Israel travel tips

1. For Jerusalem, we strongly recommend Abraham Hostel. It’s not the cheapest in the area, but it is the nicest and safest. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the Jaffa Gate and very near nice restaurants and stores. With a fun, colorful vibe, it was designed to be a youth hostel. But we saw many older couples and young families there as well.

2. Food in the Old City of Jerusalem (And probably Tel Aviv) is above average prices. Most places are probably comparable to food in New York City. We were caught unawares!

3. While the City of David museum/archeological site is a must, make sure to go several hours before closing if you want to walk through Hezekiah’s Tunnels. That closes earlier than the rest of the park (around sunset), and to go through (always with a guide), you must rent/purchase a flashlight and be willing to walk through water. Depending on your height, it will be knee-deep or thigh-deep.

4. If you choose to do Abraham Tours, which is a great option for those of us on a strict budget, make sure to download the Abraham Tours app. You can read this in the van while driving to your next destination. It helps orient you in the geographical and historical contexts. We discovered this halfway through our time in Israel and wished we had found it earlier. It’s not well advertised.

5. While at times security can be tight (like the airport!), usually it is very safe to be in Israel and even the West Bank. We never felt unsafe while we were there, even at the Syrian border. Jordan’s parents were in Israel a couple of months before us and also had a wonderful time without worrying about their wellbeing. Of course, be safe and follow your instincts, but really Israel is a great country to visit and open to travelers, especially Americans.

6. Israelis don’t call it the Wailing Wall. Instead, it’s the Western Wall, and there are many people that pray there at all times of the day. It’s always very crowded on the Sabbath. When you visit, there is a separate side for men and women. While not necessary, I think it is polite to cover your hair if you’re a woman. When finished praying, back away from the wall several paces before turning and leaving–that’s what the Jewish people do.

7. The one thing I wish I had done was a tour of the West Bank. Although we did go to Bethlehem, I think it is very different than Hebron or Ramallah. Abraham Tours also has a tour that allows you to listen to Israeli and Palestinian families talk about the conflict and how it affects them on a personal, day-to-day level. We ran out of time, but otherwise I would’ve jumped at the opportunity. Other sights we missed but wanted to do: Holocaust Museum, Orthodox Jew tour, and celebrating Shabbat.

8. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv seem to have a vibrant theater and performing arts scene. If you have the time, I would strongly suggest going to a show or play. I found three or four shows that I wanted to attend, but we didn’t have the time, nor did we plan for shows in our budget. If I ever go back, that will be something I look into. It’s a great way to get to know the culture of the modern city and the people living in it.
Categories: Israel, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Sites in the Judean Desert

Masada is a symbol of Israel, of defiance and hope against hope, of a victory in spite of defeat.

Nestled deep in the Judean Desert, it took us about an hour by bus to get there. Along the way, we got to see the interesting views of the desert. It’s not normally this green–they’ve had a lot more rain than usual this year. Which is good, because this region has been in a 20-year drought.


Masada means “fortress” in Hebrew, and that’s exactly what it was. Herod the Great (the evil Herod from the Christmas story) built two palaces inside a fortress way up on this mountain by the Dead Sea as a winter resort and safe haven from any enemies. After he died in 4 BC it wasn’t really used for anything. Fast forward to 66 AD, and all the Jews are revolting against Roman rule. It wasn’t going well. the Sicarii (really radical Jewish terrorists named after the knife they used) had to hide out in the desert and made it to Masada. Its storerooms were full of food and had a great cistern, so they hid out there for a couple of years. Other Jewish rebels and refugees came to them, including Essenes, Samaritans, and regular rebel Zealots.

By 73, the Romans were fed up with this last Jewish holdout and laid seige. For several months there was a stalemate, until the Roman built a seige ramp up the mountain, rolled a tower up, and began battering the walls. Finally it looked like Roman victory was inevitable. They finished up their work for the day and went back to camp, ready to storm Masada in the morning. But when they showed up the next morning, almost all 960 rebels and their families were dead, killed by their own hands.

According to two women and five children (the only survivors of the mass suicide pact), the leader of the rebels, Eleazar ben Ya’ir, delivered two stirring speeches that convinced the rebels that the death of their wives was better than the future assaults of Roman soldiers, and it was better that their children taste death over slavery. I guess it was convincing, because they drew lots and then killed their family and fell on their own swords. Josephus Flavius recorded all of this for posterity, and while he respected the final decision, he did not make the Sicarii out to be heroes. In fact, as a former Zealot-turned-defector to Rome, he disliked them. The heroism came later, primarily from secular Zionists in the early 20th century.

Masada was huge and we didn’t look at everything before our time ran out. We had taken the cable car up to give us more time for photos and reading at the top, but didn’t want to pay the extra money to take it back down. We chose to hike the 2.5 mile Snake Path. So we had the loooong hike down the mountain.


You can see I’m really pleased about this. I wasn’t feeling well, and we hadn’t had a chance to eat breakfast (too early) or dinner the night before (everything was closed due to Shabbat). The rocks were slippery and there wasn’t a railing for at least half the time.

But we made it! I made it–in about 40 minutes. A real, experienced hiker can make it in 27. And then we journeyed about 15 minutes by bus to Ein Gedi.


