A Pilgrim’s Journey
By Gail P.C. Streete
The W.J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies
In spring 2006, nine faculty who teach the religious studies and philosophy course, Life: Then and Now, journeyed to Israel and Jordan to study the area and learn from one another’s expertise. The shared knowledge, they believe, transfers to the classroom in dynamic ways. The Mellon Foundation, assisted by the Provost’s Office, initially underwrote the trip. Participation was expanded thanks to the generosity of Spence Wilson, chair of the Rhodes Board of Trustees and a firm believer in faculty travel/study. The following are excerpts from the journal of Gail Streete, official chronicler of the journey.
May 18, 2006: Day One: “Bound for Canaan”
In the Newark airport, bound for Tel Aviv, is a mixed group of pilgrims from the Rhodes Department of Religious Studies: Ryan Byrne, Milton Moreland, Luther Ivory, Bernadette McNary-Zak, Patrick Gray, Tom Bremer, John Kaltner and me. Steve Haynes will join us in Tiberias.
Once on the plane, apart from the announcements in English and Hebrew and the Hebrew subtitles on the films, the most startling event is the announcement of a minyan for prayers in the galley area of the plane. Ten Hasidic gentlemen convene. It’s already a different world.
May 19, 2006: Day Two: The Happy Bus
We land in Tel Aviv and board a private bus with yellow curtains, later dubbed “the Happy Bus.” Our guide is named Doron, a former political science professor and navy commando. The hotel isn’t ready for us, so we go first to the seaport of Jaffa, formerly Joppa, the site of two “biblical” events: the port from which the prophet Jonah set sail for Tarshish to escape the necessity of preaching to the hated Nineveh, and the place where later the apostle Peter stayed with Simon the tanner and, according to Acts 10, had the famous vision that led him to baptize the gentile Cornelius and his family. In addition, Jaffa is said to have been founded by Japheth, one of the sons of Noah.
There are layers upon layers of remains here, including the remnants of an Egyptian mud-brick fort built in 3300 BCE (Before the Common Era). The first historical mention of Jaffa is in a list of cities Thutmose III captured in 1486 BCE. He was the pharaoh who took Jaffa by hiding his troops in big jars. The Church of St. Peter with its Franciscan monastery, built on the site of a Crusader castle, today serves Polish and Filipino congregations. The hammam (Turkish bath) and minaret of a mosque are reminders of the occupation by the Ottoman Jamal Pasha.
Our hotel is in Bat Yam, or “Mermaid,” a suburb of Tel Aviv. I can see the Mediterranean from the little balcony of my palatial room; another view reveals laundry hanging over people’s balconies. We have lunch at a nearby restaurant, where the hummus alone comes in many different varieties; the Greek salads would feed an entire family. After we get settled, Luther, John and I take a long walk on the beach, which is covered with shells and peopled by Israelis starting their Shabbat (Sabbath) early. There is parasailing and windsurfing out on the clear blue-green water, which, in the myth of Perseus, was the place where the local princess Andromeda was chained to a rock to be eaten by a sea monster. Perhaps the genesis of the term “mermaid?”
May 20, 2006: Day Three: “We Walk”
A great run by the sea this morning. It’s Shabbat, so it’s pretty quiet.
On the road again with Doron, whose favorite expression, when off the bus, is, “We walk.” When we don’t walk, “We wait.” We visit Caesarea Maritima, the harbor town and showplace palace with Roman flavor built by Herod the Great. After his death, the Roman “caretakers” (procurators) of Judea stayed here, hence there is a stone that bears the name of Pontius Pilate.
We see the first Roman theater in the country. After the Roman garrisons left Judea, the Byzantines occupied the spot, and later, the Crusaders. Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine’s biographer, was bishop here. It was also the site of a famous rabbinical school of the third century and was later occupied by the Muslims. On the way out of the city, we stop at a wonderful Byzantine street with two magnificent statues, one of red porphyry, and both headless. Speculation is that the porphyry statue is of Hadrian, the Roman emperor of the early second century, very much hated in these parts because of his suppression in the Second Jewish War (132-135 CE, or Common Era), leveling the temple site and excluding Jews from Jerusalem.
