Jerash 24 th May

What an eventful morning. The good news was that Bill who had been hospitalised for Gall bladder issues was well enough to be released to continue his trip. We were on our way to collect him from the hospital when we discovered the roads were being closed and the bus had to take a circuitous route. When we asked why the road was closed the answer was because they can! It seemed to be just to make it difficult for Muslims to go to the Mosque because it is Friday.

The next drama was Julie thought she had left her passport at the hotel and due to the road closures had to walk back. Matthew took her and with great relief discovered it I was in her suitcase instead which was actually on the bus. We set off again only to have Mary feel sick and throw up. Anya came to the rescue quickly with a plastic bag. Then it was Julie’s turn to be sick. We pulled into the Oasis Hotel at Jericho to collect a swimsuit Anya had left behind when we stayed there, and Julie jumped off and rushed into the hotel.

We left Israel and entered the West Bank, where we went through a checkpoint before the border crossing and we were not allowed to take photos. We were going across the Allenby Bridge crossing. They were asking lots of questions about who we were. Australian was the only thing I understood. Once clear of that checkpoint we continued to the border. Then we were through and it was the immigration where we had to pay our exit tax of 182 shekels. It seemed pretty expensive to me. Our bags were checked through the scanners and we were then in Jordan. These crossings can be quick or very slow. On the way in Matthew had been questioned for about 30 minutes and some of the bags were checked twice but this time it was fairly uneventful.

We were very sorry to say farewell to our tour guide Khalil. He was exceptional. If anyone wants a guide to The Holy Land I would recommend him wholeheartedly. His knowledge and perspective was truly educational. On the other side we met Anton our previous guide in Jordan. He was also amazing. We gave our last precious shekels as tips. It had taken us days to get small change for tips and toilets and now we had it we were leaving! I changed my last 20 shekel note into 4 American dollars, the only American dollars I had had all trip!

I recommend taking American dollars for this trip but get them before you arrive because they are near impossible to get once in the countries. They are traded as alternative currency but you can’t get them from ATMs as a rule.

There is a heat wave and we are going to visit Jerash, which is north of Amman, where there are fantastic Roman ruins. They are supposed to be the best preserved ruins outside of Italy. Because it is so hot a few people have decided to stay on the bus or in the shops and visitor centre. We are getting a bit blasé about ruins but I never want to miss anything so I loaded up with water and sunscreen and joined the other intrepid explorers.

It was certainly worth it. The town has been around since the Bronze Age at least and the Greco-Roman era saw it flourish. The ruins contain Hadrian’s Arch, built to commemorate his visit to Jerash in the 2nd Century. We passed under the arch to enter the ruins and visited the Hippodrome where they run fake chariot races and gladiator sports in the summer. The building was remarkable because they were able to build tiered seats for audiences even though the land was flat. Under the seats were shops or stables.

Further along we walked a road with manholes into the drains below and bordered by Corinthian columns which led to an beautiful oval Forum also surrounded by columns. Along the way we saw the remains of a marketplace where there were fish ponds and a butcher. On the hill overlooking the street stood the Temple of Zeus and an auditorium which had perfect acoustics. They hold a summer festival here using the stage and the forum for performances.

It was blazing heat and we were all guzzling our water and seeking shade but we pushed on along the Cardo a street lined with columns and where the Nymphaeum- an elaborate fountain stood. This street also led to the Temple of Artemis but by now we were all flagging in the heat. My backpack was leaching the red dye into my shirt it was so hot. Mid 40’s! Jerash was part of the Decapolis,/ a league of Roman cities in what was then called Roman Syria.

It was with great relief we all returned to the bus for our trip to our final destination of the trip, the town of Salt, and the place of the Dead Sea. We passed through the outskirts of Amman and back into the countryside past farms of olive groves and the few Bedouins grazing goats and sheep.

On our arrival at the Hilton Dead Sea Resort we were all gobsmacked at our spectacular the place and the view was. The receptionist said it was 48 degrees. No wonder we were hot! At home we would stay holed up at the movies or at home with the air conditioner not waltzing around looking at ruins without shade!

We took our bags and promptly got lost trying to find our room. The complex had about 800 rooms and different wings and we went up and down lifts until we found the correct wing in which we were supposed to be. All outside! The air conditioning is confined to the rooms and the corridors were open to the heat. There were a few exasperated sighs from the little group trying to find their room.

Once settled and revived we went for our first swim in the Dead Sea. It is an amazing feeling to be able to float without effort, like a baby in amniotic fluid in the womb. Having prepared our skin, we wandered up the beach to the mud bowl where we applied lots to our body and let it dry a bit before returning to the water. It is supposed to have healing properties but the lady who gave Anne and I a massage the next day is a bit sceptical. What it does do though is leave your skin silky smooth.