Ein Gedi is an oasis in the desert, a few minutes from Masada and the Dead Sea. It is also where David hid from King Saul, making the area his home for a while. Unfortunately,  because of the rain, the park was concerned about flash flooding and only opened the trails up the first waterfall, which I’m standing in front of. It was peaceful and seemed like a good place for animal-watching and resting.

From there we went to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth.IMG_0850


This is an overlook, before we got to the beach. It was a little chilly for swimming, we thought, so we didn’t bring our swimsuits. But we did roll up our jeans and step into the water and mud!

Man, that mud is slippery! It also has salt crystals in it, which can be very unpleasant if you scratch your foot on them. Or get water on your face. It’s much more salty than the ocean, and I’m told it hurts a lot.


It was a little warmer than expected, and we had a great time.

Categories: Israel | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Mount of Olives

The Mount of Olives is beautiful and filled with churches and cemeteries. Unfortunately, it was also raining and we didn’t have an umbrella. But our guide was great and we saw many wonderful, moving things.

Our tour drove us to the top of the mountain and we walked down, stopping along the way. We started at the Chapel of Ascension, which is actually a mosque. The Muslims share the chapel/mosque two days out of the year (Day of Ascension in Gregorian and Julian calendars). This is, of course, traditionally where Jesus ascended back into heaven.

This area is filled with apartments and homes belonging to Palestinian Arabs, the ones that are allowed to live in the East Jerusalem annexation of 1980 (following the Six-Day War of 1967). While most Palestinians are pretty peaceful now (and are probably just happy they’re not stuck in the West Bank), there are problems with Arab youths assaulting Jewish funeral-goers. And the not-forgotten bad memories of what Jordan did during its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Old City: destroying synagogues, churning up cemeteries and using headstones for pavement, and building a hotel over a Jewish holy place. While Jordan was condemned for invading Israel in 1949ish (interestingly enough, by the Arab League), it was never condemned by the UN for destroying cultural and spiritual places of Israel during the 19 years of occupation.

On a brighter note, this is how Jesus came down from Bethany on a donkey to enter Jerusalem. The place where he traditionally stopped and cried for the temple and the Jewish people has a church, designed by the same architect/monk who did the Chapel of Angels from Bethlehem.


The outside of the Church of Dominus Flevit is supposed to look like human tears. The altar inside has a mosaic of a hen and her chicks, from when Jesus wishes he could gather his people up like a mother hen. The view from inside it astounding. This architect was blessed with vision.


We walked down a ways and saw the Garden of Gethsemane (near the bottom of the Mount of Olives, probably a 20-30 minute hike from the Old City through the Kidron Valley). Here, the same architect built the Franciscan Church of All Nations, so-named because many countries donated money to build it.  It is also called the Basilica of Agony, for this is where Jesus prayed before his arrest. Originally, Empress Helena built a Byzantine church there in the 4th century, and centered the church to face a large white stone, the rock Jesus wept, bled, and prayed on. It was destroyed by the Persians and/or an earthquake, of course, and when the Crusaders came through a couple hundred years later they didn’t know about the stone. They just rebuilt the church at a different angle, covering the rock. It was eventually abandoned, until Barluzzi excavated and built a new church with the stone as the center point.

It is a breathtaking church, full of darkness and sorrow. The windows are of alabaster, a translucent stone, rather than glass, to let only a little light through. The glass doors are covered in metalworking designed to resemble olive trees, and the stones inside are all dark.


Above the stone and altar is a painting of Jesus praying on the stone. To the left is a painting of Judas’ kiss, to the right Jesus revealing himself to the guards. The front of the church was filled with pilgrims coming to touch, kiss, and pray over the white stone in the floor. This was a church created to weep in–the imminent agony and suffering of Jesus is present, but Barluzzi also made the church a perfect piece of worship all on its own, just the building. Through the architecture you cannot help but think of Jesus’ prayers in the middle of the night.

After touching the stone, Jordan and I sat and prayed for a bit. Everything seemed so real. Recalling the story of Jesus’ prayers and sweating of blood, his readiness to die for me, it felt like I was hearing it for the first time, it was that powerful. It’s amazing how easily I move through my life and forget what God did for me, who did nothing to deserve this love or sacrifice. I have people in my life, I believe, who would jump in front of a bullet for me. I have the blessing of loving many people in my life that I would do the same. But to know that someone, a real person, prayed and cried over the decision to actually sacrifice his life for mine–and did it–before I could know or appreciate it was very moving. Being in this basilica brought it all back to me.


The remains of the Garden of Gethsemane.

We ended our tour at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, a church by Greek and Armenian Orthodox. Copts, Syrians, and Ethiopians also have some rights in the church, and Muslims come in to pray sometimes. According to one tradition, after Jesus’ death Mary was taken back to John’s home and fell into a coma (perhaps from grief). She died, and was buried. On the third day Jesus came to his mother’s tomb and took her to heaven. The mourners saw the tomb was empty but smelled of fresh flowers, so eventually a church was built there in the 5th century. Evidence does exist that the church (which was built and rebuilt multiple times) is over a 1st century graveyard, but there isn’t any evidence of Christian worship before the first church there. There are other legends that Mary lived in Ephesus with John or went to Britannia with Joseph of Arimathea.