Later, we have almost an armchair seat at Armageddon (Rev. 16:16), the Mount of Megiddo, where armies have fought many times since the second millennium BCE. The area virtually disappeared in the fourth century BCE. Important here are four Canaanite worship sites (3000-1800 BCE) and secret access to a water supply. We walk through the water tunnel: nice and cool!
On to Bet Shearim, where there are 31 catacombs cut into the hillsides forming a Jewish necropolis. The most famous site here is the grave of Rabbi Judah (Yehuda) ha-Nasi, or “The Prince,” the compiler of the commentary on the law known as the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE).
Many of the tombs here exhibit an odd combination of Greco-Roman imagery and Jewish symbols. Nearly all of the sarcophagi have holes in the corners where robbers have broken into them.
As late afternoon arrives, we reach the Sea of Galilee (actually not a sea, but Lake Kinneret, named after its harp shape, the kinnor). Our hotel has a private “beach” where Milton, Bernie and I sit watching the boats of Christian tourists and Shabbat relaxers plying the water. A Hasidic couple comes down to sit and briefly enjoy the Shabbat with us.
May 21, 2006: Day Four: In Search of Jesus
This morning, after a good run by the shore, we have another large and lavish Israeli breakfast, then we go where Jesus walked.
Two things impress me: The area seems rather small and not especially numinous. We are actually on the west bank of the Jordan. We will eventually cross the river at least five times; not at all “Jordan’s stormy banks,” but mostly a trickle. The farther north we go, the closer we are to Lebanon and Syria and the Golan Heights and the more prominent the reminders of war, past and present, become.
First, we stop at Tabgha, where Byzantine pilgrims had their picnics, perhaps in imitation of Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 5,000 that purportedly occurred here. Actually, most of what are now considered “holy sites” in this Holy Land were first defined by the visit of Constantine’s elderly mother, Helena, the most prominent early Christian pilgrim, who probably liked her religious convenience rather than archaeological exactitude. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount allegedly occurred nearby, perhaps on the same mountain as the miraculous feeding, but the Catholics and the Greek Orthodox dispute the exact site. And since the Gospel of Luke has a “Sermon on the Plain,” we have a variant tradition. The present church at the site, which is also called “Heptapegon” or “Seven Springs,” is a reproduction of the original fifth-century church. Nearby we pass Migdal (“the tower”), probably the home of Mary Magdalene.
We have more luck at Kfar Nahum (Capernaum), where a very modern church is built over the remains of a “house-church” or Byzantine Christian church dating at least from the fourth century. It is located in the house believed to have been that of the apostle Peter.
Jesus made Capernaum a kind of “base of operations” and did a healing in the synagogue here. There are the remains of small houses, some dating from about the second century BCE. Apparently, there were several small industries here: olive-pressing, milling and of course, fishing. But it seems to have been far from a “poverty-stricken fishing village,” since some of the houses had windows, entrance areas and a second floor. The “house of Peter” was also plastered—a sign of even greater status—although probably not by him.
There is a synagogue from the fourth century CE that replaced an earlier one. In the fourth century, the Spanish pilgrim Egeria wrote about seeing it as the site of “the Lord curing a man possessed by the devil” (Mark 1:23).
From Capernaum, we pass the ruins of Bethsaida and go northward to Banyas, known in Jesus’ day as Caesarea Philippi, for Herod Philip, one of Herod the Great’s sons. Like his father, Herod Philip was a client king and admirer of Rome. The original name of the town was Paneas or Panias, sacred to the goat-footed god Pan. Panias was originally part of the Decapolis or “10 towns” in the Greek style, later under control of Herod Philip. Herod the Great dedicated a temple to the worship of Augustus here, close to that of Pan, a prudent move politically. But to Christians, Caesarea Philippi is most important as the site of “Peter’s confession.” The earliest version is in Mark 8:27-31, but the more popular version, Matthew 16:18, includes Jesus’ statement, “On this rock I will build my church.” The verses are stamped in sand in three languages by a curious dreidel-like object that you can turn.
