Saturday, April 02, 2011

Israel - Chapter 2

It’s doubtful that I’ll return to the Holy Land, and my impressions are random and limited by the fact I travelled with Spanish speaking Catholic pilgrims.

Although we were like a flock of sheep following behind our shepherd, lucky for us he was a kind shepherd who tended his flock well. When we were cold, because the day was rainy and windy, he found a restaurant where a Cappuccino might hit the spot. On the days when we were on the desert and it was hot and dry he’d gave us time to relax with a cold drink. When we were in need of a bathroom, and no public one was in sight, he went into hotels asking permission for our group to use the facilities. Cognizant of his flock’s need to buy, he patiently waited at many souvenir shops until the last of the of his pilgrims had passed through the check out.

What follows are photographs, limited histories, a few Biblical quotes, and random personal impressions.


As we walked along the streets of Bethlehem, I noticed a paradox and took photos. There were two dress shops, almost side by side, one sold revealing dresses while the other sold modest attire only a Muslim women would wear.

It is a Palestinian city in the Central West Bank approximately eight kilometers south of Jerusalem. Although it is home to the world’s oldest Christian community their numbers are shrinking.

From 1920 to 1948 Bethlehem was administered by the British Mandate. (When the Ottoman Empire collapse Europe, without consulting the Palestine citizens of the region, decided how the former Ottoman Empire would be governed.)

After World War 11, and the formation of the United Nations, the UN General Assembly Resolution of 1947 declared that Bethlehem and Jerusalem would be governed by the United Nations.

During the 1948 Arab-Israel conflict Jordan annexed Bethlehem and the influx of refugees during the conflict significantly transformed the predominantly Christian majority into a Muslim one. During the 1967 Six Day War Bethlehem was occupied by Israel.

December 21, 1995, Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem and three days later the city came under the complete control of the Palestinian National Authority.

In 2002 Bethlehem became a primary combat zone in Operation Defensive Shield, which was Israel’s largest military defensive since the 1967 Six Day War. During the operation 200 Palestinian militants sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity and Israeli defense forces besieged the church.

We were in Bethlehem to see The Church of the Nativity. Catholic, and one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, it is built over a cave and in the cave was a stable and in the stable lay baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, or so the story goes. It should be noted that Muslims also revere Jesus, but add Mohammad to their sacred list of characters.


In 63 BC the Romans conquered the Jewish city of Shanton’s Tower, renamed it Caesarea, and granted the city to King Herod. King Herod, ruthless, mentally unstable and hated by his Jewish subjects was nevertheless a great builder. Caesarae became the first great seaport of Judea. He also built warehouses, markets, great streets, bathhouses, temples and magnificent public buildings. Every five years the city hosted gladiator games.

I very much enjoyed the hour or two we wandered around these Roman ruins and my appetite is wetted for my trip to Italy in the fall.


The next day there was a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no more wine.” “Dear woman, that’s not our problem,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” But his mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Standing nearby were six stone water jars, used for Jewish ceremonial washing. Each could hold twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” When the jars had been filled, he said, “Now dip some out, and take it to the master of ceremonies.” So the servants followed his instructions. When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that was now wine, not knowing where it had come from (though, of course, the servants knew), he called the bridegroom over. “A host always serves the best wine first,” he said. “Then, when everyone has had a lot to drink, he brings out the less expensive wine. But you have kept the best until now!” This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was the first time Jesus revealed his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (John 2: 1-11)

The transforming the water to wine was perhaps the first miracle Jesus performed. Christians, who like to party, sometimes use the wedding at Cana as an example of how Jesus liked to have a good time. On the other hand, the wine might be an allegory, the wine symbolizing the holy spirit and the water the prophets of the old testament with the resurrection of Jesus transforming the old into the new. Cana may not have existed, but if you are a believer and Catholic Cana is now the Arabe town of Kafr Kanna in the Galilee region.

At Cana two of my companions, a couple who have been married for thirty-four years, renewed their vows, from that time onward they were referred to as “los novios” (roughly translated, the sweethearts.)


Capernaum was, as legend has it, the center of Jesus activities on the Sea of Galilee. He taught at the local synagogue, and it is the hometown of Peter, James, Andrew and John.

The village was in its prime during the Roman and Byzantine periods. When Arabs occupied the area (7th to 12th Centuries A.D.) the synagogue and church were destroyed. Eventually the village ceased to function.

In 1894 two-thirds of Capernaum was purchased by the Franciscans and the other third by the Greek Orthodox Church.

