Hello everybody! Last week we had Semana Santa, the big spring break here in Spain, and many people take the chance to travel. I myself was lucky enough to be able to go and visit Israel. My cousin Rachel and her husband Kevin currently live there in Jersualem so it was a good time for me to visit them and also explore Israel a bit. I’m probably going to split my trip up into three different posts to cover all the exciting things we got to do, and this first post should cover my first day and a half there. I hope you enjoy!
What this post is and what this post isn’t
I quickly wanted to explain how to read this and subsequent posts on my trip to Israel. Israel is a country with a vastly complicated political and religious situation right now. It’s the center of Judaism and Christianity and also very important in Islam, leading to constant struggles and fights between different groups of people and neighboring countries. Being a relatively uneducated person prior to my arrival, I knew certain buzzwords like ‘Gaza Strip’, ‘Palestine’, and ‘West Bank’, but nothing more. Every day during my trip I got into hour-long discussions with Kevin and Rachel about the unique history and current situation of the country on political, religious, and social fronts, and I still hardly touched the tip of the iceberg. I’m not going to cover any of this, as that could easily eclipse the rest of the material. Additionally, I don’t want to seem biased or give incorrect or anecdotal information, but if anyone wants to hear more on this subject feel free to shoot me an email or text.
What I will discuss is places we visited and (briefly) their importance in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Understand that many of these places (especially in Christianity) are simply guesses of where the actual events took place, and many different denominations and forms of Christianity also have differing opinions. What’s important isn’t to know necessarily the exact place an event took place but rather to get a general feel for what it was like at the time.
Wednesday: Travel day and arrival
The first day was primarily a travel day, between flying to Tel-Aviv, getting through the security and passport control, and then driving back to Jerusalem. Once we arrived we in Jerusalem we briefly stopped to get my first view of the Old City of Jerusalem, with the City Walls, Temple Mount, and the Dome of the Rock. All of these sites I would visit later in the week so I’ll cover them in a future post. Afterwards, we got a delicious dinner of falafel, which I actually don’t think I’d ever had before. We relaxed in their apartment and ate dinner while planning out the rest of week. We then headed to bed early in order to be well-rested for an early start the next day.
Thursday: Mount of Olives, City of David, and the Shuk
After waking up and having breakfast, we headed out on foot towards the Mount of Olives (also known as Mount Olivet). In Christianity, the Mount of Olives is significant in the New Testament during the life of Jesus. First off, the Bible mentions the Mount as the place that Jesus wept over Jerusalem before his triumphal entry in the city (Palm Sunday). Then it’s mentioned again later when Jesus is at the Garden of Gethsemane – but more on that in a few minutes. At the very top of the hill I got a closer skyline view of Jerusalem, especially the Old City, which was one of my favorite views from all week.
The first place we stopped was the Tomb of the Prophets at the top of the hill. Historically it’s been cited as the tomb of prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Recent scientific dating has shown the tombs are probably not quite that old, but regardless it’s the same style of tomb they would have been buried in. The entrance was tucked away in the middle of some houses in a very quiet area – and not touristy at all. After being greeted by an older gentleman at the entrance, he gave us candles and took us down the stairs. The entire tomb was pitch black, only lit by our candles, and it was cool to walk around and explore. I kept imagining being alive before the invention of electricity, when people had to walk around everywhere in the dark with lanterns or candles to light the way. We saw a bunch of different tombs, and one of the walls also had an old Greek inscription that dates back thousands of years.
After we left the tomb we started to head down the hill. One of the first things I noticed was an insanely large amount of tombs along the entire hillside to our left. When I say a large amount, I mean a large amount. Kevin explained to me that the Mount of Olives is home to the world’s most important Jewish cemetery, holding upwards of 150,000 graves. In Jewish tradition they believe that when the Messiah comes he will start the resurrection of the dead at this spot, stemming from a passage in the Old Testament book of Zechariah. Thus Jewish people believe being buried there puts them closest to the Messiah and the eventual resurrection.
On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south. – Zechariah 14:4
Walking a bit farther down the hill, we encountered Gethsemane, a garden that’s yet another historically significant spot for Christianity. According the Gospels, it was the location that Jesus prayed the night before his arrest while his disciples slept. There’s a few different locations that have been proposed as the exact location, and we got to take a look at one of the most famous: the Roman Catholic Church of All Nations. Built right next to the garden, it houses a section of bedrock known as the ‘weeping rock’, where Jesus cried and (according to Luke 22) sweet like drops of blood. Outside the church in the garden are olive trees that could be the same ones from Jesus’ time. Kevin explained that olive trees are hard to date because they’re hollow inside and lack older wood, and that the roots will stay the same through centuries as new sprouts and branches grow off of them, so in theory the same roots could have existed ~2,000 years ago, but again, no one really knows for certain. Only a few of the trees’ roots have been able to be tested via carbon dating, and those three date between 1000-1200 AD, although the other ones could very well be older.
“Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” – Luke 22: 39-44
After leaving Gethsemane we headed to the bottom of the slope, which offered a closer view of the Old City walls and the Temple Mount. From this point we could see the Golden Gate (also known as the Gate of Mercy). It’s a sealed-up double gate on the eastern side of the Old City Walls. It’s one of two gates that offered entrance to old Jerusalem from the east, and the only gate on the east that offered entrance to the Temple Mount. Many Christians believe it was the exact gate Jesus walked through on Palm Sunday. In Jewish lore, this is the gate that the Messiah will enter the city from. During the Middle Ages, as sort of a ‘religious attack’ on the Jews, Muslims sealed the gate in and then built a Muslim cemetery directly outside the gate. Some believe this act was a way to prevent the Jewish Messiah from coming, while Muslims gave motives simply of making the city more secure.
After crossing the valley and walking along the base of the wall for a bit, we were offered some really nice views behind us of the entire Mount of Olives. It was also from this spot that I truly understand how massive the previously-mentioned Jewish cemetery really is.
Our next destination was the City of David. A relatively new discovery that’s still being excavated to this day, many historians and archaeologists argue it was the site of King David’s palace based on remains of buildings uncovered. Pottery and various archaeological finds have dated back as far as the Chalcolithic Era (~4000 BCE). The main reason we went to the City of David, however, was to go to the Siloam Tunnel.
The Siloam Tunnel, also known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel, is an ancient water tunnel underneath the City of David. The tunnel leads from the Gihon Spring and brings water into the city. The Gihon Spring was the primary water source of the city in ancient times. Biblical scholars have agreed it’s the tunnel mentioned in 2 Kings 20 that was built under the reign of King Hezekiah in order to protect the spring and bring water to the city in times of war, as they were facing an upcoming war against the Assyrians. Initial carbon dating put the tunnel the right age to fit the story, although some dating has placed it a bit older.
“As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?” – 2 Kings 20:20
The tunnel is 533 m long (1750 ft) and still carries running water to this day. Visitors can actually go in and walk the distance of the whole tunnel, and Kevin and Rachel had never done it, so it was a first time for all of us. As we descended steps towards the tunnel the sound of rushing water got stronger and stronger, until we hit the start of the tunnel. We were initially surprised that the tunnel was pitch black; while this makes sense, I guess we all assumed it would be lit. Nope. People are responsible for bringing their own flashlights or headlamps apparently!
We took our first steps into the tunnel and the water came almost up to my waist. At first we tried to light our way with a phone flashlight, but we quickly turned it off and tried to go in the darkness. It was one of the most bizarre and exciting experiences of my entire life, without a doubt. Being in a pitch-black environment like this tunnel is nothing like anything I’ve ever experienced. Closing your eyes or walking around at night is nothing compared to total blackness. Eventually we ran into a group in front of us that had flashlights and we followed them. The tunnel is barely wide enough to fit one person, and at times the ceiling was low enough I had to crouch, although most of it I was able to stand up entirely.
After this exciting adventure we slowly made our way back home for lunch and a bit of rest. The evening was fairly relaxing, as we were going to wake up super early the next day. We went downtown and wandered around the Shuk, also known officially as the Mahane Yehuda Market, and is Jerusalem’s primary marketplace. Shuk is a general word for marketplaces in Western Asia and Northern Africa, and is similar to the word bazaar. Here you can find everything, including meat, seafood, cheese, baked goods, fruits, vegetables, spices, and wine. Traditionally these markets are open air, but the Shuk also has a roofed portion that has some restaurants, bars, and cafes. Visiting this style of Middle-eastern market was something I’ve always wanted to do, so it was another sweet experience. By the end of the night I had purchased a bunch of spices and teas to take home with me, and I also got to taste halva, a dense Middle-eastern confectionery that can be made either from flour or from nuts and honey.
Anyways, that’s all for this post! My next post should cover the next day, including a visit to Masada, the Dead Sea, and a small hike we did, but I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get it up, so keep checking in during the next week or so!