Shalom from Jerusalem!
We awoke to the sun rising above the Sea of Galilee, and the reality that it was time to pack up and get ready to move to our next hotel in Jerusalem. Since we came in late on the tour, we didn’t know how the suitcase drill would go – we soon found out! Stickers on each of our bags are color-coded so the porters know to which bus each bag belongs – once there, we had to identify our bags, and then they were placed on the bus. A VERY short drive to Yardenit, where the Jordan River flows out of the Sea of Galilee towards the Dead Sea. This MAY be the place where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. A lovely area has been developed for those who wish to be baptized or re-baptized in the Jordan River. Seven in our tour group, including Sheila Lawson from our church group were baptized this day. Each of the participants are given white robes to wear, and pastors from our group assisted in the service. There are flowers and trees, and the river slowly flowing. It was beautiful!
After spending some time in the gift shop, we got back on the bus and headed to the Roman ruins of Bet Sh’an – ‘Bet’ meaning ‘house of’ and Sh’an is someone’s name. The city was first built in the 2nd Century AD and had been built up through the 6th Century, when an earthquake in 749 destroyed the city. At that time, it was a city of some 40,000 people. Amazing technology was used to create an incredible Roman city. Bath houses, an amphitheater, hippodrome (horse races) and coliseum, as well as market place, sewer system, homes and roads were expertly created. It wasn’t till the 1930’s that the city’s remains were discovered, and archeological digs continue to this day. It was a great site to visit, and we were all in awe of its beauty and size.
The current city today only has half as many inhabitants, but is a lovely Israeli town – very modern and clean. We then headed south along the Jordan River and along the West Bank of Israel. It was along this road that our tour guide shared with us his thoughts and opinions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He shared the history of the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993, and how there is still great tension in the area we traveled today. The two groups agreed to refrain from aggressive acts, and negotiate any disagreements. This has worked only some of the time. The hope is that the two sides can continue to talk. I can go into great detail here, but it would take quite some time. The reality is Israel and Palestine do not agree on who is the rightful owner of the land, especially Jerusalem. While our tour guide talked, you could sense the emotion in his words, and how this issue is not just a thing on the news, it is a way of life. We experienced that when we saw the electric fences, checkpoints and guards along the way. But I am getting ahead of myself.
We traveled south along the Jordan River, and the area became more and more desolate, dry and barren. We headed toward the Dead Sea, some 1200 feet below sea level, then headed west toward Jerusalem, climbing up to 2500 feet above sea level. You always travel UP to Jerusalem. Along the way we passed along the Mount of Temptation, where a monastery has been built on top commemorating Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. I have a new appreciation for “wilderness” now when we read Matthew 4. We stopped for lunch (falafels again!) and Janice Workman (in our group) got to ride a camel – she had just wanted to sit on it to get a picture, and the next thing you know, she is taking a ride (and paying $5 for the experience)!
We drove past Jerusalem and headed to Bethlehem – a very short distance (less than 8 miles, I would say). It was there that we had to get off the bus, pass through a security checkpoint and enter into the area under Palestinian rule – Bethlehem is in this area. We met a new guide and driver, as our Jewish driver and guide are not permitted into the Palestinian areas. The streets of Bethlehem were VERY crowded, and there were many trying to sell us scarves, wooden carvings, necklaces and more. It was a bit overwhelming for me. We got on our bus and headed to a gift shop, where there is a lot of olive wood carvings and Mother of Pearl figurines and jewelry. Lisa and I bought a Nativity Set and some gifts as well.
We then headed to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (the city is much hillier than I ever imagined it would be). The church is owned by three congregations – Greek-Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian. To enter the church, one must enter a door that is maybe four feet high at the most – this is called the Door of Humility – where one must bow to enter When we entered, there was a Greek-Orthodox service and Catholic service going on – the line to see the “place where Jesus was born” under the altar of the church was 90 minutes long. Once we finally got to that point, we were rushed through so fast, it was not very “worshipful” at all. As we waited, we did get to see a bit of the splendor of the Greek-Orthodox service, which I thought was great to see. When we left the church, we drove past the shepherds field, where the angels appeared to the shepherds that holy night. Along the road, we saw a coffee shop called “Stars and Bucks” – looking a LOT like our American coffee houses!
We then headed back to the checkpoint. Because of the season of Lent, and Passover just around the corner, the city was packed, and the line for buses and cars was very long, so we were told to get off the bus and “be careful” as we walked to the check point. Through a turnstile to the area between Palestinian and Israeli territory, (about 500 yards or so) we met our original bus and driver, were picked us up, and drove to checkpoint two. Here, we had to have our passports in hand as two soldiers, armed and with bulletproof vests, walked through the bus and looked at our passports. No words spoken, they just walked through the bus, got off, opened the gate, and on we went.
This really hit me hard today – we take for granted our freedom, and do not realize the tension in which many people live each day. I will never think of Christmas the same after being through this experience, especially when we hear the words of the angels once again say, “Peace on Earth, and Good Will to All.” Let there be peace on earth, dear Lord. Let there be peace.
On the road then to our hotel on the edge of Jerusalem, a VERY nice hotel with lovely lobbies and rooms. Bags taken up to our rooms, we headed down the hall to the other section of the hotel for dinner. There is a place to eat in our section of the hotel, but they are preparing the room for Passover the end of March, and so we make our way a few minutes for dinner. The room is HUGE – seating at least 12oo people, all touring the Holy Land like us. The food was delicious.
We met then for Bible Study and sharing. We remember those who are sick at home, and we lift you in prayer. We give thanks for your prayers for us, and your warm wishes. We take great joy in the pictures from practical jokers back at St. Paul Lutheran (I will add to the next link of pictures), and we look forward to sharing our experiences with you. I will tell you that we will be encouraging MANY of you to come and join us next time we come.
We are off to bed. Tomorrow is the Dead Sea and Masada.
Peace (and I ask for you to pray for peace as well),