"You are travelling to the Middle East?!?!," friends asked incredulously when I announced that I had just been invited to join a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. With the spate of incidents in the region making headlines of late, one could understand their reaction. But a pilgrimage to the Holy Land had long been on my wish list and that the opportunity would come so unexpectedly on this an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy (as declared by Pope Francis), was a special gift. There could be no better time...I was elated!
Although the invite was for a busy time of year, I knew I couldn’t pass up this amazing opportunity. Sar-El Tours Israel was extremely accommodating and quickly customised arrangements to fit my dates, creating an abridged (and intense) version of the normally 12-day tour.
"I am actually here—I'm about to set foot in the Holy Land!" This thought filled my mind as the aircraft made its approach towards the King David Airport. It was like a dream. Flying from Manila via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines gets you to Tel Aviv at mid-morning, refreshed and ready to hit the ground running after a good night's sleep. Immigration and Customs were a breeze. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how friendly the Immigration officer was and immediately felt at home in this foreign land. (Israel is one of the few destinations where a visa is not required for Philippine passport holders).
David Katz, Deputy Manager of Sar-El Tours, was already waiting the minute I stepped into the Arrival Hall. There was no time to waste and we drove off directly to the city of Tiberias (about two and a half hours away by car) where I was to catch up with the rest of the group. My first stop: the Sea of Galilee.
Along the way, David gave an interesting overview on the history of Israel, laying the groundwork for the next few days. Everywhere our group went, we discovered warm and friendly people. More importantly, we felt safe, secure and well taken care of.
It was an incredible experience each day to trace the footsteps that Christ had walked over 2000 years ago. I was also fascinated to learn about the Jewish people from different perspectives. At every stop of the pilgrimage, there was a profound sense of coming upon a truly special place… almost as if we had walked right into the crossroads of history and faith. I was amazed at how all the stories
from the Bible I had grown up with literally came alive, such as when we drove up the hills into Jerusalem, eternal capital of the State of Israel that was established by King David 3000 years ago. (It is the only city in the world with 12 gates repesenting the original 12 tribes of Israel); or when we visited the Mount of Olives, where the universal prayer we know today as the "Our Father" was first taught to the early disciples; and moreso upon descending into the solemn Grotto of the Nativity, as a light snow fell softly over Bethlehem, where the Child Jesus was born! That little spot, in all its simplicity and humility, radiates an indescribable beauty. It moved me to tears.
Though I have yet to visit countless more biblical sights in my lifetime, I feel immensely privileged to have seen not a few on this unforgettable journey. Here, just a handful of the highlights...
Located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Caparnaum was a wealthy fishing village from the 2nd century BC to the 7th century AD. It was here where Jesus met his first disciples, all fishermen from the the surrounding area. The limestone ruins of a synagogue from around the third century AD are believed to sit on the orginal site where Jesus first preached during his ministry in Galilee. Its lintels and stone fragments are carved with such traditional Jewish symbols as the shofar (Ram's horn), menorah (seven-branched lampstand), and the Ark of the Covenant.
As we stood atop Mt. Nebo, rising more than 700 metres above the Jordan Valley and opposite the northern end of the Dead Sea, it was amazing to see the same view of the Promised Land that Moses was shown before his death. Numerous excavations around the area have revealed significant remains of the early Byzantine church and its intricate mosaics. We had the chance to stop in at a community of artisans where the meticulous craft of mosaic art, requiring highly skilled hands, is still practiced today.
Grotto of the Nativity
From Christianity's very beginnings, the grotto in Behtlehem where Jesus was born was considered sacred. It was here, in the fourth century, where the first church was built under the Byzantine Emperor Constantine. Partially destroyed during the Samaritan revolt, the present structure was built in the year 530 by the Emperor, Justinian the Great. While most churches in the Holy Land were destroyed during the Persian invasion in the seventh century, the Church of the Nativity was miraculously saved. Over the centuries, the Basilica has changed hands multiple times. Today, it is shared between the Armenians, the Latins, and the Greek Orthodox who alteranately hold their respective services there. In the Grotto of the Nativity which lies beneath the Basilica, a silver star on the ground marks the very spot where Jesus was born.
