Tuesday, November 14, 2017 – Mt. Zion and Trip Wrap Up

Mt. Zion

Our last stop for the day was Mt. Zion, the highest point in ancient Jerusalem – packed with places of historical and religious significance.

Mt. Zion is mentioned throughout the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) but it’s location has ‘moved’ several times.  When Herod greatly expanded the 2nd Temple, the entire Temple Mount was considered Mt. Zion.  Following the Roman destruction of the Temple/Jerusalem in 70 AD, the name Mt. Zion was transferred to its present location.

We started with a stop at the Zion Gate to the Old City.  This was a scene of fierce fighting during the 6-day war in 1967 that lead to the creation of the modern State of Israel.  You can still see the marks of bullets in/around the gate.


Zion Gate to Old Jerusalem; close up of gate showing bullet marks from 6-day war in 1967

Now outside the gates of the Old City, Mt. Zion was home to a first century Judaeo-Christian synagogue and a succession churches built on the site including a Byzantine basilica.  Currently, Mt. Zion is now home to the Church of the Dormition (identified in Christian tradition as the place where the Virgin Mary died — or “fell asleep”), the Cenacle (which commemorates the Last Supper and where the Holy Spirit landed on the disciples at Pentecost), and the Tomb of David.

Dormition Church on Mt. Zion

Cenacle – the Upper Room

We began with a visit to the Last Supper upper room (the Cenacle).  The present Gothic-arched Cenacle is a restoration of a Crusader chapel built in the 12th century as part of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Zion. One of the columns in the room is carved with the image of two pelicans feeding on the blood from their mother’s heart – symbolizing Christ giving his blood/life for our salvation.


Close up and distance view of the pelicans feeding pillar

In the 16th century, the room was converted to a mosque, after Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims.  They added stained glass windows inscribed with the Islamic credo “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet” and a decorative stone arch. There is also still a Muslim minaret above the Cenacle.

Decorative stone arch added when space was turned into a mosque
Stained glass window in Upper Room added while Jerusalem was under Muslim control
Minaret above the Upper Room

More recently,  a sculpture has been added in the room commemorating Christ as the tree, with believers as the branches.  The sculpture includes shafts of wheat (representing the bread of life) and grapes (cup of the covenant).

King David’s Tomb

Directly beneath the Cenacle is the Tomb of King David. According to our guide Adina, sometime around the crusader era a belief that David’s tomb was on the present Mt. Zion began to develop among Christian pilgrims, who celebrated David’s memory as an ancestor of Jesus.  The crusaders actually build the present Tomb of David, with it’s large stone tomb (Adina joked that David would have had to be an extremely large man to fit in that tomb (about 9 ft. in length, separated by a screen, as in a synagogue, for viewing separately by men and women).  Apparently 3 of the walls in the room date back to the first century synagogue-church.


Entrance to King David’s Tomb at Mt. Zion; visitors at the tomb (men’s side)

Even though the Bible says David was buried in the City of David (not on Mount Zion), this Mt. Zion tomb came to be accepted as David’s Tomb by Jews and is now a site revered by Jews and Muslims.

We entered the tomb via a courtyard which is part of a former Franciscan monastery (closed in 1551).  The complex has three simple rooms without furniture (except for wooden benches).  The entrance hall is used as a synagogue, again, accounting for the male/female separation when viewing the tomb itself.

Back in the courtyard is a large statue of King David.  The nose of the statue has been broken off and Adina explained that this was likely the work of Orthodox Jews who believe such statues to be idols and therefore try to destroy/deface them.

Statue of David in the courtyard leading to King David’s Tomb – note the missing nose

After 8 days together (including our first day of travel to Israel), we finally got a group photo around the base of the Statue of King David on Mt. Zion.  It has been wonderful to get to know all the folks on our journey – each with their own personality and perspective brought something unique to our little band of pilgrims. Thank you to everyone for helping to make this such a memorable and faith-filled experience!

Our happy band of pilgrims (missing from photo is Sharon H.)  Our guide, Adina, is in front row

Trip Wrap-Up

We opted not (with some regrets) to tour the Church of the Dormition, and walked back to our bus for the ride back to our hotel for our final dinner together in the Holy Land.  I should note that breakfasts and dinners throughout our time in Israel were included in the price of the trip at the places we were staying.  These meals were always served buffet style.  The best buffets (in my opinion) were at our last hotel (Prima Kings) in Jerusalem.  They obviously cater to tourist groups, as their dining rooms were quite large and their buffets were extensive.  Our group had a couple of designated tables, but they kept moving us around in the dining room during our stay.  It became a challenge to locate our tables at each meal!

After dinner, we were back on the bus just before 8 p.m. for our ride back to Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport.  Our flight was scheduled to leave at 1 a.m. on Nov. 15.  We thought our arrival before 9 p.m. was awfully early, but apparently departures at night are very popular and the lines for check-in and security were very long.  My husband and I were one of the last ones to get through (just ended up in the slowest lines) and then hit a glitch at the biometric passport check.  I’d never seen such a thing (haven’t traveled out of the country by air in a very long time) and had trouble figuring out what I was supposed to do.  The process involved scanning the photo in my passport while a camera checked the features of my face against my passport.  I think I must not have been looking at the camera when I scanned my passport because I got a message to report to the Border Control office (a little disconcerting).  When I got there, an Israeli official looked at the picture in my passport and at me, and then gave me my exit visa and wished me a safe trip home.

Once in the gate area (sometime after 11 p.m.) we settled in for the wait before boarding our flight home.  It is always a bit disconcerting to be in an airport where most of the announcements are NOT given in your native language.  Sometime around midnight all of sudden someone checked the flight board and the word started passing that our flight had moved to a different gate (in a different concourse).  So, we all got up and began shuffling off to the correct gate.  Since a few members of our group were still out wandering around the shops in the main terminal, we had a bit of concern how to get word to them that the gate had changed.  Eventually, we had to rely on the hope that they would check one of the flight information boards, to see that we had moved – which they did.

