RTW 2011: Day 22

Our next stop was a tour of Israel. We booked a tour with Diesenhaus Unitours, mainly because of the Christian site tours, this one worked with our schedule the best. The company actually does tours that can start on different days, but still see the same sights. For example, we joined a group that had already been touring together for several days, and those that joined at the same time with us continued on with our tour after the others we joined had finished their tour.

Our tour group consisted of 25 people to begin with. We had an Israeli tour guide named Aharon, and he was a fantastic tour guide. He was very easy to understand, he was informative about both the historical and biblical history of each place we visited, and he taught us a lot as we traveled through Israel. We also had a very nice bus driver, Fahried (no idea how to spell his name!), who was a Palestinian.

Our first day was touring the Old City of Jerusalem. First we went to a lookout point on the top of the Mount of Olives, right in front of the university. Aharon told us all about the city, helping us to see how the geography of the land has shaped the history of Jerusalem. It is situated on the edge of 2 valleys that surround the Old City on three sides. From the north is the only direction that the city could grow, and so on that side is where the city expanded, creating 3 different layers of walls surrounding the city from different time periods.

We learned about the foundation rock, on the top of Mount Moriah, which the Jews believe is the rock from which creation began, and where Adam was formed by God. It is also the rock over which the Holy of Holies stood in the Temples. Around that rock is built the Temple Mount, hiding Mount Moriah by creating a large flat platform over the top of the mountain. King Herod built the Temple Mount, and originally there was a large building for the Sanhedrin, Herod’s Temple, and a police station for the Roman guards. Now, built exactly on top of the foundation stone is Dome of the Rock, the large mosque.

Going down the slope of the Mount of Olives is a Jewish graveyard, where many devout Jews are buried. They are buried there because when the Messiah comes (when Jesus returns), he is coming back to the Mount of Olives. They want to be the first ones to be there when he comes. Then, the Messiah is supposed to enter Jerusalem through the double arched gate on the eastern wall. In front of this gate there is a very large Muslim cemetery. Aharon told us this is because the Muslims want to stop the Messiah from coming back, since they believe he would not cross through a cemetery filled with dead bodies, making him unclean.

Then Aharon added some other commentary, “What they don’t know is that when the Messiah comes he’ll be able to fly right over there if he wants to. They won’t be able to stop him.” He paused, then continued, “Only in Jerusalem do dead people still fight.”

Our next stop was Gethsemane, now the location of The Church of All Nations. Here was the first of the many stops in which we discovered that whenever they believe something happened in a place, there is now a church built there. Outside the church was a nicely kept olive grove with pretty flowers, some of the olive trees are 1500 years old, maybe older. This church had a rock as it’s altar piece, the traditional rock where Jesus knelt and prayed before being arrested. I did notice some regular olive groves on the sides of hills while we were driving along, making it a lot easier to imagine what the olive grove might have looked like when Jesus was praying there.

Next stop was to travel down towards the city and visit Mount Zion. On Mount Zion (which is currently part of the city, and was in Jesus’ day, but was outside of the ancient city of King David) is built a synagogue. Inside this synagogue is a tomb which is traditionally King David’s tomb. Built above this is an upstairs room. This building is also supposed to be the site of the Last Supper, in what was a man’s house during the time of Jesus. Now, this upstairs room used to be a mosque from the times when Jerusalem was an Arab city. You can see the layers of religion upon religion, year upon year, battle upon battle in this city.

Next we entered into the Ancient City of Jerusalem through the Zion gate. This enters us into the Jewish quarter. This area of the city is all newer construction because when the Israeli army took back Jerusalem from the Palestinians in the six-day war of 1967, they found the Jewish area of the city completely razed. The other areas of the ancient city are older, and yet, as they rebuilt the Jewish quarter they also looked underground and found the many layers of Jerusalem’s bloody history underneath. This city has been destroyed and taken over and rebuilt so many times, and the layers are buried below the paving stones. Also, if you look closely at the Zion Gate, you will see the pock marks from the bullets.

We saw several boys being paraded through the streets celebrating their Bar-Mitzvahs. Aharon said that they celebrate all of them on two days during the week, and a lot of boys like to travel to Jerusalem for their Bar-Mitzvah. Some families rent DJs, who lead the family and friends in celebrating the 13 year old, drumming and singing through the streets. Then, as we saw later, the boys read from the Torah at the Wailing Wall.

We had lunch in the Jewish quarter, then walked to the Wailing Wall, which is part of the western wall of the Temple Mount. Part of this wall is hidden within the newer construction of houses. What is open is now called the Wailing Wall. It is the closest point to the location of where the Holy of Holies stood (over the foundation stone) that the Jews can reach. They will not enter the Temple Mount while it is home to Dome of the Rock. They pray for the Messiah to come and rebuild the temple, and they pray here, as close as they can be to the place where that will one day be. Men and women pray on separate sides, just as they are divided in Jewish synagogues.

We walked through the Arab quarter of the city next, and walked the pathway of the Via Dolorosa. It starts at a building that was Pilate’s guard house, where they believe Jesus was brought. Then it goes up and down narrow streets, lined with shops selling every kind of silly trinket. We saw the stations of the cross along the road, all home to small churches now. Then, at the end of the Via Dolorosa is a humongous church, covering the traditional site where Jesus was crucified, prepared for burial, and buried. It is the joint church of three different Christian groups: Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Coptics. They each have their sections of the church, and carry on their own religious traditions in their areas. Inside the church it was very crowded. There were so many groups. It’s strange to say it, but to me, the importance of a place is diminished by the grandeur of the building around it. I can’t even try to imagine what the place looked like before there were mosaics and gold and pillars and incense everywhere.

The next place we went was another guess as to the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. This site was much more powerful to me. It is set up as a garden with paths going through. It was found a lot more recently, by General Gordon in 1883. A joint effort by many different Protestant groups has supported making it what it is today. There is a rock hill, which looks like a skull (matching the name, Skull Hill, where Jesus was crucified). Nearby there was discovered an empty tomb, hewn out of the rock (as the Bible says) and the right age to be from Jesus’ time. There was also discovered an ancient cross outside the door of the tomb, of a design discovered in only one other place: the Roman Catacombs. Now, whether Jesus was crucified here on not, it was a lot more powerful to see it all without buildings standing on top of it. Outside, with hills and grass and trees, like it would have been. Thankfully the evangelicals didn’t work together to the point of building any churches on top, haha.

After all this we went back to our hotel to rest and had a buffet dinner in the large dining room. Our day wasn’t over yet. Many of us decided to go to a special folk dancing performance. It was at the YMCA, but I’ve never seen a YMCA with a theater like this one. There was a very talented group of musicians, a troop of dancers who performed a large variety of folk dances from the region, and a singer who sang some traditional songs for us. They were all very talented, and it was a good time. Josh even said that he enjoyed it. At the end they got a bunch of the audience to come on stage and dance with them. They got me up there, but I looked and felt confused, as you can see in the pictures.