The water is about 34% salt so if you get it in you eyes, as a few of us did, it is extremely painful! The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, about 430 metres below sea level and has no outlets. The Jordan River is the largest contributor to it plus some small springs on the shoreline which create a type of quicksand. A part of the main roads around the lake collapsed a while ago and is now diverted due to the instability of the soil close to the edge. The Dead Sea is shrinking and there are moves to bring water from the Red Sea Gulf but that process is slow.

Mount of Olives 22nd May

The Mount of Olives, so named because it had olive trees covering the hill east of the old City of Jerusalem, was one of the most important places in the life of Jesus. It was from here he prophesied the destruction of the Temple, he prayed in the Gethsemane gardens after the Last Supper, which are at the foot of the mountain; he was arrested here and he ascended to heaven from the summit.

The Mount overlooks the city of Jerusalem, the Kidron Valley between and is a buffer between the desert and the city. It was also featured in the Old Testament and is the site of the oldest and largest Jewish cemetery. It affords a spectacular view of all Jerusalem.

One of the churches we visited (this was another Church crawl!) was the Church of the Pater Noster, run by Carmelite nuns. It was here in a Grotto that Jesus taught the Disciples. There has been a church here since the 4 th Century. In the church and courtyard are beautiful ceramics in many languages displaying the Lord’s Prayer.

Anya and Sveta were thrilled to see it in Croatian. I saw it in many African languages, even Red Indian ( Cree and Sioux) as well as Gaelic and various French dialects. This was a lovely place and we were able to have a special prayer inside the Grotto.

Our next church was the Dominus Flevit ( The Lord Wept), another beautiful small chapel designed by Barluzzi. It is in the shape of a tear because it was here that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. The altar faces Jerusalem and has a beautiful half circle window that frames the view. This is another place where ancient churches were found and built over. A constant theme throughout the tour is the history of churches being built, demolished and rebuilt over and over.

It was a very hot day and we were glad to take shelter in any shade and also to have a Mass in this church. All around were other pilgrims, some of whom were having out door services and singing beautiful hymns. This really added to the whole atmosphere of the area.

Further down the hill we came to the gardens of Gethsename where there were ancient Olive trees with trunks several feet around. It was here that Jesus spent his last hours in solitude. Besides the gardens ( The Sanctuary of the Agony of Jesus Christ) was the Basilca of Gethsename or the Basilica of Agony. Inside the windows were purple to represent the sombre atmosphere of the agony that Jesus felt when he prayed here. On the facade is a beautiful mosaic. Within the church at the centre of the apse is the Rock of Agony where Jesus knelt. The rock is surrounded by wrought iron work that was provided by Australia. Many countries contributed to the building which is why it as the alternative name, Church of All Nations. It is another Church designed by Barluzzi and is the third Basilica on the site. The first was built in AD 380

From here we met the bus and went to the Israeli Museum to see the Book of the Shrine – a display of the Dead Sea scrolls. It was in a very interesting building that had been modelled like the jars in which they were found. The white tiled roof was like a fountain with water sprayed over it. We would all have liked to dangle our feet in. Opposite was a black rectangular wall. The colours of the structures represented good and evil. The entrance to the actual museum was like entering a space capsule or cave and it was deliciously cool. We all found this extremely interesting and well displayed.

This was a packed day because we then went off to the Church of the Visitation. On the way we had a glimpse of modern Israel. It is quite a contrast and like stepping in and out of the ages on this trip.

when we arrived at the Church of the visitation we faced a steep climb up the hill. In the garden there was the Prayer of the Magnificat in different languages along the wall. This church honours the visit of Mary to Elizabeth when they were both pregnant. While we were there a group of nuns came out and started to sing.

After this marathon day we returned to the hotel very hot and tired. There is so much to take in and digest. So much tradition and history. Our guide is very informative and very knowledgeable about the Holy Land but it is hard to remember everything!

Jerusalem 21 st May

This was our day to explore the old walled city of Jerusalem. Again the guide reiterated our staying close together. We were a bit cavalier until we entered the gates of the city through the Lions gate or St Stephens gate. A truck preceded us and very nearly got stuck going through the gate. There was no way people and vehicles could pass at the same time. Our first stop was the home of the Virgin Mary. Her parents lived near the Bethesda Pools renowned for healing. It was here that Jesus healed the man who had been paralysed for 38 years. Mary had been given to the church as a servant when she was about 4 and it is believed that she was visited by Angels even as a child. During the Crusades the Church of St Anne’s was built (around 1130) and dedicated to St Anne , Mary’s mother and to commemorate the healing of the sick man. When the crusaders were defeated Saladin turned it into a school. Later when the Turks (Ottoman Empire) were fighting Russia in the Crimean war they presented the site to the French in exchange for their support during the war. It now flies the French flag and is considered French territory. It was given over to the White Fathers a French Order.

