Tag Archives: Jerusalem

Sabbath in Tiberias – Day Twelve, Saturday 25th May

Our hotel is a short walk – about 15 minutes – from the centre of Tiberias, and some of our group have already explored the town, but the four or five of us who have been out previously to Tabgha and Nof Ginosar, have so far not venured in that direction.  So, at breakfast we decided to remedy that shortcoming.

Sea of Galilee, early morning

It was a pleasant walk into the town, which was mostly shut up because of the Sabbath.  That didn’t stop us from window shopping, however and there were some shops where that was decidely the best way of shopping.

The town of Tiberias is very ancient, established by Herod Antipas (one of the sons of Herod the Great) around the year 20CE, and named, probably in an act of sycophancy, after the Roman emperor Tiberias.  Despite Herod’s making it the capital of his territory in Galilee, for many years it was shunned by observant Jews because the town enclose a cemetery and was thus ritually unclean.  Over the centuries its importance became greater, and in the 16th century became regarded as one of Israel’s four most holy cities, after Jerusalem and Hebron. It was, however, from the first, a cosmopolitan town since Herod Antipas imported non-Jews from other parts of his Tetrarchy.  Over the centuries the make-up of the population changed several times, as Tiberias was conquered succesively by the Romans, the Byzantine empire, the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Mamelukes, and the Ottomans, who were succeeded by the British Mandate and eventually, in 1948 by modern Israel.

Twice in its long history it has been noted as a centre for rabbinic study, and the great 12th century philosopher, physician and rabbinic scholar Moses Maimonides was buried in Tiberias as he wished, after his death in Egypt.  Seventeen times since 30 CE it has been severely damaged by earthquakes, the last time in 1943, and in 1934 what had been rebuilt after the major 1837 earthquake was either damaged or destroyed in a major flood.

Remains of an early Synagogue

There are, however, some of the ancient buildings remaining, although some, like a Sephardic synagogue, are in ruins.  There are also the remains of an Roman amphitheatre, now set in a small park.

One thing that we did note was that although there were many people on their way to worship at the synagogues, and we passed several on our walk, there were no extremes of dress as we had seen in Jerusalem.  In that sense it seemed a homogenous community, but Tiberias has been a place where both Ashkenazi and Sephardi have settled. Is this, perhaps, because of Tiberias’  cosmopolitan foundation?  It would be interesting to follow up, I think.

Roman Catholic Church in Tiberias – interior

After our walk around the seaside part of the town, and the shopping area, we headed to the harbour where we found a cafe and sat and talked fo a while.  It was rather lovely, just to sit and chat and unwind and watch the world go by.

Then we strolled back to the hotel to gird ourselves up for the packing, ready for an early start the next day; for then we begin our journey home.  And since we would be travelling home on a Sunday the whole group gathered together in the hotel garden in the evening for a final act of worship together, a Eucharist which reminded us of the memories we had gathered on this pilgrimage.

Pentecost! – Day Six, Sunday 19th May

Today Yvonne and I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and with a few others from our group went back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for its 5.00 am opening.  It was just before dawn and the streets of the Old City were quiet.  A few street cleaners were out,

Old City, Jerusalem: dawn

Old City, Jerusalem: dawn

and one or two stallholders/shopkeepers were beginning to open up.  When we got to the Holy Sepulchre there were a few others there already, but certainly not like the crush there would be in a few hours time. Nevertheless we still had to queue for a few minutes to gain entrance to the Sepulchre itself, mainly because there is only room for three or four at a time.  The Franciscan monks wanted everybody to hurry along because they wanted to get things ready for their early Mass.  Once again I was struck by the paradox that in these places deemed especially holy it is virtually impossible to have time to sit, think and meditate.

Fortunately the Latin Chapel of the Calvary was quiet and had space for those who wanted to meditate, and a few of us spent some time in here, watching, thinking, contemplating.   A little way away, alongside the small Coptic Chapel that stands at the end of the Chapel of the Sepulchre, a robed Syrian Coptic priest and a man in plain clothes alternately intoned the Liturgy.  It was a vocal ballet, and although we did not understand the words it was haunting.

