I would call this a day of background and relationship building.
Breakfast. I had 7 double espressos because I slept poorly. The coffee helped. The local fruits, veggies, and dairy were perfect.
We started with morning prayer in the cathedral (I led and preached and there will probably be few opportunities when I get home for me to reflect on that moment – a moment which I will always treasue).
Next we took a walking tour of East Jerusalem. This is a Palestinian area and I will have more to say about that reality later (another post for another day).
After the tour we took our bus to Mt Scopus. We saw the several mountains around Jerusalem (including Ascension/Olives) and their relationship to the city. We also saw the desert on the other side of the Mt, and the Israeli settlements and Palestinian Territories (more on that later too… in another post).
We then drove to a Palestinian town Brit Sahour for lunch (Zarb) of chicken and vegetables which are roasted in a mud covered, Canaanite oven. The lunch was delicious but getting there was a visual lesson in the political reality. To get into the town we had to pass through a checkpoint that Israelis can freely travel through (not Palestinians) and a set of the many infamous Red Signs placed by the Israelis which state clearly that it is both illegal and dangerous for Israeli citizens to enter the area – which has been walled off by the Israelis with razor wire and concrete walls. I would describe the barriers and checkpoint less as obstacles designed to keep people out and more as methods to keep people in. Americans do not seem to have many issues traveling in either Israel or Palestine. I’ll post something about the political reality at a later point, but the signs and walls said a great deal by themselves.
After a wonderful and hospitable lunch and on a full stomach we drove over to Herodium Which is a national park of Israel located within a Pastinian territory (not sure exactly how that works). Herodium is a semi-man-made mountain with the ruins of the fortress/palace of Herod the Great on top. Herod the Great was the ruler of the Roman province of Judea who lived up until the time Jesus was born, and he appears in St. Matthew’s infancy narrative. He is frightened by the Magi’s news and slaughters all the boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill this new King of the Jews the Magi have come to see. He was not the nicest guy… even to his family. Apparently Emperor Augustine said “it is better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”
Herodium is an engineeeing marvel – apparently Herod ordered that they cut the top off of the local hills/mountains and put them all on top of another hill, placing the dirt around a fortress that had been built which included massive man-made cisterns. And of course this is what they did. The result was a palace, bathhouse, pool, and fortress that overlooked the whole region. It must have been awesome. Herod liked it so much he decided his tomb would be there. The steep walk up in the warm weather (perfect at high 80s with zero humidity) was a tad challenging but not bad. Most of the photos I took today are archaeological or scenic shots from Herodium.
Unfortunately for Herod, his tomb, and his man made fortress, his legacy was remembered decades after he died, and the locals destroyed everything as soon as they could to mar his memory. It was also used as a fortress by Jews during the second Jewish Revolt. In any event, it is now an engineering ruin, perhaps a fitting memorial for an king who was remembered for numerous building projects including the expansions around the Second Temple and also ruining the lives of many people.
The 360 degree view from Herodium was amazing. The Judean hills, the Palestinuan towns, the Israeli settlements, and the roads are all visible.
We returned to East Jerusalem, passing through a check point without issue (our guide said one word to the guards “Americans”).
A few minutes were free to freshen up before we were presented a brief history and Q&A session on Islam. I had taken a semester at Yale on Islam and this served as a nice refresher about this ancient religion which includes a billion people on earth and calls (as Christians and Jews do) Jerusalem and the Holy Land a sacred place. I think most of our group knew little to nothing about Islam. The speaker was engaging, honest, and well received.
Dinner in the guesthouse grotto was magnificent. We concluded with a cake – a surprise for Patty and Randy Alexander who celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary that day. The Alexander family (their three boys are here) and I snuck away after dessert (but not into any he desert) and we renewed their marriage vows under the stars of the Holy City.
Afterwards conversation ran deep into the night. I slept well and am up now preparing for our first visit to the Temple Mount and the Western(formerly known as Wailing) Wall.
Photos from Day 1 are here. Day 1 Photos