When Mary came to womanhood she was sent to Joseph who was a widower to help him. This is how Jesus came to have siblings. The non canonical book of St James gives more information on Mary’s life.

From here we started the Via Dolorosa, the Walk of Sorrows which traces the journey of Christ from sentencing, to death on the cross. Now we understand what the guide meant about sticking together. It was really hectic, as the kids would say! Crowds of pilgrims are doing the same thing and it is easy to get separated. Now we are glad of our Whispers. They are little receivers so we can always hear our guide’s commentary.

There are fourteen stations which mark the journey towards Jesus’ execution. Father Dean had a modern commentary expressing the feelings and thoughts Jesus might have had as he went along. They were very poignant as we read them but also the crush and bustle of people was somewhat a distraction to our trying to connect with the words.

Finally we arrived at the Holy Sepulchre where the last four stations are. This church was built by Helena the mother of Emperor Constantine after he converted to Christianity. It was originally built in the 4 th Century but was demolished by the Persians and then rebuilt in AD 628 by Heraclitus. The only original parts to survive were those excavated from the rock such as the Golgotha mound and the Sepulchre itself. The Sepulchre is where Jesus was buried after he was crucified. The Golgotha was where he was crucified. These incredibly important places have shared ownership by several denominations, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians and Copts. We had to queue for about 45 minutes( actually pretty quick) for a less than five minute look. The priest who supervised the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre made sure you go in and out quickly. He was quite ferocious and told one group (four at a time only) to hurry up. He said, ‘ Kiss the stone and out!’. Hardly a spiritual experience. 

The next queue was for the Golgotha and we all bunched up because people get pushy even though you funnel into a single line. This woman had edged past me and when her husband started to push through I said stop. Then she said he is my husband so I let him go past, but then their friends wanted to push past. I really got firm then and said No and stood right in front of that group. We had helped an American woman who was on her own to get in the queue so I felt quite justified. People are surprisingly pushy and not reverent which was disappointing. We all had to queue so it meant waiting your turn. Our guide was nearly in a skuffle when one of the priests shoved him to get over. He politely but firmly told him to keep his hands off! Another tour guide he knew came to support him.

We saw many people kissing stones or altars and wiping scarves over the stone Jesus was laid on before he was buried. There were many people showing their devotion. The anointing stone.

Our guide was able to secure chapel for Mass while we waited to join one of the queues. Under the church are numerous chapels. It was a complete warren.We finally escaped the throng and headed to a great place for lunch. It seems sad to say we escaped but it was so intense. Whatever your faith this is an amazing place and it makes you think deeply about culture and religion and life.

After lunch Anne and. I wandered around looking for an elusive atm because we were almost out of money and discovered more market areas away from the crowds which was great but still no money was found. It has been a consistent problem trying to find holes in the wall or even open banks to extract money or get US dollars at all. We had not realised how hard it would be otherwise we would have brought US dollars from Madrid or Dubai. We have managed but it was awkward and we became quite adept at getting into toilets for free because we didn’t have any change or dollars. I offered a guy 2 shekels or 20 for a 3 shekel toilet and he let me in for the 2! Change is a nightmare.

When we all regrouped we went to visit the Wailing wall which is the wall left from the destruction of the huge temple that was above it. It was considered the foundation of the universe and was destroyed several times. The Temple Mount was also where the Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and when they took control in the AD 700s they built the beautiful Dome of the Rock and El Aqsa Mosqe.

Thousands of kids were there signing up for military service. It was a seething mass of teenagers. The wall has a division to separate men and women and it is customary to leave prayers or supplications pressed into the cracks because God is in the wall.

Masses of buses were lined up outside the wall to pick up these kids who like kids all over the world are in a world of their own. They got on and off the buses while we were melting and desperate for our air conditioned bus to arrive. It was very hot. They are having a heat wave here!

When we returned to the hotel Anne and I rushed up to the rooftop pool to cool off. It was delicious though very fresh to get into and shared with thirsty pigeons and crows!

Later that evening we went back to retrace the Dolorosa and visit the Holy Sepulchre. Unfortunately we left it too late for the Church. The priests stop entry at 8.30 and close the door at 9. He wasn’t about to bend the rules for anyone! I can understand because it probably takes half an hour to check everyone is out. Then there is a ritual of locking the outer door by a local Muslim whose family has had the key for years. Go figure.

We decided to do the Dolorosa anyway and it was very moving to follow the last steps of Jesus in the quiet of the night. We could meditate on the words and feel the anguish he suffered. When we got back to the Church even the outer courtyard door was locked so we completed the stages by the light of the Lutheran church nearby. We were all glad we had made the effort. Some others in the group had got there earlier and had a better experience within the church, though the ferocious priest was still hurrying everyone!

