The Holy Land, day 1

We are in Haifa, Israel for two days.  I must admit that I am especially interested in the itinerary for the port (Holy Land), but also have some trepidation about being in an area that is known for suicide bombings and missile attacks.  I am probably just as safe here as I am at home; as we well know, terrorism can strike anywhere.  But, Israel has been a target for many years, so it is definitely in the back of my mind.  I also must admit to only a rudimentary knowledge of the area.  I am familiar with the Biblical cities, but have very little knowledge of the modern history of Israel.  I have a personal desire to learn about both the Christian and Jewish aspects of life in Israel.  I am a Christian, but learned after his death that my grandfather was Jewish.  When he emigrated from Latvia to the US, he changed his name and made up a family history.  Come to find out, he had left behind 4 siblings in Latvia as well as a large extended family.  Only three (two nephews and a niece) survived the holocaust; all moved to the US.  My cousin, Pauline, who is almost the same age as I, is the child of these survivors.  She and I have become close, and she has attempted to put me in touch with my “Jewish roots”, so to speak!  After two very long days of touring I can definitely say that my thirst for knowledge has been sated!  I will be filling you in on some history as well as writing about our experiences. A word of warning – these will be very long posts! Skip ahead to the pictures if you are not interested in the information contained in the next set of paragraphs.

Our tour began at 8 am Sunday morning, or at least it was supposed to; it took until 8:30 for everyone was off the ship and on the buses.  Our tour guide today was Shimon Friedman (  If I was in Seattle, or any other city in the US or most of Europe, Sunday would be a day of very light traffic because it is on the weekend.  However, being in Israel, Shabbat (Sabbath) starts Friday afternoon and ends Saturday night, so Sunday is a workday.  In other words, we were to expect rush hour traffic getting into Jerusalem.  We were given an overview of the sites we would be visiting today, and Simon gave us some historical information as we drove the 2 1/2 hours it would take to get there.

Simon pointed out that it was important to understand that you need to understand the water situation.   There are seven dry months where there is no rain at all.  Remember in that in the old testament Jacob went to Egypt due to drought conditions).  Israelis have become experts on water.  It never freezes here; during the winter, the temperature drops to 5 to 8 degrees Celsius.  There is no need to import fresh products; everything can be grown here.  Water from the Sea of Galilee is used for irrigation.  Water from the Jordan River is used as well, but this is a poor, unreliable source.  Due to drought conditions, during the past three years, the river’s output is 60% less than normal.  Five giant desalinization plants provide 60% of the water here.  Waste water is purified and used for irrigation as well.

This is a very small country – it is only 300 miles long and from 40 to 70 miles wide.  I was trying to visualize something I could compare it to, and was thinking that my home state of Washington is about 300 miles long, and the Olympic Peninsula is more than 70 miles wide (I think), so Israel is smaller than the Olympic Peninsula.

The population of the country is 75% Jewish and 25% Arab (mainly Muslim).  I think Simon said the population was around 10 million people, with nearly 800,000 in Jerusalem, the capitol city.  There are two official languages:  Hebrew and Arabic.  Arab children are required to learn Hebrew in school, but the converse is not true.  All road signs are in both languages (and English as well).


People are Jewish by both nationality and faith, though there are varying degrees of devoutness.  Restaurants are not required to be kosher (which separates dairy and meat), but would go out of business if they were not.  Things close down for Shabbat; there is no work, travel, etc.  Everything comes to a stop.  People pray, sit with their family and eat rather than going out and about.  Tel Aviv is a more cosmopolitan city, so more things are open on the Sabbath.  Jerusalem is religious so all is shut down.


We saw many types of cars on the road.  Simon said that Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Toyota are most popular here, though we did see a handful of Chevrolets.  All cars are imported; there are no cars manufactured here (though they do make tanks!). As a matter of fact, cars are the biggest import in Israel, 90%.  The distance from Haifa to Jerusalem is 110 miles, so there was quite a bit of time for Simon to fill our heads with facts!  As we drove along the highway, we could see the Mediterranean Sea on our right and the mountains of Judea on our right.  I might not call them mountains; hills would be more descriptive.  The tallest is only 4000 ft. tall. Though we were not going to visit it, we learned about a bit about the Dead Sea, which is more than 30% salt.  You can easily float in the water, but cannot dive into it.  A woman I spoke to later told me that she visited, and that the water felt very oily.  If you swallow the water, it would make you sick, and most definitely would burn your eyes.  Did you know that the Dead Sea was the lowest point on earth?  It is 430 meters (about 1290 feet) below sea level!

Israel is a very young nation; it became an independent country in 1948.  During its short history, there have been many conflicts and wars with the nations that surround it. In recent years, things have become more peaceful.  In 1980, Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement opening the border between the countries.  Jordan followed suit in 1994.

