Sunday, November 27, 2011

Jerusalem Overnight Excursion-Day 2

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives
 After a restful--if way too brief--night at the Olive Tree Hotel in Jerusalem, we arose to clear, blue skies and pleasant temperatures. Our tour guide took us straight to the Mount of Olives overlook once again for a daylight view of this incredible city. The golden Dome of the Rock, the centerpiece for Islamic ceremonies in Jerusalem, clearly loomed in the distance. The Dome is located in the center of the Temple Mount, which King David had once named the capital of Israel, and where Solomon built the first temple that was destroyed during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. The “Rock,” however, is also where the prophet Mohammed stepped up to the Seventh Heaven to stand before God on his “Night Journey” and where Abraham is said to have prepared to sacrifice his son (Isaac in Judeo-Christian beliefs, but Ishmael in Moslem tradition). Our guide offered a brief history of Jerusalem from its designation as the capital of the Jewish state in 1948, to its years as a split city with Arab Palestinians, to the six-day war in 1967 and subsequent reunification of the city. Maybe one day I’ll understand it all, but I did come away with a broader understanding of the diverse religious and political complexities of both the city of Jerusalem and Israel as a whole.

The Mount of Olives is actually a ridge with three different peaks. A drive down and around from the overlook took us to the Garden of Gethsemane, which gave me one of my most emotional moments of this tour. Partitioned off from wandering tourists, this garden of olive trees invites private meditation and reflection of Jesus’ last night on earth. Some of the trees in the immediate garden were said to be over 500 years old, though many on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives were likely around during Jesus’ day.

Garden of Gethsemane
 The Garden is now adjacent to the beautiful Church of All Nations, also called the New Basilica and Church of the Agony. This church was built over the site of others through the centuries. The original fourth century Byzantine Basilica was enlarged some 800 years later by the Crusaders and renamed St. Saviors. The current church is one of Jerusalem’s most beautiful, dominated inside by the Stone of the Agony on the floor and with walls adorned with scenes of the last night.

We entered the Old City of Jerusalem through the Dung Gate and headed straight to the Western (Wailing) Wall, amidst the arrival of numerous Israeli police who provide extra security for those assembling for Friday prayers. The Wall proved another surprisingly emotional moment for me, as men and women approached their designated areas of the wall with respect, praying or leaving notes, before quietly pulling away. Ben and I both did the same.

From there, we wandered through the Muslim Quarter, feeling like flies on the wall as we observed vignettes of life: children playing, vendors selling their wares to locals, and lively conversations in progress, all set to a mosaic of music. Finally, we reached the Via Dolorosa marking the Stations of the Cross en route to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which encompasses the site of the crucifixion, anointing for burial, and tomb of Jesus.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre
(site of the crucifixion to the right)
 I was prepared for the competing religions of this multi-faith city, but not for competing Christians: Russian and Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Roman Catholic, Copts and Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian monks (not to mention visiting Protestants)...all vying for their territory in this important center of Christian worship. But the church is beautiful, and each person in our group came away with different emotions and memories. By the way, it was Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helen, who designated this particular area as the official site of the crucifixion and tomb.

St. Catherine's Church
 From the Holy Sepulchre, we exited through the Zion Gate and headed for our last stop, Bethlehem. After a nice lunch and some shopping time, we bade a temporary farewell to our Israeli guide, since Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem limits visits by Jews and it’s easier for his company to hire a local guide for that part of the tour. The Church of the Nativity, built over the traditional site of the manger where Jesus Christ was born, is a mixture of simple design in construction with an elaborate altar that is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Church. A stairway to the right leads to the lower level grotto and the Chapel of the Nativity containing the Altar of the Crib and Altar of the Magi, all cut into the cave’s rough stone. The first of our two groups was able to visit that part of the church, but lines were too long by the time we got there. A regret! Interestingly, it is from St. Catherine’s Church adjacent to the Church of the Nativity that the annual Christmas Eve mass is broadcast worldwide.

Our tour did not include a visit to Masada, although some in our group went there on a different tour. Known today as of one of the Jews’ greatest symbols, the site towering 1300 feet above the shores of the Dead Sea atop an enormous, isolated rock, was the final hold-out for the remnants of Jewish resistance who fled Jerusalem after Roman soldiers destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. After three years of continued siege, the remaining 960 Jews committed suicide rather than submit to the Romans. I found an interesting history here and photos here.

This was a very busy and intense overnight tour, but no matter if you book the overnight tour or full-day tours from both Haifa and Ashdod, it’s a tiring two days...but worth every minute. Admittedly, a pilgrimage tour with a pastor or rabbi is the best way to see more of the Holy Land, but for a cruise ship excursion experience, Norwegian Cruise Line put together some excellent packages for us.

Our final stop was Egypt!

1 comment:

Barclay Hurley said...

As above give a nice tour guidance took us straight to the Mount of Olives overlooking again for this incredible view of the city's sunlight. The dome of rock, in the heart of Jerusalem's Islamic ceremony,clear subtle distance.

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