Bethlehem 20 th May

We left this morning for the Shepherds Fields where the Angels came down to announce the birth of Jesus. It is within the boundaries of Bethlehem but on the way we passed the wall ( Israeli Security Barrier) with all the Graffiti. Everyone has been shocked about the encircling of Bethlehem by this huge concrete wall. It is actually higher than the Berlin Wall was. Close to the checkpoint the wall has been covered with protest Graffiti and has some Banksy art. Our tour guide stopped the bus so we could all get out and look more closely. It is very powerful as a means of protest. Kathy H. and I hurried down to the Walled Off Hotel which has a Banksy and a museum and art gallery. It is a quirky place that advertises its rooms as having the worst view! We didn’t have time to explore but just had a quick look insidei.

There has been much discussion over the politics of Israel and Palestine since we arrived and we are starting to get a clearer picture of what is happening here. In Australia we are so naive and lack real information. It is a very complex situation.

After we returned to the bus we continued on to the Shepherd’s Fields. The tour guide explained how the shepherds used to graze out of the area as far as Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. After the crops were harvested they returned to graze their animals close to Bethlehem. They usually confined their flocks in caves or shelters at night to protect them from wolves etc. The church at the shepherds’ fields was built over the cave where the shepherds had been. This would have been around July or August which means Jesus was most likely born in the middle of the year. We all decided our Christmas in July was actually quite authentic!

The Church was another Bulozzi design and it was a circle with the dome punctuated with round glass to represent the light of the angels. The acoustics were really quite good and it is a tradition to sing a Christmas carol when you enter. We sang Silent night. It was hard to get in because there was a large group of Koreans who were lingering and taking lots of photos. There are so many different nationalities visiting the Holy Land that we are surprised the service in many places is quite ordinary and they are not very well prepared or just see us as $$. We think that they are too busy trying to survive. Many of the hotels are very short staffed and everyone has huge water tanks because they only get water once a week.

While we were in an open air chapel our tour guide explained a lot of the history of Israel and Palestine and helped us understand the West Bank and the Palestinian Territories with a Swiss cheese analogy. Anne and I had struggled with a map of the area to identify the three zones, Palestinian controlled(A), Palestinian/Israel shared (B) and Israeli controlled (C) but when he explained that Palestine is the holes in the cheese, we got it finally.

Our next stop was Shopping. The tour tries to support traders in Bethlehem so we had time to view quality souvenirs. Most of us bought gifts for others or ourselves. I succumbed to a Jerusalem Cross in gold. Just a very little one but I really liked it and I like to bring a momento back. Jewellery is small to pack! Anya really lashed out and bought a gold cross with a diamond along with a range of saints medals. They did have beautiful things but so much is very glitzy.

We went off to lunch then so that we could time our visit to the Church of the Nativity when other groups would be lunching. Anne and I decided to just have a drink instead of a full lunch but I wished I had bought the apple I had left on the bus.

When we moved on to the Church of the Nativity, our guide told us his last tour had waited 3 hours to get in! We were all hoping his strategy of early lunch would pay off. He has been pretty good at managing these things for us most of the trip. He knows everyone and has good relationships which seems to help us every time.

The entrance to the church is a low door to remind you to be humble or it was built by very short people! We fortunately did not have to queue for very long. Even so it was a bit of a crush to go into the cave in which Jesus was supposed to be born. All these caves have been a revelation to us. The story of the birth has been ‘ Europeanised’ I suspect because the whole complex of the Church is built on caves which would have been more exposed in their time but have been built over and the surroundings have been built up. Even the manger would have been stone. Timber has never been prevalent and stone is the choice for most things. The star on the floor in the cave indicates the place where Jesus was born.

We were all a bit disappointed that we could not sit and contemplate the birth of Christ. People get 5 minutes then you need to move on! When you reappear it is into the Greek Orthodox Church of St Catherine which has numerous elaborate lamps and chandeliers. These represent the light of God within. Suddenly we were all in a flurry because we were able to have a mass in the Chapel of the Holy Sacrément. We have been very fortunate to be able to have Mass at various churches along the way. It seems all these pilgrims are keeping the churches in good business. We also find other groups singing in chapels and churches which is a lovely extra bonus. They usually have great voices and good acoustics.

The Chapel of the Holy Sacrement where we were able to have a Mass.

Another cave in the complex below the church was that for Saint Gérôme. It was his mission to translate the Bible into Latin. Here it was also crowded. I thought of the Bell tower in Porto when we had waited and then were squeezed into a small space. We needed red and green lights to manage the crowds! Not great for people with claustrophobia.

