On February 26th, 2006, nineteen pilgrims left Texas, bound for the Middle East. Being the resident travel junkie, I was thrilled to organize the trip and tag along. The study tour included participants from six different congregations. What a joy to know we would soon be seeing the land of the Bible with our own eyes.
As it turned out, it was a trip that would forever change our hearts toward the region and it's people.We were traveling on the heels of the recent election in Israel that transferred Palestinian leadership to Hamas. It was also just a few short weeks before Israel would elect a new Prime Minister. You might say (as many did), "Are you crazy? How can you travel to the Middle East at a time like this? All I ever see on the news is fighting and conflict." But we knew better.
Our first trip was in March of 2001, only six months after Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, which sparked the current Palestinian uprising (a.k.a. "Intifada"). We had such a fabulous trip that we could not imagine it being topped.
That is until we went back last month. Springtime, in my opinion, is the ideal time to visit Israel and the Jordan Valley. The desert is in full bloom with wildflowers dotting the hillsides and fruit trees bursting with color. Much more enjoyable than the dog days of summer, when the land is parched and the temperatures soar past 100 degrees.Shortly after take-off, I noticed that there was a stowaway in my luggage. If you have ever read the book, Flat Stanley, you'll understand where I'm going.
My son's 2nd grade class had recently created their own version of Flat Stanley and sent them to relatives near and far. Well, this particular Flat Stanley was destined for Israel, and there was no turning back now. He would definitely have some stories to tell when he got home!.After landing at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, we made our way to the tour bus. In sharp contrast to our previous trip, we were surprised to see more than twenty busses waiting for other groups.
We knew it meant the tourist sites would be crowded, but that was a good problem for Israel. The tourism industry was booming after it hit a 20-year low in 2002, largely due to the new security wall under construction between the West Bank and Israel. Terrorist attacks have decreased by 90%, however, the wall is yet another point of contention between Palestinians and Israelis.
Palestinians claim that it is an act of racism and that it is impacting their economic and environmental stability. Israelis continue to point to the lives that have been saved and the recovering tourist economy which benefits everyone.We headed north to the city of Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee. After a three hour drive, we arrived at the Scots Hotel, a Scotish hospital which was recently converted to a hotel. The complex dates back to the 1880's and is still owned by the Church of Scotland. It had an old-world charm and was known for the breathtaking views and the hotel's signature buffet.
Over the next few days, we traveled by boat across the Sea of Galilee and visited many ancient cities such as Capernaum, Megiddo, and Beit Shean. One of our favorite discoveries was the nearby gelato stand on the boardwalk!.It is so fascinating to explore the archaeological sites and see 2,000 year old pieces of Roman glass and broken pottery. I found jar handles, mosaic tiles, and other artifacts scattered among the ruins. As I picked them up, I imagined what it was like to live in that era. Modern conveniences became even more valuable to me.
We encountered several ancient cisterns and water systems, which played a key role in their everyday life. Also in those days, almost everyone was directly involved in the harvest. Most of the sites we visited had uncovered remains of millstones and grinders, which were used in the making of their daily bread. It was understandable why so many ancient teachings referenced the harvesting of grain or fruit.
We made our way down to Caeserea on the Mediterranean coast. Recent excavations have uncovered a hippodrome and one of Herod's palaces. Afterwards, we continued to Jerusalem, where we checked into a local kibbutz. This is a community of people who have chosen to live together in a communal settlement. Their socioeconomic system is based on joint ownership of property, equality, and cooperation.
These kibbutzim (plural) were founded in the early 1900's, and today there are over 250 such settlements across Israel. Many Jews from around the world have returned to Israel and chosen to live on a kibbutz. Several kibbutzim have tapped into the tourism industry by building hotels on their property. This provides jobs and income for the community, as well as offering tourists a unique insight into their way of life. Our kibbutz, Ramat Rachel, was located on the outskirts of Jerusalem overlooking the shepherd's fields and Bethlehem.
One of the most memorable moments was when our tour leader invited everyone to his veranda. As we looked at the city of Bethlehem, we sang Christmas carols and tried to imagine that very first Christmas.We began the next day atop the Mount of Olives, which has the most magnificent view of the old city and Temple Mount.