The flight home left on time, but unlike the trip to Israel, the winds were against us.  That meant that rather than a 9.5 hour flight, our return flight lasted nearly 12 hours (ugh) packed in like sardines in a 9-seat across El Al Dreamliner plane.  Most of us opted to try and get some sleep on the plane, but it wasn’t easy.  We arrived safely, but bleary-eyed at the Newark airport at 6 a.m. local time (1 p.m. Israel time).  By 8 a.m. we were on our chartered bus on the way back to Pennsylvania.

With any luck, we’ll be able to get the group together sometime in January to share photos and stories of our trip.

Again, I encourage any members of our group who are reading this blog, to submit comments and/or photos to this blog to add your perspective on the places we visited.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 – Gethsemane Church, Mary’s Tomb and the Western Wall (again)

After leaving Yad Vashem, our bus driver, Amnon, dropped us off (somewhere in downtown Jerusalem) for a spot of lunch.  Some of our group opted to go window shopping, but a number of us ordered lunch from a street café (and there was even a Kosher McDonald’s in the area – some of our group had fries).  Carl and I ordered shwarma which also came with hummus and pita bread – so much food we couldn’t finish it all – but, oh, it was tasty!


Enjoying our lunch at the sidewalk cafe in Jerusalem

Kosher McDonald’s in Jerusalem

Gethsemane Church (Basilica of Agony)

After lunch, we drove over to Gethsemane Church (actually the Basilica of Agony), located at the western base of the Mt. of Olives, east of the Kidron Valley.  This is another church that has been built and re-built over the centuries.  The original church that stood on the site was Byzantine, erected in the 4th century AD and destroyed by the Persians in the 7th century AD.  There was also a crusader era church in the 12th century that was also destroyed.  The land was purchased by the Franciscans in 1666, but they were not allowed to rebuild a church there until the 20th century.  The current church on the site was designed by Antonio Barluzzi (he designed a lot of churches in the Holy Land) and was constructed between 1919 and 1924.

Front of Gethsemane Church (Basilica of Agony) – notice the figures of the Gospel writers on tops of the pillars: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Adjacent to the church are the remains of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed on the night he was betrayed (Luke 22:39-54). The garden is full of really ancient olive trees (you can tell they are really old by how thick and gnarled the trunks are).  Attached to the outside of the church is the rock believed to be where Jesus prayed on that last night.  A piece of that rock was removed and is inside the church as part of the altar.  The church is beautiful.  Several of us paused to pray inside the church (and in the garden).


Ancient Olive Trees and a message for all time in the Garden of Gethsemane adjacent to Gethsemane Church


Part of the rock where Jesus wept and close up of carving of same outside Gethsemane Church near the grove of olive trees

The top front of the church has a beautiful mosaic depicting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, weeping over the future of Jerusalem.

Beautiful mosaic on the front of Gethsemane Church


Clockwise from top left: altar area with stone from the rock where Jesus wept; painting of the prayer in Gethsemane; ceiling painting detail

Mary’s Tomb

Across the street from Gethsemane Church, is a site believed to be the Tomb of Mary (mother of Jesus). The Eastern Orthodox tradition holds that Mary died (fell asleep), was buried in a tomb and on the third day was resurrected and taken up into heaven, in anticipation of the general resurrection (when Jesus returns?).  There was a church built on the site at one point but all that remains now is the crypt, which now houses the empty tomb of Mary, the graves/tombs of her parents Anne (Hannah) and Joachim, as well as Mary’s husband, Joseph.

entrance to the crypt at Mary’s Tomb
Ornate altar inside the crypt
Mary’s empty sarcaphogus

Supposedly, in one of the side crypts on the way down the stairs (on the right as you go down the stairs) are the remains of Queen Melisende (from the crusader era – remember her from the blog entry on St. Anne’s church on Nov. 12). The website I looked at after getting home says Melisende’s remains were removed from there by the Greek Orthodox (but a year isn’t given).

The niche supposedly where Queen Melisende is buried

Given that this is a Greek Orthodox maintained site, the crypt is full of very ornate altars, lamps, and icons.  At the base of the stairs was a gentleman selling icons and special candles (multiple candles bundled together with a common wick).  Adina gave us an explanation of these candles, and what they’re used for, but now I can’t remember [anyone from our group that does remember, please feel free to add info in a comment to this post].

Ornate lamps and candles at the altar in the crypt

There is a large, walled courtyard in front of the entrance to the crypt. On top of the wall is a recent terracotta sculpture (2014) depicting Mary with Jesus at her knee.  Above that image is a cross with ‘flowered’ ends – Adina had pointed out these types of crosses to us during the week and said that the crosses with the flowered ends are Armenian – and yes, this is indeed an Armenian sculture.

Armenian Sculpture above the wall at Mary’s Tomb

Western Wall (Again)

From Mary’s Tomb we re-boarded our bus and made our way back to the Old City. Entering through the Dung Gate, we passed through security to enter the plaza in front of the above ground portion of the Western Wall of the Temple, where people come to pray.  There is a men’s and a women’s side of the wall, separated by a wooden screen.  For the second time during our trip, we approached the wall to pray and leave written prayers in niches in the wall.  For this visit, all the men had to have their heads covered, but this did not appear to be a requirement for the women (although we had been told that we needed to dress modestly for the wall, including covering our legs (i.e., no shorts) and arms (no sleeveless tops).  I said prayers, touching the wall and left written prayers a second time.  Many of the women around me were praying and crying out loud.  The place evokes a lot of emotion.  I noticed that many of the women who prayed, backed away from the wall, not turning their backs on the wall until they were several yards back (as a sign of respect, I believe).  Some women who had finished praying were seated at chairs and tables in the plaza, giving comfort to one another. In respect for the sacredness of this site, I took only a few pictures.


clockwise from top left: women’s side of the plaza at the Western Wall (note the dividing partition); prayers placed in the western wall; the western wall plaza

I asked Adina what happens to the written prayers.  She said they are removed every 3 months (and according to Wikipedia, more than 1 million prayer notes are placed at the wall each year).

