Day 2 – The Old City, Western Wall, Gabbatha, Bethesda, and Dead Sea Scrolls


Today we entered the Old City. The map above should give some idea of how the walls enclosing the Old City have shifted over time. If you see a scenic photo of Jerusalem the odds are good you will notice a big wall. This is either the wall built a few years before Jesus was born by Herod the Great surrounding the Temple Mount, or it is the much larger wall built in 1535–1542 by the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent surrounding what is now called the Old City. As you can see there were other walls throughout history that were built as the city was expanding, but for the most part those walls are gone.

The Old City does not equate to the city limits that Jesus knew, it’s just a designation for the area inside Suleiman’s wall, and it includes the Temple Mount and a significant part of ancient Jerusalem.

Anyway, to get into the Old City you need to go through one of the 8 gates that are built in the wall. There’s a longer history of the gates, but today there are 8 open gates and at least three closed gates (closed meaning sealed up). We entered through the Dung Gate (you can imagine what the gate may have been used for) which is right near the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount has a long history and much but not all of it is narrated in the Bible or by an historian named Josephus. I’ll summarize. When Moses led the people out of Israel he was directed by God to build the Ark of the Covenant (see this Wikipedia article for more info – Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the List Ark got the look and power narrated in the Bible pretty right on). The Ark eventually held the Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff, but those items were not really the point. The main feature of the Ark was the Mercy Seat on top which was where God could sit – it’s really important that the seat is empty because the Israelites didn’t worship an idol or the Ark itself, just God who had chosen his people Israel and would be present with them on the seat. The Israelites took the Ark with them throughout their wilderness wandering, keeping it in a tent that was called the Tabernacle and carrying it before them whenever they marched to a new place. The exact dimensions of the Ark and Tabernacle are all in Exodus so do yourself a favor and read that if this is all new to you. The tent Tabernacle had a holy place in the imiduare entrance area, and a most holy place further in called the Holy of Holies and that is where the Ark was kept. Moses, Aaron, and the priests would offer sacrifices at the Ark inside the Tabernacle and consult with God by visiting the Ark.

The Israelites took the Ark with them into the Promised Land, and it was carried into battle as they conquered various towns and peoples (This is all in Joshua). After a convoluted history (read Judges and First Samuel) King David brought the Ark to Jerusalem and set up the Tabernacle on Mt Zion.

Around 957 BC David’s son Solomon built the first Temple to house the Ark. The Temple basically copied the style of the tent by having a Holy Place and a Holy of Holies (you can read all about this in 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles. This Temple was destroyed in 586 BC (or 425BC depending on who you ask) by the Assyrians. There is no record in the Old Testament of what happened to the Ark. There is a rabbinic story that King Josiah hid the Ark somewhere on the Temple Mount. Other rabbis suggest it may have taken to Babylon. 2 Maccabees 2 (Deuterocanonical Scripture and part of what we call the Apocrypha) states:

The Prophet Jeremiah “having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.””

A Second Temple was built (read Ezra-Nehemiah) in 515BC on the same spot and featured the same design (though apparently not as grand as the Firsr Temple) of a Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Ark was never restored to the Second Temple and it isn’t clear (at least to me) what (if anything) happened in the Holy of Holies at the Second Temple.

Herod the Great (who was renowned for his building programs) renovated the Temple and expanded the Temple Mount by building a massive wall around it around 20BC. The wall made possible several courtyards and areas for money changers, etc.

The Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD by the Romans after a Jewish Revolt. The Romans built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. The Emporir Julian (the Apostate) allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple but an earthquake in 363AD and the death of Julian in the same year meant plans to build a Third Temple never got going.

In 691 AD Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount to commemorate the traditional location Mohammed’s ascension into heaven with the Angel Gabriel (part of Muslim tradition but not the Koran). The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque which was built around the same time are on the Temple Mount today.

