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|The author, Stan Wilson, poses in front of some of the restored columns of the excavation of Scythopolis near the present day town of Bet Shean.|
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL (ANS) -- The Ministry of Tourism of the state of Israel recently invited publishers of 10 American Christian newspapers to tour Israel, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the visitors. I've heard many people say, "Visit Israel and you will never be the same." Without a doubt, this has to be the understatement of the millennium.
First, you need to take a look at the map. Israel only occupies approximately 10,000 square miles (about the same area as Kansas.) However, right in the middle of Israel is the land referred to as The West Bank. This adds approximately 6,000 square miles to the overall area. Our flight from New York landed in Tel-Aviv, which lies on the Mediterranean Sea; just about in the center of the country. Most of our trip was in the northern one-half of the nation.
|Our Israeli guide, Ike Korin stands in the scriberoom of ancient Qumeran. This is the very room where the Dead Sea Scrolls were written.|
Our trip included 6 days driving from one site to another. All in all; we visited approximately 30 sites. Accommodations and meals were all first-class. My only complaint of the trip is that we had to rush a bit to visit all of the sites on our itinerary. (I would suggest a 9-day ground trip; rather than the 6 days that we had.) The highway systems in Israel are comparable to ours; the American dollar is accepted almost everywhere and almost everyone speaks English. (English is required in the Israeli school system)
It didn't take long for me to realize that Israel is not just the Holy Land of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Nations and people have fought for, occupied and lost this land for thousands of years. At times, I felt like I was visiting Rhome or Greece. As we drove through wilderness areas, I wondered why anyone would want this land. (The areas are referred to as wilderness, but I would describe them as deserts.)
|We got a real taste of present-day Jerusalem as we walked through the market.|
The Jews have done a wonderful job of exploring, excavating, preserving and developing everyone's archaeological interests. We could not ask for better caretakers of the world's history. They have identified 63 areas as National Parks, and they are all very visitor-friendly with all of the facilities that you would find in any American National Park.
We started our trip with a visit to Jaffa; an old seaport just north of Tel-Aviv that is now an artists quarter. The "old town" is right on the Mediterranean Sea and offers a wonderful atmosphere for those with creative artistic passions. Several archaeological digs give a glimpse into the town and its previous inhabitants. On the other hand, we walked down to the seaport that is the same ground that seafarers have used for thousands of years.
Caesarea National Park was our next stop. Caesarea was a former Roman Capital and Crusader city built by Herod the Great. Most of it has been destroyed by "mother nature," bu t the Jews have done a great job of excavating, restoring and preserving it. It was built as a seaport right on the Mediterranean Sea. Remains include a Roman theatre, hippodrome, the seaport and walls around the city. Our guide pointed out two sets of steps to the original seaport. He suggested that perhaps Peter used one of these as he was loaded on a ship bound for Rome.
We then traveled to Tel Megiddo to visit excavations of an ancient fortified city. The city was located on a hill overlooking a strategic crossroads in the Jezreel Valley; site of the biblical Armageddon. We viewed remains of many of the buildings and toured the water tunnel, which was quite an ingenious feat. From the remains of the city, you get a wonderful view of the Jezreel Valley and some of the most fertile farmland that you will find anywhere. It was heart-stopping to view the ground that may host the last battle on this earth.
Our next destination was Nazareth; the largest Arab town in Israel. We visited "Nazareth Village," a restored first Century Galilean village recreating life and culture arou nd the time of Jesus. Included in the village is an original terraced grape orchard with a grape press carved right into the stone. It is possible to imagine that Jesus might have actually walked through the orchard.
Our first day concluded at our motel in Tiberius; a resort town on the Sea of Galilee. (I would actually describe it as a rather large lake.) After our evening meal, we sat on the banks of the Sea and watched as boats of all kinds cruise the lake. Many hotels have replicas of fishing boats similar to those used by Peter (except they are motor powered). It was quite easy to imagine many biblical scenes of Jesus and his disciples at sunset on the sea.
We started our next morning with a trip to the Yigal Alon Museum at Ginosar that houses a 1st century fishing boat that was recovered from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. Again; who can say whether or not this boat was actually used by the Disciples?
Following this, we had our own cruise on the Sea of Galilee in a fishing boat replica. This was quite an experience as we paused for prayer and meditation. Our hosts then raised the American and Jewish flags on the boat.
|Richie Flyn of BC Christian News (the lone Canadian on the trip) walks atop the outer wall of old Jerusalem. In the background is the Tower of David.|
A highlight of the trip included visits to the remains of several cities and sites mentioned in Jesus' ministry around the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was the Jewish fishing town where Jesus began his ministry. Tabgha is the traditional site of the Multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The Catholics have built a church over the rock said to have been Jesus' seat at this event. The rock is in the middle of the floor of the church and is available for anyone to touch. The Mount of Beatitudes is where Christ gave his Sermon on the Mount overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was breathtaking to look down at the Sea and to imagine that Christ was there. Kursi includes the ruins of a Byzantine church and is the site of Jesus' Miracle of Gaderene swine. The Bethsaida excavations include the ruins of the homes of Jesus' apostles.