As we were leaving the area, there was a wedding party on the Western Wall plaza, taking pictures.  Adina had told us earlier in the week that the custom of breaking a glass underfoot during a Jewish wedding, symbolizes the destruction of the Temple and indicates, even in a joyous event, the pain of that loss.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 – The Garden Tomb and Yad Vashem

The Garden Tomb

Our last day in Jerusalem (and Israel) dawned as all of our days here, with blue skies and lots of sunshine.

Our start time was 8 a.m. and our first stop was the Garden Tomb, located in the NW end of Jerusalem.  On the way there in the bus, Pastor Carenda asked me to sing verses 1 and 4 of “Were You There” and someone else read John 20: 1-18, concerning Mary’s discovery of the empty tomb and mistaking the resurrected Jesus for the gardener.

Entrance to the Garden Tomb; inside the Garden Tomb grounds

Unlike the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the setting for the garden tomb is indeed garden-like with numerous pavilions dotted about the site for pilgrims to gather for worship.  Our guide for this site was Brian, a volunteer.

Our Garden Tomb guide Brian

The Garden Tomb is another site that is promoted as the possible site where Jesus was crucified, buried and raised from the dead.  According to Brian, it has all the elements mentioned in scripture, including  a skull-like hill (Golgotha – the place of the skull) – revealed in 1867 when earthquakes and other vibrations revealed the skull-like face of the hill, a nearby quarry (now a depot for buses), and a stone sealed tomb near a garden.


Photo of what the site looked like when discovered in 1867; skull (golgotha) face can be seen in the hill

Current view of the skull hill (harder to see the “skull”; bus lot where quarry used to be next to the hill

After our tour of the site (including peering into the tomb (the stone is missing, but the track for it still exists), we settled in one of the pavilions for our last communion service in Israel.

On the way to the tomb; the tomb from a distance

Tomb entrance; track for rolling stone to seal the tomb (stone is long gone)

Inside the garden tomb

I thought about all we’d seen and experienced (so far) in our pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was filled with awe, knowing we had been where Jesus walked, taught, and was a living, breathing God and man among us.  It was a very humbling experience.  My prayers at the Garden Tomb were full of thanks for this journey and for Jesus’ life and sacrifice on this earth to redeem us.

Reminders of our last communion service in the Holy Land

Gisella Perl

From the Garden Tomb to Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust memorial, was quite a jarring transition.  On the way there our guide Adina told us of her incidental connection to the Holocaust.  Many years ago, Adina and her husband (and small son and 2 dogs) were looking to buy a house in Jerusalem.  The house they settled on had a small plaque near the front door that noted this was the house of Gisella Perl.  Adina said, at the time, she thought it was rather vain to have a plaque naming who owned the house.
A few weeks later, one of her new neighbors dropped by and asked her if she knew who Gisella Perl was.  When Adina said she didn’t know, the neighbor told her the story and gave her a book about Dr. Perl.

Dr. Gisella Perl

Dr. Gisella Perl was a gynecologist living in Budapest when she, her husband and son were deported to Auschwitz in 1944.  Before being captured, she managed to hide her daughter.  Her husband and son died at Auschwitz, but Dr. Perl was forced to work as a doctor in the women’s barracks and had to assist Dr. Josef Mengele in his horrific medical experiments (surgeries) on twins.  During this time she also helped perform abortions on young inmates whose pregnancies hadn’t started to show yet, saving them, at least for a time, since pregnancy would have meant either a death sentence or subjected them to Dr. Mengele’s experiments.

From Auschwitz, Dr. Perl was sent to Bergen-Belsen near the end of the war and was there when General Patton liberated the camp.  She worked for awhile at the US Army hospital set up to treat Holocaust victims.  Eventually, she moved to New York City and was reunited with her daughter, and started to practice at Mt Sinai hospital (in obstetrics).  At some point she was accused of having collaborated with the Germans during the war and had to defend herself and was eventually exonerated.  She and her daughter left the U.S. and re-settled in Israel, where she again offered her services at Hadassah Hospital to help deliver babies.

After Dr. Perl died in 1988, her house eventually was sold to the couple that Adina and her husband bought the house from.  While they lived in the house, Adina replaced the sign about it being Dr. Perl’s home with a nicer sign.  When it came time for them to sell the house, she told the new buyers the story of Gisella Perl and said that if the new owners promised to keep the sign up, she would give them the book about Dr. Perl that the neighbor had given her when she first moved in.  Unfortunately, the buyers made no such promise and so Adina still has the book.  Adina told us this story, remarking on the hope Dr. Perl maintained through all her experiences, continuing to work to bring new life into the world, despite the horrors she had endured.  It was a very powerful story.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem is a complex containing the Holocaust museum, as well as a number of memorials, including the Hall of Remebrance and the Children’s Memorial, as well as the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, containing over 2,000 trees which were planted in honor of non-Jews who endangered their lives in order to rescue Jews from the Nazis.  One of the trees is dedicated to Oskar Schindler (made famous in the movie “Schindler’s List”). In addition to the various memorials, the complex also houses the Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Prism-shaped Holocaust Museum and entrance

The Holocaust Museum is a prism-shaped building and as you venture further and further into the exhibits, there is definitely a sense of the building getting darker and closing in on you (by design).  As you proceed through the museum there are galleries on either side with artifacts, video and audio presentations and exhibits that take you from the rise of German nationalism to the beginnings of the persecution of Jews and others.  It started small with a few laws/decrees about what Jews could and could not do, but grew voraciously, resulting in the creation of a number of Jewish “ghettos” and eventually the death camps to accomplish the “final solution.”  It is a sobering and disturbing museum.  I cringe thinking about how people could be so evil and/or apathetic that they would let all this occur and either participate in it, or turn a blind eye to what was going on.  I’d like to think that nothing like this could ever happen again and that if I saw something begin to happen I’d be strong enough to stand up and say “No!”  “This is madness!”  But I don’t know.  If the beginning were subtle enough, would I see it?  Who knows.

