On our trip to Israel, we packed in as much as we could every day. There is so much to see, and we had limited time and we didn’t always get to spend as much time at some places as we would have liked.
The week we were there was composed of several important days for the people of Israel: Holocaust Remembrance Day, their Memorial Day and Independence Day.
Day one, April 24, was Holocaust Remembrance Day, and we started at the tomb of Oskar Schindler. If you remember the movie, he risked his life and lost his fortune to save the lives of about 1,200 Jews.
When he died in 1974, the survivors and their descendants worked with the government to have him buried in a Catholic cemetery in Jerusalem. His tomb is regularly covered with stones, left by the survivors, over 7,000 descendants and others who visit.
At 10 a.m. air raid sirens sounded across the country. Everything stops at that moment, cars pull off along the highways, and everyone stands at attention for two minutes to remember.
We were outside Zion Gate at the time, one of the gates into the Old City. The walls around the gate are pocked with bullet-holes, some of which still have bullets lodged in them, from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Other sites that day included the traditional Upper Room and Tomb of King David as well as the Garden of Gethsemane (a word which means “olive press”) where some of the oldest olive trees still thrive.
We also visited the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu (“cock crow” in Latin), which commemorates Peter’s denial of Christ three times.
The church sits above the remains of what could be the house of Caiaphas, the high priest who questioned Jesus. There is a cistern/prison, and a place to tie a prisoner for flogging, not something you would find in the average first-century home.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, was our final stop that day. We didn’t have time to see everything but the impact was still incredible.
One of the displays was one of the original lists made of Schindler’s Jews. We had seen his tomb that morning and now could see the typewritten pages of names.
More A sites on day two included the Western Wall, City of David and Caesarea.
The Western, or Wailing Wall, is the western part of the platform where the Temple stood until 70 A.D. On the platform itself are the Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Approach to the wall is divided by gender, and it is expected that both men and women will dress modestly (no shorts, no bare arms and men must wear a head covering) and be respectful, or be told about it.
We were able to approach the wall, insert a prayer on a piece of paper into a crack and say a prayer. We learned that when the papers fall out, especially after a storm, they are gathered and placed in a container which, when full, is buried at a special location on the Mount of Olives.
The City of David is a tiny portion of Jerusalem and the original location of the capital created by King David, near a still-active spring.
The guides took us into an archaeological dig of a palace and, according to some evidence, this may actually be the palace built and used by King David. It was a little staggering to think we were standing on a catwalk just above where King David may have once walked.
Caesarea was a city built by Herod the Great to impress the Romans and also provide a harbor in the Mediterranean.
The city was used by the Roman governor’s as their capital for Palestine. Parts of the hippodrome have been restored, and the theater, still used today, is over 2,000 years old.
According to the bible, it was here that the Apostle Paul spoke to Gov. Marcus Antonius Felix several times during his imprisonment.
Day three was busy, with trips to the Israel Museum, which includes a model of first century Jerusalem and displays of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
We walked along the Via Dolorosa after visiting St. Anne’s church and the Pool of Bethesda, an A site. In the bible, Jesus visits the pool and heals an invalid.
The walls of the pool stand just outside of St. Anne’s church. The church has incredible acoustics, something the musicians in our group took advantage of.
Two tomb sites were visited; possible locations (B sites) of Mt. Calvary and the garden tomb where Jesus was buried.
The first site is now the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a massive building housing chapels for several denominations, a passageway to a tomb and also a slab that is thought to be where Jesus was laid before being placed in the tomb.
Not far away is another site, privately owned, which includes not only a suitable hill and garden tomb, but also the remains of a wine press. Here we were able to see into the tomb (empty, of course) and have a worship service.
While in Jerusalem, we also toured the Friends of Zion museum and learned about several people who worked to bring the nation of Israel into existence again, and there were some surprising names in the list, including Queen Victoria and Harry Truman and a man named George Bush, ancestor of two presidents.
Day four we traveled to the Sea of Galilee where we would stay in Tiberias for the rest of the trip. On the way, we stopped at the Dead Sea for a swim.
It is Earth’s lowest elevation on land and is also 9.6 times saltier than the ocean. We were warned to not drink any of the water, even a little, since it could quickly kill us.
From there we visited Masada, a natural defensive position of a plateau with steep sides and one narrow access path. A second path was carved during the reign of Herod the Great, and now cable cars take visitors to the top.
Herod the Great built a fortress escape he never used, but a group of over 960 Jews sheltered here after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It took the Roman army three years to finally reach and breach the walls, but they found that the Jews had chosen death over slavery.
We learned that when the synagogue was being excavated, they found the repository where old Torah scrolls had been placed. Only one was readable, and it was the book of Ezekiel where God promises the prophet that he will restore Israel’s “dry bones” into living flesh.
The rest of our stay was at a slower pace. We visited Capernaum and within a synagogue built directly on top of the remains of a first century synagogue, the one where Jesus would have taught.
Just across from this is an archaeological dig, which includes the foundations of a house where evidence was found that it was owned by a fisherman named Simon Peter. We saw the town of Magdala and visited Nazareth and Caesarea Philippi as well as the Mount of the Beatitudes.
We spent some time at a memorial for those killed during the Yom Kippur war. The memorial is located just five miles from the Syrian border, and some of our group could hear ammunition explosions during the visit.
Megiddo overlooks the Valley of Jezreel and a portion of the valley called Armageddon. Many battles have been fought here, and the bible says it will be the staging area of the final battle to be fought.
Many cities have been built on top of the ruins of other cities here and the hillside commands a wide view of the valley, a place both Patton and Napoleon wished they could use.
On our final day, we took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Israel gets much of its drinking water from desalination plants now, but Galilee is still an important water source for the nation.
A running joke is that Israelis like to make things sound big: a creek is the Jordan River and a lake is the Sea of Galilee. On the far side, we could see the Golan Heights. Storms blow up quickly on the sea, in fact, while we were there the water went from calm to choppy enough to give some of us a wetting.
It is impossible to talk about everything in just a couple of articles. Even now those of us who were on the trip are still trying to process everything, and there is so much I forgot.
I have been trying to remember it all and write about it in a blog, “Our Israel Adventure,” and regularly check in with the other members of the group on Facebook. Should you ever have the opportunity to visit, even if you are not religious at all, take it. The history alone is worth every penny and every effort.