As we walked down on foot, one of our stops was the Garden of Gethsemanae. We had the opportunity to spread out under the giant olive trees and enjoy a peaceful moment to ourselves. We also visited many other sites around Jerusalem including portions of the Via Dolorosa or "Way of the Cross", Garden Tomb, Pools of Bethesda, Temple Mount, Southern Steps, and Western 'Wailing' Wall.One of my favorite sites was wading through Hezekiah's Tunnel. This manmade tunnel is an engineering marvel that was carved under the City of David, shortly before it was besieged by Sennacherib in 701 BC. It's purpose was to redirect the Gihon Spring and bring water into the city.
Each of us carried a small flashlight as we negotiated the chilly, waist-high water. The tunnel was extremely narrow and some areas were less than 5 feet in height ? definitely not the place to be if you're claustrophobic!.After exploring Israel, we crossed the border into Jordan and drove South toward Edom. As we approached our hotel, we knew we were in for a treat. The Taybet Zaman is an authentic Bedouin village that has been converted into a quaint 5-star resort. The following day, we set out for the ancient Nabatean city of Petra.
Even after extended study, nothing could prepare you for the awe of exploring this phenomenal site.Entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow mile-long chasm running between two mountain ridges. As we emerged, we were directly in front of the Treasury, an impressive tomb carved into the mountain. I wondered what it was like in the early 19th Century for Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt to re-discover this forgotten city. The Treasury was also featured in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
But after our long walk, we were merely at the beginning of the city. As we continued, the path opened up and we began to see how massive Petra really is. Soon, we encountered hundreds of caves and a semi-circular theater that seated 8,000 people. The center of the city is located in the Wadi Musa (or Valley of Moses). It is said that Moses led the Israelites through this valley on the way to the Promised Land. Nearby is 'Ain Musa (the Spring of Moses) and Jebel Haroon, where his brother, Aaron died.
After leaving Petra, we traveled North to Madaba, to see an ancient mosaic of the Holy Land dating back to the 6th Century AD. Next, we headed toward Mt. Nebo in mountains of Moab. At the summit, we walked to the top of Pisgah, where God showed Moses the Promised Land and told him he could not enter. As we descended toward the Jordan Valley, we were forced to a stop when a herd of goats decided to migrate across the road.
Running behind was the flustered Bedouin shepherd trying desperately to control them. Just earlier, our bus had passed a tiny Toyota truck that was modified to carry a double-decker load of sheep. Whatever works.Leaving Nebo, we had a short drive to the Dead Sea, the lowest land point on the face of the earth: 1,291 feet below sea level. The doomed cities of Sodom and Gamorrah were located in this area, as mentioned in the book of Genesis.
Many in our group, including myself, went down to the beach to experience floating in this dense body of water. The salt content is approximately 27% - 30% whereas ordinary sea water is only 3%. You could literally lay back and read a newspaper without sinking. We also saw many people covered in the Dead Sea mud, which is said to have therapeutic properties.
I just thought they looked like creatures emerging from the black lagoon!.Our final day in Jordan included a visit to the baptismal site of Jesus at Bethany beyond the Jordan. It was a very windy day creating a dusty haze across the dessert. Several from our group used bandanas and makeshift masks to help them breathe. From the baptism site, we saw the military checkpoints for Jordan and Israel that were separated only by the Jordan River.Crossing the border back into Israel was a much longer process than leaving the country.
The security is extremely tight entering Israel from an Arab country. Our luggage was scrutinized and many in our group were detained for further questioning. I was held for an extended period of time when they decided that my unopened Israeli wine was suspicious. They proceeded to open both bottles to verify that I wasn't transporting chemical weapons or other contraband (grrrrr!). Finally, we were all cleared and allowed to enter the country.
We concluded our time with a farewell dinner at an upscale Arab restaurant. A lavish assortment of traditional dishes was served to us family style. It was an extraordinary cultural experience and fun way to wrap up the tour. We made our way to the airport and turned our eyes toward home, with warm memories of our journey through the land of our spiritual roots..Susan Fletcher lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband and 8-yr.
old son. She has traveled extensively and enjoys writing articles on foreign travel and SCUBA diving. Susan Fletcher is currently writing a devotional book, based on her insights and travel experiences.
By: Susan Fletcher