Sculpture at Yad Vashem

While I was in the museum a group of young Israeli soldiers (young men and women) were getting a guided tour of the museum.  I wondered what they were thinking, since this represents the history of their people, and perhaps even their own individual families.

I exited the museum to brilliant sunshine (quite a change from the darkness of the museum’s exhibits) and made my way to the Hall of Remembrance where the ashes of the Holocaust’s dead are buried and an eternal flame is lit.  The building has a very dark exterior and interior and engraved in the floor are the names of the various death camps (I assume ashes from the various camps are buried beneath the associated camp names).  One member of our group, Lynne, struck up a conversation with the sole attendant at this memorial and was actually allowed to go down to the floor level for a few minutes.

The last part of the complex that I visited was the Children’s Memorial.  Approximately 1.5 million children died/were killed in the Holocaust.  That is a staggering number.  As you enter the memorial you are plunged into darkness.  On the wall in front of you are displayed digital pictures of some of the children who perished (I assume that the pictures rotate over time).  Past this wall you turn right down a long narrow corridor.  On either side, as you traverse the corridor, there are thousands and thousands of twinkling lights (looks like a beautiful starry night) and a voice reads the names and ages of the children killed in the Holocaust.

The impression I had, walking through the Children’s Memorial, was of a vast universe of twinkling lights (children’s lives) that had been extinguished before they could shine. Adina told me later that there are really only 6 lights that via mirrors/optical illusion  give the appearance of thousands of lights.

Monday, November 13, 2017 – Qumran and the Dead Sea


Leaving Masada, we retraced our steps north along the shore of the Dead Sea to Qumran, site of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls.

Qumran was home to a community of Essenes, a branch of Judaism (all male) that split off and came to Qumran to form their own community.  The called themselves the “children of light”.  They copied the Torah on scrolls as well as other writings.  They took part in ritual baths (mikveh) twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening before dinner, which took place in a communal dining hall. John (Jesus’ cousin) is believed to have spent time with the Essenes at Qumran before beginning his baptismal ministry.

Caves at/above Qumran

The Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1946-47 by Bedouin shepherds who were looking for some of their goats when they spied the cave.  They tossed some rocks in one cave and hearing a strange sound (the stones broke some of the stored clay jars), went back and brought adults with rope and oil lamps and discovered 8 clay jars, 2 of which contained fragments of scrolls. According to our guide Adina, they brought the scroll fragments to Jerusalem to sell for money to make shoes.  The person they were selling to, recognized some Hebrew writing on the scrolls and after first thinking to refuse, bought the scrolls.  Once it was determined how old and important they were, the race was on between the Bedouins and archaeologists to find more scrolls. Eventually 250 caves were explored, but only about 11-12 clay jars were even found to contain scrolls.  All told, the scrolls recovered contained the equivalent of about 900 books.  Not all are scripture-related.

Entrance to the exhibit at Qumran (Carl at front right) that explained life in the community

Qumran is not where the scrolls are kept, but the excavation of the Essene ruins are there.  We toured the ruins and saw the remains of the ritual baths (mikveh) and the communal dining hall, among other things.

Ritual bath remains at Qumran

Cistern at Qumran

Communal eating/meeting room at Qumran
Aqueduct at Qumran

From Qumran, we drove a short distance to Kalia Beach for our chance to take a dip in the Dead Sea.  The Dead Sea is actually below sea level.  The Dead Sea is fed from the north by the Jericho River (not much more than a small stream at that point), and gets water from the winter rains. At its deepest point, the Dead Sea is about 900 feet deep.  The salinity of the water is at 34% (that’s super saturated). The descent from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea is about 4,000 feet.

Date Palms on the way to Kalia at the Dead Sea; The Dead Sea – lowest place on Earth (pictures courtesy of P. Donnelly)

The beach had separate men’s and women’s locker/changing areas.  The women’s changing area, at least, was a zoo, with women changing out of clothes into bathing suits and trying to figure out how the lockers work.  We got a coin from the tourist shop/bar at the front.  To use a locker, you first needed to put your coin in and enter the three digit locker number you wanted into the screen.  If it wasn’t already in use, the screen would then prompt you for a 4-digit code and then pop the door open.  Once you put your stuff in and closed the door it was locked and wouldn’t open again until you punched the code into the screen again (three digit locker number and the 4-digit code you created.  Trying to figure that out was difficult.  But, I managed to get it done (ended up with locker #216).  Once in a suit, it was time to make our way to the shore.  Getting there meant climbing down a couple of staircases and some rather steep slopes that felt like rocks (but were probably just compressed dirt and salt.  I finally got to the shore and could see several members of our group already in the water (standing or floating).  There were also a number of people who were covering themselves with mud (supposed to be oh so wonderful for the skin) before entering the water.  I just waded into the water (felt very slimy on my skin) and got acclimated to the temperature (water was cool but not cold). Finally, I was in far enough to lean back and let myself float.  I was a little leery and when I finally leaned back, my feet came up of their own accord, but I got toe cramps in my left foot and I panicked a bit and had to ask for help to stand upright again.


The Beach bar at Kalia (photo courtesy of P. Donnelly)


After that, I decided that rather than try floating, I’d just bob like a cork instead!  Worked like a charm.  I finally decided to give floating on my back a chance again, and had Carl help me and stay close in case I started flailing again.  Since we were on a time schedule (needed to be back at the bus at 4 p.m.), I eventually got out and headed for the open showers on the beach.  This was quite necessary in order to get rid of all the salt.  Because of the salt and the crowds, I decided not to bring my camera with me to the beach, so I don’t have any pictures.  I’m hoping that someone else on the trip did get some pictures.  If any are forwarded to me, I’ll try to get them up on this blog site.

