City, perhaps the Al Aqsa mosque. We walked up towards the Old City and tried to go see Omar Schindler’s grave nearby but the cemetery was closed. From there, we entered the Old City through the Zion gate and headed down into the Jewish quarter for some kosher food. From there, we went into a nearby shop, and Noel and I were talking to the shopkeeper for a good while, asking him all sorts of questions. He was quite the character, saying he was a Levite with an extra gene than others normally have, and he talked about standing up as a Jew against their enemies and talked about how Arabs would be scared of him when he was working out in the fields where he was from! As I said, quite an interesting guy, Noel and I would have stayed talking to him for ages but the shop got busy so we took our leave. From there, we got a few more photos of the Western Wall and then took a cab over to the viewing point on the Mount of Olives for a night shot of Jerusalem before we headed home. The cab driver was Arab and he spoke honestly about his struggles to understand the Jewish people from his Islamic point of view. We got back to the hotel absolutely wrecked, we laughed a little together about the day and then got some much needed rest. Check out the pics here

June 08, 2010

Trip to the Holy Land - Day 1

Travelling to Israel – Tuesday 13th April

I worked a little in the morning at the church office, while also tying up a few loose ends of preparation before we left. I charged the video camera and backed up my hard drive and after praying with Pastor I went to collect Noel from his house! We went down to Carrigaline to get my luggage and Dad also made some chicken for my lunch. I had to eat it in the car as we were already running a small bit late. When we arrived Barry was already there and his family had already left. It didn’t take us long to check-in and we went upstairs and had some coffee and talked about the trip. Going through the security check point, Barry got frisked which I thought was funny! The flight to London was very short and I got talking to a guy next to me who was heading back to Newcastle, Australia, but originally from Co. Kerry. After we landed, we eventually found Terminal 5 after taking a first class train there :-) We ate some dinner (I had some nice chilli con carne), and wandered around for a while as our flight wasn’t for a few hours. Went into the Apple store and also read and studied a bit before our boarding gate number was announced. At B44, there were Hassidic Jews praying out of the windows which was strange to see. The wore hats and black suits, and had long locks growing at the sideburns while the rest of their head of hair was much shorter. Some would pray out loud, and all of them moved rhythmically, either bobbing forward and back at the waist, or swaying side to side, or both! In time, we would see this sight again at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I slept well enough on the 5hr flight and noticed that British Airways are a little more comfier to travel with than the United Airlines plane had been the year before.

Arriving in Israel – Wednesday 14th April

We touched down to a round of applause at 5.30am local time and then disembarked and headed through customs. Ariel from Diesenhaus Tours was there to meet us and talked with us while we were waiting for our bags. It turned out, he actually wasn’t waiting for us at all and was supposed to be meeting an American couple named Mr. And Mrs. Rushling!! So he left us with a cab driver and we headed straight to Jerusalem. Though we were tired (we arrived 3.30am on our body clocks), it was beautiful to see the morning sun glowing in the horizon and to look out of the window of the cab and see the landscape of Israel. Although it was nice and quiet on the roads, the cab driver assured us it would get busier and later on he would weaving around traffic like a madman and overtaking on inside lanes and things. We would come to learn that this was normal! It only took about 35mins I think to get to hotel, as we got close to Jerusalem we were looking up at Jerusalem and I was reminded of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew saying, a city set on a hill cannot be hid. When we arrived, we checked in to our room, got our things together and had a lovely breakfast and headed straight for the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Old City

We entered on the western side of the city through the Jaffa gate and headed through the Armenian quarter. The descending streets were narrow cobblestone with a step down every now and again. The shops on either side belonged to Arabs selling various trinkets, souvenirs and even archaeological items. We soon saw a sign for the Western Wall and after a security checkpoint much like the airport, we stood looking at the Wall and beyond it the Temple Mount area. The section of the wall used for prayer by the Jews was a little smaller than I expected, but as we passed through into the Men’s only section (it’s pretty much men only!) it was an intrigueing sight! The Jewish men, some with their long hassidic locks, were wearing items like kippahs and black hats, prayer shawls and phylacteries. Some were looking into their Hebrew prayer books were praying out loud and moving rhythmically as they recited them. The whole place was alive with prayer, some men with their faces pressed against the wall, written prayer requests were pushed into the cracks of the wall as high as a person could reach. Some of the white limestone blocks dated back to the days of Herod the Great! The whole area has been treated as a holy place for the Jewish people since the time of Suleiman the Manificent in the 1500's. Though I’m not sure as to the actual reason as I heard officially (on a tour) that the area is the closest place the Jews can get to the spot where the Holy of Holies was when the Jewish Temple stood in the Temple Mount area.

