Church Leaders' Familiarisation Tour
Journey to the Holy Land
13 to 19 February 2001

Tour Leader: Steve Green, New World Tours
Tour Guide: Frances Oppenheimer

The tour departed from Australia on Monday 12 February. The leader and four participants flew from Sydney. I flew via Melbourne where three others joined the flight. We were carried by Thai International to Bangkok. The flight and service were excellent.
We had a short wait at Bangkok where Israel security staff checked our credentials and what we were bringing with us. The strict security check could have been somewhat daunting. In fact, it led to a very comfortable and relaxed trip with El Al Israel Airlines. The plane was filled with the largest number of passengers being Israelis returning home. Some of the videos were in Hebrew with English sub-titles. Most were in English with Hebrew sub-titles. Once again, the flight and service were excellent.
We were arriving on Tuesday 13 February local time. As landmarks became visible in the morning light, we had difficulty identifying the route into Israel. We thought we saw the Dead Sea. (In fact, our return flight was definitely south over the Dead Sea and following the Red Sea - avoiding any neighbouring potentially hostile Arab countries.)
Representatives of New World Tours met us at Ben Gurion International Airport and assisted us through customs and luggage. We met Frances, our guide, and Eli (correctly pronounced "Elly"), our bus driver for the week.
We had watched various settlements of flat-topped sandy-coloured buildings as we neared the airport. Now we were hurrying down a busy road towards the very modern city of Tel Aviv. We were, however, given our first taste of history with a brief tour of Old Jaffa - known to us as the Biblical Joppa and associated with the building (and re-building) of the Temple in Jerusalem, with the story of Jonah and in the New Testament with Simon Peter.
People respond to history in different ways. It was good to "get the feel" of where Biblical events took place, to marvel at the narrow cobbled streets (they didn't need them any wider!), to see the house of Simon the tanner (only about 700 years old, but still the location was right, and it would have been "like this"), to go down to the harbour with its narrow entrance...
Yes, our first bit of archaeology too! Under a large paved area is an excavation - not major by comparison with what we were to see later, but an important introduction. What we saw were walls of a Jewish dwelling believed to have been abandoned in 67AD at the time of the great Jewish rebellion against the Romans. That would surely have been there in Peter's time!
Another response to history was begun by Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine. He is the one who embraced Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. When she became a Christian, she went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to enquire carefully and try to identify the sites of various Biblical events. Today's "experts" may not always agree with these traditional sites, but those who wish can go on a spiritual pilgrimage from church to church.
Our group was mixed - with Anglicans from Sydney and Melbourne, one Romanian Baptist and one Uniting Church. But we early established a pattern. At each place one of us read an appropriate Scripture passage and prayer was offered. Later we added singing - quite a passable ensemble!
But back to Tel Aviv proper and our nicely appointed rooms in Tal Hotel in Ben Yehuda Street. Since we were a small group, our bus driver knew where there was a good Yemenite soup kitchen. We had our first taste of the local cuisine. We also had time to wander through the Tel Aviv markets - food, glorious food everywhere! A few other stalls as well. Already we were beginning to experience the diversity that is Israel. Not only is that land a focal point for the world's three monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - but the Jews themselves have come from many parts of the world. The Ashkenazi Jews come from Central and Eastern Europe, especially Germany. The Separdi are Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. Oriental Jews have originated from various Arabic-speaking countries. Then there are the Ethiopian or black Jews.
On Wednesday 14 February we set off for Tiberias. First stop was the excavated ruins at Caesarea. This was our first site with an entry fee and it was helpful that all these fees had been accounted for in the overall package deal. Caesarea was the ancient Roman provincial capital built by Herod the Great in honour of Augustus Caesar. The amphitheatre has been restored to a point where opera has been performed here in recent times. There is a hippodrome where chariot races were held. An inscription has been found with the name of Pilate. The ruins of what is thought to be Pilate's house have been excavated. Paul was held in custody here by Festus and may have given his defence before Agrippa in the amphitheatre. Also visible is a Crusader city from the 12th century. Further north on the beach at Caesarea is a Roman aqueduct which was built to bring water some 17 km from springs in the Carmel range to Caesarea - a very carefully calculated fall of one in a thousand.
