Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to The Holy Land with friends and family to enjoy a once in a lifetime experience.
Our trip began with a flight to Atlanta during which I watched a show called The Fog of War, an interview with Robert McNamara. McNamara listed his beliefs and then used historical footage to support his points of view. While there was nothing unexpected, it was refreshing to have a leader who was Sec Def for seven years to explain the mistakes he had made and what he had learned. He passed away in 2014.
Upon arrival in Atlanta I texted with Pastor Dr. Fred Andrea, our tour group leader, to connect with the group. Fred and Barbara led a group of fourteen people from Aiken, South Carolina on a Delta flight from Columbia, South Carolina to Atlanta. We joined them at the gate of our Delta flight from Atlanta and departed to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
During the flight to Paris, we watched the movie American Underdog about the unbelievable story of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. He and his wife are devout Christians. He struggled to break into the NFL, coming from a small Iowa school, and stocking shelves at a grocery store before playing arena football. The flight was delayed slightly in taking off since the group of about eighteen accompanying us from Louisville led by Pastor Dr. Jim Cobban was delayed in arriving in Atlanta. Jim and Fred have known each other for years. We also had Steve Von Wyrick and a group of about eight join us from Texas, where Steve recently retired as Professor of Old Testament/Archaeology at Baylor University. Jim, Fred, and Steve rounded out the professional staff, except for Rafi, who we met in Israel.
We landed in Paris early Tuesday morning and departed from there to Tel Aviv, Israel a few hours later. It was our second trip to Tel Aviv, the first was when I was CEO of P&G and on business. Even though we were on a Delta flight to Tel Aviv, the flight was operated by Air France which offered the opportunity for us to watch some French shows, the fantastic wines, and food.
When we landed in Tel Aviv, we met our tour guide Rafi and bus driver Sharar, who took us to the Daniel Hotel, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.
Rafi is an interesting fellow and we enjoyed talking with him during the trip. Nearly all his relatives died during the Holocaust. His Mother survived a Nazi concentration camp and his father survived a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia. He was raised Dutch in the Netherlands, has a doctorate in psychology, and is also a licensed tour guide for Biblical studies.
Wednesday morning drove to Caesarea Maritima which was constructed by Herod the Great several years before the birth of Jesus. The massive harbor could accommodate three hundred ships, and the hippodrome could seat over twenty thousand people at chariot races. We sat in the amphitheater, which opened to the Mediterranean; walked along the coast through the hippodrome; and walked into the Crusader city. Many of the places we visited had layers of debris from previous cities: Bronze Age (3000 B.C. to 1200 B.C.), Iron Age (1250 B.C. to 740 B.C.), Assyrian (740 B.C.), Babylon (597-586 B.C.), Persian (538-332 B.C.), Greek (332 B.C. to 165 B.C.), Roman (64 B.C. to 313 A.D.), Byzantine (313 to 436 A.D.), Arab (636 to 1099 A.D.), Crusader (1099 to 1291 A.D.), Ottoman (1517 to 1917 A.D.), and British (1917 to 1948 A.D.). Successive civilizations would build upon the debris of previous civilizations, creating “Tels” or hills.
At Caesarea Maritima
Steve talked about us going to Caesarea Maritima for four reasons. First, in Acts 8: 26 the Bible talks about how Philip converted an Ethiopian to Christianity reading Isaiah to him as they traveled to Caesarea Maritima. Second, it was in Caesarea Maritima that Peter baptized Cornelius the centurion and his household, the first known baptism of a gentile convert to Christianity. Peter continued to preach there. Third, Paul was arrested and sent to Caesarea, the seat of government, for his protection. He spent two years there. Some scholars think he wrote four of his letters there, but others believe it was when he was jailed in Rome. Paul nearly converts the Governor Festus (Acts 25: 1-5). The fourth reason is that Caesarea Maritima was the site where the Pontius Pilate stone was discovered.
The Pilate stone is a damaged block of carved limestone with a partially intact inscription attributed to, and mentioning, Pontius Pilate, a prefect of the Roman province of Judea from AD 26 to 36. It was discovered at the archaeological site of Caesarea Maritima in 1961. The artifact is particularly significant because it is an archaeological find of an authentic 1st-century Roman inscription mentioning the name “Pontius Pilatus.” It is contemporary to Pilate’s lifetime and accords with what is known of his reported career. In effect, the inscription constitutes the earliest surviving, and only contemporary, record of Pilate, who is otherwise known from the New Testament and apocryphal texts, the Jewish historian Josephus and writer Philo, and brief references by Roman historians such as Tacitus.