Back to the hotel for breakfast.  Today there are no organised tours and the only fixed item on the programme is a lunch at  St George’s Anglican Cathedral.  But today is Pentecost, fifty days after Easter

St George's Cathedral' Jerusalem

St George’s Cathedral’ Jerusalem

and the day celebrated by Christians as the day the Holy Spirit was sent to the Apostles. Full story in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 2.  The Holy Spirit was manifested in wind (ruach in Hebrew, also translated as ‘breath’ and the same word used in Genesis for God’s Spirit sent to calm primeval chaos) and in fire.  The effect on the Apostles was to send them out in the street to tell the world what had happened.  And although Jerusalem was full of travellers from all over the known world, each person heard their words in his own language.  Well, there are plenty of sermons in this passage – and I have preached a few of them myself! – but the effect of that first Christian Pentecost was demonstrated to us when we went to St George’s Cathedral for the morning service!

St George's - interiorParishes from all over Israel and Palestine had travelled for this service, except for two which had not been able to obtain the necessary permits to travel.  Some of them had travelled over two and a half hours to be there.  Normally this particular service is the English language version, but today it was Arabic and English.  It was surreal and a bit disconcerting to hear standard English hymn tunes being sung with both Arabic and English words.  The readings were firstly read in Arabic and then in English and the Bishop in Jerusalem, Bishop Suheil Dawani <http://tinyurl.com/ook59o6> preached in both Arabic and English.  From comments afterwards it was clear that most of us who participated in the service at some time or another felt connected, not only with our own home churches but with the Church throughout the world.  It was a very special occasion for us, made more so by the lunch afterwards. The Diocese had laid on lunch for all those attending: simple chicken, salad, rice, etc, but the welcome and hospitality was warm and friendly.  Some of our number got to sit with members of the parishes and talk to them about their daily lives.  There was live music – a group which, it turned out, was led by the Dean of the Cathedral, Hosan Naoum, <http://tinyurl.com/pxlmbfz> and we were very touched when he announced a special song for the travellers from Ely.  This was followed by another song, the old Pete Seeger classic We shall overcome.  Somehow the fact that it was Pentecost gave it a new dimension.

After lunch we were free to explore at will.  Some went to the Old City to walk the walls, some went to the Temple Mount, some went back to the Holy Sepulchre.  Yvonne and I decided to go back to the Cathedral and have a closer look at some of the things we had glimpsed in the morning.

Going back to Thursday afternoon, as we had been walking the Via

Christ is taken down from the Cross: one of the Stations at St George's

Christ is taken down from the Cross: one of the Stations at St George’s

Dolorosa and afterwards walking back to the hotel, we passed several shops selling Armenian pottery and tiles, and in St George’s they have a beautiful but simple set of the Stations of the Cross in Armenian ware.

We were glad to be able to spend some quiet time there and just take in the atmosphere and the tranquillity of the place after the ‘high’ of the morning.  Oh, and did I mention that the English hymn tunes in the morning were played by an agnostic, exiled Russian Jewess? No?  Somehow it seemed just right for the welcoming hospitality that St George’s offers.

The Way of the Cross Part 2 – Day 3 Thursday 16th May, afternoon.

After lunch and the celebration of the Eucharist we partially retraced our steps to begin the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross.  Essentially this is a devotional exercise rather than an exact tracing of the exact events of 2,000 years ago, if only because so many of the sites are “traditional”.  Recent archaeological explorations in certain areas of the Old City  suggest that at the time of Jesus the street level was perhaps as much as three metres below today’s level so Jesus almost certainly did not ‘tread on these very stones’.  But we have to be careful!  The street plan would have been much the same, and in a place which has recycled materials for centuries our scepticism has to be tempered with a certain amount of humility.  So, as we trace the traditional route that the condemned – including Jesus – took through the streets to the execution ground and we listen to  the relevant extracts from the Gospel accounts we can be caught up in, not  re-enactment exactly, but prayerful contemplation of the deeper meaning of the event.