We were driven from there to the highest part of the Carmel range. Mount Carmel turns out to be a whole range which separates the coastal plain from the Valley of Jezreel (or Esdraelon). For some reason, I had never associated the Carmelite order with Mount Carmel, but there on top we found a Carmelite monastery from the top of which were good views (for a hazy day!) of the Valley of Jezreel, with Nazareth and Mount Tabor visible in the background. We could also see Megiddo - on our side of the valley. In the other direction we didn't get a clear view out to the coast. Our guide spotted a hyrax - the small animal translated in KJV as "coney". And out in front of the monastery is a large statue of Elijah, sword in hand, foot on the head of a prophet of Baal! We stopped at a Druze restaurant to eat falafel for lunch. The Druze make up 10% of the non-Jewish population. Their religion is an offshoot of Islam. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, "Having never had a state of their own the Druze tend to hold allegiance to whatever country they live in." Our driver chose a route down the mountain which took us past a tomb with the stone rolled back. The tomb was long since empty.
We drove to Megiddo - a tell where there has been a major archaeological dig. The Megiddo museum has a model which helps interpret Megiddo. By pushing various buttons the guide activates lights and raises sections to reveal another layer of civilisation. The archaeologist does that too, but with a lot of time and hard work! We entered the area through a Canaanite gatehouse. The gate has, of course, long since disappeared, but the guardrooms are still there - protecting the city against aggression and providing a place of meeting and justice for the elders of the city. Further in was a gatehouse from Solomon's time. There are the foundations of buildings and a large grain storage bin. A modern set of steps made it easy for us to climb down the tunnel which led to their water supply - safe from enemy intruders.
We continued to Nazareth, which is no longer a simple insignificant village. The Church of the Annunciation, built in 1969 on a site where four previous churches have stood, is described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as a "ponderous structure." It seeks to be a parish church and yet preserve part of a fifth century Byzantine church, housing what is believed to be the remains of Mary's house. The walls are decorated with large pictures of Mary - gifts from various countries - in a wide variety of artistic styles. Nearby is St Joseph's Church which we didn't visit. It occupies a site considered to be that of Joseph's carpentry shop. By way of contrast, we visited the Synagogue Church. This was possibly a first century synagogue. It is maintained by Melkite priests.
We drove through Cana of Galilee on our way to Tiberias where we booked into the Jordan River hotel. After dinner we went to view a multi-media presentation called the Galilee Experience. This is an excellent 37 minute presentation of the history, geography and spiritual significance of the region.
On Thursday 15 February morning light confirmed that we were not just in "The Galilee" as the region is referred to locally, but revealed just how close we were to the Sea of Galilee itself. The day was a bit overcast with a promise of rain. Our guide, Frances, had explained that the land needs more rain, even though there have been reasonable winter rains. With all that is used in irrigation, the level of the Sea of Galilee is not as high as it should be.
We drove to the Mount of Beatitudes. There is an eight-sided church to commemorate the eight beatitudes. A garden features each of the beatitudes (in Latin). It was interesting to find Australian gums and figs in this garden. Nearby is a grassy-sloped natural amphitheatre where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Tests in recent times have shown that a person would have had no difficulty speaking to the number of people described as being present to hear Jesus.
We went on to Korazim, known in our Bible as Chorazin (Matthew 1.21; Luke 10.13), rebuked by Jesus for their unbelief. The ruins included houses and a synagogue believed to be from the 4th century AD. The stones were black basalt. There were arches from the Byzantine period.
We travelled on to Capernaum. We had noticed in our travels that English spellings of place-names varied. It seemed to depend on whether the person translating the Hebrew knew the traditional English spelling. For instance, some signs would say the familiar "Capernaum", while others have "Kfar Nahum" (meaning "village of Nahum"). Provided you can do some lateral thinking, you get by reasonably well. Houses (in black basalt) were in groups around a common courtyard. Most conspicuous is the white Synagogue. It has long been acknowledged that this was built after the time of Jesus. Further excavation has revealed that it is built on the foundations of an older Synagogue in black basalt. The plaque states, "The late fourth century AD White Synagogue built on the remains of the Synagogue of Jesus."