The Beach at Kalia; Mud pools just before the Dead Sea at Kalia (pictures courtesy of           P. Donnelly)

ADDENDUM (1/23/18):  Success!  P. Donnelly did take some pictures at Kalia beach on the Dead Sea.  Am happy to add them here.  It was a slightly overcast afternoon by the time we got there.  Notice how ‘hard’ the beach looks – not soft sand, but hard-packed minerals.

Slightly soggy and still a little salty, our group of 19 boarded the bus (about 20 min. late after all that) and made our way back to the hotel in Jerusalem for more showering and dinner.  Afterwards, a number of us headed over to the King David Tower for a sound and light show about the history of the Temple (from the time of King David through the establishment of the modern State of Israel).  It was a very impressive show.

Monday, November 13, 2017 – Mt. Scopus, Ein Gedi, and Masada

Our next to last day in Israel and Adina wanted us to get an early start for our ride west and south of Jerusalem through the Judean Desert to see Masada, from which we backtracked to Qumran (discovery site of the Dead Sea scrolls), and then our final stop at the Dead Sea to go swimming (or, more properly, floating).

Mt. Scopus (Jerusalem)

We left the hotel and made one stop on the way out of Jerusalem at Mt. Scopus and some great views of the city of Jerusalem.  Mt. Scopus is one of three mountains/hills around Jerusalem, including the Mt. of Olives, and the Mt of Destruction (so named because it was the place Herod’s foreign (pagan) wives were allowed to have temples to their gods.  Ancient Jews believed that the presence of these pagan temples would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem.

Views of Jerusalem from Mount Scopus

Ancient graves in cemetery next to Mt. Scopus

During our ride out of Jerusalem, Adina talked about the public education system in Israel, including 5 great public universities (we drove by Hebrew University).

The Judean Desert is pretty desolate – nothing but sand dunes and dry mountains on our way past the Dead Sea to Masada.  We’re heading down from Jerusalem about 4,000 ft. to the Dead Sea (the lowest spot on earth).  Along the way, we stopped at a rest stop/tourist attraction that features dates (the best dates in Israel) from a nearby kibbutz.  This was another touristy stop with a camel for hire and I did manage to sneak a picture of a camel (someone taking a ride) while I was there.  I also bought two beach towels for use later in the day at the Dead Sea.

My first glimpse of the Dead Sea on our way to Masada

Rest stop on the way to Masada where I bought beach towels for the Dead Sea and got this photo of a woman (tourist) riding a camel.  They sold very fresh dates here.

The Dead Sea area is known not just for the salt it produces but a whole range of minerals that wash down out of the mountains into the sea.  These are used in many applications around the world, but especially in cosmetics.

About halfway to Masada is the Oasis of Ein Gedi where ongoing excavations have unearthed the remains of a synagogue (there was a Jewish settlement there back in the 3rd century).  Ein Gedi is fed by two springs and was raided several times by the Zealots at Masada for supplies and water in the first century AD. Ein Gedi features in the Bible in the story of David fleeing Saul (see 1 Samuel 24).  Saul chased David into the wilderness of Ein Gedi and actually entered a cave where David was hiding with some of his men.  He didn’t know David was there and used it as a rest stop. When David surprised Saul there and spared his life, Saul predicted that David would succeed him on the throne.


Masada, located on the top of a mountain east of the Dead Sea, was built by Herod the Great as a winter palace.  He only took up residence there in the winter months.

Our first view of Masada from the bus
Scale model of Masada
Model of Herod’s winter palace at Masada – Adina talks about the palace with Frank S. in the background

After Herod died, the site became a place to house a Roman garrison.  During the Jewish uprising which began in 66 AD, the Zealots usurped the Roman garrison and used Masada as a stronghold against the Romans.  The Romans eventually reconquered Masada in 73 AD after a 3-year siege as reported by the historian Josephus Flavius.  The Romans were able to conquer Masada by building a road/ramp up to the summit of Masada.

The breaching point; view of the ramp the Romans built to breach Masada’s walls

The story of Masada is that when the Zealots realized the Romans were about to overrun Masada, rather than being caught they committed suicide.  Well, according to history (legend), since suicide is forbidden under Jewish law, first all the heads of families (males), killed their own families, then the remaining males drew lots, and the ‘loser’ killed all the other males, and then killed himself.  So, when the Romans arrived in Masada, they found no one alive.  For many years after Israel declared independence in 1948, Masada was considered a symbol of Jewish resistance and associated with the thought that “never again” would the Jews allow themselves to be overtaken.  Young Israeli soldiers would take their oath of service at Masada.  In more recent times, Masada’s history and the glorification of the Zealots who took their lives, have come under questions and soldiers no longer take their oaths there.

While the “snake road” built to ascend to Masada still exists, these days, most everyone takes the tram to the top to view the ruins.


View of the Snake Road from the top of Masada and from inside the tram on the way up

The remains of Herod’s winter palace are at the far end of the plateau.  It was a 3 level palace built into the rock.  There are also remnants of a watch tower, the Roman garrison barracks and the garrison commander’s quarters (so deemed by the presence of fresco painting on the walls (still incredibly vivid after all these years).  Store rooms have also been unearthed but have not yet been excavated.  They are purposely being left as is, to be excavated by the next generation of archaeologists (hoping they will have even better tools/techniques in the years ahead).  We also went by a dove cote (made famous for me in the novel “The Dove Keepers”), used to house doves for eating (easier to get up to Masada than large animals) and for collection of their droppings to use for fertilizer on crops grown on the top of Masada. There were also the remains of cisterns for collecting water during the winter rains.

Watch tower and inside the house of the garrison commander (notice the frescoes). The black line above frescoes denotes height of the wall when Masada was excavated; material above was added to stabilize the wall in modern times.

Another interesting find on Masada are Roman baths that also include a mikveh (Herod was covering all his bases).  There are also ruins of a later synagogue, and a 5th century Byzantine church (made from materials scavenged from the Masada site) with beautiful mosaics on the floor.