Our next trip included a winding road as we climbed the Golan Heights with a stop at the top for a breathtaking view of Israel from the far North. Du ring our drive we saw remains of many Syrian bunkers from the 1967 war. Barbed wire fences with electrical sensors still separate Israel from Syria at this point.
Our evening concluded with a meal at the Fish on the River Restaurant, located on the Jordan River at the edge of Tiberius. One member of our group elected to be re-baptized in the river.
Thursday started with a trip to Bet Shean to visit excavations of Scythopolis (one of the Decapolis cities.) The excavation is out the outskirts of the current city and was one of the most remarkable experiences of the trip. The city was completely covered after an earthquake, and is still being excavated to this day. We walked through the bath house, coliseum and down the colonnaded streets. I felt just like I was visiting ancient Rome and Athens at the same time.
Our next trip was to the lowest point on earth: The Dead Sea. The sea separates Israel from Jordan and is in a desert valley with tall mountains just to the West on the Israeli side. One of these mountains is Masada where Herod and his followers made their 6-year l ast stronghold against the Romans. (73 CE). We refer to it as 73 AD. A cable-car trip is available to the top of the mountain to view the excavations of the fortress-palace. Looking up at the mountain absolutely takes your breath away. It is above comprehension how Herod built a fortress in such an inaccessible place, and how he stocked it with food and water, which lasted six years. It is also a testimony to the determination of the Romans as they succeeded in building a ramp up the backside of the mountain.
We then traveled to Qumran which is the remains of an Essenes settlement. From the ruins, we looked up the mountains to see the actual caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. As the ruins are being excavated, the scroll room has been discovered. It was quite an experience to stand in the spot where the scrolls were actually written.
No trip to the Dead Sea is complete without a "float". Some of our members even rolled in the black mineral mud befo re their dip. The Dead Sea is not only salty; it contains many other minerals and is just plain nasty. Fortunately, the beach-resort offers high-pressure showers after your float. Absolutely nothing can live in the Dead Sea or near it. Unless God decides differently! The water level has dropped several feet in the last 25 years and the sea is shrinking in size. Our guide pointed out sinkholes that are developing along the edges of the sea. Within a few years, the sinkholes fill with fresh water and then grasses and other vegetation crops up. Our guide pointed to Isaiah 35:6-7 and said perhaps we were witnessing prophecy. "Springs will burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground will become a pool, and springs of water in the thirsty land. Where desert jackals lived, and there will be reeds and rushes."
We continued our drive thru the Jordan Valley and Judean Desert in the West Bank where we saw many of the Jewish settlements. Actually, most are villages with nearby farmland. The Jews are maste rs of drip irrigation and we saw crops of sunflowers, cot ton, date palms and other crops.
As we approached Jerusalem, we had our first glimpse of the Arab nomads along the highway. They truly live like their ancestors did over 2,000 years ago with camels, goats and shanty-type housing. We passed by many other Palestinian and Jewish settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem. We didn't really know where we were as we entered Jerusalem; and then it just appeared: The gold topped Dome of the Rock. We then experienced Jerusalem traffic as we made our way to David's Citadel hotel in downtown new Jerusalem.
We were treated to a wonderful supper at the Eucalyptus restaurant in the old part of new Jerusalem. It was only about 1 mile back to the hotel, so most of us elected an evening walk along Ben Yehuda Street and the pedestrian market and mall. It was quite an experience to be a part of nightlife in Jerusalem. Open-air restaurants, galleries and shops lined the streets and bands playing all sorts of music gave us wonderful en d to the day.
Friday started with a guided tour of Yad Vashem - the National Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust. Our tour was almost two hours, but one could easily spend several days in the museum.
Our next visit was to the Israel Museum to see a scale model of Jerusalem from the Second Temple period (time of Jesus). This was to give us a better perspective on the city, as we would enter old Jerusalem the next morning. At the Museum, we also visited the Shrine of the Book; where we saw the actual Dead Sea Scrolls displayed in atmosphere-controlled cases.
Friday concluded with a stroll thru the Jerusalem market. Visions of suicide bombers flashed through our minds before we entered. These thoughts soon vanished as we saw armed soldiers strategically placed. They were not obtrusive, but you knew they were there and a sense of security soon took over. We waded into this elbow-to-elbow open-air market that must be exactly like the markets in old Jerusalem when Jesus walked the streets. Shop after shop of people sel ling everything from fish to fruit to candy to pastry. Th e smell changed every 15 feet as you can imagine. Other streets were lined with stores selling everything from tourist trinkets to clothing and computer software and hardware.
Saturday would be our day to enter old Jerusalem. Old Jerusalem has been destroyed many times, and the present walls and buildings date back to around 1400 AD. We started with the traditional view from the Mount of Olives. Our first pilgrimage was to Gethsemane (just outside the walls). This is the very spot where Christ was betrayed with a kiss. Uncontrollable goose bumps and chills came up instantly as we viewed giant olive trees that possibly witnessed the event.
