Today promised to be a busy one. We still had a number of sites to visit in the Old City that we hadn’t been able to fit in up until this point for a number of reasons. But before entering the Old City, we went first to visit the City of David. After a very well done 3D video presentation chronicling the taking of the Jebusite city by David and his men, we emerged to visit this incredible archaeological excavation. So much had changed since the last time I was there. An entire new area had been opened under the platforms where the gift shop and some of the other amenities of the site were housed. Under this area, rooms of entire houses were found as well as a water cistern and inscriptions in stone that referenced Old Testament prophets Zechariah and Zephaniah, as well as others.
Outside on the face of the hill, we viewed more ruins where rooms had been uncovered, including an ancient toilet facility. Also, many clay seals had been found, baked hard by the fires that had eventually destroyed David’s City.
From there, we made our way down into the water tunnels that led from deep inside the city, out to a large pool on the other side of the hillside. These had been designed to protect the water source during times of siege, so that water could be accessible without having to go out into the open. These tunnels were an incredible feat, with two groups digging from opposite directions and meeting in the middle with only a few feet difference. No GPS or modern technology and equipment…this was quite simply a miraculous accomplishment.
A few of our group did not brave the tunnels, so we went with the bus to pick them up at the entrance and then continued with our day. Next we stopped at a shopping mall. This mall was quite amazing - an open concept very modern feeling shopping environment, but much of it had been constructed using buildings that had been dismantled and moved from other parts of the city, then reconstructed here across from the Jaffa gate and aligned in such a way as to form a shopping mall.
From here, we ventured into the Old City of Jerusalem. After about a 10 minute walk or so, we emerged in a square in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed by the Catholics and Orthodox to be the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Of course, we are more prone to believe that the crucifixion took place outside the city gates and that the burial was close to that site, much like we found at the Garden Tomb. Still, the church is quite spectacular and impressive and our group enjoyed exploring throughout.
One by one we exited and followed our guide, winding our way through the alleys and shops until we reached a restaurant where we would have our lunch. Today there was an option - falafel or shwarma. We enjoyed our lunch and then fell in step again behind the guide until we emerged by the Western Wall. This was not our time to visit there though, as we had a time booked to go up to the Temple mount. This was a highlight for all of us because you never know from day to day whether or not you will be allowed to visit. Our time on the mount was brief as security seemed high. We got our pictures and a brief explanation and then made our way down the other side towards the ruins of the Pool of Bethesda. These massive pools, now dry and broken down, must have been beautiful in their day.
We then entered the Church of St. Anne - a beautiful little church with the most amazing acoustics I have ever heard. Together we sang ‘How Great is Our God’, ‘How Great Thou Art’ and then, prodded by Miki, our travel agent, we did ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Hallelujah’. The echoes of our voices harmonized together were beautiful as they resonated between each line and stanza. Even other tourists who were in the chapel were mesmerized by the sounds.
Step by step, we made our way over some of the Via Dolorosa, visiting a few of the stations along the way, but there was still much to see. Turning into the alleyways again, we passed shop after shop until coming to the Jewish Cardo and going to the Davidson Centre, the large excavation of the second temple period. We spent some time on the steps leading up to the temple of Jesus’ time - the very steps he would have walked on as a boy, after which we were taken around this incredible site to see, among other things, where Herod’s great arch had fallen into the ancient street.
The Western Wall or the Wailing Wall as some know it, always has a strong attraction. We were given a half hour or so, just to enjoy the area, pray at the wall and take pictures. We then descended into the tunnels underneath the Western Wall. Some of the stones that Herod himself had put in the wall are still there to view today, although now underground. One of the these stones (that’s right, just one) is the size of a charter bus!
Once again, weary but in awe and wonder, we made our way back to the hotel to conclude our day.
Today was moving day. Luggage had to be packed and prepared for the bus and for a new hotel location for the next couple of nights. Once we had all had our breakfast, the bus driver delivered us to the Jaffa Gate and we were given an hour to shop in the Old City or in the new shopping mall. Laden down with our purchases, we loaded again and made our way for the last time through the city of Jerusalem, looking to the right for one last glimpse of the beautiful Temple Mount and the old city walls framed by the Dome of the Rock behind. Goodbye Jerusalem - we will return and see you again.
We followed the road south to the Dead Sea and we made our first stop at Qumran. Remember the Dead Sea Scrolls from before? This is where they were found in desert caves in the rugged hillside, by a goat herder in 1947. Looking for a lost goat that he assumed was in one of the caves, he threw a stone inside to try and scare the goat out, but instead heard a strange sound - the sound of breaking pottery. This led to one of the most amazing discoveries ever - the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, hidden in the caves two thousand years earlier by the Essenes, a group of religious Jews who had formed an exclusive community there in the desert by the Dead Sea. We walked through the ruins of their community, learned a little about their way of life and then piled on the bus to go to the beach.
That’s right, I said the beach! Lunch was in a little roadside restaurant overlooking the Dead Sea and afterward, everyone had their opportunity to go and experience what it is like to float in the Dead Sea. Because of the high mineral content of the water, it is impossible to sink. Floating in the water can be a little tricky. Some caught on right away , but others had to be coaxed to relax and lean back and just let the water hold them. There were some screams of delight and few giggles and even out and out laughter. A good time was had by all.
Our next stop of the day was the mountain fortress of Masada. We rode the cable car up the mountain and were in awe at this incredible fortress that Herod had built and where the last vestiges of free Jews made their final stand. The ruins there are a testament to their brilliant intelligence - and how long they survived under Roman siege and their ultimate tragic ending is a story for the ages. This is always a highlight of any trip to the land of Israel.
The rest of our afternoon was spent driving, south to the resort community of Eilat. We arrived around 6:45pm, road weary but still excited about the days ahead. The Isrotel resort that we checked into was absolutely beautiful and it was nice to settle in for a couple of nights in this tranquil paradise.