Pontius Pilate Stone Caesarea Maritima
It is likely that Pontius Pilate made his base at Caesarea Maritima – the site where the stone was discovered, since that city had replaced Jerusalem as the administrative capital and military headquarters of the province in AD 6, Pilate probably travelled to Jerusalem, the central city of the province’s Jewish population, only when necessary.
Statue of Elijah at Mt. Carmel
Next, we traveled to Mount Carmel and visited the traditional site of Elijah’s dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18: 1-2, which we read on top of the mountain). On the drive we passed Herod’s eight-mile-long aqueduct, which brought water from the heights of Mount Carmel to Caesarea Maritima. From the summit of Mount Carmel we could see the sweeping panorama of the Jezreel Valley and many of the towns in the Old and New Testament, including Nazareth.
Bob and Diane at Mt. Carmel
Jesus Style Tomb on the road to Megiddo
Following Mount Carmel, we visited the inland ruins of Megiddo, the Biblical Armageddon, where we saw the ancient city gates and Ahab’s stables. At Megiddo there are thirty layers of distinct civilizations which have been excavated. There is physical evidence of nearly every civilization owning that land at one time or another. The reason is that Megiddo sits astride the most important road, Via Maris, which connected Damascus with Cairo. This is also why so many important battles were fought there, and John wrote in Revelations about Armageddon occurring there (we read Revelation 16: 12-16). The valley nearby is very fertile.
Megiddo water system
That evening we stayed at Magdala Hotel, on the Sea of Galilee. Magdala is the city where Mary Magdalene was from. All four Gospels talk about Mary Magdalene being present at Jesus’ crucifixion. Luke talks about her role in Jesus’ life and ministry (Luke 8). The hotel where we stayed is relatively new. When breaking ground for it, they discovered the ancient village underneath and excavated it. Magdala was a wealthy city in Jesus’ time. It was so wealthy it had two synagogues, and that fish caught there were sold in Rome. We toured the excavated city and visited one of the synagogues, which had a magnificent marble floor. The Pope visited the site in 2014.
After dinner that evening, we went to the Catholic church Duc in Altum, which means “put into the deep” from Luke 5:4). It is one of Magdala’s main churches and inspires people of all faiths. Since Wednesday was Day of the Girl globally, it was appropriate to worship at a church dedicated to women and Mary Magdalene. Father Kelly, who is Irish, asked Diane, Barbara, and Fred to get up and replicate a mosaic in which Jesus resurrects a dead girl, called the raising of Jairus’ daughter, contained in Mark 5: 21-43, Matthew 9: 18-26, and Luke 8: 40-56. SEE Picture for this
Early Thursday morning we went out to the Sea of Galilee, which was just outside our room and the door of the hotel where we joined a group on the beach watching the sun rise over the mountains and the sea.
The Sea of Galilee from Mt. Arbel
After breakfast with our group, drove to Caesar Philippi. Near Caesarea Philippi, a city of Greek-Roman culture known for its worship of foreign gods, Jesus announced he would establish a church and gave authority over it to the apostle Simon — whom he renamed Peter. We went to the Caesar Philippi excavation site, where there was a Greek temple to Pan, the pagan god of the forest and shepherds, established during the reign of Alexander the Great.
Steve read and discussed Matthew 16: 13-20, when Jesus confronts Simon Peter. When Christ asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” it was Simon Peter who was inspired to answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In reply, Christ declared: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you lose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Situated 40km north of the Sea of Galilee, the region of Caesarea Philippi was the furthest north Jesus took his disciples.
It was national strike day in Israel. Citizens were out protesting all over the country. They were protesting the Netanyahu government’s desire to politicize the judicial branch of government. Netanyahu was indicted in 2019 in three cases for charges including breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud. As a result of the indictment, Netanyahu was legally required to relinquish his ministry portfolios other than Prime Minister. He wants to stay in power as long as possible to avoid prosecution, so he created a right-wing coalition and is attempting to change the judiciary to make it more political. Because of the embrace of the right wing, military officers joined the strike since they fear illegal orders from the civilian leaders.
Following our visit to Caesarea Philippi we stopped at Mt. Hermon. Jesus liked to bring his disciples to the northern part of Israel, near the border between Lebanon and Syria. This mountainous site is the potential site of Jesus’ transfiguration. One of the unknowns of the New Testament is the identification of the mountain where Jesus underwent his Transfiguration. The Matthew account of the Transfiguration is as follows:
“And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elijah talking with him. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one f. Moses, and one for Elijah. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him. And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid. And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only. And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1–9)
The two candidates for this mountain are either Mount Tabor, the traditional location, or Mount Hermon. The earliest identification of the Mount of Transfiguration as Tabor is by Origen in the 3rd century. It is also mentioned by St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Jerome in the 4th century. It is later mentioned in the 5th-century Transitus Beatae Mariae Virginis. Additionally, the highest summit on Mount Tabor is referenced as the place of the Transfiguration according to the Mystical City of God by Venerable Mary of Jesus of Ágreda, who writes: “For His Transfiguration He selected a high mountain in the center of Galilee, two leagues east of Nazareth and called Mount Tabor.” The Church of the Transfiguration is located atop Mount Tabor.