Two hundred fifty million trees have been planted in the last 60 years.  The Ottomans cut most of the trees, so trees had to be replanted.  There are many Eucalyptus trees here.  They are not native to Israel, but were planted in the mistaken belief that they would help dry swamps.  That didn’t work, but they do grow very rapidly and provide good shade.

By now, we were getting very close to Jerusalem.  Simon noted that all buildings are built out of limestone, including homes.  Jerusalem is split into two parts.  The eastern part is Arabic; the western is Jewish.  Immediately following Israel declaring independence in 1948, they were invaded by their neighbors including Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.  At the time the population was 600,000.  1% of the population was killed during this war.  As part of the cease-fire agreement, Jerusalem was split into two parts.  The eastern part went to Jordan; the western part to Israel.  For nineteen years there was a wall between the two parts.  In 1967 the city was united and the wall came down.


Finally, we were there!  Our first stop was the Mount of Olives where we were given our first views of the old city.  The wall around the city was built by the Ottomans (Turks) and is about 500 years old.  A hillside was visible to the left.  Excavations have located magnificent findings from the time of King David.  If you looked down you could see an enormous cemetery.  Most of the graves had stones on them.  This is a Jewish custom; rather than laying flowers on a grave when you visit, you leave a stone that essentially says, “I was here”.  The area was very crowded; we were definitely not the only tour group in town.  This is peak tourist season because it is not as hot as summer, nor have the rains started yet.  There were people selling all kinds of souvenirs and people lining up to pay 5 Euros to sit on a camel for a couple of minutes.  Someone else was leading a donkey around to sell people the opportunity to have their picture taken on it.  The camel was a much more popular option!

This is known as the City of David.  He built the city on a hill to make it easier to protect.  There is only one natural spring in the entire area, which also contributed to it being located there.  Solomon built the first temple here about 3000 years ago, it became known as Temple Mount.  It was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar when the Jews were exiled to Babylon.  Seventy years later, some Jews returned and a new temple was built on the same location until 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the second temple.  The holiest place moved from the temple to the Western Wall.

Where we were standing we were viewing the Eastern Wall.  In 630 AD Mohammed, the founder of Islam died.  Islamic followers founded Mecca in Damascus.  According to Simon, the Muslims decided that if Jerusalem was so holy for Jews it should also be holy for Muslims.  Mohammed’s ascension was moved to Jerusalem.  Simon says this is accurate if you look at the original versions from the 7th and 8th century versus modern versions).  Two monuments were built – a mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

In Christianity, Jesus spent his last week at the Mount of Olives.  On Palm Sunday, he went down to the city to the temple.  There are churches at each of the important locations from Jesus’ final week.  The Last Supper supposedly took place at the church that we would soon be visiting.  The church with the two domes is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is located in the place where Jesus was crucified.

On to the garden of Gethsemane.  Pesach (Passover) is the memorial of the Exodus; Jesus celebrated Pesach with his disciples on Maundy Thursday.  Everyone must drink four glasses of wine.  Following this, the disciples fell asleep and Jesus went into the garden to pray. The olive trees in the courtyard were not actually from Jesus’ time; they were only about 1000 years old.  Olive trees don’t have rings, so you can’t count them to determine their age.  The trees in the courtyard do have the same DNA as the original trees.  Gethsemane means “olive press”, by the way.  The first church was built on this site in the 4th century, the next in the 12th century. When they built the third and current church a hundred years ago, they found the original oil press.

There is a rock in the middle of the church where Jesus knelt and wept.  Judas kissed him, and he was arrested by Roman Soldiers a few meters from the stone.  His tears became drops of blood.

The church is Roman Catholic (Franciscan).  Antonio Berlucci designed it to be a very dark, melancholic church.  It is known by several names:  The Basilica of Gethsemane, The Church of Agony and the Church of All Nations (12 nations donated the funds to build it).  There was a Franciscan monk monitoring the altar where Jesus prayed.  When we arrived there was a priest in the altar area kneeling and praying.  A woman that was visiting assumed that anyone could enter the sacred area to pray, but she was wrong!

When we exited the church, Simon talked to us about some of the symbolism seen on the exterior of the church.  In the picture below you can see the symbols for alpha and omega; you can see Christ kneeling with God above him.


Next up was the old city of Jerusalem, which is only a square kilometer in size.  As we exited the bus I saw an orthodox Jewish man in the corner of the building.  He was leaning over; I thought he might be praying.  I grabbed my camera and zoomed in.  Nope, not praying, peeing in the corner!  He was zipping up as he turned around.  He is the gentleman in the picture below.  We saw him again, along with a couple of friends on our way in.  They were chanting, “Charity, Charity” as people walked by.  I could see where he peed when we walked past.  Ewww!