To get to the crypt, we walked down 47 steps and passed the burial place of Joseph (Mary’s husband) Mary’s parents, and Queen Melisende. She was the daughter of Baldwin II and the cousin once removed of Baldwin I, one of the main leaders of the First Crusade and the second ruler of Jerusalem (though he was the first to accept the title King of Jerusalem). Even though she was a young woman, she inherited the kingdom of Jerusalem from her father (and before that, his cousins). The crusaders and Europeans in modern-day Israel loved her and thought she was an amazing ruler. She lived from 1105 to 1161, when she suffered a stroke.

Down at the bottom of the crypt is the empty tomb of Mary, with lavishly decorated icons and reliefs around the cave walls. Pilgrims write prayers and slip the pieces of paper through the cracks in the glass case to land in the empty stone coffin. Some donate money. This place is definitely worth a visit, though I wouldn’t put it as high on the list as the Holy Sepulchre or Church of Agony/All Nations.

By then it was sunset and we had to rush to the bottom of the Mount of Olives, cross the narrow Kidron, and climb back up into the Old City. We entered through the Lion Gate, which was where the old Roman fortress was at the time of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. The guide showed us the way down the Via Dolorosa, which we followed until it was time to get to our hostel.

While it wasn’t ideal for it to be raining during our trek, we are both so glad that we made Mt. of Olives a priority on our short trip!

Categories: Israel, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Town of David

Bright and early in the morning we hopped on a bus and headed for the West Bank to tour Bethlehem.

We had been told that Bethlehem was boring and all there is in town is a church. Which is sorta true. But both Jordan and I really loved our four hours there. I wish I could’ve spent more time in the West Bank! It really seems like a great place to spend a few weeks (like for Bible camps or something). We had a real guide this time (thank goodness!) who met us just inside the West Bank. Because he’s Palestinian he isn’t allowed to leave without special permission. Our guide was a Christian Palestinian Arab, which was really fantastic. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I’m so glad we booked a tour that used a Palestinian as a guide–they have so little opportunity for business, as opposed to Israeli guides. Especially because he was a Christian.

We walked down Star Street, the traditional way to get to the Nativity church, and saw many closed shops. These shops used to be owned by Christians and marketed for tourists. However, tourism to Bethlehem dropped dramatically in 2001 because of a huge spike in Palestinian-Israeli conflict (known as the Second Intifada to Palestinians). Only in the last couple of years is tourism starting to pick up, our guide said. Unfortunately, during the time of the violence and afterward, due to lack of jobs, many of the Christians that could leave the West Bank/Bethlehem did so. All Christians are Palestinians, so are often caught in the middle of the fighting–they are the minority of the minority and often disliked by both “sides.”


The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest churches in the world. Remember how most churches have been destroyed by riots (like the Hagia Sofia)? And the Persians and Muslims liked to destroy churches as well? This church was built by no other than Empress Helena (just like most original churches in Israel) in 327ish. As she was building churches, the Christians in Bethlehem sent her a letter requesting a church built in the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Emperor Hadrian built a temple to Adonis in 135 to specifically discourage Christians from worshipping there. Time passed on, and then Helena was building churches so the Christians seized the opportunity.

The church was severely damaged in Samaritan/Jewish revolts in the 530s, and it was the only church not destroyed by the Persians when they invaded in 614. Every church they passed was destroyed, but (by legend) because of a mosaic depicting the three magi, it was spared. The magi were Persian, the commanders reasoned, so the church could stay.


Outside the church is the Manger Square, which is still decorated for Christmas because it isn’t Christmas for the Armenians until our Gregorian January 17th. The huge Christmas tree behind us was decorated in green, red, white, and black–the colors of the Palestinian flag.

The door to enter the church is tiny, and is fittingly called the Door of Humility.


Originally it was very large, but people had the bad habit of walking their horses and camels right into the church. So over time they bricked in the door until you had to stoop to enter. Now it also serves the purpose to make people bow to the altar/cross as they enter, and also to remind people that everyone is equal before God–everyone must stoop.


Shared by the Armenians, the Catholics, and the Greek Orthodox, the church is centered around the Holy Grotto, or the cave/stable where Mary gave birth to Jesus. We showed up a little early and sat on the steps leading down into the Grotto, listening to the Armenian monks finish their service. As we waited, many pilgrims/tourists lined up behind us. Some very eager Russian pilgrims kept pushing in on us.

Inside the grotto is a 14-pointed star. The 14 points symbolizes the 14 generations between Abraham and David and then David to the Babylonian captivity, and then 14 more to Jesus (though I’m pretty sure there were more than 14 between Abraham and David). It also marks the exact spot, more or less, where Jesus was born. There is an indentation in the star to let pilgrims touch the rock beneath the chapel. In another corner of the grotto was where Mary laid Jesus in a stone manger. It was serious and beautiful, though not really peaceful. Those Russian were really pushing.

Before coming to Israel I’ve been very skeptical of “the exact site where X happened!” because, seriously, it was 2,000 years ago and it seems that in the Middle Ages the Crusaders really just wanted to come up with relics and holy places. But according to most of the history regarding these canonical/biblically mentioned sites, there’s a really good chance that everything really happened right there. Based on Christian worship taking place less than 100 years after the events unfolded, the tradition seems fairly accurate.

Leaving the Church of the Nativity, we saw many crosses all clustered together–on doors, signs, walls, jewelry, etc.



Known as the Jerusalem Cross, or sometimes the Crusaders’ Cross, it represents Jerusalem, the largest and middle cross, as the center of the world. The four smaller crosses symbolize the four corners of the world. Or it means the five wounds of Christ–take your pick.

