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.

Update

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 (https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-middle-east/masada). 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.

Amman 14th May

We were returning to Amman and faced a long drive in the bus. Kathy and I played cards but it was quite difficult because the bus jumped and shook so much our cards often slipped off the table. It was a fun diversion despite that issue. Occasionally when the bus got speed up we were almost throwing ourselves across the table to keep them in place!

When we had a coffee stop we shared the Torte de Santiago that Anne and I brought from Spain. It was a pleasant change. Not too sweet. When we close to town we stopped at a special restaurant where they served the feast meal of mansef , a traditional dish of slow roasted lamb, yellow rice and hot goat yoghurt sauce. As usual there were many dips served of hummus, baba ganoush, yoghurt and cucumber, smoked eggplant, tiny sausages and chicken wings as a first course with flat bread then the main meal followed by dessert of sweet cakes. Julie and I decided we only wanted the light meal of the dips and we were a bit miffed at the end to find we paid more for less! Anne had had the full meal and only paid 16.50 Dinar including the drink. The waiters hadn’t charged us the special group price. We learned that it is best to be all in or all out. The staff just don’t cope with variations. Some of the others are not having lunch at all but just a drink.

One of the interesting things we have found is that when alcohol is not part of the culture the restaurants have a few more non-alcoholic options. One we like is the whole lemon vitamised with mint and water with a little sugar added. It is very refreshing but they don’t really go with food like wine.

Once back in Amman we began a tour of the city. We visited the Roman amphitheatre, the acropolis, Pillars of Hercules, and from a vantage point looked over the oldest part of Amman where the houses might have 100-200 steps for access. As Amman is built on many hills the houses have crept up the hill. We wondered how they would deal with a fire because there were hardly any lanes to access the houses.

Having seen the old town we were heading off to the newer part where all the embassies and new shopping malls are situated when the bus broke down. The driver managed to manoeuvre it out of the traffic but we were stranded for about 45 mins and it was still very hot. Some of the others got out of the bus because they were too hot and the air conditioner wasn’t working in the bus either. Finally the repair man arrived and fixed the bus. It was only because the petrol tank had dropped to 1/4 full and the new buses need more to keep the air out of the pipe. As we were all sweltering we were very relieved to get the bus going and and the air conditioner and continue our tour.

We passed the American embassy which has a massive compound and we were not allowed to take photos. The Saudi embassy was also huge. We ventured into up market suburbs that were like Glen Waverley! There was greenery and gardens. They seem to be fond of topiary.

Then we were back at the hotel and had dinner. The call to Mosque started and went on for some time before life started when the day’s fast was broken. The locals celebrated while we all took to our beds.