From here we walked to the Milk Grotto another cave with a church atop. It is supposed to be where the Virgin Mary hid before the escape to Egypt and while breast feeding the infant Jesus, some of her breast milk spilled onto the floor and the cave was transformed. The guide was rather sceptical of this story but there were many devout people there paying homage.

The picture of the Virgin Mary actually breastfeeding is something I have never seen before. The chapels in the caves were rather lovely though. We had some free time and so a few of us decided to explore the market. There were all sorts of things but also a lot of second hand gear stalls. It was not very vibrant because it is Ramadan and people are fasting, or shops were closed.

In the end we had time for a beer in the garden of the cafe run by the order of San Francisco. I did enjoy that and it helped assuage my hunger.

Back at the hotel the dining room was nearly empty so we all made a dash for dinner before the other hordes arrived. It gets so noisy. Think Coles Cafeteria!

We were having an early night because we had a very early start in the morning. Though whether I would sleep was debatable. The sirens were wailing on and off all evening.

Bethlehem 19 th May

Tel Megiddo was our destination today. Tel refers to a mountain that has been created by building a hill higher usually by building on top of other civilisations. This one was badly excavated in the 1920s by the University of Chicago which dug through 20 odd layers. It destroyed a lot of the site but also revealed a sacrificial altar several layers below which revealed that there had been many different civilisations from the Egyptians, to the Christians in the area. 30 different settlements had been built one on top of the other. Megiddo translates as Armageddon and was situated on the crossroads of the main trade routes. Due to its position it was powerful and controlled the routes passing through the region. In the photo below there is a prison for political prisoners and when they were building they found the remains of a beautiful mosaic commemorating Jesus and a church. This was dated from the 3rd Century and is evidence of an early Christian community living there. From here we could see Mt Carmel on the coast behind Haifa.

What has been a revelation is how close everything is. In the Bible you imagine the towns and mountains being a long way away from each other. Of course if you are walking or using a horse / donkey they are a few days from each other but in reality the distances are quite small. This makes the life and influence of Christ all the more remarkable. Imagine the Mt Dandenong to Melbourne-those are the sort of distances.

According to the Book of Revelations this is where the kings of the world will gather for the final battle between good and evil.

We drove to Mt Carmel next. This is situated behind Haifa on the coast. It was lovely to see the sea again and Haifa was an attractive modern city. Any place that has trendy coffee shops is a modern liveable city.! It really looked a lot like home. The difference between Jewish and Muslim settlements is so marked. Like time warps. We stopped at the Bah’hi Gardens. It has 19 terraces stretching up the Northern slope of Mt Carmel. In the centre is a shrine to Bab their prophet. It was meticulously tidy and quite beautiful. This is a breakaway group from Islam but they are very peaceful and their members are well educated and usually wealthy.

Overlooking the sea on the side of Mt Carmel is the Stella Maris Monastery, the origin of the Carmelite order. It is the only order to originate from the Holy Land. The monastery is built over a cave where Elijah was believed to have meditated before he went into battle against the prophets of Baal to emerge victorious and prove he was the real prophet of God. The Virgin Mary was supposed to have visited here after learning about her pregnancy. The altar in the church has been built over the cave. Further up the mountain is another monastery also run by the Carmelites where we were able to have a Mass. It was a very simple chapel with a peaceful aura. Above the chapel was a lookout that pointed to all the different towns and mountains. Anne and I were amused that the arrow pointing to Jerusalem was yellow! We are still following yellow arrows.

When we left to rejoin the bus we were all startled to see cattle grazing in the bushes near the car park. They were large with long horns. One looked like it might charge us if we got to close but actually they were too busy chewing to bother with us. We haven’t seen much cattle here but we saw a few feed lots for sheep when we were travelling across the Jezreel Valley. We saw them in Jordan too. They were the sheep sent from Australia by ship!

From here we travelled to Caesaria an impressive Roman ruin right on the water’s edge. Built by Herod the Great it had a hippodrome, theatre and huge bathing pavilions. He even had a swimming pool carved out of rocks on the shoreline that was filled with seawater. A fore runner to the salt water pools around Sydney? There were the remains of latrines and sewerage still evident. The port Herod built has fallen into the sea but it was an important trading port between Egypt and Rome.

In the hippodrome there were several groups of pilgrims singing. These impromptu concerts seem to be everywhere at holy sites.

Our day done we headed to the St George’s Hotel ( with pool!) in Jerusalem. Our guide went to great pains to tell us that in Jerusalem we needed to stick close to the group. No wandering into shops as a few of the members do constantly, or going ahead. We thought he was being a bit over the top. Little did we know how important that advice would be.


We have had so much happening and such bad internet that I am behind with the blog. I hope the next place will help me get back on schedule before the holiday ends!