We walked on to the Milk Grotto, a chapel on top of a cave at a street also called Milk Grotto. According to Bethlehem lore, when Herod sent soldiers to slaughter the innocents in Bethlehem, the family hid in the cave before journeying toward Egypt. Mary nurses Jesus in the cave to keep him quiet, and some milk fell to the ground. Where the milk fell, the stones turned white. A small part of the cave walls are note hard stone, but chalky.


Behind my head is the chalky part–you just have to touch it to get it on your fingers. This site is sacred to Christian and Muslim women because tradition states that women who have trouble nursing or conceiving have just to take some of the stone and put it in their drink (or put it under the pillow) and God will heal their affliction. Our guide said it is still popular to do, and that he has even had couples on his tours specifically request to go to the milk grotto because their infertility doctor recommended it. Our guide also said that his sister-in-law was having problems with infertility and he off-handedly suggested trying the Milk Grotto. After mulling it over, his brother and sister-in-law went. A year later, they returned with a baby girl to thank God. “Do with that story what you want. Believe it or not,” he told us.

We got in the van again and we to the Shepherd’s fields, which is mostly neighborhoods now with a small Franciscan church/monastery. While the Greek Orthodox and Protestant both have their own locations, they are just different corners of the same Shepherd’s fields. The Catholic church is called the Chapel of Angels and was built in the early 20th century by a famous Italian monk-architect, Antonio Barluzzi. A gifted architect, Barluzzi shaped the chapel like a tent to represent what the shepherds were living in at the time. Above the door is the sculpture of an angel pointing directly to the Church of the Nativity.


Inside there was a high dome with white stone angels surrounding the area. Some were looking down, speaking to the shepherds hiding below the altarpiece, while others sang upward, to God. Around the walls of the church the Scripture was written in gold lettering. The windows in the dome were designed to let the sun’s rays fall directly on the altar. It really was beautiful and I could just imagine the angels singing and frightening the shepherds. It made me want to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the top of my lungs. I didn’t; I wanted to be kind to my fellow tourists.

Behind the chapel and down the hillside is an old cave, probably used by shepherds since the 3rd century BC. It has been added onto over the years to make it large enough to house another small chapel. Inside, our guide talked about the shepherds and sacrificial lambs. He explained that while wrapping a baby tightly just after birth is normal (we still do it), using swaddling cloths is not. The cave Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were in was at the edge of town, near the Shepherd’s fields. These fields, nearest the town, were commonly used for raising the sacrificial lambs–not regular sheep. When a lamb was chosen to be a sacrifice, the shepherds would catch the lamb in their arms at birth and wraps the legs in strips of cloth, to keep it clean and never touching dirt. Once it was time to sacrifice the sheep, it would be taken to the temple and only then would the cloth come off the feet, to show that it had been carefully taken care of and was pure and clean. When the shepherds came to see Jesus, they found him in a cave on the edge of fields used to raise sacrifices, wrapped (most likely) in the same type of cloth they wrapped their sacrifice lambs in.

After thinking on the symbolism behind that (Man, Jews love symbolism!) we left the area. We passed several restaurants and shops called “Boaz’s Field” or “Ruth’s Restaurant,” and it finally hit me that this is the same area that Ruth and Boaz met and lived. Which sorta makes sense, because Bethlehem is the hometown of David, who was Boaz and Ruth’s great-grandson. Duh.

I asked our tour guide, “Is it difficult to be a Christian Palestinian?”

He thought for a moment, then said, “Sometimes. The mayor of Bethlehem is always a Christian, and even though we make up about 2 percent of Israel, in Bethlehem we are 19 percent. We used to be 67 percent, in the 1990s, but because of the violence and no business, some left. But 48 percent of West Bank medical professionals are Christian, and several leaders to the prime minister here are Christian.

“The hardest part, though, is in business. Arabs support their families, so Muslims go to their family and neighbors’ stores, who are also Muslim. There aren’t enough Christians to support each others’ stores, and with tourism so low, it is very hard to make a living. Even for tour guides like me, although I’m licensed to guide tours in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, because I’m Palestinian I’m not given permission to leave the West Bank except for Christmas and Easter and perhaps family funerals. I’ve waited 10 years to get permission, and still it doesn’t come.

“But the Muslims in the West Bank are very open-minded, not like some of the other Arab countries, so it’s not too bad. There’s just so few of us.”

So I’ve officially decided that I want my nativity (whenever I have the money to buy one!) to be from the hand-carved olive wood made by Christians in Bethlehem, to support my “family” there. The pieces range from small to almost two feet tall, from $18 to $1200. Maybe I can buy a piece every other year, at Christmas. And buy big, pretty ones.

Throughout Bethlehem, on walls and in carvings I saw St. George and the dragon again. I mentioned before that it surprised me to see him throughout Coptic Cairo, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see him here. He is the patron saint of England, after all, not Israel. Apparently the story was brought back to England by Crusaders. And part of the UK flag is made of St George’s cross.

Born in Cappadocia, Turkey to Christian parents, George eventually became a Roman soldier around the 3rd century. When his father died his mother moved back to her native Palestine and took George with her. Emperor Diocletian began a strong campaign of persecution against the Christians, but George protested.


