“Jerusalem, hills enfold it, and the Lord enfolds his people now and forever.
“The view of Jerusalem is the history of the world; it is more, it is the history of earth and of heaven”
A young lady in Jerusalem says to me: “Have you been here before?” I say no, I have not. She says, “Well then, welcome home.”
“Anyone who has not seen Herod’s building has never seen a beautiful building”
Talmud Bava Batra, 4a
* * * * * *
The Places – Galilee to the Red Sea and all the places in-between
Oh the places! Our whirlwind tour took us from the lush, green, flower-filled meadows of the Galilee region at the north end of the Jordan Valley all the way down south to the howling wild wilderness of the Negev Desert.
I believe everything we saw was grander and more majestic than we had ever imagined Israel would be. In my mind’s eye over the years I imagined the odd hillside, rising benignly from a green, grass-filled landscape to provide a place where the shepherds tended their flocks and were frightened by the angelic chorus. We also grew up singing of an old rugged cross on a hill far away. So there must be at least some hills there, right? Well, how about a country full of mountains, steep hillsides, sheer cliffs, and rocky out-croppings everywhere you look. Around Jerusalem and the suburbs hills explode in every direction, steep, steep hills with deep canyons, now in springtime splashed with seasonal greenery, dotted with red and yellow flowers, and spotted with white boulders. White-washed apartment block cities are built on the slopes of these hills, up over the brow and down the other side. City absolutely everywhere you look around Jerusalem and west most of the way to Tel Aviv. As one descends down east of Jerusalem to Jericho and the north end of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, the land becomes dusty dry, the color of burnt umber and milk chocolate, and the climate warmer. As you turn south, stark multihued sandstone and travertine mountains rise up high to the right, in some places literally rising straight up off the road. On the left hand, to the east, a tall, jagged, Jordanian mountain range runs on mysteriously and majestically into the far mist.
Almost every day we hiked some trail, somewhere, usually with historical significance. We scrambled up steep mountain sides to caves nestled in nearly sheer cliffs rising off dry river-bed wadis, up narrow, green oasis canyons to hidden waterfalls, or dusty paths where Jesus walked. These hikes were absolutely breathtaking, especially at this time of year with a plethora of wild flowers poking their heads out of impossible landscapes.
One thing we all appreciated was the morning devotions where Heath would read the passages of scripture relating to the places we would see that day. This helped connect the dots historically. It still remained hard to fathom but gave the ruins context and made it all so much more impressive.
For general logistics purposes here’s a little explanation on the current land divisions in Israel between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We spent time in both places—and as already noted in previous posts, we stayed in an Airbnb in Palestine, or West Bank. For example, Jericho and Bethlehem, both stops on the itinerary, of course, are also in West Bank. Driving in Israel you end up going through checkpoints in and out of Palestinian-occupied territories, or areas, on a daily basis. These areas are labelled as Area A, B, and C and came about as one of the results of the Oslo Accords in 1995. Area A is under full Palestinian police control and administration. Area B has some shared control and Area C is under Israeli control and comprises about 60% of the West Bank. The situation is complex and given to unrest at times, which is probably an understatement.
We were only stopped at a checkpoint one time after our leader, guide, and chief operator pushed his driving skills to a new level—backing down a busy, crowded one-way, just off a four-lane offramp, deftly performing a 180 over a curb, and then bouncing bravely back into traffic, narrowly averting numerous disasters. This highly amusing spectacle (amusing to us) was all observed by sober, wide-eyed, and well-armed soldiers who immediately pulled us over for passport inspection. No doubt a battered blue Palestinian van loaded up to the gills touched a well-trained cord somewhere and whispers of “car bomb” and “crazed Arabs” likely flitted through their minds. They took all our passports and we waited. And waited. They did eventually come back, informed us in broken English that not all of our passports had a visa—turns out some of us did not know what those little slips were and had left them at the Airbnb. After a brief admonishment they then let us go. They did not mention the fancy driving.
* * * * * *
In the interest of ease and order I will list the places we visited chronologically. Each place has so much history; I will just include and comment enough to give context, for obvious reasons. So jump in the little blue van, buckle up, grab a beef stick, and hold on.
Valley of Elah – This is the site of David and Goliath’s short-lived but epic battle. This long, shallow valley is accessible via a narrow dirt road, likely impassible in a rain, but worth the stop. We drove straight here after exiting the airport and this was our first back-to-the-Bible experience. We parked—the only vehicle in the gravel lot—and walked up the steep, short hike to the rocky outlined ruins of an ancient city. From there we overlooked the lush valley beginning its springtime blush and the brook of the five smooth stones. To our back, over on the other side and up another set of hills, cranes turned lazily over ongoing construction sites in the city of Beit Shemesh, the whitish-gray apartment blocks standing like sober sentinels over other many-hued valleys. An overall lovely place for a first time picnic in the land of Israel.