Parts of the walls of Herod’s expansion of the Temple Mount are still visible and have been excavated so that Southern Wall and a part of the Western Wall are accessible. The Western Wall, as it is called, is only a segment of the whole unexcavated Western Wall. Wikipedia notes: “The term Western Wall and its variations are mostly used in a narrow sense for the section traditionally used by Jews for prayer; it has also been called the “Wailing Wall”, referring to the practice of Jews weeping at the site over the destruction of the Temples. During the period of Christian Roman rule over Jerusalem (ca. 324–638), Jews were completely barred from Jerusalem except to attend Tisha be-Av, the day of national mourning for the Temples, and on this day the Jews would weep at their holy places. The term “Wailing Wall” was thus almost exclusively used by Christians, and was revived in the period of non-Jewish control between the establishment of British Rule in 1920 and the Six-Day War in 1967. The term “Wailing Wall” is not used by Jews, and increasingly not by many others who consider it derogatory.”

The Western Wa is important as a prayer location because it is the closest possible place one can be to where the Holy of Holies is. People (mostly Jews) bring there prayers (usually written on small scraps of paper) and leave them in the Wa as close as possible to where God dwelt in the Holy of Holies.

I should admit that though the Temple is an essential part of the Gospel narrative and I was not unenthusiastic about visiting the Western Wall, still I was far more enthusiastic about visiting specific Christian sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I really didn’t know what to make of this transition of the importance of praying near the place where Holy of Holies had been 2000 years ago.

When we arrived at the Wall we encountered a jubilant atmosphere. There were numerous bar mitzvahs going on with drums, trumpets, and singing. I wonder now if that was the spirit and feeling of Palm Sunday. We made our way to security with a great throng and once through, the atmosphere changed dramatically. I felt what I can only describe as a holy somberness. We were given instructions about proper etiquette: men on one side, women on the other, wear a hat or covering, back away from the Wall, and take as much time as you wish at the Wall in prayer.

I approached the Wall, placed my hand on it and got walloped by the presence of God in a way that I have rarely if ever felt. I began to weep as I offered my prayers (I prayed for my wife and children, my sister and her family, my parents, my church, and parishioners who asked to be remembered at the Wall) and placed my written prayers in the Wall. Tears are flowing as I write this and I rarely get emotional like this. The experience in those few moments was so intense and overwealming that I had to draw back and move away from the Wall. After about ten minutes I approached the wall again and offered the same prayers, but the overwealming awesomeness and “Fear of the Lord” that I had had before was replaced with a knowledge that God was present in that place in a way that I cannot explain other than to note that thousands of people are drawn each day there to pray. The experience puts the entire narrative about the Ark, Tabernacle, Temple, and the Wall into a new light. “Holy and awesome is this place.” I understand now why people fell flat on their faces before God throughout the Scriptures. I left the Wall feeling shattered by the presence of God and made whole at the same time.

We headed into the winding streets of the Old City, and my main memory from the walk was feeling incredibly thirsty. I bought a liter and a half of water and drank it immediately. At one point we stopped to get out of the way of a car driving down the street – the street is no wider than a car and I cannot imagine that cars should even be there. I looked up and saw that we were turning onto a street called Via Dolorosa (this is the traditional Way of the Cross).

We walked up the Way and entered a small building to “see excavations”. Our guide Iyad explained that we were now on the site of Antonia’s Fortress. This is where Pilate would have stayed when he was in town. This is where the prisoners (Jesus too) would have been kept if they had been sent to Pilate. The Roman soldiers had a game they would play. Every week one prisoner on death row would be chosen to play “King”. The soldiers would stand the prisoner on a stone and dress the prisoner up as a king (stuff like a robe or a crown of thorns). Then they would mock the “king” and beat the “king” and finally they would execute the “king”. An excavation at some point had unearthed the “King Game Stone”. I was amazed. I had never heard that what happened to Jesus on that stone by the Roman soldiers was a game that had happened to countless other prisoners. We went down into the excavation where there was a cistern and a series of rooms with stone floors. And among the stones was a large, square, flat stone with a crown carved into it and a B for Basileus or King in Greek. Jesus had not only suffered, he had suffered as many had before and many had after, and yet this cruel game also, ironically, revealed the truth about Jesus. I prayed on that spot that I might be accompanied by Christ in any suffering I might ever have as Jesus accompanied all who suffered such merciless cruelty. Be present Lord Jesus be present.