He resigned from his post, was tortured, and hid in the Palestinian wilderness. He began protecting Christians against the persecution, and to the Middle East, the dragon represent the Roman emperor. He always fought the Roman empire, protecting fellow Christians in the modern West Bank area until his arrest and martyrdom. Today, when a new house is built, the Christians pick which saint to carve into the wall (or above the door) as protection. Some choose Mary or another saint, but 90 percent of the time they choose St. George because of his protection over Bethlehem so long ago. There’s also a tale of George going to Libya and fighting a real dragon, but that’s beside the point here.

Our tour was finished, but on our way out we got to see the walls separating the West Bank from the rest of Israel. If you have the time, I recommend walking along the walls. They are filled with graffiti and even official signs the Palestinian authority has put up, detailing personal stories of Infitadas and the creation of the West Bank from a Palestinian point of view. I didn’t get to read them because we drove past quickly, but it looked fascinating.



Later that afternoon we went to the Mount of Olives, but this post it too long already, so that will have to wait!

Categories: Israel, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Land flowing with milk and honey

Capernaum, a small town on the bank of the Galilee was where Jesus found several of his disciples. It is also where we began our day.


There is a church dedicated to Peter over the ruins of what they think is Peter’s house. This big building suspended over the ruins is the church, and Franciscans run it (if I got their habit correct). When excavations were done in this area, they found the remains of a house with the ruins of a 5th century and 3rd century churches around it (built in an octagonal shape, which was popular at the time). Because of this, they believe it was the home of Peter. Surrounding the area are the remaining walls of the town. The largest building left more-or-less standing is a 4th century synagogue, which is the feature image for this post. The white stones are from the 4th century, but the black stones beneath are from the synagogue that Jesus taught at. From this town Jesus called Peter, James and John, and Andrew to Him.

Mt. Beautitudes was about a 20-30 minute drive away, near the town of TabghaIMG_0470

Every so often a pope comes and preaches the beatitudes to the congregation. Throughout the gardens surrounding the church are the beatitudes in Latin and English, creating a very peaceful environment. When we were there we passed by several Bible studies. This is the view from Mt. Beatitudes. Can you believe how green everything is, even during winter? Below, in Tabgha, Jesus fed the multitude with the two fish and five pieces of bread. We also visited that church, which, fittingly, was decorated with tiles in the designs of fish.

We journeyed far up into the northern parts of Israel, the Golan Heights, which borders Lebanon and Syria. We didn’t see much of a military presence, but we did pass an Israeli tank and a couple of UN trucks. The UN is on the border to monitor what happens in Syria.

Mt. Hermon, the tallest mountain is Israel, is the border point shared between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. IMG_0514

We ate lunch up on one of the mountains. Everything was covered in snow, but slowly melting. Several of us were eager to see Syria, so our bus driver found a good overlook into Syria. It was a park, full of families playing in the snow (it may be the first time some of the children have ever seen snow!) and we got a good look at the southeastern corner of Syria. Everything there, at least, seemed peaceful.



Behind my head is a UN camp, and beyond that are Syrian villages.

The mountain tops were cold! I think everyone in the van was ready to descend and go to Banias. It is a park and archeological dig at the bottom of Mt. Hermon, in Golan Heights. It was originally called Paneas, after the god Pan. Arabic doesn’t have the letter P in it, so they pronounce everything with a P into a B (unless they’re from Morocco), so the name was eventually changed.

There are beautiful springs and a waterfall in the park. This is a bad photo because I took it.



On the other end of the spring is the archeological site, the place of Caesarea Philippi. Herod the Great erected a temple here to the god Pan and dedicated it to the Roman caesar. Later, Philip built a town around the area, and even later Agrippa lived here. According to tradition, this is the site that Jesus healed the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. It is also the place that Peter told Jesus he was the song of God. I found it ironic that in a city centered around a temple to Pan, a temple to Hermes, and a temple to Zeus, Jesus halted his disciples and asked them who He was. And how Peter answered.


The grotto behind Jordan was the back wall of the temple to Pan.

We returned to Nazareth right as the sun set, and settled in for another cold night. The next morning, our last day in northern Israel, was split between the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan river.

We stopped in Tiberias, named after the caesar (how did you guess?) and walked along the Sea of Galilee for a while. Storm clouds rolled in quickly and it began to rain. While we were somewhat disappointed in our time being cut short by rain, it did remind Jordan and I of the story of Jesus calming the storm. And the story of Jesus walking on water. We could just barely see the other side of the lake. It’s also incredibly deep.



About 20 minutes later it stopped enough for us to get out and see the Jordan river. This is as near as people can guess where Jesus was baptized–give or take a couple miles. We were both surprised at how small it was. When I imagined the Israelites fording the Jordan to conquer Israel, or John the Baptist hanging out there for days on end, I pictured something a little bit more like the Mississippi river. Not quite that big, but not this either. In the words of our guide, “what we Israelis call a river you Americans call a sewage drain.” We compared notes with our German roommate back in Jerusalem, and he laughed and said that “the Jordan river is so small you can spit across it.” That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much. IMG_0538

Then we finished our trip back to Jerusalem!

I suppose this speaks of my ignorance, but the thing that has surprised me the most about Israel is how green everything is. Seriously! Look at this gorgeous land!