There are also the remains of a Byzantine church, mentioned as the site of a statue erected by Eusebius in the fourth century commemorating Jesus’ healing the bleeding woman.
The remains of Agrippa II’s palace, with its splendid entrance and many rooms, constitute the most spectacular site here. There are fragments of second-century CE Roman pottery and decorated Muslim ceramics along with evidence of the Crusaders, who made this a medieval city. It is also home to welis, or shrines of Muslim saints, and there are reports that this was a dwelling of the hashish-smoking attackers of Christians during the Crusades, from which the term “assassin” comes. Since it’s near the Lebanon border, there are several Druze here. At a little snack stand we get Druze pita, a large flat bread spread with libani (like yoghurt cheese) and za’atar (sumac) and rolled up. Delicious!
On to Nimrod’s fortress or castle on the Lebanon/Syria border. Although it is credited both with being the abode of the mighty hunter Nimrod in Genesis and later, a Crusader castle, it is actually a Muslim fortification built by the Mameluke Sultan Baybars (1266-77) to defend the territory against the Crusaders. The Mamelukes were former Muslim slaves who took over the great centers of the Muslim Ayyubid dynasty in the Middle East. The view from here is tremendous—you can see three countries.
We have a delicious lunch by a stream—grilled trout, along with the usual assortment of prelunch goodies (hummus, eggplant, chopped salad, pita).
According to biblical tradition, the Israelite tribe of Dan moved northward and conquered the Canaanite city of Laish in the 11th century BCE. It became the most important religious site in the north after Jeroboam I established worship there in the late 10th century BCE (1 Kings 12:28-29). The city has a spectacular mud-brick gate dating from the mid-18th century BCE and an Israelite gate area from the Iron Age.
Back to our hotel in Tiberias for a typical Israeli dinner, heavy on the chopped veggies.
May 22, 2006: Day Five: Mystics, Mary and the “Mona Lisa” of the Galilee
Driving past banana trees on the way to the holy rabbinic city of Safed, we first stop at the “Church of the Beatitudes” (eight sides for eight beatitudes) on the alleged site of the Sermon on the Mount.
Along the way, we see gazelles, migrating storks and buildings with ubiquitous solar panels and water heaters on the roofs. We also pass the tomb of Rachel, wife of the celebrated martyr Rabbi Akiva (Second Jewish War).
From the peacefulness of the Church of the Beatitudes we travel up to Safed, the highest town in Israel, and with Tiberias, Hebron and Jerusalem, one of the four holiest sites of Judaism. Famous in the Middle Ages and later home to the Sephardic Jews driven out of Spain in 1492, it also boasts Kabbalist synagogues. Currently, many artists live in the town’s former Arab Quarter.
On to Nazareth and the surprising sound of the Muslim call to prayer while in the Church of St. Joseph, one of the two Christian churches on the supposed site of the Annunciation to Mary and Jesus’ childhood. There is a first-century street with wells and cisterns preserved under the 1969 Basilica of the Annunciation, which boasts representations of Mary from countries all over the world.
Sepphoris, four miles from Nazareth, was the capital of the Galilee under Herod Antipas. It is a remarkable Roman/Jewish town, famous for its water system—there are traces of ritual baths, or mikvaoth, in all the second-century CE houses. It is also known for its mosaics—the magnificent Dionysus mosaic, the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee,” the Nile Festival mosaic and the zodiac mosaic in the synagogue. The Mishnah was probably codified here in the second century CE by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi. It is also a town upon whose excavation two of my colleagues, Richard Batey and Milton Moreland, have worked.
May 23, 2006: Day Six: “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand ...”
Leaving Tiberias, we pass the tomb of Moses Maimonides (the Rambam), the great Jewish scholar of medieval Spain. He died in Egypt, and his bones were brought to the Holy Land for burial.
Next, the town or kibbutz of Yardenit, named after the Jordan (Yarden) River. Since “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” one of the supposed sites of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, was in Jordanian hands, the enterprising town found a way of obliging Christian tourists by providing a baptismal site “close enough” to that of Jesus.