Bible reference: 1 Samuel 17:2
Stones of Bozez and Seneh – To get to this site we drove through an almost deserted Palestinian village, up and around steep curves and finally down a rough, rocky track where we parked beside an older shepherd who gave us a toothy and curious grin. To get here we had to move some garbage from the roadway on a very sharp turn by a small goat farm. The farmer came out to see what the racket was, pointed at his car blocking our way, and said in heavily accented English: “It has a reverse.” From the end of the road, we hiked down the valley and followed a stream for an hour or so—a stream that required the occasional exciting risk of dunking and a jump-from-rock-to-rock sort of crossing here and there. The stone sentinels facing each other across the narrow canyon are listed in the Bible as being between Gibeah and Michmash and mark the location where Jonathon and his armourbearer defeated a Philistine garrison guarding the way.
Bible reference: 1 Samuel 14.
Ein Gedi – A true desert oasis about an hour to the southeast where we hiked up a narrow canyon, surrounded by tall, vertical, sandstone cliffs, hazel-colored in places, bleached white in others. This is the place where David and his 300 men hid from Saul. As we hiked we imagined these men using this stream to bathe, drink, and the thick green bamboo thicket to hide if they needed to. We hiked upwards, over and past slides of loose rock, some looking rather sketchy like the overhang could collapse at any time. The jewel here was the clear as crystal stream that we followed, crossing over on small bridges, wading or jumping from rock to rock, coming up on numerous incredibly picturesque waterfalls. The hike, for us, culminated in a small gorge where the water fell from way up high, splashing over rich green moss, and into a large clear pool. The contrasts between the narrow strip of green, the clear splashing water, and the surrounding dry, sunbaked wilderness were impressive. Further up from the waterfall, on a more difficult hike, lies the Dodim cave, the place where David actually hid from Saul and where Saul came into “cover his feet.” I believe David cut off a piece of Saul’s robe here during this time as well. It brings the Bible to life in ways I had not imagined or expected. So different than the pictures I had in my mind. Anyway, the steep and strenuous hike to the cave was left for next time.
Bible references: 1 Samuel 23 and 24. “…and David went from thence, and dwelt among the strongholds of En-gedi… And it came to pass, when Saul was returned from following the Philistines, that it was told him, Behold, David is in the wilderness of En-gedi.”
Masada – Then on to Masada, one of Herod the Great’s fortress/palaces, perched up high on a flat-topped limestone mountain. This fortress was most notably used by the Jews who fled Jerusalem during the Roman conquest and destruction of AD 70. I believe this site is on every Israel tour itinerary and so it should be. Well worth the time. We took the cable car instead of hiking the near vertical climb to the top via the Snake path. This was our introduction to Herod the Great, who ended up creeping into so many of the sites we saw. His hobby was architecture and construction and the extent of his structural ambitions boggle even the modern mind. How did he build on almost sheer cliffs, supply water to mountain palaces, and design walls using rocks that large?
The story of the Jewish revolts here at Masada, in AD 73 and also again in AD 132, provide the foundation of Israeli nationalism today. It embodies the resilience and fortitude of the Jewish people and is hailed as a sort of national symbol. Military conscripts are all sworn in up here and have been, I believe, since the formation of the State of Israel back in 1948. They close their ceremony with the passionate statement of “Masada shall not fall again!”
The ruins of Masada are truly awe-inspiring as well as poignantly sad. You can still see the approach ramp built by the Romans and used during the siege to plant their wooden attack tower and battering ram. The story of this last stand is very well known and documented all over the web – I won’t go into it at any length. Just know that around the time of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem approximately a thousand Jews fled for Masada and actually holed up there for a number of years. The Romans sent 10,000 men to besiege the fortress. They built a wall surrounding the entire mountain and built eight camps around the foot, the remains of which can still be seen below. They then built this huge ramp at a 20 degree angle at the lowest approach to the west and began their attack. Their battering ram finally broke through late one night and they took their rest, planning to deal the final blow the following day. Daylight came and the first Romans burst through the fallen walls only to be met by a deafening silence and dead bodies everywhere. Turns out that in the night the Jews decided by lot to kill their families and each other rather than succumb to Roman slavery. This tragic event has been the theme and subject of many books and movies.