Just thought I would let you all know that we are okay. One of the group has had a gall bladder problem and has been hospitalised the whole time we have been in Jerusalem. They are due to continue to Egypt but that doesn’t sound like a good idea. He will have a few days at the Dead Sea to recuperate.

Nazareth 18 th May

This was a day of churches and rocks. Our first stop was the Mount of Beatitudes which is a rather unusual church made of local volcanic rock so it is dark grey. Most of the other churches have been a beautiful creamy sandstone. The path to the church is lined with flowers and plaques with each Beatitude described while the church itself was a very simple octagon shape to represent the 8 Beatitudes. It was on the hill above that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount and in this area that he performed the miracle of feeding the multitudes with five loaves and two fish.

I found this quite moving despite the hordes of tourists. I think everyone generally feels the reverence for these places and even though there are lots of people, there is a sense of goodwill. Being in the open rather than a church also helps too. Over the centuries there have been so many churches built and rebuilt by Christians. While many are truly beautiful, sometimes I feel the presence of God more in nature.

Our next stop was Capernaum located on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee which was where Jesus was supposed to have lived during his ministry. He travelled to surrounding areas but always returned to Capernaum. He taught in the synagogue and and performed miracles here such as raising the daughter of Jairo’s from her death bed. It is suggested that the house below the chapel was the disciple Peter’s home. The chapel has been built over the old church and home, mirroring the original octagonal shape. The synagogue was quite lovely and you could imagine Jesus teaching there.

We also visited the Sanctuary of the Primacy of St Peter. Here I felt completely overwhelmed. I could not restrain my tears. I don’t know if it was because my husband was Peter and he was my rock, so that symbolism struck a strong chord, but I was very emotional. The church is small and it houses the huge rock on which according to tradition, Jesus ate food with his disciples after his resurrection. The huge rock in the church is called the ‘Mensa Christi’ or ‘ Christ’s Table’. There was also a little bay where put our feet into the Sea of Galilee. It was a likely spot to land a fishing catch. The grounds surrounding the church were very elegant and had many shady trees. The whole place seemed to have a peaceful aura to me.

From here we visited the Magdala. This is the home town of Mary Magdalene. The church is dedicated to women and has a magnificent boat for the altar. When the water levels of the Sea of Galilee were higher the altar looked like it was floating in water. The complex is very modern but elegant and warm. Downstairs in a little chapel was a magnificent painting depicting the sick woman touching the clothes of Jesus in the hope she would be healed. It is a most striking composition by Daniel Carioca from Brazil.

On the way out a priest asked one of the tour members to recommend the church on trip advisor because they don’t get enough visitors! There are excavations of an old synagogue which revealed evidence of an observant Jewish Community in the area. Jesus preached throughout this area of Galilee. The archeology in all these areas provides evidence of the different communities who lived around the Sea of Galilee.

Our next visit was to Banian or Caesarea Philippi where Pagans performed rites. Pan was supposed to be worshipped here and a cave here is a source of a river that flows into the Jordan River. Herod the Great built a temple here and it is suggested that it is the site where Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah.

We lunched here in a restaurant surrounded by the rushing water. It was cooler but the water was very noisy. We found we were nearly shouting to be heard.

The last treat was a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Our guide was able to get us onto the boat without too much trouble and in our own group. Our guide is excellent at timing visits and has a strong network that helps us get good treatment everywhere. Once on board the crew pulled out an Australian flag which he hoisted to the music of our national anthem! It was a fun touch. We sailed for about 20 minutes along the shoreline before returning. It was a delightful experience and a bit surreal to think we were in Galilee. Nobody from our group however tried to walk on water!

This was an exhausting day emotionally. Following the footsteps of Jesus proved to be a very moving experience. Even if the ‘where’ exactly of his deeds are debated, there is agreement that they happened. It is very thought provoking and challenges many of the stories we have been raised with.

Nazareth 17 th May

We were off earlier today to visit Mt Tabor where the transfiguration of Jesus occurred. Before we left however we visited the Terrasanta College, that has been supported by Lisa and Joe’s parish in Melbourne, to meet the children and the principal but also for Lisa and Joe to present them with a gift of $,9100 the parish had raised. Israel has cut funding to private schools from 75% down to 33% of their costs so they are struggling.

The school has excellent results and teaches from kindergarten to high school. The children were very happy to shake hands and one little boy had an Aussie flag. They welcomed us in English and then the children lead prayers. They were all dark haired and all the girls wore jeans or shorts we noticed. The school shirt was uniform. We saw some of their school work displayed in the hallways. We also had a look at the Church of St Joseph that is also at the school and is built over what was thought to be Joseph’s workshop. We were told that this playground was where Jesus had played as a child.