As we walked about staring and gawking at the Jews, they were very tolerant with us Gentiles as we took pictures though they didn’t want to talk to us! I thought it would have cool to have had enough Hebrew to be able to understand what they were praying about.

After visiting the wall, we found the queue for the Temple Mount Area, which was actually right next to the Western Wall site. I thought there might be an entrance fee but there wasn’t. We ascended a wooden ramp structure that provided access to the gate in the wall which was maybe 30 feet from the ground below. We got some good shots of the Western Wall and also took some funny photos with some riot shields we found stacked there! We were greeted by a group of security guards kitted out in full riot gear as we entered through the gate in the wall. Noel asked for a photo but they flatly refused! Immediately, we saw the Al Aqsa Mosque directly ahead and over the trees to our left you could see the gold leaf covered Dome of the Rock. Unfortunately the Dome was closed for renovations and also we could not enter the Al Aqsa mosque as we weren’t Muslim. We took some photos as we passed by a group having some sort of Koran study and to the right was a circular area for washing feet, perhaps ten taps or so. The Dome of the Rock was ornately tiled with portions of the Koran in blue and white. It had four doors one facing North, South, East and West. Next to the Eastern end was a smaller open dome which was called the center of the Universe. I heard that according to Jewish tradition, this was the place God began to create the universe!

After leaving the Temple Mount area, we found our way back to the Western Wall area and headed down towards the dung gate. Outside the southern part of the Temple Mount wall was a place called the Davidson Center, I think we paid something like 30 shekels to get in there. I didn’t really know what exactly was in there but we saw a walkway going across the top of the Old city wall and we wanted to go up there! It turned out to be more fun than we expected as we got a spectacular view looking south out of the Old City towards Siloam and the City of David, and you could also see the massive wall in the distance dividing Israel from the West Bank area. As we walked along the wall eastwards we saw the Mount of Olives which is basically a big graveyard! Some people said that one reason why is that they think they will be first to be resurrected when Jesus comes back! As we came off the wall, there was old houses preserved from Ottoman empire times, I think perhaps a couple of hundred years old. The floors were beautifully mosaiced and there was also another area nearer the Huldah Gates (now bricked shut, it was the entrance to the temple area in Herod’s time) where there was remnants of ritual baths that were used for cleansing before entering the temple area.

By this time we were quite tired, but one more site needed a quick visit just before we finished up for the day! The pool of Siloam! Siloam is situated towards the south-east just outside the old city of Jerusalem. We left through the dung gate and passed by the City of David ruins where there are excavations that date back to the Jebusites which inhabited Jerusalem before David took the city in battle. Now, all of a sudden, going down a steep hill we found ourselves in what Barry called the “real Jerusalem”! The streets were plain and simple houses lined both sides of the streets. Dusty, old run-down vehicles were parked here and there, and we even passed some pro-palestinian banners which denounced the City of David tourist site we just passed further up. We passed a mosque on the left and reached the bottom of the hill. We knew we should have seen a sign for it on the hill so Barry took out his guide book and looked at the hebrew phrases in the back! I saw a guy, probably muslim at a bus stop so I said, “efo (where, according to the book) pool of Siloam”? I wasn’t sure how he would react to us dumb tourists but he very nicely pointed back to the nearby mosque and told us in english! However, it turned out that we didn’t quite enter the pool through the right entrance. All the same, an old arab man said he would show us the “real siloam pool where Jesus “healed the blind man” for a “donation”! He showed us the exit section of Hezekiah’s tunnel and said that this the genuine spot and the other place was a lie! We took a few photos and gave him 10 shekels and then headed back to the hotel for some rest! On the way back, we picked up some pizza and then got some sleep before we headed to a nearby baptist church for some preaching!

After a cab, and then some walking we found the church on a side street off of another street called Salah Eddin street. It was called the First Baptist Bible Church of Jerusalem. Excited, we went in to find that we had missed the Bible study, as they had recently changed the time from 6pm to 5pm!! Disaster! Well, praise God after a few moments with Pastor Abdullah, he suddenly said, sit down, we will have an extra service! He preached in arabic from John 6:17-24 while another man translated after each sentence or two. I had never heard preaching through a translator but I don’t think it hindered in any way the delivery of the message. The sermon was about how we can get away from God, yet He is never far and never leaves us. He actively seeks us, and when we are back in the light, we are stronger for it. Stronger in love (as we are forgiven much), and stronger in faith (as He has delivered us). I am very thankful that we went, and although we could not make it Sunday as we would be in Galilee, we determined to go back again the next Wednesday. After much fellowship and testimonies after the service, we headed back home, through the Damascus Gate on the northern end of the Old City and passed the Western Wall, and out the Jaffa gate (on the east side) towards the hotel. What an amazing day!