Further along the lake, we boarded a modern boat for a ride on the Sea of Galilee. This was a special experience. Bread had been brought to feed the birds - just a little tardy following us that day. Daniel, one of the crew, donned a white gown (not quite the same as Peter wore!) and skilfully cast on the left side of the boat. Having caught nothing, he cast on the right side of the boat with as little success, then explained that he does catch fish, but much closer to the shore.
Having landed, we went to Tabgha. A black basalt church has been built by the shore where Jesus met the disciples after the resurrection (John 21). This is certainly a place for quiet reflection. Here we were in the "Holy Land" where Jesus lived and spoke. But now that he is risen, his presence isn't restricted to this land.
We were driven to the Kibbutz Ginnosar. Key interest here was the "Galilee boat" carefully preserved in the Yigal Allon Centre. This boat, dated in the first century AD, was discovered by two brothers from the kibbutz in 1986. There was a drought and the level in the Sea of Galilee had dropped seriously. They saw some old wood sticking out of the mud. Experts were called in and a nine-and-a-half-year regime implemented to stabilise the wood before it could be put on public display supported by a special cradle in an air-conditioned building.
Continuing beside the lake, we came to a memorial in Hebrew where there had been a battle line against the Syrians in 1963. Our guide believed this to be the only place where the pigs could have rushed headlong into the sea - though it is a good distance from what is identified as Gadara.
We were driven up the Golan Heights. From Mizpeh HaShalom (Peace Vista) we looked down on the Sea of Galilee. A disabled Syrian gun was fixed as a reminder of the violence that finally led to the capture of the Golan. Apparently, Syrian soldiers had been shooting at fishermen on the lake. Coming down from the Golan (by a very winding road!) we could see up a valley to Gadara - at a location not close to the Sea of Galilee.
Back at Tiberias, we visited the Caprice diamond factory. There are three diamond factories in Israel and it is a major export industry. The description of the industry (by guide and video) was very informative. Not being in a position to purchase, it was interesting to browse - one diamond bracelet was priced at $US41,280!
On Friday 16 February we were travelling towards Jerusalem. For a short distance below the Sea of Galilee, both banks of the Jordan River are in Israel. Further south, the middle of the Jordan is the boundary with neighbouring Jordan. The Israelis have erected and regularly patrol a double security fence which is some distance back from the River. So it is not possible for the present to visit the spot where John baptised Jesus. Kibbutz Kinneret has built a baptism site at Yardenit. Provision is made for groups who wish to conduct baptisms and baptismal reaffirmations here. The river isn't wide, and has Australian gum trees overhanging it - it looks like a typical Australian stream.
We visited the archaelogical site of Bet She'an. Called Beth-Shan or Beth-Shean in the English Bible, it became known as Scythopolis in the Hellenistic period and was, for a time, the leading city of the Decapolis. The arena where the gladiators fought is visible from the road, before the main site. Gladiatorial combat was one of the ways a slave could gain his freedom. A doorway for people plus a smaller one for animals is a reminder that people also had to contend with wild beasts in this arena. The amphitheatre here has much less restoration than the one at Caesarea. The main street (Corso) was lined on one side with columns. Among the ruins of a Roman Temple destroyed by an earthquake in 749 AD were a number of columns, piled where they had fallen. I climbed to the top of the tell. There has been quite a bit of excavation on the top, revealing some twenty settlement strata.The top affords a magnificent view of the whole Bet She'an site.
We visited Bet Alfa where the ruins of a 6th century AD synagogue were discovered in 1928. The synagogue is located in Kibbutz Hefzi-Bah at the foot of Mount Gilboa. A multi-media presentation proposes an explanation of the striking mosaic floor which has been described as "one of the most beautiful discovered in Israel." At the top of the mosaic are a tabernacle and two menorahs, at the bottom Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac on an altar with a ram caught in the thicket behind them. But the centrepiece is the sun-god, Helios, surrounded by the signs of the zodiac!
Not far away was Sachne (Gan HaShlosha) where we ate at the restaurant. (For Australians, the entrance is near a conspicuous kangaroo sign.) The area is well-landscaped and has beautiful clear pools which are ideal for swimming in warmer weather. As we travelled further along the road, we saw at closer quarters an Israeli-designed system for growing plants. Plastic "tents" run the full length of each row protecting the young plants. When they are strong enough, the UV light has biodegraded the plastic to the point where the plants push through it.