On to Bet Shean, a site occupied continuously for 6,000 years, with a pharaoh’s hilltop fortress, possible traces of Solomonic building (1 Kings 4:12) and the best-preserved Roman-to-Byzantine city in Israel. During Roman times, the city was known as Scythopolis because of the legend that Scythians from the Black Sea helped with the labor. It was also known as Nysa in the Hellenistic Greek period, the place where the god Dionysus was raised by nymphs. The town has a wonderful temple, a paved Byzantine street, a great fresco of the goddess Tyche or Fortune, a public latrine, a nymphaeum or fountain complex, shops and a lovely amphitheater. Though there was a major earthquake in 749 CE, a later Muslim traveler still described it as a “paradise.”
Milton and Ryan remind us that Bet Shean is just a “warm-up” for Jerash (Roman Gerasa), another one of the cities of the Decapolis, or “10 towns.” But first we cross the border between Israel and Jordan and acquire a new guide, a Palestinian Jordanian named Hasan Abu As’ad, a poetic individual who refers to us all as “my dears.”
Jerash is supposedly the place where Jesus drove the demons out of a possessed man and into a herd of swine (although some Gospels say the place was Gadara). Gerasa in the first century BCE had a semi-independent status in the empire. Clearly, it was built to impress, and even its partial restoration leaves one gasping: Hadrian’s monumental arch, the hippodrome, the temple of Zeus/Jupiter and the south theater are all extraordinary, but most impressive is the oval plaza or forum from the first century, enclosed by Ionic columns. The most spectacular part of the northern city is the temple of Artemis/Diana, even larger than the temple of Jupiter, dedicated to the protectress of the city. In the Muslim era, it was turned into a pottery/ceramic yard and workshop. Of a three-church complex in this section, the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian has a most impressive sixth-century CE mosaic floor. A Jordanian-Danish team has found and is excavating a mosque south of the magnificent Roman nymphaeum.
On to Amman, hot, tired, dusty and sunburned. At our hotel we see a major Arab city with a panorama of new apartments, Palestinian slums, elaborate homes and a humming downtown area. Another lavish hotel buffet, and waiting in our rooms, sweets and fruits enough for another day.
May 24, 2006: Day Seven: In the Footsteps of T.E. Lawrence and Indiana Jones
Driving south from Amman along the Desert Highway, I can’t help but think of Lawrence of Arabia, especially when we hit real desert, complete with volcanic rocks. I can’t get over the mix: Arab shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats (we had to stop in one town for the goats), brightly decorated pick-up trucks and modern Arab architecture. We pass the site of Bethany beyond the Jordan, where, according to the fractured English of the guidebook, “the Lord Juices was peptized.”
We visit Madaba, mentioned as a Moabite city in the Old Testament, a Roman center that became Byzantine in the fourth century and was later occupied by Muslims and Mamelukes until the 16th. The glory of Madaba is its mosaic map, housed in the sixth-century Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. Discovered in 1884, the mosaic dates to the time of the Byzantine Christian emperor Justinian. Like all early Christian maps, it portrays “Holy Jerusalem” as the center of the world, with fanciful depictions of the Jordan River, Jericho and other biblical places. The map is oriented west/east rather than north/south, with Palestine on the left and Egypt on the east. It is a wonderfully accurate mosaic representation of an earlier third-century map, although it may not compete with a GPS.
Petra! A dream I have had since I was a girl of 10 has come true. Our hotel overlooks the site, including the “tomb of Aaron,” the brother of Moses who is considered a prophet in Islam. Indeed our modern village is called Wadi Moussas, or Moses’ Valley. On the way down in the bus we listen to a long dialogue between our Palestinian guide, Hasan, and Ryan Byrne, who has traveled and worked here extensively, about the Palestinian/Arab/Israeli/American situation.