We returned to catch the bus, were counted as we are every morning and left Nazareth. We passed through the rich agricultural land of the Jezreel Valley. It looked like the Darling Downs or any other rich agricultural land, but is more marvellous after we have been in such arid land up to date. This area was the place of many battles because of its fertility and thus importance to the economies of various empires but also due to it being at the crossroads of trade routes.

We arrived in Canna to visit the Wedding church. This was the place where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding. Our guide told us that it had to be holy water because it came from a stone jar. Stone keeps the water pure and is used for storing holy water.

There were two mature aged couples renewing their vows or getting married. We initially thought it was a wedding then decided it couldn’t be because it was two women. Then we realised that they were facing two men, presumably their husbands and the priest was wrapping their wrists in his stole. While we were waiting for the group to come together we noticed a door with a picture of a bride and dressing room on it. Anne poked her head in to see and was surprised to find the room full of mops and buckets for cleaning. This church was unusual because it had the Virgin Mary on the roof top and Jesus below her on the lintel.

Next stop was Mt Tabor which is very steep and we needed a shuttle to get to the top where the Franciscan Order had built a church to honour the event of the Transfiguration of Jesus. This was when the disciples saw him as the Godly person not man.

The church was beautiful with two bell towers and three chapels dedicated to Moses Jesus and Elijah. What was particularly unusual was the main part of the church had upper and lower altars dedicated to Jesus as God and Jesus as man. The church was built on the ruins of another earlier church from Crusader times.. The views over the valley were expansive so it was a good vantage point for viewing any approaching armies.

While we were waiting for the shuttles to take us up the mountain a few ladies needed to use the toilet. Often we are required to pay a shekel or dollar to use the toilets. This is a real dilemma because getting small change is so hard. Mary managed to find some shekels for the coin machine but most of us had no small change. We then started to try any coins to see if that worked but the money just bounced out. Pauline was getting desperate so she decided to climb under the barrier. Then Virginia slunk through and Anne and Julie climbed over! We were very impressed with Pauline. She is in her late 70’s, is a fairly slow walker but has determination in buckets and can be surprisingly quick! Poor Randa our tour organiser, had her hands over her face saying ‘ These Australians!’ We had tried to do the correct thing but I think the payments are to encourage you to buy something from the shop!

Eventually we returned to Nazareth. It was a fairly long drive so Kathy and I played scrabble on the IPad. She is very good and beat me both games.

Our last stop was a visit to a spice shop where we saw and smelled an enticing array of spices and herbs. I bought almonds and Anne bought pistachios. I would have liked to buy some Karcadi (?) dried Hibiscus like we had in the spa experience but I worried about getting it into Australia because it is loose, not packaged.

That evening we were invited to join the Rosary procession at the basilica. Joe, Lisa and Helen were asked to participate and lead the decade in English. There were about six languages represented and they taught us to sing the Arabic decade. Anya and Svieta were delighted to find that there was a group of Croatian pilgrims who said a decade in Croatian, their native language. Anne, Mary, Bill, Father Dean, Anya, Svieta and myself all joined the procession. Anne said she is always a sucker for candle waving. It was rather lovely but went for longer than we thought.

We proceeded through the street back into the church grounds again passing all the various Virgin Mary’s that have been donated by countries around the world.

Poor Mary was so tired her candle slipped and she started to burn her little cardboard box. She furiously blew until the flames were out. That woke her up!

On the way back to the hotel we saw the man giving/ selling date syrup in the traffic. Another big day.

Masada 16 th May

Before we left Jericho we visited a church nearby for morning mass. It was held in the grounds of a primary school. While we were praying the peacocks in the garden screeched and called. The male was quite glorious with his tail up. The church of the Good Shepherd was quite pretty but what caught our eye was the giant set of rosary beads in the tree and the painted white trunks of the trees. The white tree trunks apparently discourage insects from eating the trees.

Our destination was Masada, a fort on the top of a mountain that is completely separate from the mountain range so it had a strong defensive position. It was built by Herod as a winter palace and safe haven ( It is famous for the fight to death of Jewish Zealots who refused to bow to the Romans. Death not slavery was their cry. The siege lasted for nearly three years but eventually the Romans built a ramp and tower with battering ram to breech the walls. The Jewish fighters had strengthened the walls against battering so the Romans decided to burn it instead and eventually the walls were breeched but they found that everyone was dead.

It is an impressive fort even now with ingenious methods for capturing water from the mountains behind it. They stored the water in huge cisterns and had many wharehouses of grain. The way up by foot was called the snake path but as it was nearly 42 degrees Celsius we took the cable car! We were all surprised when exploring the ruins of the synagogue we discovered a room with a Rabi writing Hebrew texts. He said we could take photos and gave Helen a card with her name and her husband’s name in Hebrew and a heart underneath as a gift to celebrate their wedding anniversary. He was the stereotypical grey haired, smiling faced, gentle Rabi with shawl and Yamak. It was so unexpected. He was writing beautiful uniform Hebrew biblical texts for the Torah.