Clockwise from top left: model of the Roman baths at Masada; inside the bath ruins; far wall of the baths (where furnace outside supplied heat for steam in the baths)

Dovecot at Masada

Remains of the synagogue at Masada (built by the Zealots)

Ruins of Byzantine Church on Masada

From the top of Masada you can still see the outlines of the three Roman encampments at the base of the mountain from the siege in 73 AD.

Outline of one of the Roman encampments during the siege of Masada

The trip up to the top of Masada and back was aboard a tram that holds 50 people (or more?) at a time.  They really squeezed us in the tram cars.  Wasn’t so bad coming up, but the trip down, suspended by a cable with a panoramic view of  how high up we were, was a bit disconcerting!

Sunday, November 12, 2017 – Temple Mount and the Western Wall Tunnel

From the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we stopped for a bit in the Christian Quarter for an early lunch and a little bit of shopping.  If I haven’t mentioned it before, the weather for our entire trip was spectacular – warm and sunny every day.  Today was no exception and it was so nice to sit at a little outdoor cafe and eat some shwarma and just people watch for awhile. Also got another look at the outside of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.

The Temple Mount

Soon enough, Adina herded her 19 ‘sheep’ towards the Temple Mount.  This is another place with layers of history spanning millennia.  The first temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BC was destroyed by the Babylonians (leading to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews) in 586 BC.  The second temple was completed in 516 BC.  Then in 19 BC, Herod the Great expanded the mount, nearly doubling its size, and rebuilt the temple.  This is the temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.  The walls that Herod had built were so massive (stones were 40 ft. long, 9 ft. high and 12 ft. deep), that the Romans couldn’t tear the walls down (though they tried).

Following destruction of the Temple in 70, AD, the Romans renamed Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina” (Capital City), dedicated to Jupiter.  A temple to Jupiter was built on the site of the former Jewish temple.  Then during the Byzantine period, when Christianity became a dominant religion in Rome, there is some evidence that a Byzantine church or public building of some sort was built on the temple site. In 610 AD, the Sassanid Empire drove the Byzantine Empire out of the middle east and gave Jews control of Jerusalem, who began to rebuild the temple yet again.  However, 5 years later, control of the city shifted back to the Christians, and they tore down the beginnings of the Jewish temple and turned the site into a garbage dump.  In 637 Arabs conquered the city and during this period built the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. The gold cladding of the Dome of the Rock began in 1920 and has been updated through the 1990’s.  What is the “rock” in the Dome of the Rock?  Well, it is believed by Jews to be the site of the rock altar where Abraham was prepared to offer his son Issac as a sacrifice.  The Muslims believe the rock is where Mohammed ascended into heaven.

View of the Dome of the Rock from Temple Mount grounds

The walls of the 2nd temple go deep, and over the years, much has been covered up/built up with homes and other buildings in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem.

We began our exploration of the Temple Mount at the southern wall (nearest the Dung Gate) where some recent excavations are underway.  We stopped in a museum to see a film (watched in Hebrew and in English) about what the temple would have looked like in Jesus’ time and what a Jew needed to do to prepare himself and bring an offering (animal) to the Temple for sacrifice.  Over and over again in our exploration of Jesus’ time, the issue of ritual baths (mikveh) came up.  Sure enough, in the ruins near the south end of the temple mount are even more mikveh.

Excavations near the South Wall of the Temple Mount

We also got to climb on the remains of the steps at the south end of the temple complex. These steps led up to an entrance to the temple mount (double arches) that were bricked in during Islamic control of the city.  Our guide, Adina, said these steps date back to Jesus time and could have been part of the steps Jesus sat on, discussing with the rabbis, when he was 12  (“After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”  Luke 2:46).

Clockwise from top right: view from steps on the southern wall of the temple; Anne C. (me) on the steps on the south wall of the temple; the south wall temple steps

We also saw a presentation about the first 2 temples, and how the landscape of the temple mount changed over the centuries, with build up of neighborhoods along the west wall of the Temple Mount.

The Western Wall Tunnel

From the south wall of the temple, we walked to enter the Western Wall Tunnel. This tunnel starts perpendicular to the Western Wall of the Temple.  When King Herod expanded the Temple Mount in 19 BC, he built 4 retaining walls and the Temple Mount was expanded on top of them. After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, the retaining walls and the mount platform remained. Over the centuries, much of the area next to the walls have been covered and built upon. Only a small portion of the Western wall remains visible/accessible above ground, and that part of it is referred to as the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem, where the Jews go to pray.

Views of the Western Wall Tunnel

British researchers started excavating the Western Wall in the mid 19th century. They were followed by Sir Charles Warren.

Diagram of Western Wall excavation/tunnel

The various excavations have revealed an additional 1590 ft. of the western wall (below current ground level). The excavations have also revealed many archaeological finds, including streets and other structures from the Hasmonean Period.  The tunnel begins perpendicular to the Western Wall where it makes a sharp turn to the North and then travels along the length of the Western Wall to the north.  We were able to say prayers and place our prayers in crevices of the Western Wall, closer to the north end (where the 2nd Temple would have stood).

Adina talking about the underground excavated portions of the Western Wall; prayer notes placed in the underground portion of the Western Wall (close to the north end of the Temple Mount)

Near the end of the tunnel are the remains of a large cistern (pool).  A portion of this cistern is located under the Convent of the Sisters of  Zion (blocked off from the Western Wall tunnel).

Remains of the cistern at the north end of the Western Wall tunnel

Adina told us the story of how the northern exit from the tunnel into the Muslim Quarter came about.  Originally, people had to make a U-turn at the cistern and come all the way back to the beginning of the tunnel to exit (no mean feat, considering how narrow the tunnel is).  Originally Israel proposed to create an exit that would come up in the Muslim Quarter.  They even got a shop owner in the Muslim Quarter to agree to sell his shop where the exit would be built.  But after protests and riots they abandoned that approach.  Then, the Israelis thought they could tunnel under the bedrock and come out near the north end of the Temple Mount.  But again, the Muslims objected, thinking the Israelis might actually tunnel under/into the Temple Mount.  Finally, in 1996, with no public agreement, Israel built their tunnel exit on the north end of the Western Wall and the Muslims built a second mosque inside the Temple Mount.