On the way into Petra, I sit on a gentle horse led by an Arab guide—Indiana Jones I am not. Petra was settled by the Nabateans, who built the magnificent rock-hewn city from the third century BCE to the first century CE. Rome later annexed it. Christianity came in the sixth century, Islam in the seventh and later (briefly), the Crusaders. J.L. Burckhardt rediscovered the city in the 19th century, T.E. Lawrence and the Arab campaign of World War I camped there, and most recently, the character of Indiana Jones rode horseback through the Siq, the narrow gorge that is the entrance to Petra. Along the way are rock-hewn tombs and the so-called treasury, which wasn’t one at all.
I climb 850 (maybe more) steps with Ryan, Milton and Steve to reach the great “monastery” (which also isn’t really one), the monument to Obdoas I, the deified king of the Nabateans. The view is breathtaking, worth the treacherous footing. It’s good to meet up with Steve McKenzie [Rhodes religious studies professor], who’s leading a group through this area, and looking not unlike Indiana Jones himself. I have so much pink sand in my socks and new running shoes—piles of it end up on the floor in our hotel.
May 25, 2006: Day Eight: Goat-Dancing at the High Places
Another strenuous hike—mostly straight up—to the “high places,” or sacrificial altars, of the Nabateans, where we are treated to an impromptu “goat dance” (first invented at Banyas), courtesy of Luther and Ryan.
We drive down through the Wadi Rum, past Bedouin villages and through a spectacular sandstorm to the Red Sea at Aqaba and a tense border crossing into Israel. We walk across a desolate no-man’s land and into Israeli security inspection, where I am pulled aside in order to answer random, repeated and seemingly interminable questions. While I had been warned about this before, nothing prepared me for the experience, and I am pretty rattled. Then the cash exchange will not change my Jordanian money because my 20-dinar note has a small tear in it. We cannot contact Doron’s “Happy Bus” and have to take three separate taxis into Eilat.
We eventually arrive in good but wilted shape at the Israeli resort town of Eilat on the Red Sea/ Gulf of Aqaba, peopled by hordes of Israeli family vacationers. Tom, Bernie and I go for a walk and wet our feet in the Red Sea. I will sleep tonight, and no one will mind the sand I’m still tracking around.
May 26, 2006: Day Nine: All the Comforts of Rome
Back with Doron, we first visit Tamar on the way to Masada. It sits on the spice/southern frontier route, first founded by the Iron-Age Israelites, then perhaps reestablished by Solomon and later, the Nabateans, Edomites and Romans, who built a pretty luxurious bathhouse here for their provincial troops. All the comforts of Rome.
This area, the Negev desert, the “Wilderness of Zin,” and the “Wilderness of Paran” is desolate. But the south does have its moments: Floodwaters, though catastrophic, can be captured by aqueducts and cisterns, and the Dead Sea provides a harvest of salt and other important minerals. The hot springs at Ein Gedi, smelling strongly of sulfur, are healing.
We reach Masada at midday. We take the cable car up, although we could have laboriously climbed the winding “snake path” by foot. (Two hours for experienced climbers.) After hiking at Petra, though, we say, “No màs.” Masada is a vast outcropping of rock where Herod the Great made a palace complex and fortress in the first century BCE. It later became famous during the First Jewish War when it fell to the Romans after a siege in 73 CE, after Jerusalem had already fallen. You can still see the Roman siege ramp. According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was in the war (on both sides), the defenders of the fortress committed suicide rather than surrender. Its discovery in the 1960s by Yigal Yadin electrified the Israelis, who saw it as a place where Jews fought back even to the death. However, no bodies of suicides have ever been found.
Qumran also provides another historical/archaeological puzzle: The settlement and scrolls hidden in the caves astonished Christian scholars because of the discovery of a messianic Jewish sect that led a kind of monastic life. Scholars are still debating what kind of people lived here at various times, from the second century BCE to the first century CE. Were they Pharisees or priestly refugees from Jerusalem? Disgruntled Sadducees who rejected the Hasmonean priests? Essenes? One thing is sure: They had an apocalyptic, dualistic view and were most likely also defeated by Rome, in the sense that the people who lived here abandoned the site, presumably after hiding the scrolls in the caves at the approach of the Romans in the 70s.
