Today, we made our way first to the Mount of Olives. The sun shone brightly from behind us toward the city, the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount gleaming magnificently in its rays. Likewise the beautiful golden domes of the Russian Orthodox Church to the right sparkled in the brilliant daylight. After a group picture, we made our way down the hill toward the Garden of Gethsemane. Street vendors plied their wares in very aggressive fashion as we descended. At the bottom of the hill, we turned a corner to the left and made our way into the garden, a grove of ancient olive trees outside a huge Catholic church. These gnarled old trees with huge thick trunks that looked like they had long been dead, had new, young looking branches growing out of them. The thing about an olive tree is that it always renews itself. You can cut it down, knock it over, even burn it, but as long as the roots are in the ground, it will come back again. For the first time on any of my visits, they were harvesting the olives in the grove.
Our group visited inside the church, then it was onto the bus and off to the Shrine of the Book. The Shrine of the Book where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed, is in a complex that includes the Israel Museum as well as a scale model of the entire ancient city of Jerusalem. The model is spectacular and gives a very vivid picture of what the city must have been like, showing walls around the city from three different periods of history and, of course the temple with all of its splendour.
After lunch at a diamond factory (and a few purchases within the group) we piled back on the bus to head to the Garden Tomb. I am always so affected by my visits there. This place is set in a serene walled-in location with beautiful gardens and foliage, surrounded by an ancient wine press and a water cistern, and of course, an unfinished tomb. From the edge of the property, you look out over the bus terminal and can see without any real difficulty, the deep eye sockets of what appears to be a skull in the side of the rocky hill. Golgotha, perhaps? There is no way of knowing 100% for sure if this is the place where Jesus was crucified and then carried to this nearby tomb for burial but the evidence that is offered here is very convincing. We went and viewed the empty tomb and afterward enjoyed communion at one of the many seating areas in the garden. Wonderful.
Our day complete, we returned to the hotel for well deserved rest.
First stop, Bethlehem. Our Palestinian bus driver drove us through Jerusalem to the checkpoint at the Palestinian territory where we were met by a Christian Palestinian guide. Israelis are not permitted to go into the territory, even bus drivers and official tour guides.
Once in the city of Bethlehem, we went to a local shop for souvenir shopping. Some bought jewellery, Christmas decorations and other souvenirs, while others purchased olive wood nativity sets, something that Bethlehem is famous for.
Once our shopping was complete, we boarded the bus again to make our way to the Shepherd’s Field site to view Judean hills just like the ones that the shepherds would have been working in when the angelic message of Christ’s birth was announced. Near the shepherd’s field, a cave was found in the rock that is traditionally believed by the Catholics to be the birthplace of Jesus (the Orthodox and Coptics believe it was inside the Church of the Nativity). Overlooking the Shepherd’s Fields we read the Christmas story and sang O Come All Ye Faithful together.
Feeling just a little Christmas-y we got back on the bus and made our way to Manger Square to get in line to view the grotto at the Church of the Nativity. And we stood, and we stood, and we moved a few feet, and we stood some more…and after over an hour in line got us barely inside the door - we decided to abort.
Having already been there twice, I knew that waiting another two hours in line was not going to seem worthwhile once our group actually got to the grotto. It would have been a huge let-down after such a long wait.
So - 36 of us wormed our way out a side door and back into the sunshine and headed across the square to a restaurant for lunch. Falafel was on the menu…again! After lunch, back to the bus and into a long line to get back through security control on our way back to Jerusalem.
After yet another tedious wait we finally crossed back into Jerusalem. We made a quick bathroom stop at a beautiful park and hospitality centre that had a lookout with a different picturesque view of the Dome of the Rock, then it was off to Zion, where we viewed King David’s tomb (traditionally believed to be so at least) and also where we visited the Upper Room. Of course this could not possibly be the actual Upper Room where Jesus and his disciples met for Passover and their Last Supper together and where the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. But it would have been a room much like this one and it was traditionally believed to have been somewhere very near this location. Pastor Doug shared with us about the last supper and the washing of the disciples feet and then the betrayal of Judas before the group made their way across the city to Gethsemane.
After what we originally believed was going to be a light day of touring with some free time - we made our way back to the hotel with just enough time to prepare for supper. What is that they say about best laid plans?