IMG_0466Now I understand why the Israelites called it the land flowing with milk and honey–especially since they’d just spent 40 years in the desert. This much green was shocking to us, and we had just spent around 9/10 days in the desert. I also have been surprised at how many mountains there are here. Of course, most of the mountains are in the north–where I’ve been, so perhaps it’s a little out of perspective. All of these mountains make me a little relieved we aren’t hiking the Jesus Trail, though. These steep hills would have made the Galilee region quite remote 2,000 years ago, so now I have a better understanding why everyone thought the disciples were country bumpkins.

Tomorrow we visit Bethlehem (in the West Bank) and the Mount of Olives!

Categories: Israel, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Crusader and Modern Israel

We began our day by walking to Mary’s Well, a central location in Nazareth everyone uses for pickups/drop offs. From there, the bus took us to Haifa.

Haifa is the third largest city in Israel and is built up the side of Mt. Carmel. This mountain has been considered holy for around 3,000 years by various religious/ethnic groups. In the Bible, a ruined altar is mentioned. Elijah later built a new one and challenged the prophets of Baal to see if their god was real. This was the site that God poured fire down from heaven at Elijah’s prayers and showed His power over the Phoenicians.

It is also the center of the Ba’hai faith, and we took a tour of their gardens and temple.

IMG_0310 They have a beautiful set up, but I would’ve preferred to see Elijah’s grotto.

Across the bay is Akko, also known as Acre. We ate lunch and spent time there. People settled in Acre around 5,000 years ago. When the Israelites came, this was one of the few places they didn’t drive out the Canaanites. Because of that, it was usually identified with Phoenicia rather than Israel during the ancient kingdom. It, of course, changed hands many times over the next 1,500 years. When the Crusaders came, they made Acre one of their bases. It is on the Mediterranean coast and has easy access down south to Jerusalem but also north to Lebanon and east to present-day Syria. Multiple battles were fought nearby, and one of my ancestors (on my mother’s mother’s side) was killed there, fighting Saladin’s forces.

Of course, the Crusaders eventually lost in 1291, I believe. Before then, Acre was the seat of the military/religious order Knights Hospitaller. There is a massive museum (The Citadel or Knights’ Halls) throughout the partially-restored ruins of the Crusader’s tunnels, walls, and citadel which, if you like European history, I recommend visiting. Or if you’re a huge Assassin’s Creed fan, I suppose. I’m told this fortress is in the game. The ticket price includes an audio-guided tour, which may malfunction on you. At least it did for us. But the buildings were great! Below is the refrectory, where the Hospitallers ate.

IMG_0348We spent almost a full hour in there and still missed a section of the museum! During the British mandate parts of the ruins were used as a prison. Several Zionists attempted to escape, and accidentally uncovered all sorts of artifacts and rooms in the citadel. It’s a very interactive museum with lots of videos and ambient noises to help a visitor imagine what life was life when the ruins were a real city. I think both Jordan and I had more time to spend there.

We ended the day at the Rosh Hanikra grottos. They were beautiful, especially at sunset. Very near the border of Lebanon, there used to be a railway tunnel through the cliffside to Lebanon, but Israel blew it up during the War for Independence when northern Arab countries looked ready to invade.




Categories: Israel | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Nazareth – Boyhood home of Jesus

We left Jerusalem early in the morning and spent about an hour and a half in the bus to get to Caesarea.

Our four-day tour of northern Israel began there, but we will spend three nights in Nazareth and take day trips out to the other cities. This is a self-guided tour, so transportation is provided, as well as the arrangements with the Nazareth hostel, but once at museums or small towns we hope off the bus and explore by ourselves. It’s nice to be independent, but it would also be great if the bus driver talked more about the stops before he dropped us off. However, this is half the price of a religious tour (our first choice). We decided to do this type of tour and look up our questions on the internet later. Both of us paid attention in Sunday School, so it can’t be that confusing, right? Haha.

We began in the ruins of Caesarea. There is little left of the town besides the harbor and remains of the Byzantine and Crusader periods.


Jordan sits in Herod’s theater above. Herod (like the evil Herod from the Christmas story) designed, planned, and built this town and dedicated it to Caesar. I am near the ruins of Herod’s temple now. The Mediterranean Sea is behind me.



From there we journeyed on to Nazareth. Today Nazareth is a small town of around 80,000 (at least that’s what a local told me), of Arabs. Very few Jews (ethnic or religious) live in Nazareth. Perhaps so many Arabs live here because it’s in northern Israel, not far from the Lebanese border. I think these Arabs (some are Palestinian Arab) have lived here for a very long time, before Israel was a state. Today, about 70% of the population is Muslim (no surprise because almost all of the town is Arab) and 30% Christian. I believe the religion percentages used to be flipped, Christians outnumbering Muslims, until there was some violence near Lebanon and many Christians moved further south. So here, there are churches and mosques side by side, with Christian Arabs keeping the churches open. I think it must be very difficult sometimes to be a Christian Arab (especially a Christian Palestinian Arab!), but I am so grateful for them and what they do here in Israel.


We visited the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Catholics believe Gabriel visited Mary. It is built directly over the center of 1st century Nazareth. Below the plaza you can view the ruins of houses. Inside the church, where the altar is on the main floor, the Franciscans have left part of the ruins open and viewable behind the altar. The Greek Orthodox and the Copts have churches where they think the annunciation happened, but we ran out of time to visit those.


The basilica’s outer walls are decorated with artwork of Mary and Jesus. Many countries sent one piece of their own. Above is a very famous Madonna and Child from the Greek tradition. Below is something a little less known.