Continung on our way to Jerusalem, we made a brief stop near a Bedouin camp. We were almost instantly surrounded by little children from the camp calling out "Money! Money!"
Our next stop was the Jerusalem War Cemetery on Mount Scopus. This is significant for Australians. Outside the gate is a tribute to the Australian Imperial Force in Sinai, Palestine and Syria during World War I. The cemetery contains the graves of many Australians. It is well maintained and there is much appreciation for the contribution of Australians to the overthrow of the oppressive Ottoman Empire.
We came through Mount Scopus which is where the Hebrew University was established in 1925. From 1948 to 1967 it was a Jewish enclave within Jordanian territory and the campus was moved to Givat Ram. It is now split between the two campuses.
At a certain point our guide directed us to close our eyes. On opening them we had our first glimpse across the valley to the walled city of Jerusalem. An amplified call to prayer was booming across the valley from several minarets. The golden Dome of the Rock stands out. The Jews may govern the city, but the most "sacred site" is held by the Moslems and was, so we were to find out, completely closed to non-Moslems at this time.
We saw, but did not visit, the Mount of Olives with the Church of All Nations and the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene. We walked into the old city past excavations outside the southern wall on our way to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount - it was time to prepare for the shabbat (Sabbath). This wall was part of the retaining wall of the second Temple. This was the Temple begun by Herod the Great in 20BC and completed not long before its destruction by the Romans in 70AD. Rabbinical texts say the shekinah (divine presence) never left the wall. It has continued as a special place of prayer for Jews across the centuries - formerly known as the "Wailing Wall" where they mourned their loss. It was closed to Jews from 1948 to 1967. Even now, the Palestinian-Authority-appointed mufti of Jerusalem has recently posted an edict that the Wall has no historical or religious significance for anyone other than Moslems - quite simply it is nothing more than the foundation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque!
There is a big open plaza. Near the Wall an ornamental fence separates the men and women who are praying. Men are required to wear head-covering and are provided a cardboard cap if necessary. The Jews stand at the Wall, rocking back and forth as they bring their prayers to the Almighty. Some have written prayer requests which they tuck into the cracks between the massive stones. We are there to pray too, our prayers offered in the name of Jesus the Messiah, the very Son of God. While this is the area where people come to pray, the Wall continues to the north. At the northern end of the plaza, there is an arch room (under Bab al-Silsila Street, one of the access routes to the Temple Mount). The room seems to be some sort of repository of sacred texts.
Our accommodation in Jerusalem was at the Jerusalem Gold Hotel - a very well-appointed almost-empty hotel, suffering because of the present lack of tourists. The service was excellent.
On Saturday 17 February we started at the Garden of Gethsemane. A photographer captured the whole group of us here - before Mitch left to spend some time with the Romanian Community Church in Jerusalem. The age of the olive trees is impressive. Apparently, the Romans cut down all the olive trees when they sacked Jerusalem. But the olive tree is hardy. It doesn't have the usual growth rings. It sends up suckers and stays alive for centuries. Three of the present trees have been scientifically dated as being over 2000 years old. There is a church near the garden which commemorates the prayer of Jesus in the garden. The focus is on a large flat rock surrounded by a symbolic crown of thorns. This is claimed to be the rock on which Jesus prayed, with grooves worn by his tears of blood. The view is towards the wall of Jerusalem with the Golden Gate - the sealed eastern entrance to the Temple Mount. The gate was evidently blocked up by Moslems in the seventh century AD to deny non-Moslems access to the Temple Mount. Some believe on the basis of Ezekiel 44.1-3 that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through this gate.
Entering Old Jerusalem, we went through St Anne's Church to excavations believed to be the Pool of Bethesda. The excavations are a long way below the present-day ground level. This makes it difficult to picture the five-porticoed area where the sick lay waiting for the healing waters to move in John 5. Our guide explained that the rock is limestone. Water hollows it out. Evidently, water builds up in one of the hollows to a point where it is suddenly released, causing a periodic bubbling spring which the people believed to be caused by an angel.