From here we travelled to En Gedi, a place of waterfalls. It seemed unbelievable that there would be water in this desert. It means spring of David. There were lots of young people frolicking under the water fall in the first pool. The water actually comes from a spring in a cave further up the mountain. The pools are shallow and rocky so even when people stood in them they didn’t get muddy. The water must flow because it is a national park but once outside the park it is captured and never enters the Dead Sea. There are wild Ibix (a type of mountain goat) which we actually saw as we entered the park. They were too fast for my camera though.g

From here we continued on to Nazareth where we would have three nights. No packing up every morning will be a nice change.

Anne and I finally got to an ATM to withdraw some money but could only get Shekels. They don’t seem to last long! We wanted American dollars but we haven’t had time to go to a bank and ATMs only give local currency. I regretted not buying them in Dubai as we have had no time to go to banks, and ATMs have been scarce where ever we are. People like cash, American dollars or Shekels, they seem interchangeable but we have used cards in the hotels or shops.

Our hotel was opposite the Church of the Annunciation, which has been built over what was believed to be Mary’s house and where she was visited by the Angel Gabriel. The church has been built and rebuilt over the centuries and has been in the hands of the Franciscan order since 1620. Two of the tour members, Lisa and Joe come from a parish in Melbourne that raises money for the school attached to the church. Lisa also went to school with one of the women associated with the church and so we were told about a service that was the Adoration of the host. A few of us decided to attend thinking it would be silent. However this service was not silent and had three singer musicians with the most exquisite voices. Mary, also one of the tour group, was asked if she would do a reading. Much to her horror she discovered it was being videoed after she had said yes. There were seven speakers with seven different languages. The singing absolutely transported me and I felt like crying. The whole service was so moving I was not the only person to get teary. Afterwards we visited the grotto below.

What is endlessly confusing and amazing is the number of churches built over old churches. The foundations may be used or not, depending on the state of the ruins. This church is celebrating its 50 th year, so its a relatively young church with a holy place within. It is very active especially with the number of pilgrims that come to Nazareth. Some of the pilgrims are extremely devout and prostrate themselves before the shrines or kiss them. We have been amazed (and somewhat horrified) at the huge number of pilgrims attending all the holy sites. The economy must be so dependent on them.

Fortunately our guides are local and they seem able to expedite us through the crowds or at times when they know others are at lunch so we haven’t been overwhelmed by the numbers very often.

Jericho 15 th May

Today we crossed into Israel via the Allenby Bridge. This was like going to the airport and going through security. The landscape changed to mini grand canyons and is subject to massive flash floods which gouge out channels in the soft stone.

Our guide organised visas which cost us 10 Jordanian dinar. We were told to not smile or crack jokes with immigration. We had to enter single file and put our luggage on the conveyer X-ray and pass through security. It was quite tense even though the guards were all really young. We waited ages for our bags and several went through twice before being released. Kathy had to unpack her bag because she had a bottle of whisky that she has been enjoying. The guards opened the bottle and checked the contents before releasing her bags. Randa our tour guide has been joined by her son Mathew, and it is his first entry to Israel. He was held and interrogated for over 30 mins because he is a Jordanian born Australian and an Arab.

Once that ordeal was over we headed off to Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. This was the home of an aesthetic Jewish sect, the Essenes who lived communally and simply, studying the Hebrew bible as a celibate priestly class. The Dead Sea scrolls were religious documents that preserved multiple copies of some of the Hebrew Bible. They were discovered in a cave by a shepherd in the 1940s and date back to possibly earlier than the 1st Century. It has been suggested that Jesus may have been part of the sect at some time because they used the bread then the wine in their rituals as did Jesus in the Last Supper rather than wine first. There were ruins with several bathing pools because they practiced ritual bathing morning and night to purify their bodies and their souls. Even the steps into the baths were uneven so they could not rush in or out but maintain their contemplative state.

From here we travelled to Jericho, the oldest city in the world and saw the Mount of Temptations where Jesus was supposed to be tempted by Satan . We also visited the sycamore tree where the Tax collector waited for Jesus. Jericho was a sad place it seemed to us. There was rubbish everywhere and places unfinished. It just looked shabby. We all thought the oldest town in the world was not capitalising on its history.

Finally we arrived at the Oasis hotel, which had been a casino for a brief time. It had a lovely pool which we all hopped into almost as soon as we arrived. We were all hot because the temperature had soared to well over 35 degrees.