Once we exited the tunnel, we retraced our steps and exited the Old City via the Dung Gate and met up with our bus for the ride back to our hotel.

The Dung Gate

Since we were back at the hotel with plenty of time to spare before dinner, Carenda suggested we all meet in the park (Harry Wilf Park) a few blocks from our hotel at 4:30 p.m. for a communion service.  Before joining them, Carl and I walked down to the Mamilla Mall looking for a place where I could get US currency to replace the money I thought I had lost (money to pay for tips to Adina and Amnon at the end of our trip).  Someone at the desk in the Prima Kings hotel had told us there was a place to get US currency in the mall.  Well, there was an exchange office, but that’s all it was – an exchange place for currency.  They couldn’t take my bank card and give me cash.  The woman said I had to have (Israeli) currency first, and then she could change it into dollars.  So we found an Israeli ATM in the mall, but every time I tried to get Israeli shekels from the ATM, I got a notice that my card wasn’t authorized for such transactions (grrrr!).  I was in tears by the time we left the mall empty-handed and trudged back up to the Park for the communion service.  After the service, Pat D. said he knew of an ATM nearer our hotel that would take my bank card.  He walked Carl and I to the ATM (across the street from our hotel) and I was able to withdraw enough money (in shekels) to cover needed tips and any additional spending money for the rest of the trip.

So – here’s the rest of the story concerning my money woes.  Our first night in Tel Aviv when I opened my suitcase, I noticed that my TSA lock was missing and I thought I had put my extra cash inside a cross body bag inside the suitcase.  Of course when I checked the suitcase and the body bag I couldn’t find my extra cash and thought perhaps it had been taken by TSA or maybe other baggage handlers at the Newark Airport.  I fumed (mostly inwardly) about this the whole trip (beating myself up for being so stupid to pack my extra cash in my main suitcase).  When we finally got home on November 15 and I was emptying all the compartments of my carry-on bag (not my checked suitcase), lo and behold I found my envelope with my extra cash – I’d had it with me the whole time – tucked in a zippered compartment that I hadn’t checked before!

Sunday, November 12, 2017 – The Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

This was definitely the day we put miles on our feet, walking all over the old walled city of Jerusalem.  As I mentioned in a previous post, this was the day we walked over 4 miles, more than 10,000 steps and climbed the equivalent of 7 stories.

The Via Dolorosa

After we left St. Anne’s Church we began our journey to follow the Via Dolorosa through the streets of the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The Via Dolorosa (the way of sorrows/suffering) is meant to trace Jesus’ travel through Jerusalem on the way to the cross.  The only problem is that the path has changed locations through Jerusalem over the centuries.  The current Via Dolorosa starts in the Muslim Quarter, near the location of the former Antonia Fortress (where it is believed Pilate sentenced Jesus to death) and winds its way westward to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Christian Quarter. It follows the remnants of one of the two main East-West Roman routes through Jerusalem of the Roman period.

There are 9 stations of the cross on the Via Dolorosa (technically, #9 is inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), corresponding to events (some in scripture, some not) between Jesus’ condemnation by Pilate and his crucifixion. Signs along the streets point the way to the various stations on the way.

Signs in the Old City identifying the Via Dolorosa

Some of the stations contain churches to commemorate the particular event, and some are simply identified with a marker above a doorway.

Stations 1 & 2 – Trial by Pilate and Jesus’ scourging

We began our journey on the Via Dolorosa in a plaza with the Church of the Flagellation.  The plaza also contains two other churches: The Church of the Condemnation and Imposition of the Cross, and the Church of Ecce Homo (refers to Pilate’s speech in John 19:1 where he presents Christ after scourging him “Behold, the man”).  Station one would be at the Antonia Fortress which no longer exists.  The current Church of the Flagellation was designed by Antonio Barluzzi and completed between 1927 and 1929 and was a complete reconstruction of the original shrine. The carving in the archway of the church door is meant to represent Christ’s crown of thorns.

Description of and view of the door of the Church of the Flagellation

Detail of the top of the church and the crown of thorns around the doorway

Station 3: Jesus falls (one of three stations)  

Stations 3, 7, and 9 are not gospel-based, but commemorate places where traditionally, Jesus fell or was prostrate on his way to the cross. Station 3 is located adjacent to the 19th-century Polish Catholic Chapel.

Station 4: Encounter with Mary, the mother of Jesus

This station is also not mentioned in scripture, but is a popular tradition.  The station is located near a 19th-century Armenian Catholic Church. A half-moon shape above the door of the church depicts this encounter in bas-relief. The church was built in 1881, but its crypt has some archaeological remains of a Byzantine building on the site.  We didn’t enter any of the churches on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


Station Four marker with bas relief above the church door

Station 5: Encounter with Simon of Cyrene

This is mentioned in the gospels (in Matthew, Mark and Luke).  This site is located at the east end of the western fraction of the Via Dolorosa, adjacent to the Chapel of Simon of Cyrene, a Franciscan construction built in 1895.

Station 6: Encounter with Veronica (Veronica’s Veil)

According to Roman Catholic legend Veronica encountered Jesus and wiped the sweat from his face with a cloth which has since been said to have been supernaturally imprinted with Jesus’ image, by physical contact with Jesus’ face. Greek Roman Catholics purchased the 12th-century ruins at the location in 1883, and built the Church of the Holy Face and Saint Veronica on them, claiming that Veronica had encountered Jesus outside her own house, and that the house had formerly been positioned at this spot.