We went along the Via Dolorosa - it was just an ordinary Saturday in February, so there were no crowds of pilgrims. The so-called "stations of the cross" are marked by a church, a small chapel or simply a plaque on the wall. The arch now known as "Ecce Homo" was constructed by Hadrian, some 100 years after the crucifixion. It commemorates the place where Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd with "Ecce Homo!" (Behold the Man!). Nearby is the Ecce Homo Convent of the Sisters of Zion beneath which has been found a Pavement, believed at first to be the actual pavement (lithostrotos in Greek) where Jesus stood before Pilate (John 19.3). Further work has shown this to be a pavement from Hadrian's time (second century AD) - built, however, with paving stones from the Antonia Fortress of Jesus' time.
Following along the Via Dolorosa, we went through the Zion Gate. This still shows signs of the struggle of Israeli soldiers in the 1948 war as they tried to relieve the beseiged Jewish quarter. The Lonely Planet guidebook says, "A memorial plaque to the fallen is inset within the gate while the bullet-eaten facade gives some indication of how ferocious the fighting must have been."
We went into an upper room. The building is from the time of the crusades. The Arabic writing in the stained-glass windows indicates that it had some Moslem use after that time. There is no claim that this is "the upper room" where Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples. But perhaps it could have been a room like this - after all, it was in the city - rather than the simpler "roof-top" room we have imagined.
Not far beyond the city wall, we moved towards the presumed site of Caiaphas' House. From a vantage point we saw the Hinnom valley - no longer the rubbish heap with continuous fires (the picture of Gehenna). In another direction we had a clear view of the Temple Mount with the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Church of St Peter in Gallicantu ("at the crowing of the cock") marks the traditional site where Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus. The church is cared for by French Dominicans - for a change, the inscriptions are in French! - with a real openness to Protestant groups who may want a place to celebrate communion together. The Biblical events are recorded in mosaics. Beneath the church are storerooms believed to have been part of Caiaphas' house - and a dungeon. The hymn says, "We may not know, we cannot tell what pains he had to bear..." Did Jesus have to spend time in such a place, the only light coming through the hole through which he was lowered? We thoughtfully walked up the steps up which Jesus would have walked on the way to Pilate's judgment seat.
The Garden Tomb is a very peaceful place. Because it doesn't have any great claim to be "the exact spot", it isn't over-built with church or chapel. One Catholic priest is reported to have said, "If the Garden Tomb is not the true site of our Lord's death and resurrection, it should have been." The area is cared for by British Protestants, and we were in the hands of a British guide who gave all the reasons why this is a possible site. The skull-like rock formation is near a busy bus station. The garden tomb has two rooms - one for mourners, the other with space for three interments. The round stone for the door is no longer here, though there is a round stone nearby. The doorway has evidently been enlarged at some time. It can be closed by a wooden door which bears the words, "He is not here, for he is risen." There are three areas where groups can have communion. We were supplied with turned wooden cups, grape juice and wafers. There was special significance in sharing communion together, knowing that Jesus is risen!
We were then taken to the Time Elevator - a very high-tech presentation of the history of Jerusalem which opened in 1998. Hosted by Chaim Topol of "Fiddler on the Roof" fame, the show took us from the establishment of the city of David to the 1967 6-day war. It is designed as a real "thriller" ride with hydraulics and sound effects. For the pregnant and those with heart problems there are seats that don't move. Brilliantly done!
For our evening meal (after the Sabbath was over), we went to the Cardo Cullinaria. A restaurant set up on the old Roman main street (Cardo), it is a highly enjoyable take-off of Roman society. Since forks haven't been invented yet, each guest has a "toga" tied on their shoulder - to use to wipe your fingers on! - a wreath around your head or a helmet and sword. The food was good and the entertainment superb. Jan borrowed the piano accordian and we led the crowd in a very creditable (and welcome) rendition of "Waltzing Matilda".
On Sunday 18 February we went to worship at St George's Cathedral, Jerusalem. It was an Anglican eucharist with no sermon. The congregation was small - almost all were visitors, including the celebrant. The archbishop was scheduled, but called urgently elsewhere.
We were driven to the Israel Museum. The only part of the museum open on Sundays is the Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. On the outside the building is designed to suggest one of the clay pots in which the scrolls were found at Khirbet Qumran near the Dead Sea. On the inside it centres on a huge scroll. The writing on the best-preserved scrolls is remarkably clear. No photographs are permitted in the inner area.