We are now at Temple Mount.  The stone in the corner is a 300 ton stone.  We will be visiting the Western Wall.  You may know it as the “Wailing Wall”.  In 70 BC there was a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire.  Emperor Titus destroyed the temple as punishment, so people came to the wall to wail and cry because the temple had been destroyed.  Anyone can pray here 24/7.  Jews believe that this is the closest place to God.

The wall is split into two sections:  one for men and one for women.  The men’s section is much larger because men are required to pray 3 times per day according to Jewish law.  Women are not required to pray; they are busy with their domestic tasks.  Men must cover their heads; good thing Clayton always wears a hat when he is outside!  Jewish men need to be in a group of ten or more to pray; there was a group praying together in the men’s section.  Clayton went to the men’s section; I went to the women’s section and found a place where I could leave my prayer in the wall.  The women’s side was WAY more crowded than the men’s section.  I will leave you to your own thoughts as to why this is true.  Monday and Thursdays are the busiest days here (which has to do with when Bar Mitzvahs are held); today is a Monday.

You may notice in the pictures above that there are larger stones at the base of the wall and smaller stones above.  The larger blocks are from the time of Herod; the smaller were added later.


Our group met up and headed through the bazaar towards the Via De La Rosa – The Way of Sorrow or the Way of the Cross.  In other words, the path that Jesus took carrying his cross to be crucified.  We passed numerous Israeli guards with machine guns.  The bazaar was fascinating; I very much wanted to stop and shop, but there was no time to do so.  We were getting awfully hungry by now and had to pass booth after booth with delicious looking and smelling food.


Simon recounted to us the story of Jesus’ crucifixion:  Pontius Pilatus (Pilate) was the ruler of the region.  On Friday (Good Friday) he condemned Jesus to death.  He asked Jesus if he was a Jewish king; Jesus did not deny it, so he considered it an admission of guilt.  If found guilty, you had to carry your cross on your back 700 meters up a hill and then were stripped and nailed to the cross.  There are fourteen stations of the cross along the path that we walked.  We missed the first four.  The first was the court where Jesus picked up the cross.  I am not sure what all were, but at either the 3rd or 4th, Jesus met his mother.  We were at station 5, where Simon helped Jesus carry the cross (it was hot and a difficult walk).  Station 6 was the House of St. Veronica, where she wiped sweat from the face of Jesus.  The outline of his face was imprinted on the cloth.  At station 7, Jesus fell the second time.  The women from Jericho met Jesus at station 8.  He fell the third time at station 9.  Station 10 is located outside the basilica at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus was stripped.

We entered the church and walked up a steep set up steps to station 11 where Jesus was nailed to the cross. This is depicted in a mosaic in the basilica.  The next room is station 12 where Christ was crucified.

Back downstairs you will be at station 13.  A large mosaic shows what happened when Jesus was removed from the cross.  Behind the mosaic is the stone that Jesus was laid on to be washed, anointed with oil, and wrapped in a shroud.  Being anointed with oil is not a Jewish tradition but was done because he was the Messiah (a Messiah is anointed).  The stone is called the Stone of Anointing.



The final station is the tomb where Jesus was buried.  We were not able to enter the tomb as there was a hour wait to go inside.   Christ was crucified on Friday morning.  Normally, a person that was crucified would spend 24 hours on the cross.  However, this would interfere with Shabbat, so Joseph of Aramathea asked the Romans to be allowed to bury Christ before Shabbat.  The tomb was closed Friday after noon. Sunday morning the three women went to the tomb and found that the stone had been removed and the grave was empty.  No Jewish person would have done that because of the Sabbath.  Jesus was risen!  Forty days later, he ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives.


There is a large dome above the tomb.  There is another dome that is part of the Greek Orthodox section of the church.  Actually, three denominations share the church:  Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic.  Constantine converted to Christianity and had the first church built here.  This church was built in 1149 and opened by the Crusaders.  Nothing can be changed within the church, though restoration continues to take place.



We exited the church and passed by the Tower of David, a citadel built by Herod.  We were about to leave the old section of Jerusalem, which is divided into four quarter – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian.  The Ottomans ruled Jerusalem for 400 years until 1816; until that time Jerusalem was contained within the walls of the old city.

We passed by three young Israeli women in uniform wearing kevlar vests.  By now it was 2:45 pm and we still had not had lunch. We were SO hungry!


We drove through the checkpoint into the West Bank (zone A), which is the area controlled by the Palestinians.  We stopped to pick up Ibrahim who would be our guide for Bethlehem which is located in the West Bank.  We passed by a woman in a full burka, but she was the only one we noticed during our visit.  We saw Muslim women in a huge variety of clothing.  Most, but not all, wore a headscarf.  Many wore makeup and western clothes.  Almost all of the men wore regular clothing; I just saw a few that wore the headdress (not sure what it is called).  About 180,000 people live in Bethlehem; most are Sunni Muslim; only 1.2% of the population are Christian.  Of the Christians, 20% are Greek Orthodox.