Mount Hermon was also suggested by scholars since it is the highest site in the area and is located near Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13), where the previous events reportedly took place.
We then went to the Mount of the Beatitudes. The Mount of Beatitudes is a hill in northern Israel, in the Korazim Plateau. It is the traditional site of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The site known as the Mount of Beatitudes is on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Capernaum and the archeological site of Gennesaret (Ginosar), on the southern slopes of the Korazim Plateau. Its negative altitude (around 25 meters below sea level, nearly 200 meters above the Sea of Galilee) makes it one of the lowest summits of the world. This site, very near Tabgha and also known as Mount Eremos, has been commemorated for more than 1600 years. It is a beautiful site with an eight-sided church, beautiful plantings, and a great view of the Sea of Galilee. Pastor Tamara Brown from near Louisville read the Beatitudes and talked about how relevant they are to us today. She talked about their promise and their celebration of purpose.
We then drove to Capernaum. Of Jesus’ 33 years of life, he spent about three years in Jerusalem and about thirty years in Capernaum. This was considered his hometown, after being born in Bethlehem and growing up in Nazareth. The town has been there since the second century before Christ. It was a fishing village as described in the Bible. There we visited the old Jewish synagogue where Jesus undoubtedly attended and taught. Unusually, the door for the synagogue faced south, even though Jews are supposed to worship in the direction of Jerusalem. But an ancient tablet was found that showed they had their Ark of the Covenant on wheels, so it could be moved.
The synagogue was across a street from what is believed to the house of St. Peter’s mother-in-law, who Jesus visited and cured. Capernaum was the site of Jesus’ miracles of the turning the loaves and fish to feed the five thousand and also the site where the boat started out, there was a storm, and Jesus walked on water to comfort his disciples in the boat.
From there we traveled to a restaurant on the Sea of Galilee called David’s Harp. We all had St. Peter fish, which is tilapia, fresh caught from the sea and grilled.
After lunch we boarded a boat on the dock nearby and sailed on the Sea of Galilee. We were surprised how windy and cold it was. Storms are known to be formed quickly and violently on the sea, even though most of the sea is visible from virtually any point. There is a valley that is the route between Nazareth and Capernaum, which creates the effect to breed storms. On the boat Fred led us in a study of John 6: 1-21, the feeding of the five thousand people and when Jesus walked on water. Most of Jesus’ miracles occurred around the Sea of Galilee.
The pass between Nazareth and Capernaum
We docked near the Jesus Boat exhibit. The Ancient Galilee Boat, also known as the “Jesus Boat”, is an ancient fishing boat from the 1st century A.D., discovered in 1986 on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. The remains of the boat, 27 feet long, 7.5 feet wide and with a maximum preserved height of 4.3 feet, first appeared during a drought, when the waters of the Sea of Galilee receded. Other than the dating, there is no evidence connecting the boat to Jesus or his disciples. The remains of the Ancient Galilee Boat were found by brothers Moshe and Yuval Lufan, fishermen from Kibbutz Ginnosar. The brothers were keen amateur archaeologists with an interest in discovering artifacts from Israel’s past. There are eighteen different types of wood in the boat, with most of it being cypress.
We woke early and joined our group for breakfast where we really enjoyed the fresh squeezed orange juice and the abundance of fresh fruit (especially the dates and figs). After breakfast we boarded the bus and drove south along the Sea of Galilee to Mount Arbel. Mount Arbel is a mountain in The Lower Galilee near Tiberias in Israel, with high cliffs, views of Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights, a cave-fortress, and ruins of an ancient synagogue. Mount Arbel sits across from Mount Nitai; their cliffs were created as a result of the geological processes leading to the creation of the Jordan Rift Valley. The Jordan Rift Valley is what makes this region of the world so central and so famous.