Not far from the Museum is the Knesset, Israel's parliament building. The word "knesset" means "gathering" - somewhat like ekklesia. A synagogue is a beth knesset. One section of the entrance at the street is suggestive of Jewish suffering across the centuries, and especially in the Holocaust. Across the road from the Knesset is a large bronze Menorah, a gift from British supporters of the State of Israel. It is decorated with scenes from Biblical history.
We were driven to Yad Vashem - the Holocaust memorial. The name "Yad Vashem" comes from Isaiah 56.5 and means "a memorial and a name". This is a necessary, though traumatic, experience for all who would understand Jews and modern Israel. In the words of the Lonely Planet guidebook, "The modern Jewish state was born out of the tragic experiences of persecution, flight and the death camps, and a desire that such horrors should never be repeated."
We began with the Children's Memorial. There were 1.5 million children killed. The area is dimly lit. There are some projected photographs. Candles and mirrors create the impression of the millions. In the darkness, names, ages and countries of origin are read to a background of sounds of mourning. No photography is permitted in this area.
As we moved around the extensive area (new work is still going on), we were aware of school classes coming here to learn about Jewish history. Groups of young Israeli soldiers were there too - learning about the Holocaust (all 18-year-olds must do military service - men for three years, women two years, followed by service in the army reserve). A group of them were standing at a memorial to a Polish Jew who cared for many children, went with them into the camps and died with them in the gas chambers.
We saw the avenue of trees which commemorate "righteous Gentiles" who worked to protect Jews during the Holocaust. We saw the memorial to Corrie ten Boom. We didn't locate the memorial to Oskar Schindler.
The Hall of Remembrance is dark with a flame burning in the centre and the names of the 21 largest concentration / death camps printed white against a black floor. A black cardboard cap is supplied to all who enter.
We met a Holocaust survivor who now lives in Colorado. We then walked through the Historical Museum. This details the history by news articles, photographs and artefacts. The world, including Australia, was slow to act and unwilling to receive Jewish refugees. The Australian government official of the time said that Australia didn't have a Semitic problem and didn't plan to import one.
Yad Vashem simply preserves and presents the facts. It is, however, the strongest possible rationale for the existence of the modern state of Israel. The displacement of the Palestinians is a major continuing issue. It is difficult to see how it can be resolved - there is no other country where the State of Israel could have been established.
We then went to the Holyland Hotel to view a large 1:50 Model of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple - My Land Holy Land. It is very detailed and, whenever necessary, is amended to accord with the latest archaeolgical discoveries. It helped to bring together many of the things we have seen in Jerusalem. Close by is a display of various significant buildings (1:25) - on loan from "Park Mini Israel" currently in the making at Latrun. This was the closest we got to seeing the real Dome of the Rock.
Because of recent trouble, it was not possible to visit Bethlehem which is close to Jerusalem, but in an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority. We were driven, however, to a vantage point where we could look across at the town. It is situated on a hill with the ground sloping away on every side. Deep down in the valley below we saw a shepherd with his sheep among the rocks - rather a different picture from what I had always imagined for the "shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night"!
In the evening, we met with Susan from the Ministry of Tourism and with representatives of New World Tours. They wanted to know our experience of travel in the Holy Land - and the complete safety and security in travelling and visiting all the sites. The worst we saw were three traffic accidents, and New World Tours and the local guides know any areas to avoid. It certainly highlighted the benefit of going with a tour - and the desirability of letting a local do the driving.
On Monday 19 February we set off towards the Dead Sea. The road is definitely down and we passed a sign which reads, "SEA LEVEL."
We stopped briefly at the Nahal David Nature Reserve, from which we had a good view of En-Gedi - a lush oasis in this very dry and thirsty part of the land. We could see people exploring the waterfalls and pools in the distance. Nearby were two female ibex - our guide had hoped we might have seen some adult males with their large horns here at En-Gedi.
We continued on to Masada. A helpful video prepared us with information about Jewish history relating to Masada. It is possible to walk up Masada - either by the Roman ramp or by the "snake route". We joined the crowd which filled the cable car for the comfortable and pleasant ascent of the fortress. Masada is much higher than I had imagined from photographs. At the top is a model of Masada and the excavations. This helped the guide explain what we were about to see. We had our first good view of the Dead Sea from up here. This is all rugged, rocky and barren country.