Our next stop was the Church of Saint Anne (Mary’s mom), and Bethesda. Bethesda is a pool/bath area that includes a place of ritual cleansing for healing. It is where Jesus healed a man who had been lame for over 30 years. There are numerous photos in my album (link at the end) of the excavations of these pools (they are deep!).

Father Randy Alexander, Mother Rosemary Sullivan (a priest who is part of our group) and I offered prayers for healing and anointing with Holy Oi which I was honored to bless at Bethesda. I will continue to keep all who came to me for prayers in my heart and in my prayers. May God bless them.

We entered Saint Anne’s and sang Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God. I lit a candle at the Shrine to Saint Anne and said a prayer for my mother Nancy (which is a form of the name Anne), my wife, and my sister. May God bless their motherhood as Anne and Mary were blessed.

We headed out of the Old City and grabbed lunch back at the guesthouse. After lunch we bussed to West Jerusalem to the Israel Museum to see a scale model of Jerusalem around the time of Jesus. It was really cool and helpful to see the nearness of the different places events in the Bible happened. Check out some of the photos. The Museum houses a shrine for the Dead Sea scrolls which was fascinating to walk through.

After a long day I am ready for dinner in the grotto. I’m also ready for a good night sleep (I went to bed too late yesterday but enjoyed the late conversation with other Pilgrims).

Tomorrow we visit the Holy Sepulcher.

Photos from today are here.

(Photo link and edits for typos will be done after dinner).

Day 1 walkabout, Mt Scopus, West Bank, Herodium


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

Pilgrimage Photos – Day 0

Father Matt, Father Randy, Archbishop

I’m going to use This Facebook Album to publicize our trip photos. Each day I will add a new album. While you are on the Christ Church FB Page, be sure to click “like”.

All 41 Pilgrims gathered together



The flight from Newark to Tel Aviv was an hour late and uncomfortable, but otherwise uneventful; we all made it to Israel. I think I may have gotten 2-3 hours of bad sleep.

Our guide Iyad Qumri met all 19 Christ Church Pilgrims us at the airport and drove us by bus to Jerusalem. He gave us a mini tour of parts of the West Bank along the way, driving past Palestinian towns and Israeli settlements.

We arrived at the St George’s Guesthouse where we are staying in Jerusalem around 7:30pm. The entire Alexandria group had already arrived in drips and drabs over the day and so our group has swelled to its full size of 41 Pilgrims.

After a brief gathering I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for safe travel and our loved ones back home and grace before dinner.

Dinner was served (upside down chicken and rice, yogurt and cucumbers, a variety of other salads, etc) and it was deliscious. After dinner we met the Archbishop of The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, “a province of the Anglican Communion stretching from Iran in the east to Algeria in the west, and Cyprus in the north to Somalia in the south. It is the largest and the most diverse Anglican province. The church is headed by a President Bishop, currently the Most Reverend Suheil Dawani, who ranks as a representative primate in the Anglican Communion. The Central Synod of the church is its deliberative and legislative organ. The province is divided into four dioceses:

Diocese of Jerusalem — covering Israel, Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon,
Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf — covering Cyprus, the Arabian peninsula and Iraq,
Diocese of Egypt with North Africa, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti — also covering Algeria, Tunisia and Libya,
Diocese of Iran.”

(From Wikipedia)

We then gathered for introductions, travel tips, and a review of our itinerary.

Tomorrow is day 1, and start bright and early at 7am. Local time here is 7 hours ahead of New York. The weather here is gorgeous. Mid 80s with no humidity during the day. Mid 60s at night.