One of the reasons that we booked this cruise was that it would be visiting Jerusalem. It was one of my favorite ports when we cruised here on the NCL Star in 2016. As I mentioned in an earlier post, due to the itinerary change, our two excursions overlapped, so we had to choose between going to Masada and the Dead Sea, or back to Jerusalem. Though we had not previously visited Masada, I really wanted to return to Jerusalem we we cancelled the other excursion. Too bad that the company we booked through kept 75% of the money we paid in advance!
We did not dock until 10 am due to the itinerary change, which shortened the tour a bit, too. Jerusalem is two hours away from the port of Haifa, so we had a long drive in a small van to reach the city. I was surprised to note how green the hillsides were; the last time we were here, everything was brown and dry. There were supposed to be 16 people in our group, but one cancelled, leaving 15. Why is this significant? Because there were only 15 seats in the van! And, we had a couple of people that really needed two seats to themselves, so it was quite squished. My husband gave up our seats at the front of the van for a couple that walked with canes. Unfortunately, that meant that he had to move to the back of the van and squeeze in next to a man that really needed two seats to himself. It was a very long, uncomfortable ride from Jerusalem for Clayton.
Our tour guide was Eyal. He attended college in the US and told us that to pronounce his name, to say “Hey, y’all!”, but without the “H”! He was a very knowledgeable man. Since we had taken this tour before with a different company, it was interesting to note the differences between what each guide told us about the country of Israel and the sites we visited.
There are 3 major cities in Israel. Eyal told us that when Israelis want to play, they go to Tel Aviv. When they want to work, they go to Haifa. And when they want to pray, they go to Jerusalem! He told us that Jew means “people who give thanks”, and taught us how to greet people in Hebrew, as well as how to say thank you. We learned that due to the EU, agriculture has gone from 80% of the country’s economy to 10%. Countries in the EU are growing the same crops as Israel, but are able to sell them without tariffs (unlike Israel). He explained that if you have at least 1 grandparent that is Jewish, you are eligible for Israeli citizenship. Hey, I could be a citizen! The foundation for this practice is that during WWII, if you had a Jewish grandparent, you were considered Jewish, so now, in the country of Israel, you are also considered Jewish. Instead of being discriminated against and punished, you will always have a home here.
Speaking of refugees, there are issues here with Sudanese and Eritreans that have snuck into the country. They are ineligible for refugee status because they previously registered as refugees in other countries, but are also ineligible for citizenship here. Refugee issues are a problem worldwide.
Eyal told us of some foods that one should try while visiting. Hummus was the most commonly known, but here, hummus is made freshly every day. Otherwise, the flavor changes.
He also spoke of how security is always an issue in his country. Israel is constantly under assault by surrounding countries (there are all types of geopolitical issues that are quite complex), so the country wants to be able to defend itself without relying on other countries (including the US). There is a constant balance that goes on to keep the peace with their enemies while protecting themselves. As such, all Israeli young men and women are drafted into military service (except some ultra-Orthodox Jews). Though the country is predominantly Jewish in faith, there are also many Muslims and Christians that live here.
Eyal showed us an ancient map of the world, where there were just 3 continents in the shape of a 3-leaf clover (Europe, Asia, and Africa). Jerusalem is at the crossroads for all 3 continents. Temple Mount is believed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to be the place where the universe originated; the place where the spiritual world meets the physical world. Jews believe is is the location of the Holy of Holies. Muslims believe it is where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Christians believe it is a place where Jesus spent a large amount of time.
As we drove through the countryside, we saw plenty of small villages. Some were Muslim; some were Jewish (the architecture was different). This segregation is by practice rather than design – birds of a feather flock together, I guess. We drove through the Judean Hills as we neared Jerusalem, where there are 7 hills. The buildings In Jerusalem are quite similar in looks since limestone is required to be used as a façade on the exterior of buildings.
Our first stop was on overlook to the desert, which is located to the east of Jerusalem. One person in our group noted that there was string strung around us. Eyal explained that the string is known as Eruus. It has to do with the Sabbath – on the Sabbath, Jews cannot carry objects outside of their home. So, how do you define home? Perhaps it is the walls of your home, perhaps it is the walls of the old city, perhaps it is the entire city of Jerusalem? So, rabbis decided to place string around the area that is considered “home” to delineate the area! Clever. And, the string is inspected and maintained on a regular basis in order to maintain its integrity.
We reboarded our van to head to an overlook of the old city and the Mount of Olives. Unfortunately, we ended up stuck in some terrible traffic. Our driver ended up turning the van around and we headed to lunch instead of the overlook. Eyal gave us more information about the area as we drove. He spoke of Gethsemane, which means “oil press” in Hebrew. Olive oil is a pure oil created when olives are pressed. In Christianity, Jesus felt the crushing weight of his impending crucifixion and death while at Gethsemane.
Eyal talked about the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. I was previously unaware that this was a decision made by the Israeli parliament in the 90’s! Who knew? US Presidents were given 6 month extensions to delay the move. Every president since the decision was made signed the waivers every six months until Trump. He didn’t sign the waiver, so the embassy was moved. Though he claimed it was his idea, it was really the idea of the people of Israel.