Dead Sea at Ein Bokek – At the south-end resort city of Ein Bokek we had our picnic lunch just shy of the beach and then changed for the required float in the Salt Sea. The weather was nice, warmish, and the water just cold enough to make some of the floaters take their time in walking in. Floating in a brine solution has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that it’s difficult to drown. Well, it’s difficult to even swim, or indeed, even right yourself once you’ve succumbed to a half-seated position in the water. The disadvantage is if you perchance splash water into your eyes you now experience pain and suffering and temporary blindness.
Other bather tourists had slathered themselves full of Dead Sea mud which has healing and therapeutic effects to the integumentary system. We deferred this practice to another time.
The Dead Sea is the lowest spot on Earth so that is significant I suppose. This had never been on our bucket list but now we can write it down and scratch it off. Next: the highest place on earth. No problem, right Jeannie?
Muraba’at Cave – Then back north to this crazy wild hike to see one of the caves where more of the so-called Dead Sea scrolls were found. Steep, rocky, cliff-hanger stuff. Hand holds, empty canyon below, up and around and down, heart pounding at times. I liked (sort of) Heath’s style of not warning us of potential dangers … just saying simply, as he adjusted his pack and cross-checked the water bottles: “Here we have a little hike to some interesting caves, let’s go.” Later, as we hang from our fingers, grasping for toe holds, we ponder from an existential perspective the meaning of the words “little hike.”
A little aside here: we learned to ask Heath in the morning before leaving: any water passages, any vertical climbs, any ladders, what shoe-ware do we need today? We always wondered a little what the day would hold when he would say things like: “Oh shouldn’t be too much water, at least nothing past the knees” and “oh no, nothing sheer, but there’s a few ladders.”
We met people from Israel and Germany on this hike and we cheered each other on. After hiking for 45 minutes or so we came to the place where the famed cave was located. Turned out to be straight up the side, and then over; luckily there were steel handholds drilled into the rock at places but my limbic system was not aware of this and insisted on sending shivers of fear and adrenaline through my system. The cave was worth it all, however. A large opening, a long passage back over guano encrusted rocks, and into the blackness. Apparently scrolls containing books of the Bible were found here, placed by Jews from the Bar Kokba revolt of AD 132. It was hard to imagine people running from the Romans into these treacherous canyons, quickly hiding precious writings, while worrying about the safety of their wives and children climbing where only wild goats dare to venture. Incidentally, 1 Samuel 24 also mentions the “rocks of the wild goats.”
Jericho – Then to Jericho for supper, arriving after dark. Our first of two visits to this ancient city, indeed, the oldest city in the world. More on this later. The noteworthy aspect of Jericho was following a friendly Palestinian man from ATM to ATM looking for one that would recognize Heath’s card and dispense the needed shekels. This search became legendary and resulted in Heath being informed of every ATM sighted from that time forward. Somewhere in Jerusalem: “Hey Heath, don’t you think we should check that ATM.” Next day in Nazareth: “Hey look, an ATM!” He took it all good naturedly but I sometimes wonder if maybe the hikes became more dangerous, the water deeper after our ribbing.
Jerusalem! Our first glimpses of this iconic holy city, and in particular, the Old City. Walls and ramparts, ridges and domes. Narrow time-worn passageways, wizened stone arches overhead, rough wooden doorways leading into little flower-filled courtyards. Small rock stairways leading mysteriously here and there, upwards to adventure. A city we have all heard about from early childhood.
We entered the Old City part of Jerusalem three times during our stay in Israel and each time said much the same thing: wow, amazing, incredible, and we shall return.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher – I think I felt the most emotion or feeling here as we walked through this ancient set of churches that sort of flow into each other, one smooth and worn wide-rocked hall leading into another. Ancient rock walls, overhead arches, stone stairways leading up and down, worn by centuries of use. As we were some of the first tourists after COVID-19, we enjoyed almost no line-ups and few people other than those having services the Sunday morning we visited. To kneel down and crawl forward, placing our hands inside a hole to touch the rock where it was believed Jesus was crucified, was sobering and thought provoking. Even if the crucifixion did not take place at this exact spot, we know it happened in the close vicinity.
One thing to insert here before proceeding any further. In Israel, as with any places where the events in the Bible took place, there are traditional sites and authentic sites; in other words, places where it is a known fact that something happened or took place, and places where it is traditionally believed or assumed something happened. There are also contested sites where historians cannot agree on where something took place. The sites of the crucifixion and of Jesus’ burial are good examples of traditional and contested locations; the exact location is unknown but traditionally believed to be very close to the places that herald them today. Which leads us to Helen.
