On my first night in Tel Aviv, someone told me that telephoning God is cheap when you’re in Israel, because it’s a local call. After touring churches that honor moments in Jesus’ life, archaeological ruins from the Old Testament and holy sites of the Jewish faith, I think it might be true.
In Israel, visitors can often use their Bibles as their guidebooks. The land where Jesus was born, lived, preached, was crucified and resurrected all fits into a spot on the map the size of New Jersey. This center for Islam, Judaism and Christianity may not take long to cross by automobile, but it could take years to properly explore, since ancient sites from the time of Abraham and earlier lie around every corner.
After driving down the gorgeous Mediterranean coast from the Dan Hotel Tel Aviv, I arrived at a harbor that once served as the headquarters of the Roman government in Palestine. Caesarea National Park protects the 2,000-year-old ruins of the coastal city that Herod the Great ordered constructed to honor Emperor Augustus Caesar — and for his own personal glory.
“Welcome to the palace,” said Yehuda Ben Baruch, certified tour guide of Israel, gesturing toward the archaeological remains of Herod’s once massive palace, now mostly covered by the sea. “Herod was always building, building, building. He built many palaces for himself. He really liked himself.”
Baruch described the wealth and splendor of the former palace and the Roman-influenced 4,000-seat theater as we walked along the coast, close enough to feel an occasional spray of waves crashing along the rocky shore. I was reminded of the movie Ben-Hur at the U-shaped Herodian Amphitheatre, where charioteers once hung on for dear life around the nearly 300-meter-long track before up to 10,000 screaming spectators.
The park museum’s 10-minute film helped me visualize the grandeur of the harbor city of Herod’s time and its rebuilding during the Byzantine and Crusader eras. Another museum exhibit allowed me to watch actors portray important historic figures of the city, such as King Herod and Empress Helena, in high-tech holograms.
Next, I traveled to Jesus’ childhood town, where Mary first received a message from the Angel Gabriel that she would bear a son. The Basilica of the Annunciation, a structure built over the ruins of earlier Byzantine and crusader churches, celebrates this supernatural occurrence.
The church’s two levels incorporate the old with the new. On the lower level are preserved the excavations of the Crusader Church and the Grotto of the Annunciation, which pilgrims have long associated with the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. Richly colored stained-glass windows on the lower level and detailed mosaics on the upper level keep the entire church filled with delicate beauty.
Gallivanting in Galilee
Two things I would have never thought to put together are Dean Martin and the Sea of Galilee. However, on my second day of touring Israel, I experienced both at the same time during a ride around the legendary lake — it is a lake even though it is called a sea — on a replica of a first-century vessel.
Pilgrim’s Boats’ wooden vessels look the part with their curved shape and simple design. The captain initially chose some music to fit the scene, such as Hebrew songs and religious tunes, but then, to encourage dancing, he played some classic Dean Martin.
During the boat excursion, there were some moments of fun and impromptu karaoke singing. But there were also moments of reflection, such as when we passed Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus gave one of his most famous sermons.
Jesus spent most of his time preaching around the Sea of Galilee, and I spent the day following in his footsteps, visiting church after church, each connected in some way with Christ’s ministry. This area, a Christian pilgrim’s paradise, features numerous churches, gardens and archaeological ruins from the time of Christ.
“There were many reasons Jesus felt comfortable in the region around the Sea of Galilee,” said Baruch. “Many of his believers lived around here, but also, in the sea there was a lot of fish for food. He collected his 12 students from here.”
I visited the peaceful Mount of Beatitudes; the mosaic-filled Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish; Mount Tabor’s ornate Church of the Transfiguration; and Capernaum, where Jesus began his ministry. At the Church of the Primacy of Peter, a rocky beach by the Sea of Galilee allowed the devout to wade in the waters so often mentioned in the New Testament.
Afterward, I traveled to another one of Israel’s famous seas — the Dead Sea — where I finally learned what the phrase “floating on a cloud” means. The surreal experience occurs at the Dead Sea because of the excess of salt in the water, which is clearly visible from the abundant salt crystals on the sea’s banks.
When I lay down in the water at Mineral Beach, I discovered that I floated effortlessly near the surface of the water. As if by magic, I stayed suspended, with no fear of even getting my hair wet as I spun around and around.