I looked at some of the ancient pillars found in the ruins of a synagogue that once was. The columns are held up by very modern steel beams and I wondered how long ancient ruins last. One day the edifices we construct will be ancient. On top of old ruins considered sacred the Catholic church has carefully built a new edifice.

Church of Annunciation

The Church of Annunciation is a modern Catholic Church located in Nazareth and built on the site where Mary allegedly received a visit from the Angel Gabriel, who told the virgin girl of possibly thirteen that she would give birth to the Son of God, who is really God himself come to earth. Huh???

When I was ten years old I knew how babies were born. I must have been around the same age when my mother discussed the virgin birth. My mother had a few rather peculiar ideas, one of which was it was possible for a women to give birth as a virgin, but the child would have to be female and would look exactly like her mother. It didn’t make sense to me, especially since her theory was ignoring the fact Jesus was male.

I secretly came up with my own point of view. I believed Mary was fooling around and found herself in the family way. I didn’t think Joseph was the father. I thought Mary made up the story about an angel so that Joseph would marry her in spite of her condition. I thought Joseph both noble and a sucker at the same time. ( Until now, I have never confessed my childhood belief.)

As a nonbeliever, I could appreciate the grandness of this church, and I marveled at the renditions and of Mary, Jesus, angels, etc., gifted to this church from many cultures in many countries across the globe. Yet, I felt no holiness. I’ve never accepted the virgin birth.

Among the many artistic impressions of Mary is Mexico’s Lady of Guadalupe, no surprise, the good lady united the indigenous people and converted them to Catholicism. It took the invention of their own virgin to do that.

The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu

I tell the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times. (Matthew 26:34)

The Church of St, Peter in Gallicantu, “gallicantu” is Latin and means the cock crows, has been erected several times on the slopes of Mount Zion. In 475 AD a Byzantine church was built on this site. It was destroyed in 1010. In 1102 Crusaders rebuilt church. In 1320 the rebuilt church was left in ruins.

The church that stands today was constructed in 1931. According to tradition, this was where the palace of the high priest Caraphus stood, and where Jesus was imprisoned after his arrest.


We had ten minutes to look at the gardens of Haifa, which overlook the Mediterranean Sea. If I were in Haifa on my own, I would forget about paying homage to yet another Catholic Church on yet another Holy Site, and I would spend the afternoon wandering the most beautiful gardens I have ever laid eyes upon.

Haifa and its neighboring area has a population of 600,000. Ninety percent are Jewish, with twenty-eight percent of the Jewish population originating from the Soviet Union. Most of the Arab population is Christian.

Throughout history Haifa has been conquered by Phoenicians, Hebrews, Persians, Hasmoneans, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, Egyptians, British and Israelis.

It is the second holiest shrine of the Bahai faith, and its international headquarters. Bahai followers believe in the divinity of Moses, Jesus, Mohammad and their founder Bahaullah, whose enshrined in the beautiful gardens in Haifa.


Throughout our trip, as we moved between Palestinian controlled territory and Israel proper, except for our first night, it was never very obvious if the area was controlled by Jews or Palestinians.
Jericho, with a population of 20,000, is the lowest inhabited site on earth, and perhaps the oldest continuously occupied city as well. It’s dry and the mountains are full of caves. The Bedouins herd goats and the cable car takes travelers up the mountain. At the top there is a Greek Orthodox Church.

It was a fascinating crowd meandering around the hill that overlooks Jericho, believers of various sorts from around the world, and likely a few other nonbelievers like me with a fascination for times past.

Jericho’s recent history is full of struggle. In the mid 1950s in agreement with accords signed after the 1948 Arab-Israel war, which was the first of many wars between Israel and it’s Arab neighbours, Jericho was annexed to Jordan.

Shortly before June 5, 1967, an alliance formed between Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Israel believed the purpose of this alliance was to wipe Israel from the map. Two hundred and fifty-thousand troops, 2,000 tanks and 700 aircraft ringed Israel, and on June 5 Israel moved across the Sinai Desert and after six days was in a position to move into Cairo. In those six days, Israel tripled its territory from 8,000 square miles to 26,000. Israel was able to reunited Jerusalem and capture the Sinai, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Jericho was in the hands of Israel.

Next came the First Intifada. It was a relatively peaceful uprising of the Palestinians under Israeli rule. It began in 1967 and lasted until 1994.

In 1994 Jericho was the first city handed over to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA was formed in 1994 pursuant to the Oslo Accords between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, the accord was to last five years until a permanent resolution was found. The PA should not be confused with the PLO. The PLO has international status but the PA has control only over security and civil matters in select areas within Israeli territory. The Oslo Accords failed.

