Despite the long day yesterday as our coach entered Jerusalem I found myself mentally reciting the opening of Psalm 122:
I was glad when they said to me / Let us go to the house of the Lord: And now our feet are standing / within your gates O Jerusalem;
and no sooner had I got to that part when Bishop Stephen started reading the Psalm at the front of the coach. It was quite exciting, but it added to the sense of slight unreality of the day!
But now after a night’s sleep and breakfast we are assembling on the coach for a 8.00 am start to today’s tour. We meet for the first time our local guide Saeed, who tells us that his name means ‘Happy’ and our driver Ali who, we quickly realise, is a really expert driver. Although, as Saeed explains, today’s traffic is relatively light as it is the Feast of Shavuot, the third of the major Jewish Festivals which celebrates the giving of the Torah, and the first harvest. We note crowds of Orthodox Jews making their way to worship, and also some of the differences in dress.
This morning we are due to go to the Mount of Olives and walk down to the Garden of Gethsemane, but by the time we arrive there the rain is so heavy that it would be unsafe to attempt the walk so, after a brief orientation talk we get back on the bus for a tour to Bethany, where we encounter the security wall for the first time.
The direct walking route from Jerusalem to Bethany is about 2 miles, but the wall means that we have about 35 minutes drive to get from one to the other. We hear of the probems encountered by those who live outside Jerusalem but work in the city, and of those who have been separated from their land by the wall. The stories are told factually, not emotionally which adds to the impact.
Our next stop is the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu, traditionally the High Priest’s house where Jesus was taken for questioning and Peter denied him. Saeed explains to us what, in the context of the Holy Land, “traditional” means – clue: it does not mean ‘certain’! However, right by the Church is a road which was certainly there in the first century CE and, since it is the ancient route from Bethany to Jerusalem it is one place where we can be sure that Jesus walked.
We move to the Old City for lunch at a restaurant in the Armenian Quarter then, suitably restored, visit Mount Zion and walk through the Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall. The area in front of the Wall has been significantly enlarged since my brief visit in 1999, and there is now an area where women may go to pray. (This is on the far right in the photo below. There are also crowd barriers to allow access and there is a large number of people on the approach as well as at the Wall.
The weather is now fine, though not as warm as expected, and we return to the Mount of Olives for our visit to the Dominus Flevit Church, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem and down to the Garden of Gethsemane. I was interested to see, at the top of the Mount of Olives, one of the many archaeological sites in and around Jerusalem. This dig was relatively recent and had discovered some first century tombs cut in the rock. One thing this trip is already doing is dispelling the images left over from the Victorians that were so popular in our childhood!
In this context it was rather a shock to some of our companions that the way down to the Garden of Gethsemane was not a stony track but a tarmac road, albeit rather narrow, but cars were a hazard. The oldest olive tree currently in the Garden is about 800 years old, so none of those that are here now were in place at the time of Christ, but what was very interesting was to see how new growth came from old wood, and a tree that had apparently died was putting out new shoots. There must be a sermon in there somewhere!