Yesterday I had the opportunity of visiting Israel for a day trip from Turkey. The tour company through whom we booked our package holiday offered a one-day excursion to the Holy Land. I got back late last night. I thought I might share my impressions - first in English and hopefully later in Russian.
The excursion flew out of Turkey very early in the morning, so we arrived in Israel just after 5 am, when it was still dark (having had less than an hour's sleep). Tel Aviv airport is unusually swish. The first 'challenge' was passport control. I had been warned by more than one person that the security questions can be prolonged. In the event it was fine, although there was a subsequent stage after passport control with more questions apparently designed to rattle anyone arriving on false pretences.
I had arrived in the Holy Land.
The very first impression, since it was still dark outside, was the Hebrew script. I could make out words such as 'fire' and 'gate' from my Old Testament course. No giveaway vowel pointing of course!
Our tour guide was a Russian emigre: Eddi. As the coach pulled out of the airport he began his excursion talk. The itinerary seemed very ambitious. Although we wouldn't be visiting Nazareth in the north or Eilat in the south, we would be visiting Bethlehem and the Dead Sea as well as Jerusalem. Israel is not a big country, either in terms of territory (maybe the size of Wales or Belgium) or in terms of population (around 8 million).
As I gazed out of the coach window the sun dawned over the land of the Bible. I began picture the Biblical events in their original setting. I was groping around for a first insight, a first impression. And it came to me rather unexpectedly: the ubiquitous light-yellow rock. Not only is this the dominant feature of the arid landscape; it is also the universal building material. The guide even suggested that this might be the origin of the City of God as a bride - under the bright Middle Eastern sun the yellow becomes white.
Having driven up into Jerusalem (the capital is at a height of 800m above sea level) we headed off to Bethlehem, a mere 8 1/2 kilometres away and now virtually a suburb. However to get there we had to cross into the Palestinian Autonomy - in the event effortless, although armed guards manned the border and a huge defensive wall now divides Jew from Gentile. Bethlehem is of course famous for two of its sons: the lesser being King David. The Greater Son was born here sometime around 7-4 BCE. It seems unlikely that the precise location of his birthplace would have been found by Helen, the first Christian Emperor's mother in 324 but churches have been built and destroyed over the location since then. We wait in the church, but access to the grotto is denied due to services being held by one of the competing Christian churches custodians of the holy site. I do however manage to visit an adjoining grotto with a Roman Catholic altar and the tomb of Jerome, incidentally the patron saint of translators. As we walk back to the coach and drive back towards Jerusalem I note that Bethlehem is built on hills - with very steep roads.
Heading back to Jerusalem we have a very early lunch (10.30) and then stop at a spot with a panoramic view of the city with the Mount of Olives off to the right. It was from here that the Lord ascended to heaven after his resurrection.
The next stop is the Old City. The walls date back to Ottoman times. Entering through the Jaffa gate (as would Christian pilgrims of old) one enters a labyrinth of alleyways often lined with traders. The street names are in three languages (Hebrew, Arabic and English). Jerusalem is less hilly than Bethlehem but at times the alleyways will be on an incline of have steps up or down. The first quarter we enter is clearly not Jewish and we pass a mosque before we reach the Holy Sepulchre church.
At this point I should say that my expectations of the Holy sites themselves were low and I was not disappointed. The basic idea is that Calvary and Joseph's tomb (where Jesus was laid) are all within the church. However what to a protestant eye just looks like crass religiosity bordering on the idolatrous obscures the historical and hinders reflection as hundreds mill around to genuflect, touch, kiss and syphon off blessing from bits of stone. Even if these are indeed the genuine locations of Calvary and the tomb, the message of the gospel is surely, "He is not here, he is risen." We are saved by an historical person and events - not by geographical location. I wonder whether in time as I reread the passion narratives the memory of the Holy Sepulchre might yet yield some insight. It didn't on my first visit.
From here we headed off to the Jewish quarter. Again the light yellow stone is ubiquitous. The buildings are new and well-maintained with many institutions for the study of the Torah and similar. We also pass a Roman site showing a street plan of post-135 Roman Jerusalem (via Cardo). In front of a small square is a recently renovated synagogue, visible on the skyline and magnificent close up. We walk on gradually down hill past a glass-cased golden Menorah (fashioned as in the Temple) towards the Western wall.
In some ways the highlight of my visit to Jerusalem was the Western wall. It stands in front of a fairly compact plaza and is a place of prayer. Having donned my kipa (sp?) I stand in front of the wall and Bible in hand read Psalm 79 (78 in Russian) and Romans 9:1-6 ("theirs is..."). Next to the wall are various bookshelves packed with Jewish prayer books and elsewhere, parked like supermarket trolleys, are prayer desks. It is about 2pm or thereabouts and the sun is beating down. To the left of the main wall is a covered area where Jews gather to pray and discuss the Torah. I venture in but am unsure whether the goyim are supposed to be there. So I come back out and stand in the shade by the bookshelves to read psalm 25.
Incidentally, our guide urged us right from the start to be drinking water constantly, literally sipped water throughout his own talks. "As the deer pants..."
Having visited the Old City we head back out to the bus and to the Dead Sea, which is apparently the lowest point on earth at 418 metres below sea level, so over 1200 m downhill from the Eternal City. It is bigger than I expected, but the sea itself is much like Karachi in Novosibirsk oblast - including the mud on the lake bed!
Our last stop is a cafeteria and shop at Qumran. Yes, that Qumran. Set in a rocky landscape, typical of the Judean countryside (and similar to where Jesus would have spent 40 years fasting). The closed exhibition is called the Secret of Qumran - I recognise the word 'secret' from my Old Testament lectures. The staff at the cafeteria are again Arab - as were most service staff during the trip.
As we drive back towards the airport the sun is already setting over the Holy Land. It is interesting to notice through the coach window the various ways in which the wilderness is being reclaimed for trees and agriculture. Also the small settlements of shepherds on the arid, rocky landscape - living with their herds as they did 2000 years ago.
We arrive back at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airport in good time. After a LOT of security checks and questions there is time to shop, wifi and browse the book shops before the flight home.
And thus, just before 11pm, ends my trip to the Holy Land.