In 2001 Second Intifada began, and Israel retook Jericho. By the time the Second Intifada had ended, 65,000 Palestinians, over 1,100 Israelis and sixty-four foreigners had been killed. On March 16, 2005, Jericho was returned to the PA.


In Psalm 122 David instructs his readers to pray for peace in Israel. It has yet to come.

Muslims, Jews and Christians, all of whom trace their beliefs back to Abraham, lay claim to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Those who want to prove religion breeds violence need look no further than here. Since its inception in the 4th millennium B.C., making it one of the world’s oldest cities, it has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and captured and recaptured 44 times.

Today, the status of Jerusalem remains one of the core issues of conflict between Israel and Palestine. For now, Israel lays claim to the entire city, but the United Nations does not accept Israel’s claim to East Jerusalem.

In spite of the continued violence, (for example: while I was there a Palestinian rocket hit an Israeli school bus, killing one child and injuring the bus driver) life goes on. Muezzins call the Islamic faithful to prayer, pilgrims wander the narrow streets and shop keepers do their best to lure tourists by giving gifts and offering free coffee or tea.

I was surprised at how many of the shopkeepers spoke Spanish when they discovered we were from Mexico.

“This is my uncle. He’ll give you two camels and a goat for your daughter,” a merchant proclaimed. “He already has two wives, but for a young pretty one, he’d take a third.” They played to the stereotypes, entertaining in the hopes of purchases.

Mount of Olives

The Mount of Olives is where Jesus supposedly rose into the heavens after his three day visit to earth after his death. At the foot of the Mount of Olives is the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus and his followers prayed the night before his crucifixion.

It was a cold and rainy day that very much fit the mood of the event. We walked through the Mount of Olives and down to the Garden of Gethsemane. Christians who believe in divinity can celebrate the resurrection. It is the death of Jesus that holds meaning for me. I don’t know, but I suspect Jesus was a man who once lived. He was neither king nor prophet, but a common man with an uncommon message. He urged the people of his time to listen to their conscience. I believe, he was the first person to ever state that a person’s moral conviction takes precedence over the laws of the land, not that the laws of the land aren’t important.

Can you imagine how dangerous this point of view was for a lowly Jew living under Roman occupation? He couldn’t have been a fool for his message was too advanced. He must have known his message would soon cause his execution. So it did. He died for what he believe in.

Mount of Olives is a mountain ridge in eastern Jerusalem covered with Olive groves. The mount has been used as a Jewish cemetery for 3,000 years and holds approximately 150,000 graves.

During the Jordanian occupation, between 1948 and 1967, King Hussein permitted the construction of the Intercontinental Hotel at the summit. Jewish burials were halted and a road was built that cut through the cemetery and 40,000 of the 150,000 graves were desecrated. After the Six Day War, when Jerusalem became part of Israel, restoration work began and the cemetery was reopened for burials.


After six days Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. (Matthew 17:1-3)

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” (Matthew 17:5)

This makes no sense because according to doctrine, Jesus is God on earth. So, on the Mount Jesus, God on earth, is being spoken to by God in the heaven and God in the heaven is speaking of himself in the third person. He also thinks he’s his own son. Huh???

Where is this high mountain? No one really knows. Some think it was Mount Hermon, but Catholics believe it was Mount Tabor. Why? Because in 348 AD Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem said so, and ever since his decree pilgrims have been coming to Mount Tabor to see the place where God/Jesus was transfigured.

Throughout history Jews, Arabs and Christians have fought over this strategically placed piece of land. For now Tabor rests safely in modern day Israel and there is peace on the Mount. Our van pulled into a parking lot at its foot, and we waited until there was room for us in one of the Mount Tabor buses. We waited a long time because there were hundreds of people who wanted to reach the mount. While they waited my traveling companions shopped in a strategically placed shop that full of Jesus souvenirs.


Nazareth, with a population of 65,000, is mostly Arab, and considered the Arab capital of Israel. 30.3% of its Arab population is Christian. Muslims and Christians generally get along.

In the 1947 partition plan Nazareth was allotted to the Arab State, but surrendered to Israel on June 18, 1948, although not a field of battle.

The White Mosque, built by an Egyptian ruler, Suleiman Pasha, between 1804 and 1808, is among the most splendid of Nazareth’s religious buildings. Built after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire it was to be a place of light and peace to be enjoyed by all the faiths.

Nazareth is also the home of Mary and Joseph and where they married and raised their children.