Via Mare from Mt. Arbel
The Jordan Rift Valley, also Jordan Valley, also called the Syro-African Depression, is an elongated depression located in modern-day Israel and Jordan. This geographic region includes the entire length of the Jordan River – from its sources, through the Hula Valley, the Korazim block, the Sea of Galilee, the (Lower) Jordan Valley, all the way to the Dead Sea, the lowest land elevation on Earth – and then continues through the Arabah depression, the Gulf of Aqaba whose shorelines it incorporates, until finally reaching the Red Sea proper at the Straits of Tiran. This is where the earth’s plates join between Turkey, Egypt, Africa, Lebanon and Israel in the west and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey in the east. Most invasions have come from the north down this valley. From the top of Mount Arbel we could see the Via Mari, the road that linked the silk from China to where it was woven in Damascus to ancient markets in Rome and Egypt. This strategic location is why the town of Megiddo was so important, and the valley below the potential site of Armageddon.
The cliffs of Mount Arbel were used by successive generations of fighters to hide and protect the valley below. Israelis, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans, and more all used them to fight. Another critical factor in the region is water. Ten million Israelis and nine million Jordanians get their water from the Sea of Galilee. And yet the climate is desert.
From the top of Mt. Arbel, Fred read Matthew 4: 12-25, which is the story of Him withdrawing from Nazareth to Galilee and Capernaum because of John being put in prison. While walking by the Sea of Galilee, it was here that He recruited his disciples.
We reboarded the bus and drove to Nazareth, which is southwest of Mt. Arbel, As we drove to Nazareth, we entered a more Arab part of Israel. Israel is about 80% Jewish and 20% Arab of which 80% is Moslem with 20% Christian. This area around Nazareth is about 65% Arab and 35% Jewish. The area looks poorer because Islamic law forbids the paying of interest. So rather than planning and building a community, the Moslem owners build and renovate only when cash is available. So they build in stages, and the place looks like it’s constantly under construction. They have worked some mechanisms around this religious law, but the impact is still apparent.
A shepherd in Nazareth City
We went to Nazareth Village, an attempt to recount what it was like in Nazareth at the time of the birth of Jesus. There were actors acting as a carpenter, potter, farmer, vintner, weaver, and rabbi. We visited each of their homes and workshops and watched them work using the materials of the time. It was a fascinating stop. While in the synagogue the rabbi portrayed Jesus as reading Isaiah in the synagogue as a youth. As the story is told in Luke 4: 14-30, Jesus finished Isaiah by saying, “Today the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He went on to get criticized, and the townspeople threatened to run him off a cliff. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” That may be why most of his miracles occurred in Capernaum, his adopted hometown rather than Nazareth.
After lunch we walked into the town square to see Mary’s Well. Mary’s Well is reputed to be located at the site where, according to Christian tradition, Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, mother of Jesus and announced that she would bear the Son of God – an event known as the Annunciation. Mary’s Well is the site of the town well for Nazareth for centuries. There is a spring that feeds it. We then went to the Church of the Annunciation, which sits just above the well. The Church of the Annunciation, sometimes also referred to as the Basilica of the Annunciation, is a Catholic church in Nazareth. It is one of two claimants to the site of the Annunciation – in which angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and announced that she would give birth to Jesus – the other being the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. The Basilica is beautiful with at least two sanctuaries.
Basilica of Annunciation Nazareth
Our guide explained the symbolism of the fish representing Christianity. The Greek word within the fish is ICHTHUS, which means “fish” in Greek. It’s an acronym for the phrase Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior in Greek. This was apparent on the outside of the Basilica. Also on the front of the church was Gabriel passing the news of Jesus’ birth to Mary. Barbara, Fred Andrea’s wife, read the Luke version of Jesus birth aloud before we entered the church.
On the way outside of Nazareth, we passed Mount Precipice. This is by tradition the spot the townspeople of Nazareth were to throw Jesus off the cliff. We went to Beit She’An. This city is perhaps best known Biblically as the site where King Saul and his sons were hung from the city walls by the triumphant Philistines. During the Roman era, it was renamed Scythopolis, and became the capital city of the Decapolis—the only one of the ten Roman cities on the west side of the River Jordan. The site offers some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Middle East, including a second-century Roman theater, a gladiatorial arena, hot baths, a marketplace and more. Saul’s death here was important since it opened the way for David to beat the Philistines and become King, beginning the lineage of Jesus.
Beit SheAn baths
Early Saturday we boarded the bus and drove south along the Sea of Galilee and then east across the Jordan River, where we crossed from Israel into Jordan at the Sheik Hussan Bridge. Again, the difference in wealth and standard of living was immediately apparent as we went into Jordan. Israel was clean, automated, orderly, and the buildings were relatively new. Jordan had trash everywhere (as we experienced in the Philippines), the systems were order, it was more chaotic, and the buildings were run down. It took us virtually all morning to cross the border. We left everything Israeli behind—tour guide, bus, large suitcases, and more. When we got into Jordon we got a Jordanian tour bus, tour guide, and more. This is typical for most countries—you must use their tourist system.