Gambling game scratched in stone floor

We began our journey at the Al Omariya School where First Station is situated, and where we read from Matthew’s Gospel of Pilate handing over Jesus to be crucified, to pacify the baying mob.  Our extract from the Gospel stops before the account of the soldiers mocking him by making a crown of thorns, putting a purple robe on him and hailing him as King of the Jews.  I have always thought this to be a gratuitous extra torment by the soldiers, but our guide suggested a different view, which has been suggested by research.  Apparently the Roman troops had a gambling game which could be played two ways.  Either the winner would be elected ‘king’ for the day and would not have to carry out any of the fatigues, or he would be elected ‘king’ but be responsible for all the menial tasks and would be the butt of the squad.  The discovery of such a ‘board’ in a paving slab has led to the suggestion that the squad to whom Jesus was delivered played the game so that Jesus ‘lost’ and was therefore mocked.  An interesting idea, which  sheds a different light on the event.

As we moved between the Stations in procession we sang, and it was bizarre to see that

Walking between Stations

Walking between Stations

nobody took the slightest bit of notice!  Of course in that area what we were doing was commonplace: the Franciscan community makes the walk every Friday carrying a cross, and most days there will be at least two groups making the walk, but even so it was bizarre!  One of the unexpected discoveries was how much of the route is uphill.  At times it was quite difficult to walk and continue singing, which gave some insight as to how exhausting it must have been to carry a  heavy cross after a night of suffering and being beaten.

Just as the Stations are “traditional” so some of the events that they commemorate do not appear in Scripture – Veronica for example – but Luke’s Gospel tells of his encounter with the women of Jerusalem, weeping and wailing.  And here again was a new thought which I had not considered before.  It has been suggested that those women were professional mourners, hired to weep and wail but who had no emotional or personal connection with the person being mourned.  Hence Jesus’ words to them: ‘don’t weep for me, weep for yourselves and your children’, are a warning of the troubles to come.

The culmination of the Via Dolorosa is at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and this was crowded with several hundred people.  It was impossible for us to move to the four Stations within the building, so we completed them close to the 11th Station, the Latin Calvary.  After this we had time to look at various chapels and places within the building, but the queue to get into the Sepulchre itself was so long that it would have taken at least an hour to get through.

The site of the Holy Sepulchre

The site of the Holy Sepulchre

It may come as a surprise, but my strongest emotion in this Church was that of anger!  Yes the place is full of the devout and, indeed, full of prayer, but it is also the site of so much conflict between the competing religious groups who control various parts of the complex.  The main groups are the Eastern Orthodox, the Armenia Apostolic and the Roman Catholic Churches.  Of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the major group is the Greek Orthodox.  No work, not even a rearrangement, can be carried out in the common areas without the agreement of all the parties.  Thus you can see in my photo steel bracing erected in 1947 under the British Mandate because the marble cladding of the Sepulchre is becoming detached and there has so far been no agreement about its repair.  Each community is jealous of its rights, and it is not unknown for fights to break out between the various Orthodox communities,and between the Orthodox and the Franciscans over some perceived slights.  So yes, I felt anger – and sadness and detachment,  and not at all ‘holy’.

The Way of the Cross, part 1 – Day Three Thursday 16th May, morning

Lazarus' tomb

Lazarus’ tomb

Another 08.00am start for a trip to the village of Bethany and a visit to the Church of the Tomb of Lazarus.  The story of the raising of Lazarus (John’s Gospel chapter 11) is one of the most moving in the Gospels.  Verse 11 is the shortest verse in the Bible and consists of just two words: ‘Jesus wept.’ (It is, incidentally, also a difficult passage to preach on because there are so many strands raised by it!  You can’t take it superficially.)  We had the opportunity to go intothe traditional site of the tomb, but because the space is so restricted we had to go in no more than six at a time.

The tuck shop at playtime!

Once we completed our visit there it was back on the coach for our visit to the Jeel al-Amal Boys home in Bethany <http://tinyurl.com/p6qz2c7>.  This was founded in 1972 by a remarkable couple Alice and Basil Sahhar.  Although the boarding part is restricted to boys the school is co-educational and although the Sahhar family are Christian Palestinians most of the staff and all the children are Muslim.  Alice and Basil are now both dead, but the work is carried on by their family.  It was a visit both encouraging and moving.  The children are clearly very happy there, though they have very little by our standards. They clustered round us, eager to talk and practice their English.  Some of us were able to  sit in on a singing lesson and the choir sang for us.