Oh, little town of Bethlehem
After having seen thousands of Nativity scenes in my life, I stepped inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the location of the real Nativity scene. The Byzantine church that survived so many centuries of war and strife still stands; its ancient feel is because the Greek Orthodox Church has maintained it without extensive renovations. Though the wall frescos and mosaics were faded, I knew I was seeing the original paint from Empress Helena’s time, around A.D. 300, and nothing else.
“This is the most important church in the area built by Empress Helena,” said Maher Desouki, my tour guide for Bethlehem. “It was built on top of the cave where Jesus was born. The caves were used to keep animals, and now they are used as a chapel.”
Ornamental lamps showing the influence of the Greek Orthodox Church hung everywhere, supplemented by light beams that shone across the church like rays from the star of Bethlehem. Underneath the altar, I walked into the Grotto of the Nativity, the cave where it is believed that Jesus was born. A church group sang “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” in Latin inside the grotto, setting the Christmas mood for the tiny cavern decorated in remembrance of Jesus’ birth.
Not far off, the Shepherd’s Field marks the spot where an angel visited local shepherds to inform them of Jesus’ birth. The Catholic chapel, filled with wall frescos depicting the angel’s visit, sits next to caves believed to be the homes of the shepherds. The chapel sits on a hilltop and offers sweeping views of the hillside below and, in the distance, Jerusalem, where Jesus would go during his final days.
Back in downtown, I walked through the bustling Bethlehem Market, where many locals go for groceries, clothing or other assorted items displayed in the sprawling marketplace.
“Every day, people bring in fresh meats, fruits and vegetables to our market from the local area,” said Desouki. “I like to take people through the market if they want to see how the people live and how friendly they are.”
After smelling the spices and seeing the intriguing items for sale, everything from live chickens to carpets, I ate a traditional Palestinian meal at the Shepherds Valley Village and Tent Restaurant. Under brightly colored draped cloths resembling tents, I filled up on delicious salads, lamb and chicken.
Jerusalem, my destiny
As a child, I remember hearing the song Jerusalem, My Destiny every year around Easter. The tune took on a new meaning when I caught my first glimpse of the Jerusalem skyline, with its cream-colored buildings of Jerusalem stone and golden Dome of the Rock.
On my walking tour of the ancient city, I met reminders of religion everywhere, such as black-clad Orthodox Jews with side curls, muezzins’ five-times-daily singing call to Islamic prayer and tolling church bells echoing across the city.
My first stop, the 1924 Church of All Nations, memorialized the Agony in the Garden when Jesus prayed at Gethsemane the night before his death. Gnarled, crooked olive trees 700 to 800 years old encircle the basilica and its huge mosaics portraying different Scripture passages.
Later, I entered the tall stone gates to the Old City to wander through more Christian history along the Via Dolorosa trail, past the traditional locations for the Stations of the Cross. The trail ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which many believe sits atop Golgotha, or the Hill of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified. The dimly lit Greek Orthodox church leads pilgrims through different chambers venerating the place of the Crucifixion and the first-century tomb believed to be Christ’s.
“Today, the church is divided into different sections for different Christian faiths,” said Baruch. “Try to imagine when Jesus was there and there was no city here. It was just a field. Now, it is inside the city.”
In the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, I explored the most beloved Jewish holy site, the Western Wall, which Herod the Great originally constructed in 19 B.C. It stands close to the location of the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed in A.D. 70.
According to Orthodox Jewish customs, the site is divided by a barrier that separates the men from the women so they can both walk up to pray and place written requests in the cracks of the wall. With the Dome of the Rock visible on the other side of the wall and other Christian churches not far off, the area remains the epicenter for three of the world’s major religions.
On my final day in Israel, I discovered that the Jerusalem I had gotten to know was far different from the one that existed during King David’s reign over the city. Now a two-year-old archaeological attraction, the City of David consists of ruins from different eras stretching back to when David ruled the city in 3,000 B.C. As I walked through, my guide detailed the archaeological history of the site and described how experts continued to debate the meaning of some of the ruins found there.
“Some of this information is on the Web site, some is in books in the gift shop, and some you can’t find anywhere, because it hasn’t been published yet,” said Asher Altshul, licensed tour guide for the City of David. “The Bible doesn’t tell about daily life. We can now learn that part of history through the archaeologists, such as what they were eating.”
As I walked down through its extensive water system tunnels into the belly of the ancient city, I realized that to understand Jerusalem, you have to dive into its far-reaching past, because it is this rich and spiritual history that has shaped its present and continues to influence its future.
Israel Ministry of Tourism