Bethany – Jesus Baptized by John the Baptist
We viewed the Jabbok Stream where Jacob wrestled with a “man” who wrenched Jacob’s hip socket (Genesis 32: 22-32). This is where he received God’s blessing, and God called him Israel. Further south along the Jordan River we stopped at Bethany. This is the site where John the Baptist lived in the wilderness (his cave is close by), and he baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17). The site has many denominations’ churches built around it. We read scripture (Deuteronomy 34) and sang. We then drove to the top of Mount Nebo, from where Moses viewed the Promised Land, the green Jordan Valley, “the land of milk and honey.” There is a Franciscan church called the Memorial Church of Moses on the mountain. From Mount Nebo there is a commanding view to the west of the Dead Sea in the south, Jerusalem, Jericho, and the valley toward Galilee on the north.
Franciscan Church Magdala
Mt. Nebo, Moses sees The Promised Land – Dead Sea, Jerusalem
We re-boarded the bus for a four-hour ride south in Jordan, on the east side of the Jordan River to Petra.
Sunday morning traveled to Petra, and walked along the main street to the Treasury, the building front you most often see when you see pictures of Petra. Petra is a civilization that dates back well before Christ. It was built by the Nabataeans in the heart of the Shara Mountains. It prospered in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. when it became a major trade hub on the Silk Road. It connected ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Their main road winds between columns of tall sandstone mountains. They carved art, religious scenes (they were pagan with multiple deities), and more on the sides of the mountains. Given it is sandstone and fragile, much has disappeared over the years. They also had an ingenious water system that brought water down this road in pottery pipes they made from hills that were eight kilometers away.
Diane and Bob McDonald at Petra
The demise of the city began when Rome conquered it, replaced its king with a Roman Governor, and supplanted its role in the Silk Road by creating a route across the Red Sea to Egypt rather than by land through the desert. Further, a large earthquake occurred in 363 A. D. which destroyed much of the city. By the middle of the 7th century, Petra was deserted. In 1912 a Swiss explorer named Johannes Burckhardt set out to rediscover Petra. He masqueraded as an Arab and convinced a local Bedouin to show him the site. The excavation and archaeology has taken years and is only about fifteen percent complete. After touring the site, we visited the visitors’ center and the museum. We then went to Movenpick Hotel for a cool drink to await the rest of the group.
We then drove to Moses’ Spring, an area up on a hill overlooking Petra, where the water originated for Petra. There was water there running down the mountain. Supposedly this is the place that Moses is memorialized.
From Petra we drove south along the King’s Highway (mentioned in the Old Testament), through the desert, and eventually west to Aqaba, Jordan’s coastal resort town on the Red Sea. Aqaba is where four countries intersect: Israel on the northwest, Jordan on the northeast, Egypt on the southwest, and Saudi Arabia on the southeast. The Red Sea is industrial looking in the north with resorts further south.
After a stay in the Marina Plaza Hotel on the Red Sea in Aqaba, Jordan we left and crossed back into Israel. We drove from Aqaba, Jordan to Eilat, Israel—both at the northern tip of the Red Sea, where Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia meet. After clearing customs, both in Jordan, then in Israel, we went to the Underwater Observatory Marine Park. This is an aquarium in the middle of the Red Sea in Eilat, Israel. The most interesting part of the visit was going down into a tube located out in the water of the Red Sea and looking through glass windows to see the amazing plethora of coral and fish.
We then drove by bus north through the Israeli Negev desert, in a sense reversing our southern drive through the Jordanian desert the day before. Israel is about the size of New Jersey. Two-thirds of Israel is desert. Much of the desert was covered with palm tree fig plantations. Israel sells eighteen different types of figs. We stopped for lunch at Yotvata Kibbutz and the food was excellent. A kibbutz is a communal village where people gather communally, give up their individual rights for the group benefit, and work together on agriculture.
We continued to drive north to the Dead Sea and checked into the Dead Sea Isrotel. We were surprised by several things. First, the sand was all crystalline. The sand had chemically reacted with the chemicals in the Dead Sea and formed a silicate crystal. The water was full of natural chemicals, which emptied there from the mountains. We were told to take off all jewelry, to not open our eyes, and quickly wash off the Dead Sea water.