Here where the River Jordan leaves the Sea of Galilee, eventually flowing into the Dead Sea more than a hundred kilometres south, pilgrims gather fromfar and wide to immerse themselves in these holy waters. Tradition believes Yardenit (meaning "Little Jordan") to be the area where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
Standing high on the hillside of Ein Kerem, a quiet village in Jerusalem, is the Church of the Visitation. Under a soft drizzle, we walked through the charming village, and up from the main road over cobble stone steps, to this tranquil spot with its views of the valley and wooded hills below. As we reached the church courtyard, we came upon a wall filled with ceramic tile murals inscribed with the words of the Magnificat written in 42 different languages. The Church of the Visitation was designed by the renowned Italian church architect Antonio Barluzzi and built in 1935 over the remains of several former churches. Large fragments of the mosaic floor from the first church, dating back to the fifth century, still survive. It is believed to be the same site where the home of John the Baptist's parents, Elizabeth and Zecharias, once stood. Among the beautiful Tuscan style paintings inside the church is a fresco that depicts the visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. Beneath, framed by a pair of arches, lie the altar with its exquisite celestial blue and gold mosaic wall and an ancient stone well.
The Dome of the Rock
This Byzantine style octagonal structure is believed by the Moslems to be the site from where Mohammed ascended into heaven on a winged steed. Built on the original site of the First and Second Temples in 691 AD by the Moslem Caliph Abd El Malik, it comprises four doors, eight marble pillars, and 16 columns supporting a wooden ceiling lavishly stuccoed in tones of red and gold. Rich mosaic arches, decorations, and inscriptions from the Koran on the cupola date back to its original construction, while elaborate stained glass windows are attributed to Suleiman the Magnificent, Great Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, from the 15 th century. At the centre of the Dome of the Rock sits the rock of Mount Moriah. While Moslems believe that it was Ishmael who was about to be sacrificed on this sacred site, according to Jewish tradition, it was Isaac, the son of Abraham. It is also believed to be the spot where the Ark of the Covenant once stood.
A scenic cable car ride brought us up the mountains to the remains of a fortress built by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BC. Offering spectacular views of the valley below and the Dead Sea beyond, a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Park should not be missed. The excavated ruins of the ancient fortress—including bathhouses, store rooms and a synagogue—make for a very interesting walk around the grounds. It was here in the year 70 AD, during the Roman Siege, where the surviving Jewish patriots made their last stand. 960 defenders (known as the Zealots) took their lives at Masada, choosing to die as free men rather than to surrender to the Romans.
Dominus Flevit Church
Located on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, this jewel box of a church, designed in the shape of a tear drop, was built in 1955 to commemorate the Gospel narrative in which Jesus wept over the fate of Jerusalem. During its construction, excavations uncovered ancient ossuaries (bone boxes), evidence of the area's long history as an important burial site. Offering a perfect vantage point of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from behind its altar, we sat in quiet meditation in the chapel pews while contemplating the uniquely beautiful vista framed by a solitary wrought iron and glass window.
Church of All Nations
Also known as the Basilica of the Agony, the Church of All Nations (so named because it was constructed through donations from many countries around the world, including the Philippines) is situated in the Kidron Valley, at the lower foothills of the Mount of Olives. Also designed by the architect Barluzzi and built above the remains of two earlier structures, this was the most magnificent church I visited in the Holy Land. Its classical facade is marked by Corinthian columns beneath an impressive mosaic depicting Jesus as the mediator between God and man. Inside the dramatically lit nave, the focal point is the Rock of Agony which is embedded in the ground directly fronting the altar. It was upon this holy rock where Jesus said his last prayer before his arrest by the Romans. Of special note for those who may wish to visit, the Church of All Nations is one of the distinguished churches throughout the world considered a Holy Door pilgrimage site during this Jubilee Year of Mercy (ongoing until 20 November 2016).