At the northern end was Herod's palace. When Herod the Great took over the existing fortifications in 43BC, he was providing himself a "way out" in the event of trouble from revolting Jews or from Anthony and Cleopatra. While hardly a holiday retreat, Herod planned it with a bath-house with tepid, hot and cold water - with water, I imagine, quite a premium at this location! Herod himself died in 4BC without having to make use of it. Following the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66AD, a group of Zealots captured the lightly-defended Masada and it became a refuge for fleeing Jews. After suppressing the uprising, the Romans turned their attention to Masada. Remains of their wall and camp are clearly visible - as well as their siege ramp which took a couple of years to build with Jewish slave labour. When they finally stormed the fortress, it was silent and empty - the defenders had taken their own lives rather than be captured by the enemy.
The story of Masada has become an important symbol for modern Israel. Israeli Defence Force units have been sworn in here - together with an oath that "Masada shall not fall again." I felt that, together with Yad Vashem, Masada helps us to understand better the Israeli determination - and stubbornness - in maintaining their place in the land.
From Masada we were driven alongside the Dead Sea. Because of the amount of water used for irrigation purposes by Israel and Jordan from the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River, the level of the Dead Sea is much lower than our maps usually show. It is now two lakes joined by canals. We went to En-Bokek on the Southern Dead Sea. There are a number of hotels - folk must come here for a healthy retreat. We had our meal in the restaurant. This gave us access to the change rooms without further charge. There is a sandy beach, and at this point the black cosmetic mud is only available for purchase - there is a sandy bottom. Following our guide's instructions, we had no trouble backing ourselves into the water - and keeping the salty water out of our eyes. The Dead Sea is 30% salt. Floating is no problem at all. In fact, once floating, there is something of a struggle to get vertical again.
It was after 4pm when we arrived at Qumran. We had missed the informative video, though the shop was still open. We looked around at the Khirbet Qumran ruins where the presumed Essene community lived. From the ridge near the ruins there is a clear view of some of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were accidentally found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd boy. The caves ridge is much higher and steeper than I had imagined from photographs. It would appear that access would have to be along the ridge - not up from the bottom. A fence has been put on top of the ridge to discourage modern-day cave-hunters.
At last it was our final packing up, meal and briefing before we left the Jerusalem Gold Hotel for the last time to be taken to Ben Gurion Airport. We had appreciated the hospitality and efficient service of the Hotel and felt for the owners who had refurbished it for re-opening last September. It was full then, but has not had many patrons since. The present trouble is hurting everyone. In spite of the high degree of safety which we experienced throughout the week, the negative reporting of Israel by foreign TV and news media has had a devasting effect on tourism. The economic effect is probably worst for the Palestinians. I believe the whole group has come away with a strong conviction that it is safe for tourists in Israel. Tourists have never been targetted or suffered in any of the incidents that have occurred across the years. Travelling with a reputable travel company - with an openness to have the itinerary changed if necessary - is the completely safe way to go.
The issue between Israeli and Palestinian is quite major. We saw no simple solutions. However, we have a little better understanding because we have been there. I believe that it would help plant peace if there were more people from around the world who travelled there, not to take sides, but go in peace - to meet the people, to understand them better, to care about the history of what God has said and done in this land... and, above all, to pray at every place throughout the land that all who live here - Jew, Moslem, Druze... - will come to know the Prince of Peace.
At Ben Gurion we had to go through security checks again. Some people had to go right through their bags - a bit awkward when you have made a careful and tight pack! But again, we were on a well-filled El Al Israel Airlines plane for a safe flight. This plane had little TV screens in front of each seat - and a choice of 8 channels. We flew out of Israel just after midnight on Tuesday 20 February. According to the flight monitor map, we went south over the Dead Sea, the full length of the Red Sea, then across India at about Mumbai (Bombay) on our way to Bangkok. The Melbourne (and via-Melbourne) passengers had a long stop-over in Bangkok before our return to Terra Australis on Wednesday 21 February.
That's my report on Israel, February 2001, for the moment... There's supposed to be a return trip. I think I need that - to clarify this one and to learn more. The photographs accompanying this account are mostly presented in the order they happened.
Above all, we need to remember that Jesus cannot be confined to the land where he spoke and healed and died, for he is risen!
Peter J Blackburn
Ayr, Queensland
February 2001.
Israel Reflections