The Dead Sea from our hotel
As of 2019, the lake’s surface is 1,412 feet below sea level, making its shores the lowest land-based elevation on earth. It is 997 feet deep, the deepest hypersaline lake in the world. With a salinity of 34%, it is one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water – 9.6 times as salty as the ocean – and has a density of 1.24 kg/liter, which makes swimming similar to floating. This salinity makes for a harsh environment in which plants and animals cannot flourish, hence its name. The Dead Sea has attracted visitors from around the Mediterranean Basin for thousands of years. It was one of the world’s first health resorts (for Herod the Great).
The Dead Sea
The next morning was our first day of rain. It was unusual since it rains infrequently in the desert. I was happy with the rain since we got to see the landscape of the desert change with the rain. What appeared to be dry wadis were filled with water. We saw waterfalls come off the cliffs. Our guide told a story of the danger of the flash floods during rain in the desert. Fourteen Israeli boys were killed when swept away by the floods in the desert.
We then drove to Masada which was an Israelite fortress for years. It was a hiding place and refuge under King David, and King Herod built palaces on its slopes. Masada was the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters against the Romans, its fall signaled the violent destruction of the kingdom of Judea at the end of the Second Temple period (about 73 A.D.). The Jewish zealots withdrew to the top of the cliffs, one thousand feet above the Dead Sea. The Romans laid siege over two years, during which time they built a ramp up to the cliffs. The zealots led by Eleazer had a community meeting during which they agreed to commit suicide rather than be killed or captured by the Romans and potentially enslaved. As a result, they drew lots, and ten men were chosen to kill the approximately one thousand men, women, and children. Then one was chosen earlier to kill the remaining nine before taking his own life. When the Romans arrived, they found full store houses to prove the Israelis killed themselves not died because of the siege, and lots of bodies. Since then, Masada has become a rallying cry for Jews everywhere, “Masada will not fall again.”
From Masada we traveled north to around Arad, where we stopped at the Bedouin camp Kfar Hanokdim. There are a large number of Bedouins in Israel. They are Israeli citizens but Moslem by faith. They have historically been nomads but are increasingly static. The camp we visited was in the middle of the Negev Desert. We first got instruction and went on camel rides. Then we went in a large Bedouin tent where a Bedouin woman spoke to us. She was quite progressive. Despite having an arranged marriage which is typical (her brother and her married another sister and brother from their tribe), ten children, fourteen grandchildren, married at 14 years old, Moslem, and her husband has four wives; she was also unusual in many ways. She had a college degree, was in a documentary on being a Bedouin wife, and is writing a book on her experience. She was surprisingly articulate in English. For example, she talked about the importance of genetic testing since there is so much inbreeding in the tribe. We had lunch in a large tent. Many of the characters in the Bible in the Old Testament were Bedouin.
We then went to Tel Beer Sheva or Beersheba, which is mentioned in Genesis 21: 25 and Genesis 26: 17. There were at least twenty distinct cities under the currently excavated city of Beer Sheva. The city sat along a river when it rained signifying its importance. We saw the well there, talked about in the Bible, the city plan, and the cistern, which was about five stories deep.
Tel Beer Sheva
We then continued to drive north from the lowest level on earth at the Dead Sea, through the Negev Desert, and up to the high ground of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is 2,600 feet above sea level. We stopped at the Dan Panorama Hotel and checked in. We checked into our rooms and then went to dinner. We had a group dinner. Diane and I sat with Barbara and Fred Andrea. Being with them has made this trip special.
The following morning as we boarded the bus, we had a reading of Psalm 121 since our first stop of the day was the hill from which the shepherds learned of the birth of Jesus. We had to travel from Jerusalem, which is in Israel to Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. The West Bank is under Palestinian control. We picked up a Palestinian guide named Ramzi.
While traditionally we see the shepherds and the wise men in the same manger scene, the Bible actually separates the two events. The wise men came later and followed a star. There was an angel but no star for the shepherds. The Star of Bethlehem is a fourteen-point star. It comes from the fourteen generations between David and Jesus in their family lineage. A Jewish star is a five-point star. It was created when the Zionist movement was created. You put two blue rows of the Orthodox prayer shawl on top and bottom of the star, and you have the Israeli flag.
When we got to the shepherds’ hill, you could see Bethlehem and Jerusalem from the hilltop. They are about five miles apart. On top of the hill are caves, which the shepherds used to live in. Also on top of the hill is the Shepherds’ Field Chapel, dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima and St. Theresa of Lisieux. It is a Roman Catholic religious chapel in the area of Beit Sahour, southeast of Bethlehem in the West Bank in Palestine. The chapel marks the place where, according to Catholic tradition, angels first announced the birth of Christ. This is one of two locations held to be not only the site of the Annunciation to the shepherds, but also the place mentioned in Ruth 2:2, where Ruth gleaned grain for herself and Naomi. We enjoyed touring the church. We read Luke 2: 8-20.