St. Helen was Emperor Constantin’s mother. Constantin, for those familiar with early church history, was the Roman leader who, while heading into battle, had a vision of a cross in the sky accompanied by a message: In this sign conquer. He ended up converting to Christianity, long story short. His mother became an avid traveler to the Holy lands, seeking out all the supposed locations where events took place. Thus we have a church built over every traditional site… or, I should say, churches built on churches built on churches in many cases. The thing here is that Helen was not too concerned with perfect accuracy; she apparently took what the locals said or considered as the spot and bam, a church appeared. The thing to consider however, is that those sites were quite likely authentic, for the most part, as there was a reason the locals revered a certain location. Ok, enough said on this.
Mount of Olives, including the tombs of Zacharias and Absalom – A steep walk down a long, broad, stone staircase from the Old City to the bottom of the Kidron valley. The tombs are ancient, the actual resting places of Zacharias and Absalom unlikely but possible. Both of these tombs are cut from the rock and the actual dating is somewhat contested. The book of Chronicles records the stoning of Zechariah but does not tell where he was buried.
The tombs sit just below the Jewish cemetery, a fascinating spectacle itself. Alone there on this beautiful sunny day, we climbed up and around, peeking into the caves here and there that line the low, cliff-side slope.
Garden of Gethsemane – A few minutes after seeing the tombs mentioned, our walk took us to this quiet, unassuming, and rather poignant spot. The most impressive aspect today, at least to me, is the numerous olive trees dating back 2000 years. Apparently this is actually how old these trees can get. To see a tree that very possibly was there and “witnessed” the agony of Jesus, is very impressive. At the same time, in the spirit of radical honesty, it is also possible that the Romans, as it is rumored, cut all the trees down in the garden after Jesus’s resurrection in another attempt to erase all memory of the events in those days. Whatever the case, these trees are clearly ancient, gnarled relics from another time and have been the silent, wizened sentinels presiding over hundreds of years of Holy Land terror, turmoil and turbulence.
Gardeners trim the branches of these olive trees and place the piles on the sidewalk for tourists to take, if desired. Apparently in the past there were issues with tourists either climbing the iron fence or trying to tear off branches to take home. Like good tourists everywhere, we pocketed a few small, leafy branches to take home.
City of David – For this site Heath had hired a private tour guide for 3 hours and it was well worth it. We spent a delightful time of humor, history and hummus with Yehuda, our knowledgeable and rather comical guide (ok, so the hummus part came later). To listen to him outline the latest findings of this active archeological dig was absolutely captivating; he talked as we watched little bags of dirt coming up on a conveyor, each bag being sent to a sifting station where workers would look closely for artifacts before moving the dirt/sand to a fill site.
I had always equated the city of Jerusalem as being synonymous with the city of David. Such is not the case. The city of David, I believe, now lies within the greater Jerusalem but actually, in ancient times, lay outside the old city walls. Today it is considered a national park, the Jerusalem Walls National Park.
Following is some random commentary on this site, as it’s overwhelming to give an in-depth report on all things. Truly, words fail me; so much incredible biblical history contained in a few acres. For these deeply interested in knowing more, there are websites dedicated to this archeological dig.
Some of the main finds here—“finds” that are ongoing—include the remains of David’s Palace, the Royal Quarter from the first temple period (time of Solomon), Nehemiah’s wall, Hezekiah’s tunnel, the Pool of Siloam, and the stepped road, an ascent used by ancient pilgrims on their way up to the temple.
We found the story of the seals, or bullae, fascinating. The following is taken from the Park’s brochure:
“Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: take these documents, this deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one, and put them into an earthen jar; so that they may last a long time (Jeremiah 32:14). The House of the Bullae: Remains of an archive known as the House of Bullae were unearthed at the lower section of the excavation site. The building that housed the archive was destroyed together with the entire quarter. It’s content, which included various official documents, went up in flames. However, the fire hardened and preserved the bullae, which are clay seal impressions that were attached to the documents. A hoard of 51 bullae was discovered by the archeologist Yigal Shiloh during his excavations in the City of David. The seal impressions bear the names of people who lived in the First Temple period, some of whom are known from the Bible, such as Gemaryahu son of Shaphan the scribe, an important official in the court of King Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36:10).”