Jim D. outside the door to what is said to be Veronica’s house – Station 6

Station 7: Jesus falls (2nd of 3 stations)

This station is located at a major crossroad junction, adjacent to a Franciscan chapel, built in 1875.

7th station on the Via Dolorosa

Station 8: Encounter with Pious Women (described in Luke 23)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus stops and preaches to these women on his way to the cross (Luke 23: 27-31). The station is located adjacent to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Charalampus; it is marked by the word Nika (a Greek word meaning Victory) carved into the wall, and an embossed cross.

Jim D. places his hand on the embossed cross at Station 8; the embossed cross (a little blurry)

Station 9: Jesus falls (3rd of 3 stations)

This station is not actually located on the Via Dolorosa, instead it is located at the entrance to the Ethiopian Orthodox Monastery and the Coptic Orthodox Monastery of Saint Anthony, which together form the roof structure of the subterranean Chapel of Saint Helena in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

There are an additional five “Stations of the Cross” which cover events on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.  These stations are all located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

Station 10 – Jesus is stripped of his clothes

Station 11 – Jesus is nailed to the cross

Station 12 – Jesus dies on the cross

Station 13 – Jesus is taken down from the cross

Station 14 – Jesus is placed in the tomb

What I remember of our following the Via Dolorosa was how narrow and steep the streets were – paved with uneven stones – I was glad I brought a cane and had to really concentrate on where I was putting my feet, so I couldn’t look around much until we stopped at a particular site.

Uneven stone streets on the Via Dolorosa

The old city seemed dark and it was a bit odd to be following such a spiritually emotional route, surrounded by shops selling everything from shwarma to t-shirts and souvenirs.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Where to begin describing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?  My reflections will be a jumble of impressions and little factoids that stuck with me.  A fuller history of the church, including building, destruction, and reconstruction and renovations over the past nearly 2000 years can be found on Wikipedia.

The day before, our guide, Adina, had warned us that the Old City would be crowded – so crowded, that we might be in danger of getting separated.  She said that it had been so crowed that day (the 11th) that people had started panicking and crying!  This is apparently the height of tourist season in Israel. I was anticipating being crushed by crowds and frantic to keep Adina in sight.  The reality was that while the old city was crowded, there weren’t crushing crowds and I found I was able to take in the sights without feeling I was frantic to keep up with our group.

Nonetheless, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was probably the most crowded site in the Old City (still not as bad as the crowds in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem yesterday).

The Church is actually a complex of buildings that encompass both Golgotha (where Jesus was crucified) and the tomb where Jesus was buried.  There are any number of additional chapels and other worship areas inside the church complex.  Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine visited the Holy Land in the 4th century and supposedly discovered the site of Jesus’ tomb.

Over the centuries/millenia, several different church bodies have come to lay claim/run parts of the church including the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and even the Ethiopian church.

Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  This is the only entryway to the church – others have been bricked up (when city was under Muslim control)
Ethiopian section of the church (this stairway can just barely be seen in upper right corner of previous picture of the plaza/main entrance

Within the church, both the area traditionally associated with the crucifixion on Golgotha and the tomb where Jesus was buried are under the control of the Greek Orthodox Church.

As we entered the church, we turned right and climbed a set of narrow (but deep) stairs up to “Golgotha” – the site of the crucifixion.  This was a crowded staircase, with pilgrims nearly pushing each other up to the top.  At the top, beneath the altar is an impression in a rock thought to be where Jesus’ cross stood. Many people knelt to kiss/pray at this impression.

Altar at the site of the crucifixion within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; person kneeling under the altar to touch/kiss the impression where the cross stood.

Beneath the altar, is the Chapel of Adam. Adina explained to us that according to tradition, Jesus was crucified over the place where Adam’s skull was buried. According to the tradition, at the crucifixion, the blood of Christ ran down the cross and through the rocks to fill the skull of Adam.  The Rock of Calvary appears cracked through a window on the altar wall, traditionally attributed to the earthquake that occurred when Jesus died on the cross.

View of the Chapel of Adam and the cracked stone through the window on the altar wall

Back on the main floor, is the anointing stone, said to be the place where Jesus’ body was laid to prepare him for burial.  There is a tradition that anything that touches the anointing stone is ‘touched by God.’ There is a large modern mosaic on the wall behind the stone that depicts this anointing. I think the stone is believed to have powers to heal/restore.  In any event, while we were there, a young baby was laid on the stone and several people were praying over him and touching him while he lay on the stone.

The anointing stone

Views of the mosaic on the wall behind the anointing stone

The portion of the church that holds the tomb were Jesus was buried is inside a separate shrine/building known as the aedicule within the main rotunda of the church.  While all Christians have access to this site, it is managed/controlled by the Greek Orthodox Church. The line of pilgrims visiting the aedicule was so long (might have taken up to 3 hours to get in) that we skipped it.  We also went by a number of other chapels within the church.  I can’t keep straight now which ones I saw.  The architecture and furnishings in these various chapels seemed very renaissance to me (not surprising since the church has undergone renovations in the 12th, 16th, and 19th centuries).  Some of the architecture is actually Byzantine or crusader period.  My overwhelming impression was of the pomp and circumstance of the “the church.”

Side and front view of the Aedicule (Jesus’ tomb)

I know this is a place revered by millions of Christians around the world, but this was not a place that I particularly felt the presence of Jesus (sorry).  I did feel the reverence of the pilgrims around me, but for me, it was just a site with a phenomenal history but I couldn’t feel a spiritual connection [that connection came on the last day of our trip when we visited the Garden Tomb – a different site purporting to be where Jesus was crucified and buried].

One last side note – on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we passed a Lutheran Church!   It is the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and is just a few steps away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  It is built on land given to King William I of Prussia by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1867. It is one of only 2 protestant churches in the Old City (the other is near the Jaffa Gate).  We didn’t go inside, but it was cool to see it there.  According to Wikipedia it currently houses Lutheran congregations that worship in Arabic, German, Danish, and English.

Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem