Day 1 – Jerusalem & Bethlehem
Our journey begins at the Mount of Olives overlooking the ancient Jewish cemetery where it is believed that the resurrection will begin when the Messiah comes (Zech 14:4). From this elevated location we can see across the Old City and down to the Temple Mount where the holy Jewish Temple once stood.
We continue on towards the Zion Gate by driving through the Kidron Valley where we see the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations and the Jewish burial tombs of Absalom, King David’s son, Jehoshaphat and the Hezir family (benei Hazir). At the Zion Gate we enter Jerusalem’s Old City and make our way through the Armenian Quarter. Then we follow the 1,500 year old excavated Byzantine Cardo which has been restored and is now home to modern shops which line a section of the ancient road.
We carry on through the Jewish Quarter and on to the Western Wall which was part of the supporting wall of the Temple Mount when the second holy Jewish Temple that stood on the expanded hill almost 2,000 years ago.
We then walk where Jesus once walked the Way of Sorrows along the Via Dolorosa, as thousands of pilgrims do each year. We stop at several of the Stations of the Cross where Jesus stopped briefly as he carried his cross to Golgotha (Calvary). The final station on this Way of Sorrows is at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Christ was crucified and where his burial tomb is located. The Basilica was constructed during the Byzantine Era and underwent renovations and reconstruction over the years.
Before we leave the Old City we meander through the typically Middle Eastern markets and then set off for Bethlehem, the city of Christ’s birth.
We arrive in the City of Bread, Bethlehem, which was home to Jesse, King David’s father as well as being Christ’s birthplace (Matthew 2:1). From Manger Square we enter the 4th century Church of the Nativity which is the oldest church in Israel still in use. Beneath the church is the Grotto of the Nativity where a star indicates the place where Jesus was born. Also in the Orthodox Church are the Manger and an alter dedicated to the Three Wise Men. This is the place where the well known story of Christmas night took place and a visit here is a moving experience for all Christians.
The Church of the Nativity was neglected for centuries following the expulsion of the Crusaders, it also was damaged by an earthquake and fire. However during the British Mandate and more recently under Israeli authority the church has been restored and repaired.
On the way out of the church we see the Armenian Chapel of the Kings or Magi and we visit the Crusader Church. From the Church of St. Catherine we go down into a two room cave which joins the Grotto of the Nativity. It was here that Saint Jerome spent 30 years translating the Hebrew Bible into the Latin version called The Vulgate. This is the perfect place for us to take a moment and sing some Christmas carols.
At the Franciscan Church we see the Milk Grotto where Mary fed baby Jesus and a drop of milk fell onto the stone turning the grotto white.
In Luke 2:8-11 we read of an angel appearing to shepherds who were tending their sheep in a nearby field. We stop to see Shepherds Field, and the contemporary Church of the Angels designed by Antonio Berluzzi with panels retelling the story of Jesus’ early life.
On our way back towards Jerusalem we pass the Field of Ruth. Here Ruth, King David’s great grandmother, worked in the fields of Boaz. (Ruth 2:1).
Day 2- Masada & the Dead Sea
We begin our journey by taking the route down from Jerusalem descending below sea level through the Biblical wilderness towards the Dead Sea. On the way we can see the Inn of the Good Samaritan and stop on route to look out across the desert as we pass the point marking “sea level.” The ancient city of Jericho can be seen in the distance where Joshua’s troops caused the walls to fall (Joshua 6) and where Jesus healed the blind (Mark 10:46-52).
We reach the shores of the Dead Sea encrusted with white salt and follow the shoreline towards Masada. Although it’s possible to climb the ancient snake path up Masada as the Romans did 2,000 years ago, we take the convenient cable car up to the mountain top plateau. It was here that King Herod built a fortified palace complete with every convenience including a swimming pool, water cisterns, two palaces, store rooms and even a synagogue.
Following Herod’s death the mountain top was the last outpost of Jewish zealots when the Romans tried to rid the land of Jews. The Jewish zealots maintained their position for three years before the Romans finally managed to scale Masada using a ramp built by slaves. The 960 Jews didn’t wait for the Romans to successfully reach the summit. Instead they killed themselves becoming religious martyrs. Shortly afterwards the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70CE.
It was on Masada that the first parchment from this era was discovered in an Israeli archaeological excavation. On the parchment was the prophecy of Ezekiel “…I will take the children of Israeli from among the nations…and bring them into their own land…” (Ezekiel 37).
Heading back to the Dead Sea we pass the desert oasis of Ein Gedi where there is lush foliage and hidden waterfalls and where David hid from angry King Saul. We also pass by Qumran were the 2,000 year old Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in a number of hillside caves.
To end off a perfect day we stop at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth and a contender for the title of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. People come from across the globe to enjoy the therapeutic mineral rich waters. And don’t worry if you don’t know how to swim – the high salt content will keep you afloat.