25. November 2009 18:22
Every Easter growing up I would hear the song “Jerusalem, My Destiny,” which connected the city with Christian tradition. The tune took on a new meaning when I saw my first view of the Jerusalem skyline and its cream-colored buildings of Jerusalem stone and the arresting golden Dome of the Rock. On my walking tour of the ancient city, I met reminders of religion around every corner with black-clad Orthodox Jews with side curls, muezzins’ five-time daily singing call to Islamic prayer and tolling church bells.
At the 1924 Church of All Nations, hundreds of years old gnarled olive trees encircle the basilica, which sits atop Gethsemane – where Jesus prayed the night before his death. Huge mosaics portray images from scriptures surrounding Gethsemane on the ceilings of the church. Afterwards, I entered the tall stone gates to the Old City to wander through more Christian history along the Via Dolorosa trail past the stations of the cross. The trail ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which many believe sits atop Golgotha, or the Hill of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified. The darkly lit Greek Orthodox church leads pilgrims through different chambers venerating the place of the crucifixion and the first-century tomb believed to be Christ’s.
Later, I explored the most beloved Jewish holy site at the Western Wall, which Herod the Great originally constructed in 19 B.C.E. It stands close to the location of the Second Jewish Temple destroyed in 70 C.E. According to Orthodox Jewish customs, the site is divided by a barrier separating men and women so they can both walk up to pray and place written requests in the cracks of the wall. With the Dome of the Rock visible on the other side of the wall and other Christian churches not far off, the area remains at the epicenter for three of the world's major religions.
Jerusalem skyline from the Dominus Flevit Church
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
23. November 2009 01:47
I stepped inside the location of the real Nativity scene at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Byzantine church that has survived so many centuries of war and strife still stands with an ancient feel, since the Greek Orthodox Church upkeeps it without extensive renovations. Without the restorations, everything you see is original from either the Byzantine period or the Crusader period. Though the wall frescos were faded, I knew I saw the same paint from the Crusader’s time and nothing else. Hanging lamps from the Orthodox influence of the church hung everywhere, supplemented by light beams shining across the church like light from the star of Bethlehem.
Underneath the altar, I walked into the Grotto, which is the cave believed to be where Jesus was born. “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” sung by a church group in Latin from inside the Grotto set the Christmas mood for the tiny cavern once used as a barn and now decorated in remembrance of Jesus’ birth. For a little while I just stood looking at the star marking the traditional spot of the Nativity while listening to calming religious songs.
Although it is completely heartbreaking to see the wall built around Bethlehem because it is in Palestinian territory, my trip made me realize hope still remained for the city’s future. The friendly and sweet people I met in the churches, market and traditional Arab restaurant made the town one of the highlights of the trip. My Palestinian guide, Maher Desouki, said the fact that the Christians and Muslims have been living together happily for so many years by going to shared schools and businesses proves the power of peace. The town mentioned in so many Christmas carols should definitley be included on any pilgrimage to Israel.
Church of the Nativity
Grotto of the Nativity
Traditional Palestinian meal
20. November 2009 03:27
Two things I would have never thought to put together are Dean Martin and the Sea of Galilee. However, I found myself experiencing both at the same time during a ride around the legendary lake (it’s a lake even though it’s referred to as a sea) on a replica of first century vessel. The wooden boat looked the part with its curved shape and simple design, so the captain chose some music to fit the scene like Hebrew songs and religious tunes, along with some classic Dean Martin to encourage dancing. As we glided along, the boat excursion had moments of fun with impromptu karaoke and moments of reflection when we passed certain mountains attached to Biblical stories, such as the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus gave one of his most famous sermons.
The Sea of Galilee has been the running theme of the day from the moment I woke up in Tiberias with the body of water in view until the boat ride this evening. Since Jesus spent most of his time preaching around the lake where he first recruited his twelve followers, the area is a pilgrim’s paradise with churches, gardens and archeological ruins from the time of Christ at most stops. I visited some of the main religious sites at the peaceful Mount of Beatitudes, Tagbha's mosaic-filled church dedicated to the multiplication of the fishes and loaves miracle, and Capernaum where Jesus began his ministry. At the Church of the Primacy of Peter, I joined other excited visitors intent on wading in the water so filled with history.
Wading in the Sea of Galilee
Mount of Beatitudes
Pilgrims' Boat ride
19. November 2009 02:48
Last night at dinner, our guide joked that a phone call to God from Israel is cheap because it is a local call. I think he might be right. The land where Jesus was born, lived, preached and died all fits into a spot on the map the same size as New Jersey. This center for Islam, Judaism and Christianity doesn’t take long to drive across, but it could take years to properly explore because around every corner lies another ancient site dating back to the Old Testament and beyond.
My first day in the one and only Holy Land began with a trip to a palace built by King Herod in Caesarea. Now made into a national park, the area holds archeological ruins from the time of Christ including a remarkably intact Roman Theater. As my guide helped me imagine the wealth and splendor of the once mighty port city on the Mediterranean, I felt transported to the movie Ben-Hur, since part of the extensive ruins featured a huge stadium that charioteers once raced around holding on to their chariots for dear life. To help me visualize the past grandeur of the site, the park had a museum with interactive exhibits and a video that virtually transformed the palace remains into a thriving metropolis.
The rest of the day I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t dreaming as I toured site after site pertaining to the life of Jesus Christ. Each site straight out of the Bible had its own church devoted to its Christian connections, including Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation, Cana’s Wedding Church and Mount Tabor’s Church of the Transfiguration. Worn out from a plentiful dinner of lamp chops, goose liver and fruit crepes, I fully expect to fall straight asleep before embarking for more holy adventures tomorrow.
The Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth
Caesarea National Park
View from Mt. Tabor
5. November 2009 22:22
We traveled on to Rudesheim, a beautiful village that climbs up the banks of the Rhine and is framed in vineyards. Siegfied's Mechanical Music Musical Instrument Museum is a world-class collection of music boxes and mechanical music machines. Rudesheim coffee is a local hot drink made with brandy, whipped cream and spices and makes a perfect outdoor drink on a brisk day.
We sailed toward Koblenz through the Rhine's fabled gorge, where medieval castles and churches dot the countryside and stand like sentinels above the Rhine. Many are privately-owned and well maintained, others are in ruin. It was cold during this leg of the trip, but some of us sat on the bow viewing area of the Creativity and braved the elements to enjoy these magnificent structures as they passed.
We enjoyed a free afternoon in Cologne, and after taking in its incomparable cathedral, we walked the streets in a welcome sunlight. The change in weather warmed everyone up and brought the local residents out into this large city's shopping district for a Friday afternoon stroll.
Our trip ended in Amsterdam, a delightfully liberal city. After a canal tour, four or us caught the tram to the city's museum plaza, where we toured the Van Gogh museum. The permanent collection there provides an endearing study of this troubled artist's life and concludes with a poignant photograph of his grave beside that of his beloved brother's, Theo. We had dinner that evening in the red light district with a few friends. While the scenery was mostly tawdry, the Tibetan restaurant we found was superb and filled with local diners.