After lunch we went to the Church of the Nativity. The Church of the Nativity, or Basilica of the Nativity, is a basilica located in Bethlehem in West Bank Palestinian territories. The grotto (carved from a cave) holds a prominent religious significance to Christians of various denominations as the birthplace of Jesus (scholars believe Jesus was born in a cave rather than a stable, the translation can mean both). The grotto is the oldest site continuously used as a place of worship in Christianity, and the basilica is the oldest major church in the Holy Land. The church was originally commissioned by Constantine the Great a short time after his mother Helena’s visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 325–326, on the site that was traditionally considered to be the birthplace of Jesus.
Many of the historic sites in the Holy Land were discovered and anointed by Helena. Helena ranks as an important figure in the history of Christianity. In her final years, she made a religious tour of Syria Palaestina and Jerusalem, during which ancient tradition claims that she discovered the True Cross. She also codified the many traditional sites of Christendom, sites we still visit today. The Eastern Orthodox Church, Catholic Church, Oriental Orthodox Churches, and Anglican Communion revere her as a saint, and the Lutheran Church commemorates her. Of course, her son Constantine was the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire.
Church of the Nativity Orthodox
That original Church of the Nativity basilica was likely built between 330 and 333, being already mentioned in 333, and was dedicated on May 31, 339. It was probably destroyed by fire during the Samaritan revolts of the sixth century, possibly in 529, and a new basilica was built a number of years later by Byzantine Emperor Justinian (reign 527–565), who added a porch or narthex, and replaced the octagonal sanctuary with a cruciform transept complete with three apses, but largely preserved the original character of the building, with an atrium and a basilica consisting of a nave with four side aisles.
Bob and Diane at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
The Church of the Nativity, while remaining basically unchanged since the Justinian reconstruction, has seen numerous repairs and additions, especially from the Crusader period, such as two bell towers (now gone), wall mosaics and paintings (partially preserved). Over the centuries, the surrounding compound has been expanded, and today it covers approximately 12,000 square meters, comprising three different monasteries: one Roman Catholic, one Armenian Apostolic, and one Greek Orthodox, of which the first two contain bell towers built during the modern era.
While the presence of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox chapels may make sense, you may wonder why the Armenian chapel. Armenia claims it was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 A.D. Christianity has played an immensely important role in the shaping of the Armenian people for over 1,700 years. They were in the Holy Land early, and laid claim.
In the Church of the Nativity, the silver star marking the spot where Christ was born, inscribed in Latin, was stolen in October 1847 by Greek monks who wished to remove this Catholic item. Some assert that this was a contributing factor in the Crimean War against the Russian Empire. Others assert that the war grew out of the wider European situation.
Church of the Nativity and birthplace of Jesus
Of the four canonical gospels, Matthew and Luke mention the birth of Jesus, both placing it in Bethlehem. Luke mentions the manger: “and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”
Diane and I enjoyed visiting the church. The mosaics are fantastic. We enjoyed seeing the Greek Orthodox chapel. I thought of my Mom and prayed for her. We then descended into the grotto, saw the silver star where Jesus was born, and the candle display where he laid in the manger.
We then boarded the bus and drove to the Herodium. Herodium is an ancient Jewish fortress and town, located in what is now the West Bank, 7.5 miles south of Jerusalem and 3.1 miles southeast of Bethlehem. It is located between the Palestinian villages of Za’atara and Jannatah, and adjacent to the Israeli settlement of Sdeh Bar and to a military base from the south.
Prior to the publication of Biblical Researches in Palestine in 1841, the site was known variously as Frank Mountain, the Mountain of Little Paradise, or Bethulia; Edward Robinson’s identification of the site as Herodium was based on the description found in Josephus. Josephus described a palace fortress and a small town, named after Herod the Great, built between 23 and 15 B.C. A sarcophagus discovered in 2007 was claimed to belong to Herod as it was more ornate than others found in the area. Herodium is 2,487 feet above sea level. We scaled the fortress to the top and had a commanding view of the surrounding area. It appears Herod created the fortress to in part impress important Roman visitors. Herod was King of Judea, appointed by the Romans. He owed his power to them. When they visited, he wanted to impress them with his prowess.
Thursday we boarded the bus and traveled to Mount Zion and to the house of Caiaphas, where Jesus was first brought before the high priest. We read Psalm 122. We toured the cistern under the house, where it is believed Jesus may have been jailed before his trial. We read Psalm 88. We also saw the statue of where Peter denied Christ three times and the crow cried. And we saw a Roman era path from the Mount of Olives to Mount Zion, which could have been the route Jesus walked when he was arrested by the Roman soldiers. We read John 18: 12-23.
