Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Holy Land: Arrival

So it has been about a week and a half since we returned from Israel, and I have gotten back into the swing of things. However, I am happy to say that it is a "swing" with a renewed perspective and a refreshed attitude. I have meant for the last several days now to post the recaps of our first two days in Israel (since we did not have Internet there til the 3rd day-how appropriate, a 3rd day reference!). So, here it is, albeit a little late! This first entry is straight out of my journal from that first day:

As I write this, I am looking out over the sunrise on the Sea of Galilee. Our flight into Tel Aviv yesterday was uneventful, thankfully. We arrived as well rested as one can be from an overnight 12 hour flight, and hopped on a bus as a group with our driver, Nazih, and our tour guide, Rami. Rami is a Palestinian Christian (there aren't many of those-about 2% according to Rami) and Nazih is a Druze-a religion that is a mixture of beliefs, borrowing from several major religions.

Tel Aviv is a busy metropolitan center, with high rises, lots of people, and interstates-or I guess they would be called freeways here-that sprawl in every direction and make "stacks" like the one we have in Jackson. There are giant ads on the sides of buildings like in New York City (and in case you were wondering, that Harry Potter kid is popular EVERYWHERE. J.K. Rowling, you are a genius).

Once we rolled out of the city, the landscape began to change-from high rises and palm trees to abrupt hills and valleys. If you can imagine the topography of a place like Idaho, or parts of Montana even, but with a totally different soil and feel. The soil and hills are very rocky, with dried up grasses peeking out between the rocks. There are plenty of trees, but it looks almost unnatural for the lack of underbrush. Some trees are short and and their branches form shapes that are sort of "poofy", while some are tall and skinny and rise like spires toward the sky. Someone mentions that many of the trees are olive, and some are lemon.

We pass a sign that says Nazareth <-- , Tiberias -->. (You've gotta me kidding me?! Is this for real??). We come up on the Sea of Galilee just after sunset and arrive at our hotel, called Golan Hotel, which overlooks the Sea-which is actually a lake, FYI.

Today we are headed off to Cana and the River Jordan, among other places!

Here is a picture of that first sunrise on the Sea of Galilee:

So those were my reflections on those first few hours in the Holy Land!

The Holy Land, Day 1

We started our first full day in Israel with a visit to Cana, the little town where Jesus performed his very first miracle. You will see from this picture that even important sites like this are not immune from tourist traps!

This is the Catholic church built over the site where the miracle is believed to have taken place....of course, there is another church, Greek Orthodox, DIRECTLY across the street, that claims the same thing!! As I've mentioned before, its not the exact spot that matters to me-I just know that it happened! We do know for sure though that a majority of scholars believe this is the small village where it happened.

From John 2: "On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

With Ron and Kathy's leadership, the married couples in our group decided to take this opportunity to renew their wedding vows (we were at the place where the wedding miracle took place, after all). Taylor and I have been married for 3 years, and Taylor, being his usual jovial self, said at first that he wasn't sure if we needed to renew because ours were still pretty fresh. Ha! But then he figured-how many times does a couple have the chance to do that, in Cana, no less! So we jumped right in.

Our sweet friend Todd snapped a pic of us renewing our vows:

So of course I have to give a shout-out: Taylor, I love you and am so happy I am married to you!

Here is a picture of the inside of the church at Cana:

And this is VERY cool: below is a picture of a stone jar, like the ones described in the New Testament, that dates back to the time of Jesus. This would have been the exact type of jar that would have held the water at the wedding, before Jesus turned it to wine.
"Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast." So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now." This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him." :

Next we headed to the local Baptist church in Nazareth for worship.

The church members there, despite our language barrier, were kind and welcoming. They had invited us to sing for their service, and we were happy to oblige! One of the coolest things about it to me was singing some of the praise choruses, with all the voices rising up in a beautiful collision of English and Arabic. Some of the choruses were only in Arabic, and let me tell y'all, it was pretty funny to hear all those Mississippi accents singing those Arabic words!

Next it was on to the Church of the Anunciation, which is built over the house that is believed to have been Mary's at the time the angel appeared to her and told her she would have a child:

These are the beautiful doors of the church, depicting Bible stories, and our guide Rami standing in front giving one of his excellent explanations:

Here is Taylor and me with the cave that was Mary's home in the background:

Next Rami led us through the winding streets of Nazareth to a local falafel and schwarma restaurant-yum! I had to snap a pic of my Arabic Coke Zero!

Then it was back on the bus for a drive to the Mediterranean coast, to the ruins of Caesarea Maritima, a port city built by Herod the Great around 20 B.C.

The city was a center of trade, culture, and the arts. Below are the restructured ruins of the amphitheater that existed at that time. The bottom row of seats is original to Herod's theater. It has been restored today and is currently used as a venue for concerts and shows.

Lizzie and me resting atop one of the ancient columns:

Our whole group in front of the Mediterranean Sea:

Taylor and me:

And our last stop of the day was Mount Carmel, mentioned in the Bible in 1 Kings 18:
"So Ahab sent a message among all the sons of Israel and brought the prophets together at Mount Carmel. Elijah came near to all the people and said, "How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him." But the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, "I alone am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men....Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, He is God." And all the people said, "That is a good idea."
At the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet came near and said, "O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant and I have done all these things at Your word. "Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are God, and that You have turned their heart back again." Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, "The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God." (1 Kings 18:20-24, 36-39 NASB)

Here is the view from atop Mount Carmel, looking over the Jezreel Valley

In case you are not familiar with the Jezreel Valley, here is a little info from Wikipedia: "According to the Bible, the valley was the scene of a victory by the Israelites, led by Gideon, against the Midianites, the Amalekiltes, and the Children of the East, but was later the location at which the Israelites, led by King Saul, were defeated by the Philistines. In Christian eschatology, the part of the valley on which the Battle of Megiddo was fought is believed to be destined to be the site of the penultimate battle between good and evil (the final battle taking place 1,000 years later in Jerusalem), known as Armageddon (a word derived from Megiddo)."

A pretty happenin' place if you ask me!

After packing all that in, we were worn slap out. It was back to our hotel on the Sea of Galilee for a filling dinner and STRAIGHT to bed for this girl-we had another big day ahead!

The Holy Land, Day 6: Headed Home

This morning we had a little bit of time to sleep in-our bus did not leave the hotel until about 10:30. I think those extra couple of hours of rest were much appreciated by the whole crew! It also gave us a little time to pack and figure out how we were going to squeeze any purchases we had made into our bags!

Once back in Jerusalem, our first stop was Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum. If you have ever been to the one in D.C., you can imagine the feel of this one as well. It was a solemn, sobering experience, like its sister museum in our country. It is hard to walk through, but I believe very important. I would encourage anyone who has the chance to visit either one to do so. I wish I could have taken some pictures, but I didn't take my camera because no pictures are allowed inside the building. I was able to snap one of the outside as we rode by in the bus:

I would love to meet the architect who designed this place. The museum itself is an architectural beauty-the whole thing is a giant three-dimensonal triangle, with half built into the side of the mountain, and half hanging off the side in a gravity-defying sort of way. At the end of the museum, there is an observation deck looking out over the city of Jerusalem. It is a perfect place for reflection after taking in all the information inside the museum. It is surrounded by memorial gardens filled with beautiful structures as well as vegetation, including rosemary, mint, and other herbs.

We all loaded back up on the bus and headed towards the "old city" of Jerusalem (the museum was in a newer portion of the city). The next few hours had been allotted for free time in the souk, or market. As scary as it sounds to turn 40 Mississippians loose in the Jerusalem markets--that was the plan!

The large loops of bread are called bagels here:

Here is a newer area of shops, where the group Taylor and I were with ate lunch:

We had a cool experience in the markets. There are no prices on any of the items, because they are all VERY negotiable. Haggling is a way of life in the market streets. I saw two beautifully handmade pillowcases, and when I asked how much the man told me it would be $140 for the pair. I remembered what our guide, Rami, had told us: "For every step back you take, the price will go down." So I told the man that was too expensive for me, and started to walk away. "One hundred dollars!" he shouted. Back and forth we went, and with Taylor's help we finally settled on thirty bucks apiece! I was pumped.

Here is a picture of the crew we navigated the markets with (or, the "young'uns as Ms. Doris calls us). From left to right, it's Taylor, me, Emily, Todd, Mandy, Laura, Lizzie, and Karen:

After we had all had our fill of the market, it was back to the bus and back to Bethlehem one last time. We went for our last meal in Israel at a cool restaurant designed to look like a Bedouin tent:

And at the end, a surprise performance by Lavon and Wendy:

Ha! And here is a picture of Taylor and me with our guide for the week, Rami. Our trip would not have been the same without him-we feel very blessed that we got to know him!

And here is our last pic together in the Holy Land, and the last sunset of our trip:

As I write this now, we have just arrived in New York from Tel-Aviv on our red-eye flight. We are worn out, but filled to the brim. This experience has been incredible. I am certainly changed, and I would imagine each person in our group would say the same. I have a broader perspective of this area of the world, an increased knowledge, and a renewed zeal for reading scripture. For Taylor and I to have experienced this together at such an early point in our marriage is a blessing, and I am so thankful.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Holy Land, Day 5

So today we started off with a trip to a site that is not necessarily a Biblical one, but it is certainly a historical one. But before I lay that out for you, allow me to digress. We have had some wonderful food while we have been here-so many traditional Mediterranean foods such as hummus, baba ghanoush, pita bread, falafel, and fresh vegetables in all manner of "salads", as they refer to them here. One of my favorite things to eat for breakfast at this hotel is...well actually I have no earthly idea how to spell it, and I won't embarrass myself by trying! I need to make a point tomorrow to figure out exactly how it is spelled. But basically it is similar to a crepe. Here they are prepared with the traditionally very thin piece of bread, or tortilla, but they are hearty and seem to be whole wheat. The bread is heated briefly, brushed with olive oil, and filled with some type of cheese. A blend of spices, that is mostly ground oregano I believe, is added as well. The whole thing is then heated up and served. YUM! The nice man who makes these asked me to take a picture of him this morning!