Since Israel has been under Jewish control, all faiths can live and worship here. This was not true under Christian rule (the Crusaders), nor was it true under Muslim rule.
Lunch was amazing! We were served pita with all types of delicious spreads and salads to eat it with. The main course was chicken and lamb kebabs served with rice; dessert was a Jaffa orange. I only wish we had been told exactly what we were eating! I could identify the hummus, but the rest was a mystery.
I was shocked when we arrived at the overlook to the city, because we were the only ones there. On our previous visit, it was incredibly crowded – tourists, vendors, and a few camels. This time, nothing! It was a great chance to look around and take pictures without being jostled. As we looked over the city, Eyal pointed out the Russian Church of the Ascension (the tall spire) and pointed out the walls of the old city. The city of David was located below the old city. The current walls were built between 1538 and 1541 by the Turks (Suleman the Magnificent). The onion domes of the Church of Mary Magdalene stood out on the countryside.
Down the hill from it stands the Church of the Agony. We visited there on our last visit, but not this time around.
We drove the short distance to the old city – it was finally time to enter! We went the opposite direction as we did on our previous tour, entering through the Jaffa Gate which is closest to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Eyal told us of the different civilizations that have occupied Israel, from the Persians (538 to 332 BC) to the Muslims (638 to 750) to the Crusaders (1099 to 1187). The old city of Jerusalem is divided into 4 quarters – Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim (in no particular order). It is only one square kilometer in size and 40,000 people live there.
The first structure we saw was David’s Citadel. This is thought to be the place where the Dormition took place. This is a Catholic notion that this is where Mary ascended to heaven (she never actually died, if I understand the belief).
Next was the Praetorium, which may have been where Pontius Pilate tried Jesus and sentenced him to crucifixion. The building had 3 sections, each built during a different time period.
We walked through the Arab market towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We stopped in a souvenir shop so people could purchase some mementos of the trip. We were discouraged from visiting the stalls, but they had much more interesting goods than the “official” shop we stopped at!
Finally, we entered the courtyard outside the church. We stopped for Eyal to explain the different things we would see inside. This church has not always stood here. The Temple to Venus was built by the Romans to stamp out Christianity; a statue of Venus was placed where Christ’s cross was. Rather than successfully stamping out Christianity, it served as a marker for where the crucifixion actually happened. Constantine’s mother tore down the temple and built a basilica in its place. In 1009, Shi’ite Muslims destroyed the church which started the Crusades. In 1049, Byzantine crusaders built the current church. Six denominations control the church: Orthodox, Catholic, Armenians, Assyrians, Coptic Christians, and Ethiopians. The ladder seen outside is known as the Ladder of Contention and serves as a reminder of the status quo agreement that allows all of these factions to get along.
We would be visiting the final stations of the cross:
Station 9, where Jesus fell for the 3rd time
Station 10, where Roman soldiers fought over Christ’s clothing
Station 11, where Jesus was nailed to the cross
Station 12, the site of the crucifixion
Station 13, where He was removed from the cross
The Stone of Unction, where Jesus was prepared for burial after his crucifixion. Here, people like to place crosses and other religious items to have them be sanctified
We then walked to see:
The Chapel of Adam (Adam and Eve are supposedly buried here)
Chapel of the Derision – the place where Jesus was flayed before his crucifixion. Orthodox believe that if you put your ear to the table, you can hear the sounds of him being whipped.
Chapel of Longinus – the place honoring the Roman soldier that pierced Jesus’ side with his spear, who converted to Christianity. He is honored because he is proof that anyone can experience forgiveness.
The Prison of Christ – the leg holes were where Christ’s stood.
Lastly, Station 14, where Christ was crucified and resurrected (the Holy Sepulchre). It is designed to look like the ark of the covenant. Symbolically, this shows that Christ is now the law.
Just like last time we visited here, I wish we had much more time to soak it all in. Such is the problem with a group tour!
After leaving the church, we walked through the Jewish quarter. It was now starting to get dark and the shops were closing. We stopped at the Broad Wall, which is 2600 years old. It was built during the time of King Hezekiah. Houses were broken down to build the wall and if you look closely, you can see the outline of where the wall was built right over the house.
We walked past the Horvah Synogogue which has a magnificent gold Menorah in front. Eyal explains the symbolism in a menorah, which was the symbol of the Jewish people until the Star of David replaced it.
Our final stop was the Western Wall; what you may know as the Wailing Wall. It is segregated into male and female sections. As it was on our previous visit, the female side was crammed full of women, chanting from prayer books, and placing prayers written on slips of paper into the wall. There is a small amount of the original wall left; it is where people prayed when the Golden Dome (the temple – the holy place) was no longer in existence. The wall was built by Herod as a retaining wall. Just like the wall in the US, there are tunnels underneath. Just proves that people will find a way around a wall if they want to! The wall is considered to be the closest place to God, which is why people leave prayers here. So many prayers are left that many fall to the ground. These are collected. Also, the wall is “cleaned out” twice per year. The prayers are saved and buried together rather than being thrown away.
We left through the Dung Gate (where garbage was thrown away) and loaded up the van for our long drive back to Haifa. Most slept; it was a long day!