Every year on Christmas eve, I share a picture, a memory from 9 year ago. The picture is from Bethlehem and of the birthplace of Jesus. I have now been to 44 countries (and counting) and I cannot think of a more EPIC visit and memory than visiting Bethlehem on Christmas eve. This post is a recollection of my visit to the Holy Land.
I had lots of assumptions and pre-conceived notions about this area of the world before I visited the Holy Land. However, my visit changed a lot of that! I came away with the understanding that what you see with your own eyes and hear from your own ears is very different to what you perhaps see on the media and news sites. That being said, I won’t get into politics in this post. This is not a political post! In fact, it is far from it.
My mom and I arrived in Amman, Jordan along with other people on our tour. There, we were joined by my aunt and family who had arrived in Amman before us. We had our first middle-eastern meal in our hotel and I remember thinking if the food was going to be like this during this trip, I will be very happy!
Crossing to Israel
The next day, we piled up in a bus and headed over to Israel. But first, we had a border to cross. This took some time and also was quite the process. The bus that brought us to the border was going back to Jordan and we were getting on a new bus with a new guide and bus driver. They were waiting for us at this border.
The border crossing was very tight. We got off at a building where we were checked at 5 different posts, 2 outside the building and 3 inside. Interestingly, one of the agents at a post inside asked if my name was Arabic when I handed him my passport (my name is not Arabic! It was coined by using segments on my parent’s names). We even had to send our luggage through security just like at an airport. Another interesting observation is that our passports were never stamped. Instead, we were all given a rectangular card which we were asked to hold on to.
The River Jordan
Our first stop in Israel was the river Jordan. The color of the water was muddy and not at all what I was expecting! The river Jordan is a very long river so I am not sure if where we stopped had any historic or religious significance but, there were a lot of people getting baptized or perhaps renewing their baptismal vows here. They were dressed in white and were submerged under the water. We just removed our shoes and dipped our toes in.
After we got back in the bus from our stop at the river Jordan, we made a brief stop at Khirbet Qumran. This location is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The Dead Sea Scrolls are said to be two thousand years old, dating from the third century BC to the first century AD.
The Dead Sea
We had a long stop at the Dead Sea and had the opportunity to get in and swim around. The salt content is insane here! And yes, you can indeed float in the Dead Sea. The mud at the bottom of the sea is said to have amazing mineral properties and we all gave ourselves free facials!
Borders between Israel and Palestine are extremely confusing and I was so glad we joined an organized tour. Our bus stopped several times at various tiny border posts while our guide got down or spoke to officers and explained we were a tour group.
After going in and out of Israel, we were now in Jericho in Palestine. Jericho is claimed to be the oldest city in the world. There have been settlements in Jericho for the last 11,000 years! In Jericho we briefly stopped to see the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed in order to see Jesus. Not sure if this was the exact tree or not but this is where it is said the tree is! We also got to see the Mount of Temptation in Jericho where Jesus was tempted just before he started his ministry.
Tomb of Lazarrus
We arrived at a place that was said to be where Lazarrus (famous Bibilical story) was laid to rest before he was ressurected by Jesus. Almost all of the Biblical sites are now churches and this was no exception.
Another couple of check points and we finally made our way to Bethlehem, where we were staying for a few days.
The next morning we, made our way to Jerusalem but not first without stopping at the wall between Israel and Palestine for security. After our guide cleared us at the border post, we made our way to the ancient city.
Jerusalem, especially old Jerusalem, really took me back in time. You can feel, smell and see the history of this ancient city. We toured the city, starting at..
The Western Wall
The Western Wall was one of the most poignant places I have visited. The Wall is sectioned by gender. We went to the female side and spent some time there. I watched a group of Jewish ladies singing in Hebrew and dancing around in a circle. Their devotion was so raw and real. It’s forever etched in my mind.
Temple Mount/ Al-Masjid al-Aqsa
From the Western Wall we walked over to the Al-Masjid al-Aqsa. This Mosque is said to be the 3rd most important place of worship for Muslims.
In Judaism, this area is called the Temple Mount and is a place of significant importance. According to Jewish tradition, the Old and New Temples stood at the Temple Mount. Jewish tradition further places the Temple Mount as the location for a number of important events which occurred in the Bible, including the almost sacrifice of Isaac and Jacob’s dream.
Muslims call this compound the Nobel Sanctuary and believe this is the location of Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven .
Security was very tight to get into this area. As this area is of significant importance to both religions, it also happens to be a place of many a disputes. The following day, there was a fight that broke out in this very place.
Next we got a chance to walk the Stations of the Cross, starting from Jesus’s judgment to his crucifixion. As we walked through all the narrow alleys and streets of Old Jerusalem, I really felt transported back in time.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher
This church is one of the most fascinating churches I have ever seen (and between my 10+ visits to Europe, I have seen a LOT of churches!). The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is said to be built where Jesus died on the cross. There is so much to see in this church. I could have probably spent about half a day here and wish I had more time.
More of Old Jerusalem
After a nice lunch break (by the way, the food was amazing throughout this entire trip!), we explored more of Old Jerusalem. The city is divided up by various quarters and soon we found ourselves in the Armenian quarter. Armenia was the language spoken by Jesus.
Tomb of David & The Last Supper
Our next site in Old Jerusalem was the Tomb of David. According to an early-medieval tradition, this site is associated with the burial of the biblical King David. However, historians, archaeologists and Jewish religious authorities do not consider the site to be the actual resting place of King David. Nevertheless, it still draws lots of visitors. On the upper floor of this building is the room that is said to be where the Last Supper was held.
The Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu
This church is said to be at the spot in which the High Priest Caiaphas’ palace once stood. There are some archeological findings to support this view. This spot also has some caves which are believed to be where Jesus was held and scourged. The Kidron Valley mentioned in the Bible can be seen from this location.
This day started in Bethlehem, at the Church of the Nativity. Our main attraction here was a visit to the birthplace of Jesus. When we arrived, there was an Armenian service that was happening at the grotto so we sat and waited until it was finished. It was so surreal to be there on Christmas eve!
Once we came out of the church, we saw a marching band and parade practicing outside. We were told they were getting ready to welcome the Latin Patriarch who was arriving from Jerusalem. After visiting the adjoining Saint Catherine Church, we made our way to Jerusalem.
Our first order of business in Jerusalem was lunch! After a solid lunch of chicken, veggies and rice, we continued our tour of Jerusalem.
Mount of Olives
The first spot was the Mount of Olives. This is a scenic spot in Jerusalem and offers some epic view of the city. Especially that iconic view of the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock.
Pater Noster Church
Located at the Mount of Olives is the Pater Noster church. Here we saw the Lord’s Prayer written on plaques in a total of well over 100 different languages.
Garden of Gethsemane
From the Mount of Olives, we made our way down to the Garden of Gethsemane. Amidst the olive groves in the garden is a church that we paid a quick visit to.
A little before mid-night, we made our way to the shepherd’s field in Bethlehem for Christmas service. The field is not so much a field now but a collection of little grottos and small buildings where visitors from various countries were having Christmas service. I remember hearing tu scendi dalle stelle sung and knowing there was an Italian service nearby.
AH! What a special day! Today was a free day. We had no sight seeing but instead had the opportunity to do our own thing. We all decided to walk up to Manger Square from our hotel. Manger Square was very lively and full of locals and tourists alike. Before exploring more of Manger Square, we went into the Church of the Nativity. Christmas service was going on so we waited outside for a bit for service to finish. Due to the crowds that want to attend service at the Church of the Nativity, admission is by entry ticket only.
Back in Manger Square, we explored the giant Christmas tree and nativity scene on display. Then, after an amazing lunch, we explored the market place of Bethlehem.
We retired early this day, all perhaps pondering how amazing it was to spend Christmas day in Bethlehem.
We started early this day, as we were going from Bethlehem/Jerusalem to Nazareth. It was a long drive but we stopped in a few places along the way.
Our first stop was in Jaffa, which is very close to Tel-Aviv. Here we visited the House of Simon the Tanner who is said to have housed Peter the apostle during Peter’s travels.
Our next stop was Haifa, a port city which is also the 3rd largest city in Israel. It is also home to the The Baháʼí Terraces, or the Hanging Gardens of Haifa. This stunning garden, overlooking the Port of Haifa is a must visit location when in Israel and I was so glad it was a part of our tour.
Church of the Transfiguration
Another hour inland from Haifa, we arrived at the Church of the Transfiguration. Which is located at the place said to be where Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus. One thing that struck me on the journey to and from this church is how lush and green Israel is, stark contrast from some of its neighbors.
We were finally in Nazareth, our destination for the night. Before arriving at the hotel, we made one last stop. Our last site for the day was the Church of the Annunciation. This was a huge church with some beautiful stained glass window.
Our first stop this day was in Cana. All the married couples on our tour renewed their wedding vows here including my aunt and uncle who celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. After this renewal, everyone made a straight line to the gift shop and bought Cana wine. Once on the bus, we all raised our little wine bottle in a toast to everyone who just ewnewed their marriage vows!
The Sea of Galilee
From Cana we made our way to the Sea of Galilee passing more lush, verdant fields along the way. We stopped briefly at the Church of the Beatitudes, where Jesus gave one of his famous sermons. There were some beautiful views of the Sea of Galilee and the surrounding areas here.
We then made our way towards Capernaum. While there is an ultra modern church here today, archeological excavations reveal a church from the 1st century and the ruins of an old synagogue that you can still see today.
The end of this day was perhaps another one of my favorite days on the trip! We headed back to the shores of the Sea of Galilee for a boat trip! We had such a good time with the crew on the boat who taught us Israeli songs and dances. The noise and chaos inside the boat was such a contrast to the calm and stillness of the Sea of Galilee!
It was time to leave Israel this day and head back to Jordan. The day started early as we had to not only make our way back to Jordan but also go through the same border crossing process. Interestingly, unless you specifically ask Israel to stamp your passport, they give you a similar sized card (as the one they gave when we entered), when you exit. The reason for this is because several Arab countries can give you a hard time if they see a passport stamp from Israel on your passport of deny you entry completely. Israel is interestingly sympathetic to this issue and by default will not stamp your passport unless you ask them to.
Once we crossed over, we made our way towards Mount Nebo. Mount Nebo is mentioned in the Bible as the place where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land before his death. Mount Nebo offers undisrupted views into Israel and Palestine.
From Nebo we visisted Madaba. There was a tourist center there with some exhibits into Jordanian life and shops selling Jordanian crafts. I especially remember the beautiful mosaic vases.
After a nice lunch break we made our way to the airport, taking with us a lifetime of memories from an epic trip to Israel, Palestine and Jordan.