Thoroughly baked, exhausted and sun-shocked, we reach Jerusalem in time to see the late afternoon sun gleaming off the Dome of the Rock. Our hotel is near the Arab Quarter of the old city, sandwiched between it and the ultraorthodox Jewish community of Mea Shearim. As we go exploring before dinner, I am struck by the Polish Jews walking to shul in centuries-old dress and the sound at sundown of the loudest shofar on record, followed some minutes later by the Muslim call to prayer.
May 27, 2006: Day Ten: “Jerusalem, my happy home . . .”
Jerusalem. Our first stop is at the Western, or Wailing Wall, which was part of the retaining wall for the Temple Mount built by Herod the Great to support the plaza/court at the top of Mt. Sion (now confusingly called Mt. Moriah). Above were the great courts and the temple itself, still unfinished in 70 CE when the Romans destroyed it. After the Second Jewish War, Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem and called it Aelia Capitolina. Jews were forbidden access to the wall, as they later were in the days of Byzantine Christian Jerusalem, thanks mainly to Constantine and his mother Helena’s intolerance of Jews. In the time of the Ottoman Muslims, Jews could come here, but until 1967, Arab houses were built near the wall. Those houses were leveled to make the Western Wall plaza.
Bernie and I go to the women’s side. I touch the surprisingly cool stone of the wall whose cracks are filled with moss and rolled-up petitions for prayer. Unlike the men’s side, it is much smaller and quieter. Although women daven here too, there are no processions of Torah, no prayer shawls, no dancing or singing as we see the men doing on the other side of the partition. Some little girls climb over the partition with no problem, but no woman older than 12 attempts it. Real fervor is nonetheless evident here, as it had been on our way to the wall, past the Via Dolorosa, where we encountered a Latino pilgrim group singing and making the stations of the cross.
We walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter. According to Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s guide, this is very probably the place where Christ died and was buried. The location was memorialized very early (41-43 CE). But in 135 CE, when Hadrian rebuilt the city, there was a shrine to Aphrodite on that spot. So, when Constantine’s mother Helena made her celebrity pilgrimage to the Holy Land, this pagan site had to be reclaimed and the temple demolished. The site is now touchily shared by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic and Armenian churches, which came and still come to blows over it.
After lunch at a Lebanese restaurant, we tour the citadel or “tower of David” and the Museum of the History of Jerusalem. It’s a very effective orientation to the city’s long history, from the Canaanites to the Israelites to the first destruction in 586 BCE to the resettlement and rebuilding of the second temple, to the destruction by Titus’ 10th legion in 70 CE, to the subsequent Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Muslim, Mameluke, Ottoman, British and later partitioned governments, all of which left traces on earlier sites.
In the afternoon, a few of us visit St. Anne’s, on the supposed site of the pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate, the place where Jesus healed a paralyzed man (John 5:1-5). There were healing baths here in the eighth and third centuries BCE, and Greco-Roman visitors to the temple of Asclepius (or perhaps Sarapis) took advantage of the curative powers of the pools. A later Byzantine church was built over the temple and at the site of the miracle. There is also here a Crusader church of St. Anne, built over the supposed site where the Virgin Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, lived, and where Mary was born (conflict with Nazareth). It’s a great example of a 12th-century church that Saladin, conqueror of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1192, turned into a madrasa, or Muslim theological school. In 1856, the Ottomans returned it to the French, who restored it. Nearby is St. Stephen’s Gate, where supposedly (according to Acts 7) the first Christian martyr died.
After dinner, we go to trendy Ben Yehuda Street to see the Jewish quarter celebrating the end of Shabbat. What a mix this place is! We hear Koreans singing and praising in bad Hebrew, Jewish break-dancers and—for the first time—Jewish beggars in the streets.