Jerusalem Dome of the Rock from Mount Zion
We continued to Mount Zion where we saw the traditional Upper Room where Jesus held the last supper. We read Mark 14. The room was identified prior to the Crusades but was remodeled during the Crusades. We took communion in the room.
Upper Room in Jerusalem
We then went to the City of David, this is the original city of Jerusalem, which is down the slope and outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem today. We saw the archaeological dig of David’s palace and the spring and cistern which provided water to the city. We saw the Gihon Spring which fed the Pool of Siloam. Biblically this is important since the spring fed water to the original City of David, but also because Jesus cured a blind mind with mud which he told the man to wash off in the Pool of Siloam. We read John 9. The pool was recently discovered and is under heavy archaeological activity.
Diane and Bob at Mount of Olives
We then go to the Mount of Olives. We paused at the Dominus Flevit Chapel, which commemorates Jesus’ weeping over the future destruction of Jerusalem. We continued down the hill to the Garden of Gethsemane, which is filled with olive trees some of which date back to the time of Jesus. This is the garden where Jesus prayed while the disciples slept on the night of his arrest. We read Luke 19: 41. We visited the Church of All Nations, also known as the Church of the Agony, next to the garden. From there we got back on the bus and went back to the hotel.
The Garden of Gethsemane
Friday morning we walked from our hotel to the Jaffa Gate of the City of Jerusalem. We passed the gate and the remaining portion of the Palace of Herod the Great. We walked to the center of the Christian area where we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the building that covers Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, and Christ’s tomb. These sites were identified immediately after Christ’s resurrection. Roman Emperor Hadrian inadvertently helped Christianity in about 80 A. D., not long after Christ was risen. He was upset that Christian pilgrims would visit the site, so he built a temple to Aphrodite on the site.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre Golgatha Cross
This inadvertently marked the site for future Christians including Helena, Constantine’s mother, who identified the site for a church. Multiple churches control the site—Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox. Their inability to get along is reflected in the ladder that sits on the second story of the exterior. It was still in position when Diane and I last visited in 2012. It was put there to clean the windows, but the cleaning could not proceed because of disagreement of the impact of the cleaning. We read John 19: 16.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre Jesus Tomb
We then walked across Jerusalem to the Western Wall. This is a remaining part of the wall from the era of King Soloman’s temple in Jerusalem. Jews pray at the wall. Diane and I put some prayers in the wall. Women go to a different part of the wall than men. After visiting the wall, we walked outside the Damascus Gate to the Garden Tomb.
Diane and Bob at the Western Wall
The Garden Tomb is a potential alternate site for Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified and entombed. This site was discovered in the 1840’s and bought by a British Foundation in 1894. There are a number of reasons to think this was the true site. First, this site was outside the city in Jesus’ time and is near the Damascus Gate. Second, this is the site for the stoning of Stephen, and Roman punishments tend to occur at the same sites over time. Third, Mark talks about how the site where Jesus was crucified looked like a skull, and this rock formation does. We read John 3: 16 and had communion at the Garden Tomb. It is a beautiful, peaceful area despite being near the modern-day bus terminal.
The Garden Tomb Golgatha
After lunch we walked to St. Anne’s Church and the Bethesda Pool. We read John 5: 1-15 about the lame man Jesus healed on the Sabbath. In this passage it talks about this occurring at the Bethesda Pool. The Bethesda Pool is where disabled people would congregate because of the healing nature of the waters. Given the historical importance of the site, a church was constructed close-by dedicated to St. Anne. It is a rather sterile church but has fantastic acoustics. As such, we sang some Christian songs, and some singers in our group sang solos.
Walking back to our hotel we stopped at the King David Hotel and had a drink on the terrace overlooking the wall of Jerusalem. We stayed at the King David when I was CEO of P&G, and we visited Jerusalem. It is the most famous hotel in Jerusalem, where President’s stay. They have famous guests’ signatures recorded in their floor. We had a relaxing afternoon drink that served as the perfect way to bring our trip to a close.
Bob McDonald has been awarded the Service to Veterans Award from the New England Center and Home for Veterans (NECHV). The (NECHV) equips Veterans who are facing or at-risk of homelessness with the tools for economic self-sufficiency and to provide them a path to achieve successful and dignified independent living. The award was presented at […]
Chairman Bob McDonald and The West Point Association of Graduates, known as the Long Gray Line, recently presented the 2023 Sylvanus Thayer Award to the Honorable Elizabeth Dole, founder of The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, for her service as a government official, as a leader of both national and international non-profit organizations, and as a tireless […]
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