Saturday, 19 January 2013

Haifa, Israel Day Two

The Jerusalem Cross purchased in Bethlehem, and then placed upon the birthplace of Jesus

It was another early start. We had to cover extra distance due to the ship remaining at Haifa rather than the scheduled stop at Ashdod. Eli picked us up at the port at 7am sharp and picked up Amit, our guide for the day, en route. Amit told us how lucky we were with the weather. He proceeded to show us photos of snow just 1 week before. The weather forcast for the day was 20 degrees and sunny. Someone was definitely looking after us...

Amit turned out to be another phenomenal guide. He had a completely different sense of humour to Aviv but was equally funny. Once again, his knowledge base was impressive and really helped us gain a good insight into the various places that visited. We drove southward along the Mediterranean Sea before veering left to head inland. I was still struggling to come to terms with witnessing biblical sights with my own eyes! We drove past the Valley Of Ajalon from the book of Joshua where he asked God for "more" light to fight the 5 Amorite Kings. 

As we neared Bethlehem, Amit explained the proceedings for the morning. We crossed into the West Bank and Palestinian territory where we changed to a Palestinian bus with a Palestinian driver and guide as Israelis were not allowed in. The family was initially nervous but the changeover was smooth and without incident. Our guide for Bethlehem was Kamal, a Palestinian Christian.

Changing over to a Palestinian bus, a Palestinian driver and a Palestinian guide

There were many sights in Bethlehem. It was where Rachel, Jacob's wife, died while giving birth to Benjamin, where Ruth worked in the fields belonging to Boaz later marrying him, where David was born and where he was anointed as King by Samuel. It was also where Jesus Christ, our Saviour was born. Unfortunately as time was short, we could not visit all the sights. We headed for the Church of the Nativity. We made a quick stop for an opportunity to purchase items should we wish to place them upon the birthplace of Christ. This was enough to keep the shoppers happy. Along the way, Kamal also pointed out the Patriach Rd, the one on which Mary and Joseph travelled on, and Shepherds Field where the Angels came to the shepherds telling them to go see the newborn King.

The Church of the Nativity was built over the cave where Mary and Joseph travelled to and where Jesus was believed to have been born. It is the oldest church in the world. It was was first built in the 4th century by Constantine and his mother Helena, and has been rebuilt multiple times subsequently including by the Crusaders. We arrived to discover the celebration of the Armenian Christmas. There was a large crowd in the square in front of the unassuming and unimpressive exterior of the Church of the Nativity. The entrance to the church was a low and small doorway. It was believed that the Crusaders modified the entrance to prevent barbarians from charging in on horseback. We were dismayed to see a line of people waiting to enter the tiny entrance. This line would continue until we entered the grotto (cave). Kamal filled us with facts during the long wait, so much so that most of it I couldn't retain...He went through the history of the church, the architecture belonging to various periods, and highlighted the differences between the various denominations that controlled different sections of the church. What I did remember clearly though was his plea for us to urge Christians to visit Bethlehem. There were only three Christian towns in Palestine, one of which is Bethlehem. The Christian population howeever have dwindled over the years such that it is now essentially a Muslim town. His desperation to maintain a Christian presence in this significant town was palpable.

Armenian Christmas celebrations

The very unassuming Church of the Nativity behind all the fuss...

Not a particularly good photo of the entrance as I had to maintain my position in the line...but nevertheless this is the tiny entrance to the church. One had to bend down to enter, even a shorty like me. As a gauge, my aunt who is in the picture, is shorter than me. I am 159cm.

The main nave inside the Church

Some of the original mosaics on the walls added by the Crusaders still there.

Wooden rafters made of English oak donated by Edward  IV

Lining up in the aisle

Through a doorway, but wait... the line continues!

Details on pillars

One of the few depictions of Mary and Jesus where Mary sports a smile
As we neared the entrance of the grotto, we saw why the line was so slow. There were people merrily cutting in! So we utilised our numbers and spread out in an arc around the entrance to cut off any possible line jumpers. After hours of inching forward, we finally piled into the grotto. Emotions were running high for the family as well as the people around us. Many were weeping, others were in deep silence after. I was filled with a huge sense of awe and peace. The Star of Bethlehem marked the spot of Jesus's birthplace. I laid my cross upon Star and said a quick prayer. Unfortunately the Manger had been taken to Rome. However, there was still an altar nearby where Mary laid baby Jesus in the famed manger.

The entrance to the grotto

The family spread out in an arc so no one else would cut in in front of us...

Kamal leading the way followed closely by Lara

Entering the grotto in single file

The site where Jesus was born, marked by 14 pointed star

Touching the spot was Jesus was born

And suddenly...there were no crowds!