May 28, 2006: Day Eleven: Jerusalem the Golden
In the morning, we visit the Haram-esh-Sharif, the holy site of Islam on the site of the former temple courts. Most famous here are the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, with the smaller Dome of the Chain. The Al-Aqsa mosque commemorates the night journey of Muhammad to Jerusalem; while the Dome of the Rock celebrates the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham on Mt. Moriah, sacred also to Muslims. We can’t enter either one because we aren’t Muslims, but we do get a great view of the Mount of Olives, and on our way there, after several fits and starts, the Western Wall.
On the way back, we stop at the “burnt house,” a first-century CE excavation found when the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem was being rebuilt after the Six-Day War. The house, apparently two stories, shows traces of burning. Found there were a Roman spear point, a girl’s skeletal forearm, utensils and a weight inscribed with the words, “Ben Kathros,” so we know that it belonged to the Kathros (or Katros) family, mentioned in the Talmud as a priestly family living in the upper city before the First Jewish War of 66-70 CE.
In the afternoon, some of us regroup for a tour of the Mount of Olives, where we visit St. Mary’s Tomb and the modern 20th-century Church of the Agony (All Nations) in Gethsemane and the beautiful and moving Dominus Flevit (Jesus Wept) Church, along with the tombs of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi and other necropolises. We get a spectacular look at the Temple Mount, with tons of Jewish graves, some Christian and some Muslim. We’re also looking at the Kidron Valley and at the so-called tomb of Absalom, which is really a Hasmonean tomb. Popular belief holds that Jesus will descend in his second coming on the Mount of Olives and enter Jerusalem at the Golden Gate (currently blocked by Muslim graves). But if Jesus was present anywhere for me, it was here, with the ancient, dusty olive trees.
May 29, 2006: Day Twelve: Yad Vashem
A visit to the Rockefeller Museum of Antiquities near the Old City wall. Tight security and no photography.
Very somber visit this afternoon to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. It is impossible to describe the impact of the methodical “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt described it, as you read story after story, horror upon horror, and wish there was an end to it as you wind back and forth, back and forth across the halls of the museum without letup.
May 30, 2006: Day Thirteen: Bethlehem and Deheishe
If Yad Vashem and Masada tell the Israeli side of things, the towns on the West Bank begin to tell the Palestinian side. Although you could actually walk to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, you have to drive through “the border,” then stop and pick up another bus and guide. Palestinians cannot freely cross to Israeli-occupied territory, nor can Israelis travel freely in areas under Palestinian control. A wall—in some cases, an electrified fence—divides Israeli from Palestinian areas.
First we go to Mar Saba (St. Saba’s) monastery at the edge of the Judean desert. Only men can enter this strict Greek Orthodox place, so Bernie and I have to stand—outside, because the door is locked—at the watchtower, also known as the women’s tower, with our driver, Hijazi. The view is spectacular, punctuated with hermits’ caves like those at Qumran. After a very long time, the men emerge, having been royally entertained by one of the monks who actually comes from Nashville!
In Bethlehem we visit the Orthodox Church of the Nativity and the adjoining St. Catherine’s. We also see the supposed tombs of St. Jerome, translator of the Latin Bible, and his friends Paula and Eustochium, who lived as monastics in Bethlehem.
We stop outside the gates of Deheishe, a Palestinian refugee camp. According to our Palestinian guide, Adel, some Palestinians never leave the camps even if they have the chance. The overcrowded camp is basically a series of tenements, like a housing project in the U.S. Our Israeli guide, Doron, tells us that his son, who is about to enter his three-year mandatory service in the army, had just been to a demonstration against the dividing wall. Clearly, a complex situation.
After a long trip back, we arrive at the Israel Museum where we visit the Shrine of the Book, the part of the museum complex that was built to house the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran.
May 31, 2006: Day Fourteen: “Farewell, my friends . . .”
On to Tel Aviv for our flight home. Aboard the plane, there’s a lot to sort out—the barriers, boundaries and borders everywhere: in the Holy City, among Israelis and Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Jews, between evangelical Christians who support Israel and Palestinians who support Hamas; the bleak no-man’s land between Israel and Jordan; the “wall”; the screen dividing men and women worshiping at the Western Wall; the security checkpoints everywhere ....
And as always, “We walk ....”