Monday, March 17, 2014

Israel--a ten-day adventure

        Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives.  This was Jesus' view as He walked to the city from Bethany every day during Holy Week.

I just returned from my first-ever trip to Israel.  Visiting the Holy Land has always sounded wonderful to me, but I never thought I would get to go.  Overseas travel is just too expensive.  Then this past Christmas, my uncle told me about a man who attends his church named Tim Rampey.  Tim and his wife Nita have been to Israel eleven times, and they enjoy taking groups primarily of preachers and Bible teachers, men and women who want a trip of serious learning instead of a vacation.  For reasons I will mention in the next paragraph, Tim is able to offer these trips at a relatively low cost.  It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Carrie gave me her blessing, as did my church, so I signed up.  Since I’ve returned, many friends and church members have asked me to share my experience with them. So here’s my summary of my trip to Israel.

The trip I took was rather unique.  Most people who visit Israel sign up with a major tour group.  They sleep in luxury hotels, where they sleep in, eat a nice breakfast, and ride a big bus to their sites.  They travel in big groups, visit a few key sites at a leisurely pace, and have plenty of time for shopping, meals, and relaxing.  My trip was more like an intense academic experience than a holiday.  We stayed most of our time in a hostel in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.  We woke up early, getting out the door by 6:00 AM at the latest.  We pushed ourselves hard every day for ten to twelve hours, visiting as many sites as possible, eating cheaply and walking almost everywhere. In fact, we averaged walking about seven miles a day.  We had little free time and minimal knowledge of what was going on back home. For a guy like me who had never traveled overseas before—and who enjoys a comfortable, predictable lifestyle--this was an adventure.  It was my first experience with jet lag, and quite frankly, jet lag kicked my tail; I had a tough time getting to sleep for the first half of the trip (I’m also now typing this at 4:00 in the morning, if that tells you anything).  I knew absolutely no one in my group of twenty travelers before the trip began.  I tried new foods, faced several fears, narrowly dodged a stomach virus that felled around half of our group, and had that unique and valuable experience of being constantly reminded I was an alien in a culture very different from my own.  Visiting so many sites every day felt like the proverbial “drinking from a fire hose” experience, so I am glad that I kept a journal and took around 180 pictures.
I’ll share some of the most meaningful experiences, insights I gained, and list my favorite places later in another post.  For now, I’ll just give a brief overview of our entire trip.  So, for those who have already been to Israel, and want to know whether I saw some particular site and experienced some specific event, here you go.  And for those who have never been to Israel, here’s a quick tour:

We flew out of Houston on Wednesday, March 5, at 8:00.  We landed at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey twelve hours later, then had a two hour layover before our short flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. Tim had told us how important it was that we sleep on the plane, since we would be visiting sites as soon as we got to Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, Dramamine didn’t work for me; I only slept an hour or so.  It took much longer to get out of the airport in Tel Aviv than we expected, so it was after ten PM on Thursday when we arrived at the Golden Gate Hostel in the Old City of Jerusalem.  We took a quick walk to the Western Wall and got to bed before midnight.

 The Western Wall by night, with the Dome of the Rock in the background.

Here’s the rest of our itinerary for the week:

Friday, March 7:  Christ Church, the oldest Christian church in the Middle East; The Tower of David Museum; Mea Shearim, the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood; Church of the Redeemer—climbed to the top of the bell tower; Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection…we watched a procession of Armenian Christians; we ended the day by visiting the Western Wall at sundown, as Orthodox Jews celebrated the beginning of Shabbat. 

Saturday, March 8: We went back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, then walked the Via Dolorosa to St. Stephen’s Gate. We visited the Orthodox Church of the Tomb of the Virgin, then climbed the Mount of Olives.  We went by the traditional site of Gethsemane, but didn’t go in.  We visited the Tombs of the Prophets, a cave where Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi and forty-seven of their disciples are thought to be buried.  We visited Absalom’s Tomb, and spent some time at the base of the southwest corner of the wall.  We then visited the Garden Tomb, the other possible spot of Calvary (more on this later).  We closed at St. Anne’s Church, by the Pool of Bethesda.  We sang inside the church; the wonderful acoustics made us sound like an amazing choir.