It was really neat to see each culture’s imaginings of Mary and Jesus–a great reminder that, in a way, Jesus is all of our ethnicities and created us to be a mosaic of beautiful colors and cultures that, pieced together, all point directly to him.

Afterward, we visited Nazareth Village. A tourist attraction by the YMCA and run by local Christians, it offers visitors a chance to see the Nazareth Jesus grew up in.


There were all the typical animals in the village, as well as living history actors that tended the animals, crafted carpentry, and wove clothing. There is even a rooster that thinks he is a sheep! It was hilarious to see this rooster walk around with the sheep and goats, completely clueless that he’s not a part of the herd.


Our guide said that “Deek” (Arabic for rooster) has hens and chicks of his own, but prefers to be with the herd. He walks around with them, tries to head butt the rams, and waits at the sheep’s pen in the morning to be let out with the shepherd.

Within the village we were able to see homes, a typical small-town synagogue, and oil press.


We greatly enjoyed ourselves at the little living history museum!

We ended the day at the Centre International de Marie. This is across the street from the Basilica, and is run by the Chemin Neuf Community, a French Catholic organization. A volunteer told us that the center was begun by a Frenchman who believed that Mary should not be the dividing point among Christians, but a point of unity. He built the center, and because of that belief the chapel on the top floor is called the Chapel of Unity. We went through their 55-minute interactive movie about Jesus’ life through the eyes of Mary, and it was quite moving. It started with the prophecies and went all the way to the resurrection, and by the end I was sniffling. This is why I still have not watched “The Passion of the Christ.” I think if I watched that I would be a wreck for the next three days. The center is run by donation only, and I think if you’re in the area it’s well worth an hour visit. And you may even get your photo on their facebook page, like us!

It was uncommonly cold, and since night was falling we rushed back to our hostel for warmth. Everyone we meet in Nazareth has assured us that “this weather isn’t normal! It hasn’t been this cold in over 10 years!” but that doesn’t exactly change the fact that we’re sleeping in our coats again. Oh, well, I suppose the more dramatic the experience the better the story afterward. And hey, at least we missed the snow from last Saturday! 🙂

Categories: Israel, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

The Holy City

We arrived in Tel Aviv after a very bumpy flight! At customs, the officer looked through our passports and said, “When were you in Egypt?”

I answered that it was just last week, and he frowned. Then he looked at Turkey and the UAE. “Why did you crisscross the Arabian Peninsula?” he asked.

“The flights were cheaper that way,” I told him.

“That is very suspicious. Do not do that.”

“Uhh…okay,” we agreed.

“I suppose you just like to travel. Well, do not do this again.” But he smiled at the end, just a little one, and let us into the country.

After an hour long bus ride (58 shekels apiece, just outside Exit 2 of the airport), we were dropped off at our hostel, Abraham Hostels. From what I’ve read and heard, this is the best hostel in the area. Most others are gross and dirty. This is designed for youths, but there are young families and some older couples here also.

The next morning we joined a free 2-hour walking tour of the Old City. It really was just a fly-by experience. We stopped at the most important places but did not get a chance to go in the buildings, so at the end Jordan and I grabbed lunch near the Jaffa gate and backtracked to find the most important sites to us.

First, we visited the Tower of David Museum. It was 40 shekels apiece to get in, but if I had my student ID with me, it would’ve been just 25 for me. This museum is about Jerusalem and is in one of the old towers left standing from the old city walls. The current Old City walls (the ones built originally by King Hezekiah, I believe) were destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans, along with the Second Temple. Sultan Sulieman the Magnificent ordered the walls to be rebuilt in the 16th century, and that’s what’s standing today, though many of the stones are thousands of years old.

Anyway, we would recommend this museum. It gave a lot of information that we already knew from Sunday School class, but it put it in the proper historical timeline, which we were both struggling with. And it had lots of models! Below is Jordan with a model of the city walls in Hezekiah’s time, I think.



In the museum complex are current archeological digs that turn up artifacts from David’s time (1000 BC), the Maccabee’s time (164-80 BC), Herod’s time (73-4 BC), and probably more. It also had a lovely model of the City of David, or the Jerusalem that David built after conquering the town from the Jebusites around 1000 BC.


The Kidron Valley is nearest us, and the Central Valley is on the other long side of the city. Solomon expanded Jerusalem up the hill (away from us) and built the temple just outside the walls, on Mount Zion. They think David’s Palace was that large complex at the highest, farthest point in the town. Over the next several hundred years people moved outside the city walls, into the Central Valley and up the next hill. Hezekiah quickly walled those western portions in around 721 BC (and built water tunnels) to protect the Jews from the invading Assyrians. It worked!

After getting our timelines straight, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We weren’t able to get a really good photo, but here’s the entrance.



We were unprepared for the size of the church, as well as all the chapels and religious communities within it! We had very little idea what we were looking at for the first few minutes, and I think we easily spent 45 minutes inside. When we returned to the hostel we found this nifty little online tour of the place (with photos). Because it is really well done with great photos, diagrams, and explanations, I won’t go into much here. I’m afraid I’d get something wrong if I tried.

