Exploring Israel Part 2

Day two was Dead Sea day and Qumran. Only a 30 minute drive over the Mount of Olives and through the Judean desert, the traveller passes by the Inn of the Good Samaritan descending below sea level.

Jericho, a Palestinian town, can be seen from the motorway as the Dead Sea comes into view. Further beyond is Mount Nebo in Jordan from which Moses surveyed the Promised Land.

Our first stop was Qumran, made famous by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls by a Bedouin shepherd boy in 1946. Found hidden in a number of caves, they are the earliest manuscripts of the Bible, which date back 2000 years, and include a full copy of the book of Isaiah.

It is possible to walk up to the caves, which my brother and I did, although it is quite rocky and potentially dangerous (not to be recommended during a heat wave!).

Located on a dry plateau about a mile inland, scholars believe Qumran was home to the Jewish sect, the Essenes.

From Qumran it was time for a mud bath and float in the Dead Sea. At 422m below sea level it is the lowest point on earth. With 33.7% salinity it is nearly 9 times saltier than the ocean.

Back in Jerusalem later that day, we ate at the recommended Dolphin Yam restaurant, on Shimon Ben Shetach street. Frequented by Tony Blair when on business as the Quartet Representative, they specialise in fish and serve an assortment of tasty small salads.

Our third day would give us a deeper understanding of life during the time of Jesus’ ministry. As we headed to the Sea of Galilee, we passed by Jericho, Gilgal and the Jordanian border, until we came to Beth Shan, one of the Roman Decapolis cities. A centre of Greco-Roman culture, it highlighted the vast difference of worldviews and lifestyles compared to the Jewish way of life.

On the Sea of Galilee is Tiberias, a lovely resort town worth staying at if you have the time.

We had lunch on the north western shore, close to the Mount of Beatitudes and Tabgha, the traditional site of the feeding of the 5,000. St Peter's Fish seemed the appropriate dish to order.

Nearby is Capernaum, the home of Jesus, a small settlement on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was amazing to walk through the 4th century synagogue which is built upon the (visible) foundations of the synagogue where Jesus taught.

Before departing the area, we visited the ‘Sea of Galilee boat’, an ancient fishing boat from the time of Jesus which was discovered in 1986 by amateur archaeologists.

On our drive back to Jerusalem, we passed through Nazareth, today a Muslim town, along incredibly steep and winding roads set against a very rocky backdrop.

Day four started at the Garden Tomb. Located outside of the Old City Walls and run by a British charity, it is considered by Protestants to be the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Its tradition come from its proximity to the ‘Place of the Skull’, mentioned by John (John 19:17) which is clearly visible in the nearby cliff face. The peaceful and well kept gardens are a memorable place to take communion and read the Bible.

As we left the Garden Tomb, we had a taxi waiting to take us to Bethlehem, which is under Palestinian authority. Passports in hand, we had to leave our guide behind as she was not permitted to enter.

To visit the Church of the Nativity, in Manger Square, you get to experience up close the modern conflict - with its walls and barbed wire criss-crossing the hills where the shepherds would once have tended their flocks.

It is a shock to see how the Palestinian people are ‘trapped’ inside their own city as they live under a policy of ‘ethnic containment’. A visa is required to visit another Palestinian town in the West Bank as they would need to travel through Israel (by no means automatically granted and can take months).

Our guide, a Palestinian Christian, worked for Siraj, the Center For Holy Land Studies, which promotes the 2009 Kairos document, a ‘Christian Palestinians’ word to the world about what is happening in Palestine.

The guide explained how Palestinian Christians once comprised 20% of the community but now represent only 1-2% following persecution which began in 1949. Referring to the wall as the ‘apartheid wall’, a fence is considered more dangerous as it can be moved.

The contested fields of Bethlehem also mark the area where Ruth worked in the field of Boaz.

Late afternoon, having passed back into Israel through a heavily guarded checkpoint, we ended our tour at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. A harrowing experience, majestically housed in stark yet stunning concrete architecture, it was appropriate to end our visit here.

‘Always leave something to do for next time’ is a motto I travel by and helps to avoid any feeling of missed opportunities. I will certainly be back and will add Caesarea, Ein Gedi National Park, Masada, and a few nights by the Sea of Galilee to the next tour.

Now back home, there is life ‘before’ and ‘after’ a visit to Israel and Palestine. I continue to process what I've seen, experienced, heard and felt. It is both a land of grief and pain, yet one of hope. The future will certainly not be easy. I have a deep appreciation of what it means to pray for the peace of Jerusalem – all four Quarters – and its inhabitants. The Greatest Commandment of Jesus could find no greater challenge than the one presented here.

Some helpful information
We travelled with Longwood Holidays on a package which included flight and hotel. We arranged our own tour guide through Arch Tourswho connected us with one of Israel’s largest tour operators Sar-El Tours Sar-El Tours. We hired a car with El Dan online . I recommend a guide for every day, even if driving yourself. You may just miss the Plains of Jezreel, Meggido, Valley of Jehoshophat as you drive along the motorway.

Western Wall Museum
Yad Vashem
Garden Tomb
Sea of Galilee Boat
Karios Palestine 2009

The better you know your Bible and your history (both ancient and modern), the more you will appreciate and understand the significance of each place you see.

Before going I highly recommend In the Steps of Jesus by Peter Walker. As a pocket guide while travelling, use Every Pilgrim's Guide to the Holy Land by Norman Wareham. It has Bible references listed under each destination.

Also, a mobile app of the Bible will ensure you can quickly look up references and read discreetly when required - our Bible was confiscated by Israeli security before we went on to Temple Mount.