Did you know, that outside biblical references to Nazareth there is no evidence that Nazareth existed during the time of Jesus? The Catholic Church acknowledges this, but takes the position that just because it’s not mentioned that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.

Tabgha- The church of the multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes.

We all like a good meal. Perhaps that’s why one of the most duplicated symbols I saw throughout our trip were plates and mugs with the symbol of the loaves and fishes painted on them.

The Baptismal Site of Jesus

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him (Matthew 3:13).

The Jordan River has a relatively short life beginning it’s journey at the Sea of Galilee and ending it at the Dead Sea. The actual location of the baptism of Jesus is up for debate.

Since the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994, the place on the Jordan River that Catholics believe is the site where Jesus was baptized is no longer a military zone. It is a Jordanian National Park under the protection of King Abdullah 11. Jordan welcomes visitors.

For some reason unknown we went to Yardenit, which may have been the baptismal site.

Mother Ruth, daughter Ruth and Concepcion donned baptismal robes and were blessed, not baptized, as Jesus was. “Yo creo,” (I believe) each of my companions responded as Padre Arturo blessed them with water from the Jordan River. “No creo,” I said. But the good father blessed me anyway.

The Jesus Boat

Following a prolonged drought, on January 24, 1986 an ancient boat was discovered in the seaside village of Kibbutz Ginosaur. Because it was old, because it was on the Sea of Galilee, Who knows? It might somehow be connected to Jesus. Another way to make a buck. We boarded a replica. The Mexican flag was hoisted, the Mexican anthem was played, and off we went.

Room of the Last Supper

As I stood in the middle of the room thought by some to be the room of the last supper, I was impressed by its size and grandeur, and doubtful that Jesus was ever here. This was not a place where a humble man would dine.

The Tomb of Lazarus

The Tomb of Lazarus is located in the West Bank town of al-Eizanuya near Jerusalem, traditionally identified as the Biblical village of Bethany.

Catholics believe his tomb is possibly, but not for certain, located here. I decided to take a photograph of the cross outside the tomb. A strange thing occurred. A light not visible to the human eye flickered in front of the cross. It was large and bright. I turned my camera lens away from the cross and the light disappeared. It was obviously in one place, in front of the cross. I called daughter Ruth over to give witness to what was happening. “I think the others should look at this.” I said. Yet I had no intention of attracting attention to this bizarre happening. Ruth called others to take a look. Veronica’s camera was able to pickup the same light. Concepcion’s was not.

“Believe.” Ruth said as I gathered my wits about me and intellect took hold. I wondered but had no explanation of the origin of the light was. I did not instantly become a believer because of the light. I simply had no explanation.

In Barajas, Spain in my hotel room the same sort of light came from a lamp on the night stand. It put the matter to rest. Given the right circumstances some cameras pick up light not visible to the naked eye.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves around the Northeast corner of the Dead Sea, by Bedouin goat herders in the winter of 1946-47. Many more scrolls were found in the caves around the Dead Sea. The last of which were discovered in 1956.

They are the oldest texts of the Old Testament ever found. Mostly written in Hebrew, but also in Greek and Aramaic. Aramaic was the language of the Jews of Palestine during the last two centuries B.C. Most are written on animal hind, some on papyrus and some on copper.

The Scrolls were found near the ancient ruins of Qumran, located on a dry plateau about a mile inland from the Dead Sea. Qumran was established around 134 B.C. and destroyed by the Roman invasion around 68 A.D. It’s believed that the people of Qumran hid their library in the caves as the Romans invaded.

Although not known for sure, it is generally believed that the residents of Qumran were Essenes. The Essenes, a small Jewish sect, flourished from two centuries before Christ and a century after. They were believers in communal life, dedicated to voluntary poverty, daily immersion in water, and absence of world pleasures, including marriage.

It is speculated that John the Baptist was an Essene, and some scholars believe Jesus as well studied among the Essenes in Qumran.

The Dead Sea

In the late afternoon on our last day we lounged at the world’s lowest bar, floated in the sea and some of us covered ourselves with the replenishing mud.

The Dead Sea, 423 meters below sea level, is the lowest dry land on earth and has attracted visitors since antiquity. It was a place of refuge for King David and King Herod made it one of the world’s first health resorts.

It supplied balms for Egyptian mummification, and today mud from the Dead Sea is used as an ingredient in skin care products. With a density of 1.24 kg/l swimming is difficult, but floating is a breeze.

In recent years the water in the Dead Sea has been shrinking because of water diversions on the Jordan River.

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