Basically, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is on top of Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb. Or at least, where most people guess it is. Protestants tend to believe it was at a different place, called the Garden Tomb. But the Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox all believe it is here, and so they bicker about who gets more control over the building. Seriously. It’s embarrassing. It got so bad a thousand years ago that the sultan said a Muslim family had to hold the key to church because they were the only impartial ones. To this day, that same family still unlocks and locks the church every morning and night.

Emperor Constantine’s mother, Empress/St. Helena began building churches all over the place as soon as Christianity became legal (early to mid 4th century), and she did quite a lot of investigating to find Golgotha/Calvary and Jesus’ tomb. Of course, this isn’t the original church she built, but it stands over the same site. Actually, one of the reasons the Crusades began was because a Muslim ruler destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and shocked all of Christendom. Previous rulers had been tolerant of the churches.


So when you walk in, you see this gorgeous mosaic of anointing and preparing Jesus’ body for burial. On the ground in front of this wall is a stone that may or may not have been the stone they used 2,000 years ago.

As we entered, I prayed that God would make Himself known to us and be with us in a very tangible way throughout the whole experience. The church is over a holy place (despite all the familial bickering) and we both wanted to honor that as well as be near Jesus.

20150111_151502Much of the artwork is hundreds of years old. I can’t remember which denomination’s chapel this is. Each of the six have their own section of the church, and there are common areas underground (where supposedly Helena found the True Cross) and the base of Golgotha/Calvary is.

Going down to the Chapel of Helena are lots of graffiti, shown below.


These are from the Crusaders, people believe, and pilgrims over the years have carved their own symbols and niches. Inside the Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross is an ancient carving of a ship as well as the remains of a Latin phrase (“Lord, we came” is most likely). This predates the church, when Emperor Hadrian had built his Temple of Venus over the site around 135 AD. Pilgrimages to the site of a pagan temple also lends credence to the belief that Jesus really was crucified and buried right there (because who would lie about a Roman temple covering a sacred place?).

What surprised me the most was how close the tomb and the crucifixion were to one another. When the Bible said, “because the tomb was close,” I pictured it like a couple of hills over. But no, it really was down the hill and in the side of the next hill. Literally a hop, skip, and a jump. Currently, just the other side of the church.

We entered the edicule (like a tent covering the remains of the tomb), but saw very little. Apparently pilgrims over the years chipped off pieces of the tomb to take home, and now it barely exists.


This is the Greek Orthodox chapel (upstairs) and has the top piece of Golgotha enclosed in glass. The white scarves are elderly Ethiopians on a pilgrimage.

After leaving the church, I felt refreshed and at peace. It was a very powerful experience. For me, this was a “thin place,” where the walls between the spiritual world and this world felt “tissue-paper thin,” to borrow from an Irish theologian.

Next, we visited the Western Wall, nicknamed the Wailing Wall.


Jordan prayed with the men and I prayed with the women. Around me, women really were crying and bowing during their prayers. After praying, I backed away from the wall, removed my head covering, and met up with Jordan to see the City of David.


The City of David is exactly that–Jerusalem at the time of King David. Now it’s an archeological dig and national park. They have student prices, which make it more affordable. The ruins follow along the hill, long and narrow, and are only partially excavated. We saw what might be the remains of David’s palace as well as the entrance to Hezekiah’s tunnels. While the park closes at 5 p.m., the tunnels close at 4 p.m. To go in, you must have a guided tour, purchase a flashlight, and be willing to get wet up to your knees.


Behind Jordan is the end of the Kidron Valley (where Arabs and Palestinian Arabs live now) and further away part of the Central Valley. Behind the camera is the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock and below us are the possible ruins of David’s palace.


I am just on the other side of the platform, so David’s Palace is still below us and the Temple Mount behind me. The gray dome is another mosque and the Dome of the Rock is behind it.

For anyone thinking visiting the City of David, it is well worth the effort and money. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to go through, because the walk back up the hill is long and hard–especially in the dark. As you go, however, you can see illegal Palestinian homes–a testament to the difficult relations between the Israeli state and the Palestinians living freely within Jerusalem (some with Israeli citizenship). Some Israeli government officials want to expand the City of David and excavate down the hillside, which would displace the Palestinians living there. The government claims they have the right to do so, because the homes are illegal (built without permits). The Palestinians claim they had nowhere else to live, and when they applied for permits they were denied, but that they had to live somewhere. And so the conflict continues.

This was all we’ll have time to see in/around the Old City. Next we go to Northern Israel!



Categories: Israel, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Create a free website or blog at

Morgan Hazelwood: Writer In Progress

Sharing Writing Tips and Writerly Musings

Poetry Without Words

"There is more pleasure in building castles in the air, than in the ground. "

Chesca's Travels

Traveling in South America

Unexpected Wanderlust

Seeking adventure and disorientation while examining the world

Backpack Journalist


Grace for my Heart

Dave Orrison's thoughts on grace and more

Korea-The Final Chapter

Working, Living, Exploring in Korea.

Strolling South America

10 countries, 675 days, 38,540km

Le Voyage Extraordinaire No. 55

Sorin and Lisa's Grand Adventure


Building my own map, one trip at a time.

Pinay Flying High

a peek into the realms of my twisted mind

blodger's Blog

This place is great mate

Jeyna Grace ©

Imagination, the perfect form of escapism.

Writing Rhetorically

Classical Rhetoric and thoughts on the world around us

Spiritual Friendship

Musings on God, friendship, relationships


Our Adventurous Life