The boys’ dormitory rooms each had about six beds, and in the ones I saw each duvet cover featured Spiderman!  Through the whole school the ethos was “You are all special” – a slogan that was painted on the wall in the reception area, accompanied, somewhat incongruously perhaps, by a large cartoon Garfield.

Bethesda, showing the reservoir

Visit over it was back to the coach and a return to Jerusalem Old City, which we entered by the Lion Gate and on to the Pool of Bethesda.  Saeed, our guide, told us that for many years scholars had discounted the story of Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath here because John’s account (chapter 5) mentions that the pool had five porches, and there was no place that could be thus identified.  Until, that is, an archaeological investigation had uncovered a complex which included a Pool, and a colonnade of five arches together with a vast cistern for the collection of water for the city.  This is one of the places where we could definitely say Jesus had been – not at all ‘traditional’!

Lunch today was at the  Ecce Homo Convent, built above the Lithostratos a first century pavement close to the Antonia Fortress, the headquarters of the Roman army in Jesus’ time.  Here Bishop Stephen celebrated the Eucharist in the chapel, and we prepared for our afternoon programme – to walk the Via Dolorosa

Festival! – Day Two, Wednesday 15th May 2013

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.

DSC_0019The 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. DSC_0072 (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!DSC_0015

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!

Up, up and away! – Day One: Tuesday 14th May 2013

Originally we were to fly out on an afternoon flight with El Al, but for some reason this flight was cancelled and so we were transferred to flight BA165, Heathrow to Tel Aviv.  Snag was that this flight left at 08.10, which meant that we had to be at Heathrow by five in the morning, which in turn meant leaving Ely at 2.00am!  Fortunately there were sufficient of us for a coach to be arranged, and in order to ensure that we were at the pick up on time we booked a taxi to take us to the pick up point.  We carefully built in some time in case the taxi was delayed – or forgot us! – so of course it arrived early and Yvonne and I and our suitcases were therefore the first arrivals in a cold, dark Ely car park with more than a suspicion of damp in the air.  Even our coach hadn’t arrived yet!

All was well, however, and eventually other members of the party arrived as did the coach, and our journey properly began.  Next problem, on arrival at Heathrow,was to find Maureen and the other members of the party and find the check-in.  That accomplished there was time for a very early breakfast whilst we waited to find out what our departure gate was.  And yes, it was one of the further gates at Terminal 1 so a longish walk ensued

If this part of the journey is so memorable what is Israel going to be like!?

I confess that I’m not madly keen on flying but our Airbus seemed to be slightly more roomy than I remember from 747s in the past, and the screen built in to the back of the seat ahead is a great improvement on the old drop down screen on a far away bulkhead.  Not that this time I was worried about the in-flight movie; it was more a case of trying to doze comfortably.  I opted to follow our journey on the live map.  Great fun!

We had breakfast and lunch on the plane before arriving at Ben Gurion airport at 15.10 local, ten minutes later than scheduled, but since we had taken off 24 minutes late I thought that wasn’t too bad.  Once again there were long walks before we passed immigration, were reunited with our baggage and each other and found our guide and coach to Jerusalem.

One of the benefits of an afternoon arrival rather than an evening one was that we were able to have an orientation tour of Jerusalem before going to the hotel. Featured were Mount Scopus, the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives, where we stopped and got out of the coach so that various landmarks could be pointed out.

Finally at the Hotel we found our rooms, the baggage retrieved a wash-and-brush-up then it was time for our first meal in Israel – an open buffet.Image

And so, some 18 hours after our journey began (and with no sleep on Monday night) to bed!

In the beginning …

Damascus Gate, Jerusalem Old City

Damascus Gate, Jerusalem Old City

In May 2013 Yvonne and I went on a group pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Our first days were spent in and around Jerusalem, and the second half around Galilee.  The pilgrimage was led by our Bishop, Stephen Conway, the Bishop of Ely and by the Revd Maureen Allchin of McCabe Pilgrimages.  There was a lot to take in: Israel and Palestine are places of contrasts, some having aspects that speak to our deepest emotions, so rather than try to keep a daily blog I decided to wait until I got home and allow time for reflection.  And so this blog has been created.

One of our group, Trevor, did blog daily and his reflections are at The Cross and The Cosmos <http://tinyurl.com/k4ddmbd>.

So, on with the travelogue!