In Bethlehem, Christmas is celebrated three times.  Franciscans (Roman Catholics) celebrate Christmas from December 25th to January 6th.  Greek Orthodox Christmas is held from January 7th to 17th, and the Armenian Christmas starts on January 18th and lasts for 12 days.  Bethlehem in Hebrew means “City of Bread”.   Many of the shops were closed because it is Sunday and they are owned by Christians.  The Muslim shop owners close their businesses on Fridays. We passed by Rachel’s Tomb where Orthodox Jews come to visit (there is a wall around it for safety).

There are three large refugee camps in the area.  The Pope visited here and prayed for peace.  Ibrahim said that all the Palestinians want is peace.  He wanted us to know that it is a perfectly safe place to visit, and is a clean city.  Large parts of the city were being torn up because they are replacing pipes.  The city didn’t look that clean to me and I freely admit that I was a touch nervous being there.  That feeling went away as we approached the more touristy part of town which was indeed clean and well-kept, but some of the areas we drove through did not make me feel safe and secure.  We drove past a run-down restaurant called, “The Christmas Tree Restaurant”.  I took a picture of it because I thought it was an awfully silly name for a restaurant.  Well, the joke was on me because that was where we were stopping for lunch.  We were told we could have either a chicken shwarma or a falafel shwarma and a soft drink or water for $10 each.  They had the pita sandwiches pre-made (who knows how long they were sitting there; they were kinda lukewarm).  We both got the chicken.  They were edible; we were so hungry by then that shoe leather would’ve tasted edible as well.  There was some strong tasting goat cheese on the sandwich; if not for that, I would’ve enjoyed it more.  I took a picture of our pop cans; I like seeing the familiar labels in the local language.

Back to the bus for a brief drive to a parking garage near the Church of the Nativity.  We walked from the garage past a school for girls; boys and girls attend different schools here.  On the left was the pope-mobile from the Pope’s visit.

We entered the church via the Humility Door.  As you can see from the picture, you have to stoop to enter.  The purpose of this door is two-fold:  to prevent large animals (such as horses and camels) from entering and to be as humble as Jesus was.  The church was built by Helen the Great (Constantine’s mother) in 328 AD.  She also built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Ascension.   It is built in the Greek Cross style by Justinian.  The Persians destroyed all churches here except this one.  Since the three wise men were from Persia, they left this one alone.  There is a small mosque inside the church as well.  Crusaders added mosaics and paintings.  The door is made from cedar wood from Lebanon.

Like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, this church is shared by the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics.  The Armenians were the first group to convert to Christianity.  Orthodox means “straight way”.  The Greeks and Armenians fought so ended up dividing the church into two sections.  The Catholics got only a two square meter section in the basement which was the manger and Alter of the Wise Men.  This was known as the status quo, in place since 1852.  The old building had been abandoned after the Crusaders left and so was rebuilt in 1882.

The Catholic’s got the short end of the stick so built their own church next door, called St. Catherine’s.  Since 1882 evening mass is broadcast from here on Christmas Eve all over the world.  St. Jerome lived downstairs; he lived downstairs and translated the Bible from Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic into Latin.  A statue of him is in the courtyard.


In the Catholic church is the Altar of St. Joseph (father of Jesus).  There is also the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents, the children killed by Herod when he decreed that all children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem were to be killed (he was trying to kill Jesus because he was scared of him).

We passed by a Starbucks rip-off on the way back to the bus. We had one more stop before we could head back to the ship.  It is required by the Palestinians that we visit a gift shop.  Since we had not had time to shop at the bazaar, we did pick up a few things because if tomorrow’s tour was anything like today’s, we would have no time to shop.  Clayton’s daughter, Jennifer, wanted a cross, and they sell a unique style cross known as the Jerusalem cross; we decided to buy her one.  I bought one for myself, too, and also picked up Christmas ornaments for my kids.  The prices were not great, but this might be our only chance to buy, so we had to pay the high prices. Ibrahim left us at this point and we loaded the bus one last time.

We passed by the Separation Wall which was built when suicide bombers would come into Israel.  The wall was built to protect the Israelis.  There was a checkpoint leading from the West Bank back to Jerusalem; all vehicles had to be inspected to make sure there were no weapons, bombs, etc. on board.  It was a quiet ride back to the ship as we were all completely exhausted after our long day.  We got back to the ship at 8:30 pm, making this a twelve-hour tour.  We grabbed a quick snack in the buffet and headed to bed.