Hezekiah’s Tunnel to the Pool of Siloam – During our guided tour of the City of David we came to the narrow stone staircase leading into a dark hole, at the bottom of which water flowed. We had heard about this hike and been prepared by Heath and Jeannie for “water passage” through the famed Hezekiah’s tunnel. Our guide opted for the dry route and nicely offered to take all our bags and backpacks and said he would meet us when we emerged, right next to the pool of Siloam. Us men pulled up pantlegs, all of us slipped into our water shoes, and turned on our cellphone flashlights. The tunnel is a little over 1700 feet long and takes about 45 minutes to slosh your way through. Water up to the knees in a few places but mostly mid-calf level. If you are given to claustrophobia this may not be the hike for you—in most places the tunnel is about 2 feet wide and tall enough that a shorter person can stand; in other places the top of the tunnel rises up twenty or thirty feet. The tunnel curves back and forth as if the early tunnelers had to adjust and readjust as they pick-axed their way towards each other.
Following is an inscription that was discovered cut into the rock and explains how these men constructed the tunnel:
“[…when] (the tunnel) was driven through. And this was the way in which it was cut through: While […] (were) still […] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellows, for there was an overlap in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1200 cubits, and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.”
The inscription above has its own interesting history. It was discovered in 1880 by a 16 year-old apprentice of a prominent archaeologist. It was then later cut out of the rock and sent to a museum in Istanbul, Turkey, the region being under control of the Ottoman Empire at that time. Over the last 30 years Israel has been in almost continuous talks in an attempt to have Turkey return the inscription to its rightful place (at one point offering Turkey two elephants in exchange). In March of this year, right around the day we left, there was an Israeli news flash stating that Turkey had finally agreed to return it. Sadly, the Turkish government then denied this on the basis that the inscription was found in East Jerusalem, part of the Palestinian territories and “thus it is out of the question… to return it to Israel.” I only cite this as an example of just one of many important archaeological finds that have been spirited away to foreign museums in eras past.
Bible references to the tunnel:
2 Kings 20:20 (NIV): “As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city…”
2 Chronicles 32:30 (NIV): “It was Hezekiah who blocked the upper outlet of the Gihon spring and channeled the water down to the west side of the City of David.”
Pool of Siloam – We exited the water tunnel out into what has been excavated of the pool of Siloam. Apparently this pool in its first century day was the size of two Olympic swimming pools. Here the immense work of archaeological digs is made evident as you sit on the steps leading down into the pool and look across the fence and into meters-high dirt, a small field, and then up to apartment blocks covering what used to be the pool. Apparently the rest of the site is owned by the Greek Orthodox church and they have so far forbade further digging.
Bible reference: John 9:7; 2 Kings 20:20.
Water Tunnels to Sewer Funnels – Once out of Hezekiah’s tunnel—after changing and resting a little on the old worn rocks on the side of the Pool of Siloam—our guide led us into yet another tunnel, this one lit and not requiring water passage. Turns out this was the ancient sewer system from the Old City down into the valley. This one was truly exhausting: bent half over, carrying a pack, walking steeply uphill for what seemed like just short of forever. I became slightly claustrophobic here after my pack came close to becoming wedged between the greenish-hued, mildewy, ancient stone walls. As incredible as this hike was, it was nice to see the light of day, sweat dripping off our noses.
Jeremiah’s dungeon – At the end of our City of David tour, our guide Yehuda motioned to us furtively and gestured that we were going to see one more thing, something not listed on the itinerary and out of bounds for tourists. He opened a large steel construction door marked “no entry,” “thou shalt not pass,” “danger past this point” or something to that effect. We walked down the workers’ rough, 2×6-planked alleyway and entered a large underground cistern, recently excavated and believed to be the pit that prophet Jeremiah may have been tossed down. It makes sense geographically but so far no further evidence has been found to substantiate the claim.
Biblical reference: Jeremiah 38.
Upper Room – The supposed location of the last supper. Quite large, square, obviously a room owned by a wealthy person. Incredible acoustics here and we managed to sing a quick song before the next group came sauntering in, looking at us curiously.
David’s tomb – Not. But Jews revere this place as a symbolic reference to the resting place of David. Not much to say here. It being what appears to be a small synagogue, men and women were separated at the entrance. The men’s side was full of elderly Orthodox Jews studying the and reading from the Torah. We got a few looks that my brain interpreted as “sour” and weren’t sure what to do: proceed through the small crowd or hit reverse? I adjusted my Yarmulke and powered forward, ignoring the pharisees pious looks reserved for unclean tourists and entered the inner room.
Machane Yehuda Market – After a heavy and absolutely fascinating day—visually and historically overwhelmed may be the correct word—we found our trusty little blue van, exited the Old City and proceed to Jerusalem’s food mecca market. We parked and walked, stopping along the way at a busy open-air shop selling fresh, hot-off-the-press rugalach; without too much thought we devoured these little chocolate encrusted rolls, picking them off one by one as we walked towards supper.
(More Places to follow)