Inside the Tombs of the Prophets.  The man holding the candle in the center is a Palestinian Muslim whose family has lived on site for generations.  He was our guide for the site.

Sunday, March 9: We had a worship service in a quiet corner of the city. We then walked Hezekiah’s Tunnel, visited Solomon’s Quarry and the Ophel, and walked the Western Wall Tunnel.

Monday, March 10: We walked through the Zion Gate, passed by the cemetery where Oskar Schindler is buried, and spent time overlooking the Valley of Ben Hinnom.  We then visited the Cardo, a first-century “main street,” the Wohl Museum, where we saw an excavated house that may have belonged to the High Priest in Jesus’ day; walked the Ramparts at the top of the Jerusalem’s wall from the Damascus Gate to the Lion’s Gate, and visited Ecce Homo, an Ethiopian convent that contains ruins of the Fortress Antonia, where Jesus was flogged and Paul was arrested.  

Tuesday, March 11: We crossed the border fence into the West Bank; Palestinian territory.  We visited Bethlehem, including Solomon’s Pools, The Herodian, the Mar Saba Monastery, the Church of the Nativity, and the Milk Grotto. 

At Mar Saba Monastery in the desert just outside Bethlehem.  This was taken by Adam, a ten-year old Bedouin boy who followed me as soon as I arrived, and begged 5 shekels from me.  He knew how to operate an iphone camera. 

 Wednesday, March 12: Left Jerusalem.  Drove south to the Dead Sea.  Visited Masada; nearly got caught in a flash flood (more details later); went to the Dead Sea (yes, I got in, and yes, I floated); visited Ein Gedi, David’s wilderness stronghold (flooding meant we could only go as far as the first waterfall); Qumran, site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls; and Beth Shan.  We drove to Tiberias, where we would spend the rest of our nights at the Berger Hotel.  I felt right at home, naturally.  

The theater in Beth Shan.  That's Tim on the "stage."  He spoke to us in a normal voice, and we could hear him while sitting in the top row. Ancient people understood a few things about acoustics.

Thursday, March 13: We drove partway up Mt Hermon to Nimrod’s Fortress.  Mt Hermon is the only high mountain in Israel; there is actually skiing here.  It was very cold.  We then visited Banias (known as Caesarea Philippi in the New Testament era); Tel Dan; Capernaum; and Chorazin.  We tried to visit Mt Arbel, but it was unexpectedly closed.  We ended the day with a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. 

Friday, March 14: We drove to Nazareth, where we visited the Church of the Anunciation; Caesarea, the port city built by Herod to be a truly “Roman” city—and where Paul was imprisoned for two years; Beth Shearim, Megiddo, and Mt. Carmel.  We then drove to the airport in Tel Aviv for a 1:20 AM flight.

The view from the top of Mt. Carmel, site of Elijah's epic duel with the prophets of Baal.

Saturday, March 15: Our flight landed in Istanbul at 3:20.  We then had a layover until a 1:00 PM flight to Houston.  I managed to catch a few hours of sleep in the airport.  We landed in Houston after 8:00 PM Houston time.  After the long process of deplaning and going through customs, I got home and in bed by 11:00.  I was up at 6 the next day for Sunday church!

In my next post, I'll talk about the amazing city of Jerusalem.  


cgashley said...

I've never been out of the country (well, except a day trip to Juarez, Mexico when I was in high school). This trip, exhausting as it was, sounds like perfection to me. To visit the places where Jesus walked, as a scholar more than a tourist? I'd love it. Thank you for taking us along for the visit.

Jeff Berger said...

Thanks, Colleen! I am extremely grateful for the opportunity.