We filed out of the grotto and moved on to the neighbouring church of St Catherine's. It was the section controlled by the Catholic Church. It was believed that this was where St Jerome spent 35 years translating the bible into latin in the fifth century. On our way out, we paused the admire a bas-relief of the Tree of Jesse, an artwork donated by Pope Benedict during his visit in 2009. The details that depicted the genealogy of Christ were amazing. We stopped briefly to take a photo of Shepherds Field. We then proceeded to change back to our original bus, where Eli and Amit were waiting for us, and headed towards Jerusalem.

Into the sun briefly to the neighbouring St Catherine...before disappearing underground again

St Jerome with the skull at his feet, a symbol of the transience of human existence

Going down again into more caves under the church

Relief of St Jerome where his body lay before being transferred to Rome

The chapel in St Jerome's caves

The tree of Jesse, a relief showing Christ's lineage, a gift donated by Pope Benedict during his visit to the Holy Land in 2009

View of Shepherd's Field
Ah..Jerusalem. So much to write about! We were dropped off just outside of the Old City near Zion Gate, also known as the Jewish Quarter Gate. It is one of the eight gates of the city. Before any serious education could commence, Amit declared that the stomach must first be filled. He bought us some bageleh, which he described as Israeli bagels, that came with a dipping salt. Yummm! The bagelehs didn't last very long as the whole family fought over the last crumbs...

Amit then spent took some time to explain the long and complicated history of the city. Jerusalem has been destroyed, besieged, attacked, captured, and recaptured multiple times over! Much of what can be seen today is from the Byzantine rebuild. Unfortunately, our tour of Jerusalem had to be one of only highlights as we were short on time. We entered into the Jewish quarter and saw the western (wailing wall), a site for Jewish prayers and pilgrimage. From there it was through to the Muslim quarter where we stopped at a humus restaurant for lunch. Yes we were eating again...The food was simple, but delicious. It consisted of a variety of dishes that you could dip in humus! It was also a opportune time to try pomegranate juice. The bright colour of the juice was crying out "Try me! Try me"!


with dipping salt

Jewish quarter gate...

...complete with bullet holes

Initially I thought it was just for pedestrians...

...but oh no! Cars go through the squeezy L-shaped gate as well! 

Helping the children understand the many "layers" of Jerusalem as it was rebuilt so many times

Running out of hands!

Walking through the Jewish Quarter

Surviving Roman remnants in the Jewish quarter

The clever Romans with their drainage systems along the streets, apparently still working. 

The women's section of the wailing wall

The next pope?


Our tour continued along the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to his cruxifixion, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We began from station five, where Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus with the cross. Shortly after there was a stone where Jesus stumbled and put his hand on the wall. The moment of the day was at that point when we overheard an American tourist ask if this was where Jesus was beheaded. We had to admire the patient response in answer from his friend or guide...Station 6 was where a young girl cleaned his blood. At Station 7, where Jesus stumbled and fell for the second time under the cross, was a small chapel usually closed to the public. We were very fortunate to see a man poke his head out just as we got there. The kind man opened the door just for us. We were able to walk down the stairs into the second chapel with no one else in there. Amit showed us the base of the Roman column from the second century.

We finally made our way to the Church of the Sepulchre, a fourth century Christian pilgrimage site where Jesus was crucified (Golgotha) and buried. At the time of Jesus, it was a hill just outside of gate of city. It is believed that the city boundaries had been extended since. Unfortunately, the Church was very full and we didn't have time to join the long line to be up close and personal with Golgotha. We had to be content with just gazing at it from afar. Within the church is the Stone of Anointing, which tradition claims to be the stone slab where Jesus was purified after crucifixion. Close to it is the Aedicule, a small building which housed the site where Jesus body was laid. At that point, Amit pointed out the patriarch of the Armenian Orthodox church (the equivalent of Catholic Church Pope). Our Guide told us again how very lucky we were. Although don't tell him that I never quite worked out which person he was pointing to!

Just as we were about to leave, Jonah saw a painting and asked, "Is that Jesus? Our Jesus? How did he die?"...Unfortunately we had to leave. I hope that one day we are able to return and hopefully by then, Jonah will have a better grasp that the whole journey is about THE Jesus!

We received a treat upon our return to the port. K-pop had arrived in Israel. Our the crew was warmly welcoming guests back with their version of Psy's Gangnam Style. We had enough energy for a quick buffet dinner, a spot of washing, and some reading. It had been another emotionally charged day and it took me some time to reflect upon and process the thoughts and feelings that were going through me. It was finally time for bed as we looked forward to our next port of call.

The tour continued with the Stations of the cross after lunch

A small detour...

The stone believed to be where Jesus stumbled and placed his hand upon the wall

Station 6 is dedicated to the young woman who wiped Jesus' face

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter

Getting ready to enter

The work of the Crusaders

The ornate lamps of the various denominations 

The anointing stone

Is that the patriarch of the Armenian Church?

Or is is that guy?!!

On our way out of the Old City

Military men with weapons everywhere

An Israeli sunset

Eli, our wonderful driver on the left of the picture, dropping us off at the port after another long but amazing day

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