And now, back to the tour. This morning we headed to Masada, which is a historically significant site here in Israel.
I will borrow from Wikipedia to explain it more fully: "According to Josephus, a 1st-century Jewish Roman historian, Herod the Great fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BC as a refuge for himself in the event of a revolt. In 66 AD, at the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War against the Roman Empire, a group of Jewish extremists overcame the Roman garrison of Masada. Many members of the Jewish group and their families fled Jerusalem and settled on the mountaintop, using it as a base." Several years later, the Romans came and built a ramp up to the mountaintop and prepared to attack. However, rather than be taken for slaves the Jewish people there committed suicide, each man killing his own wife and children, and then taking his own life.

Pretty crazy story, huh? It is somewhat controversial, but most agree that this is what happened. What we visited today was the site itself and the reconstructed ruins that sit atop the mountain fortress. One of the things that was coolest to me about the site itself is the technology that the people there'll see more about that in a minute. Here are some snapshots from the visit.

We rode a cable car up the VERY steep mountain:

That's a loooong way down, y'all:

FYI, that's the dead sea in the background:

We shared the area with some Israeli soldiers who were there as part of their training. They were kind enough to take a few pictures with some people from our group. here is what was so cool to me. Now remember, this was Herod's palace we are talking about. I feel sure he had the finest technologies and resourceful minds in the land at his disposal. Take a look at this replica of the palace bath houses:

There was a cool room, a warm room, and a sauna. That small cylinder in the picture above is the top of the furnace. What you see in the picture below are the columns that separated the double flooring that was in this part of the palace:

And now here are the actual, untouched remains of that flooring:

I don't know if you are putting two and two together yet but if not....he had heated floors, people! Heated tile floors. That absolutely boggles my mind. That something that is considered a real luxury today, that is available for people to put in their homes, Herod had found a way to design and implement in his palace in thirtysomething BC! Incredible.

Here we all are listening to one of Rami's detailed explanations:

Next it was on to the Qumeran, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. What we know is that a community called the Essenes lived here. They were a Jewish community, all men, who came to this place to live a life of purity and devotion to God. They spent most of their time studying the Jewish scriptures, copying important religious texts, taking ritual purification baths, and making pottery. In case you do not know exactly what the Dead Sea Scrolls are, I will explain by borrowing again from Wikipedia: "The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 972 texts from the Hebrew Bible and extra-biblical documents found between 1947 and 1956 at Khirbet Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in the West Bank." These scrolls were significant because they are the oldest texts that have been found of the Hebrew Bible; they date back to the 2nd century BC. "These biblical manuscripts, which include at least fragments from every book of the Old Testament, except perhaps for the Book of Esther, provide a far older cross section of scriptural tradition than that available to scholars before."

Here is a picture of the excavated site where the Essenes lived and worked:

Their ritual bathing area--you can't see, but there are wide steps that go down into the bath:

And a picture of cave number 4 (60 were excavated), in which over 90 percent of the scrolls were found.

So after all that history, we were ready for the beach! (Sort of!) We headed off to swim in the Dead Sea!

In case you don't know, the Dead Sea (which is actually a lake) is the lowest elevation on the Earth's surface. It is 10 times saltier than the ocean. It is chock full of salt and many other minerals that make it a center of research for healing and cosmetic purposes. The Sea is 35% salt, and because of that, when you lie in its waters, you don't float!

Here is a pic of Lizzie and me with that awesome Dead Sea mud all over us:

Funny story-after we had all been in the water for a while, I looked over and saw Ms. Jill, a lady in our group, frantically rubbing the mud all over her arms and face. When I commented on how she must really be enjoying the mud, she said, "Do you have any idea how much we would pay for a spa treatment with this stuff back home?! Probably a hundred dollars!! I'm gonna get it while I can!" We all laughed-but she is exactly right!

Here is some of our crew just chillin' in the water:

It really was such an interesting sensation to float there in the water. A few of us went out to where it got a little deeper, and tried to "stand", or at least position ourselves upright, without touching the bottom. The only way I can describe it is to say I felt like a cork just bobbing in the water! I imagine it is somewhat similar to being in outer space. Another interesting fact-if you drink the water there in any significant quantity, it can kill you. When the guide first told us this, most of us thought he was kidding, but we quickly realized he was not. There were signs all over the place warning swimmers to keep their head above water and not to splash if at all possible.

And for our last little excursion of the day....we stopped at a gas station on the way to the hotel where they were offering...camel rides!

We climbed on to the camels while they were still sitting, and the guys leading each camel would use a lead rope to signal for the camel to get up, which it promptly did. They would then lead us a couple times around the parking lot, like kids at a county fair on a pony! Ha! We all just ate it up. Almost everyone in our group took a turn on one of the camels!

I love how the camels walk, with their necks arched and noses up in the air. They seem to be very proud. As they should be-I think they are such cool and beautiful animals!

I can't believe that the trip is almost over. It seems to have gone by so quickly, and yet we have packed an amazing amount of activity into just a few days. I am very much looking forward to tomorrow, when we will go back into Jerusalem and Bethlehem for a little more sight-seeing and discovery. I will keep you updated!