A few years ago, at the tail end of my semester in England I spent a week on board a cruise that went around the Mediterranean. As a poor student traveler it was a taste of the luxury life and was very inexpensive. One of the highlights of the cruise was the day spent ashore in Israel.
In particular, we hit sights in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, crossing the border between Israel and Palestine in the process.
The cruise arrived in Port Ashdod, Israel. It was an hour and a bit trip to Bethlehem which, at the time I had no idea was actually in Palestine. The main attraction here is the church of the Nativity, the location of Christ’s birth.
Obviously if you are familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus then you’ll know he was born in a stable out the back of an inn. I have a feeling they built the church a little later.
It was very busy, so we queued for an hour and walked down into the shrine, it’s pretty amazing to know what happened here 2000 years ago. Inside the church there is a little star plaque on the ground, which is apparently “the spot”.
I lined up and got a photo with it like all visitors did, but it was actually a weird moment for me because it felt like I (or we) were making a tourist attraction out of a series of events that not only I find very special, but I believe changed the course of history. Does my face show it?
After this they took us to a souvenir shop where I bought a hand carved wooden nativity set: without doubt the best souvenir I’ve ever bought and it comes out every every Christmas with pride. The thing I loved about the souvenir shops, they always name the shop (poorly) in line with some reference to the Bible. Pictures paint it way better than I can put it into words.
Soon it was lunchtime, which thankfully was just next door. It was a lovely spread of local tastes but I could not for the life of me tell you what any of them were. By the time lunch was over it was already 2:00 and it didn’t seem like we had seen all that much. Probably because we hadn’t.
Jerusalem was a short drive away but before arriving, we had to go through the border, which involved Israeli soldiers walking the aisle of the bus, automatic rifles in hand, ensuring that no cruise-goers were terrorists. Or something like that.
After getting off the bus, while walking through some local markets, Emily – my travel companion for the cruise – myself, and another American family that we had met at dinner the night before lost our tour group on the way to the first sight, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
We had made a habit of such situations so this was not at all surprising.
I tried some of my Hebrew on a local stall holder to see if they know where they might have gone – unfortunately I don’t know any Hebrew so this ended quickly.
Thankfully one of the Americans happened to vaguely recall they were off to the Holy Sepulchre, so somehow we found our way there and found our group just in time to see what they guess is the place of Jesus’ tomb, which now has a mausoleum built over the top of it.
Our tour guide also showed us a similar tomb to that which Jesus would have been buried in and how the stone was rolled across. This was also really incredible to see, not just because of its significance, but because it gave a visualisation of what a burial tomb looked like 2000 years ago. It’s just a hole in a rock – very unglamorous.
The next stop was the Wailing Wall. Also known as the Western Wall of the city of Jerusalem. This is where a lot of Jews come to pray and read from the Torah (and of course wail loudly). The idea is that you write prayer requests on slips of paper and stick them in the wall if you want them to be answered.
Personally I might just stick with direct prayer, you know, cut out the middle man. It seems to be working so far.
After this we had to wait for the bus for a little bit for our next stop, the Garden of Gethsemane. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting with this but it was very small. In the Bible, the Garden of Gethsemane was the location where Jesus and his disciples prayed and Jesus was betrayed by Judas the night before his crucifixion.
The Garden, being on the Mount of Olives, is full of olive trees and they said that it’s quite likely that these are the same ones that Jesus would have seen that last night before His crucifixion. I know olive trees can live a long time but whether this is true or not, who actually knows?
Within the grounds of the Garden is the Church of all Nations, inside which is the rock they believe Jesus prayed next to that same night.
Before heading back to the ship we had a photo stop of Jerusalem Old City from an incredible viewpoint on the Mount of Olives, which is in large part now a large cemetery. It was so windy, but the view was quite magnificent.
For me, the day was not so much about sightseeing, but in seeing the places I’ve read about in the Bible in real life. It made it all just a bit more tangible.
My day in Israel was a different kind of touring and the conversations about the things we saw and the beliefs they link to went long into the night. I didn’t have a lot of answers, I mean, I still don’t, but conversations is where thinking often starts.
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