Bethlehem and Jerusalem
Fortunate to have another day in the Haifa port we started the 90 mile drive to Bethlehem. Upon arrival we entered the Israeli gated city of Bethlehem. Going through the security check point and having our guide tell us that no Israeli’s were allowed in I thought to myself is that true or is it really no Palestinians were allowed out? With this discomfort at our first “Palestinian reality” I sadly went to Jesus’s birthplace. Visiting the Church of the Nativity we had to humble ourselves just to enter the very purposefully short door entrance. Inside was a typical Orthodox Church with lanterns and icons. This church is located on Manger Square over the Grotto of the Nativity which some believe is the exact spot where Jesus was born. A star is placed on that spot beneath the church.
Leaving the small town of Bethlehem we traveled to Jerusalem. After living in England my favorite cities are ancient and walled. The Old City of Jerusalem was just that. Many that pilgrim to Jerusalem want to walk the Via Delorosa, “The Way of the Suffering”, which also is referred to as the Stations of the Cross. This walk is documented in many books and can be followed alone or with a tour guide. It starts at the Lions Gate Entrance and takes you to 14 notable stations. If you’d like to do it peacefully, early in the morning would be wise. One does not have to be religious to understand the significance of this walk.
We entered through the Jaffa Gate and were going to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and see some of the stations. Walking to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher our group was able to see where Jesus stumbled and touched the wall. Here many pilgrims would touch the wall while passing. Kissing their hands as they went. Bustling through the narrow alleyways one felt transported through time. The smells of spices, the local foods being offered, the restaurants situated in caves all created an ethereal experience. The city was enchanting.
Arriving at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher we had no idea what wonders awaited. Two of the holiest sites of Christianity rest here. Crammed shoulder to shoulder, climbing a steep staircase with our guide, willing us on to stay together, was a challenge. At the top of the staircase an aura took our breath away seeing Jesus on the Cross. Here the crowds quieted, some started to cry and others prayed. We were on Calvary and near the Stone of Golgotha. As we awaited our turn to kneel and touch the stone where Jesus was crucified we were spell bound. Afterwards we manipulated our way to the second holy site, Stone of Anointing. Here on the ground level of the church, Jesus was prepared for burial. Kneeling and touching this stone was supernal. Others were overwhelmed and rested their heads on the stone crying. The gravity of peoples pain was visceral. A transcending experience.
Then we walked by a large Shrine called the Aedicula with a long line outside of it. This is centralized in the Church and is a Shrine built over the tomb where Jesus was buried and resurrected. We did not go in but behind this tomb in a small corner our guide shared with us another tomb. We had completed the Via Delorosa seeing the 4 final stations in this sacred place.
Leaving the Holy Church of the Sepulcher our journey took us next to the Western Wall also called the Wailing Wall. This is one of the most sacred of sites for the Jews. The masses were writing prayers/wishes on notepaper to tuck into the wall. The touching of the wall with hands and heads was stirring. Afterwards while leaving the wall many Jewish families were taking photographs, singing and playing musical instruments. Numerous barmitzvahs for beloved sons were taking place. The joy and happiness of these celebrations brightened a very soulful day.
Upon leaving the area our guide pointed out the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. This extremely large and sacred Mosque sits directly behind the Western Wall. The most impressive concept of our day is not only the meaningful sights for Christians but the interweaving of the visual and spirituality of Christians, Jews and Muslims in one small area of an Old City.
For our final stop of the day was the Garden of Gethsemane. This small church is built around the garden where it is thought that Jesus was betrayed and arrested. Some of the olive trees are 2000 plus years old. The walk through the church with it’s stone structures in the back and the garden offered a tranquil end to the day.
Leaving Haifa, Israel’s third largest city saddened us. There was plenty more to see just in this beautiful city. At the foot of the Bahai Gardens lies the picturesque German Colony founded in the 19th Century by German Templars. Now it is a charming place for dinners and drinks in this well preserved niche in Haifa. Walking through the gardens and ending here to rest is perfect.
Another famous spot of interest in Haifa is the Wadi Nisnas. This is one of three neighborhoods where the Arabs live. These narrow alleyways have turned into a tourist spot. Middle Eastern architecture, culinary delights and shopping transports you to the Arab world.
For Museum enthusiasts there are numerous to choose from. The hugely impressive Israel Museum and the powerful Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial are just two. You can visit the Railway Museum, The National Maritime Museum, the Haifa Art Museum and the Haifa City Museum.
No matter what, you will enjoy Israel. It’s sensory and spiritual experience is unlike any other. The mixture of church bells, the muezzin’s call and the shofar (ram’s horn) creates ethereal moments that are difficult to describe. The cohesive intermingling of Christianity, Muslim and Jewish spirituality overlap to transcend the every day noise and congestion for a much better appreciation of all human kind. God be with you, As-salamu alaykum and Shalom!
Acre (Akko) was a special dinner event for the Around the World cruisers. Arriving at sunset as Ramadan was ending for the day and the Adhan was called we entered this World Heritage Site of the Knights of Templar (the Catholic Military). The evening’s theme was “Our Story- The Short History of Israel -120 years”. This was presented in music and dance. This was so well performed that I fell in love with new composers and poets. Hallelujah by the Jewish Canadian Leonard Cohen was beautifully sung.
Another artist, the poet who’s story I knew nothing about and can not wait to read novels about is Hannah Senesh (1921-1944). A poet and Special Operations Executive, Hannah was parachuted into Yugoslavia to try to save Jews destined for the concentration camps in WWII. She was caught, tortured, tried and executed by firing squad at the young age of 23. A National Israeli Hero and poet there are many novels written about her bravery. In Kindling Flame:The Story of Hannah Senesh 1921-1944 by Linda Atkinson or Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary by Hannah Szenes. Between the music, dance, World Heritage site surroundings and amazing Israeli food it will be a night to remember and continue to learn from.