We entered the Old City through St. Stephen's gate in the Moslem Quarter and walked along the Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross). We paused at the Pool of Bethesda. During this time, I became hopelessly lost as we wandered down back streets and through the open-air markets in the Moslem Quarter and then the Christian quarter. I t seems that everyone wanted to build a church in the Old City and the most glorious is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which houses what some consider to be the actual rock where Christ was crucified along with his tomb. We were also treated to a visit to the Tower of David and the Museum of the History of Jerusalem and the city's 3000-year history.
As we toured the Old City, I had perhaps the same feeling that Christ did when he overturned the tables in the Temple. I guess that I expected the Old City to be a Shrine and Holy. As I visited with our guide, he reminded me that the Old City was just that. It was a city with homes, shops and businesses. It's the same today; only the area where the Temple stood is considered a Holy site. We were also treated to a walk on the Old City Walls from Jaffa Gate to Damascus Gate. This was quite an experience as soldiers of several armies have patrolled the city from atop these walls.
Our Saturday tour concluded with one of the high-points of the trip: a visit to the Garden Tomb and Golgotha. We were provided a guided tour of the area along with an explanation of the garden. Just as I experienced at Gethsemane, I really had the feeling that "this is the spot." Starting in the First Century AD, the land had been used as a garbage-dump or landfill. It was re-discovered by the English and they excavated it to what was probably the original ground level. During the excavation, they discovered that it had probably been a grape orchard, and they even found a winepress. They have turned the area into a wonderfully peaceful area with trees, flowers and even benches where you can just sit and reflect. Golgotha certainly has the appearance of a skull, but it is deteriorating. Ironically, there is a cemetery on top of Golgotha.
Our Sunday tour returned to the Old City. The Israelis continue to explore and excavate. While much of the area inside the wall is occupied, there is still much land awaiting exploration. The Jerusalem Archaeological Park at the Southern Wall gives a glimpse to the original streets. Whe n the Romans destroyed the walls, they crashed down to th e streets. Some of these stones have been removed to reveal the crushed street that Christ might have actually walked on. We also climbed the original steps leading to the Temple.the same steps that Christ might have climbed. Other areas of exploration are uncovering other buildings and antiquities of all sorts. The Archaeological Park also has a large scale model of the Old City that is animated to give a view of the Old City in its various stages of life. This also shows that much of the current ground level may be 20 or 30 feet above the original streets.
Our next Sunday stop was to the City of David. This hilltop was conquered by King David 3,000 years ago. The Israelis just started exploration of this area a few years ago. We saw a portion of the wall that might have been King David's palace. Many small antiquities are being discovered as they are currently excavating the area. We were led through Warren's shaft that was part of the ancient water system, and we exi ted completely outside the City of David.
No visit to Jerusalem would be complete without praying at the Western Wall which is Judaism's most sacred site. It is the exposed wall to the original Temple Mount. There is extra security to enter this holy site, but it is worth it. While I don't have the same sense of this site as our Jewish brethren, it was quite a treat to pray at the wall and leave my little prayer in the cracks between the stones.
Our final visit inside the Old City was underneath the Western Wall. The Israelis have discovered a system of tunnels underneath the walls, and they are still excavating them. They have had to cut back some of the excavations because of protests by the Muslims that they might tunnel underneath the Dome of the Rock which is still under Muslim control. It was quite an experience to know that we were walking under still unexplored buildings and areas.
What a wonderful six-day experience. As the headline of this story says, "Visit Israel and you will never be the same." Whethe r you want to trace your Judeo/Christian roots or you enj oy archeology and the study of mankind, you will never find a better place than Israel. It's quite exhilarating to think "I've been there" as I re-read some of the stories of Christ and his ministry or the stories from the Old Testament. I definitely suggest that you go as a part of a group with an Israeli guide. While we didn't see everything, my entire outlook on Christianity and Judaism has taken a new turn. I can't wait to re-read the New Testament because now I will have a much better perspective on the ministry of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The tour also pointed out just how little I know about the Old Testament and the history of the Jewish people.
If reading of my tour has excited you just a little, I suggest that you visit www.goisrael.com for further information about Israel and tour information. This is the official website of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. They offer several "virtual tours" online and you can get complete information and find links to help you make your plans. You can actually spend days just navigating the website in preparation for your "trip of a lifetime." Yes, I'll go back.and take my wife. Tours are actually much less expensive that I had thought. One of the tourism magazines that we received featured several all-inclusive tours including airfare from New York for $1200 to $1500. Of course, putting together a tour with members of your church would just be the icing on the cake. Shalom!
|Stan Wilson is a lifetime journalist after graduating from college in 1970 with a B.A. in journalism. He worked in various positions in newspapers in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas prior to starting Southwest Kansas Faith and Family in 2001. Faith and Family is a monthly Christian newspaper serving Dodge City, Garden City and 18 other surrounding communities. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org|