Sunday, December 20, 2009

The rest of Galilee

Day 4: This was a fabulous day: following in the footsteps of Christ.
We left early in the morning to sail on the Sea of Galilee. The sky was full of those perfect little clouds, with a stiff wind pulling the cold through all of us. We trundled onto a large wooden motor boat which rode us against the wind into the middle of the sea where the captain cut out the motor and let us bob around. There we had a brief devotional—three of the students were called on to discuss the different happenings of the Lord on the Sea of Galilee such has when he calmed the waves during the storm, when he walked on the water and Peter came out towards him. I feel like I’ve learned so much more about the personalities of the different apostles, Peter in particular. He was always doing one more thing than was required of him. He is full of fire, with an innocent, brazen desire to be with the Lord and to do as He would have him do. Peter walking on the water is just one example of this—another time, when he saw Jesus on the shore, he was too impatient to wait for the boat to come to the shore so instead, he swam over to Him. When Christ washed his feet at the last supper and explained that if He didn’t, Peter could have no part in Him, Peter asked that He wash his hands and head as well. He truly was an amazing person, called later to be the head of the church which Christ established here. Peter was one of the three who were allowed to be with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration as well as during the suffering in Gethsemane.

After our devotional, we motored to the other side of the sea and saw a 2,000 year old fishing boat, from the time Christ would have been here. It is truly remarkable that the boat has survived—it was saved by the marshy water in which it had sunk, and the way they excavated it without it crumbling into nothing was incredible. Now it sits in a museum, its body filled with resin with which they slowly replaced the water which had inundated it during its 2,000 year old stint in the mud. From there we were off to what is possibly my favorite part of our time in Galilee—the Mount of Beatitudes. It is a beautiful little hill, looking over the Galilee, and landscaped with fragrant jasmine, colorful bougainvillea and leafy, low hanging trees. There is a relatively small circular Catholic church on the hilltop, and numerous places designed for large groups of pilgrims to sit and discuss the Sermon on the Mount which was supposed to have taken place there. I was assigned to discuss one or more of the beatitudes along with two other girls from our group who did their own outlines of the beatitudes. I chose, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I discussed what the ambiguous term “poor in spirit” means as well as what it likely means to see God. The other girls spoke on different verses, and their insights were greatly helpful to my understanding of this incredible sermon, called by many the most wonderful sermon ever preached on the earth. The LDS District President of Israel, President Brown, then spoke for a while, and we sang several hymns. What I remember of that place is that the sunlight streamed right through the bougainvillea all around us, casting a golden, rosy glow on our group, that the breeze was just enough to make the air feel fresh and clean, and that the day was neither hot nor cold--just right in fact. After our little meeting, we had about a half an hour for contemplation and scripture reading, which I latched onto gratefully. I wandered around the grounds, explored the church, and stood by a pine tree, looking out over the sea and wondered if this was what heaven will be like. It was truly paradisiacal, and I felt such peace and joy in my heart. Knowing that God is a good God, and that He truly does love me and know who I am, that brought such comfort to me.

When we left, we walked down the hillside to the church at the bottom where it is said that Christ fed the five thousand—the place is called Tabgha and it has a beautiful, very famous, mosaic floor. It is run by the Benedictine monks.
From there we headed to a beautiful seaside church called Saint Peter’s Primacy where Peter jumped off the boat and swam to Jesus and where Jesus essentially promised him the role of the leader of the Church. The beautiful stone and stained glass church echoed incredibly well so we sang to our hearts content, entertaining the other tour groups passing through. That place was also wonderfully peaceful and pleasant. From there we went to Capernaum, the city where Peter lived and the city Christ lived in after being rejected in Nazareth. There he met the believing centurion whose son he healed from a distance and there he did much of his preaching and many healings and casting out of devils. It is an interesting little city—eventually it was cursed by Christ, along with two other cities, because the people stopped listening to him and they would not repent. It is now just ruins, no one has built on it almost since the 1st Century A.D. There, there is the synagogue in which Christ preached (I’ve stood exactly where he would have) and there, also, was Peter’s house which many hold to be the first church ever. The entire city is made out of basalt stone, a type of black volcanic rock. I should think it would be rather depressing to live in this city because of how dark it can be with the buildings so close to each other and so dark. But it was built right along the shore where we watched the sunset from the shoreline. It was particularly spectacular that evening—all reds and oranges and yellows. Once we returned to the kibbutz and after we had dinner, we enjoyed a two hour lecture on Ancient Near East, and then I was off to bed.

Day 5: This was a difficult day for me—the beginning of two days of absolute misery. At breakfast I didn’t feel that fabulous, so I ate a lot to compensate (brilliant, I know) and during our four hour class that morning, I felt more and more ill. By that evening, (we had no fieldtrips that day) I was downright sick with a dreadful twenty four hour flu which sent my insides into convulsions and after the initial period of actually beneficial vomiting, left me dry heaving for the next 22 hours. Half of our class was already out, many of them left during class, and there was even someone’s breakfast in the hallway as a testament of that. The whole experience was utter agony, the room I lived in was dark, tiny, and my roommate left it for another so she would not catch the flu from me. There was nothing to do or to think about other than hoping that the next wave of nausea would end soon. While the worst of it was over by two in the morning or so, I tossed and turned all night, my head filled with dreams of churches competing over shoreline on the Galilee. I was the middle man trying to adjust the placement of the shore line to meet their ever changing needs. It was chaotic and upsetting, a perfect reflection of the state of my stomach. Later, when we were on our way back to Jerusalem, Professor Manscill asked how many people had not become ill in Galilee. Out of forty students on our bus, nine raised their hands.

Day 6: Fortunately, we did not have church until 2:00 in the afternoon the next day. I did not get out of bed until twelve, and I could eat nothing at all at lunch. Though I had to walk at the speed of an exhausted slug, I was able to attend church in Tiberius and I greatly enjoyed it. Like the Jerusalem Center, the Tiberius Branch has a spectacular view, but of the Sea of Galilee. Church was also only one hour (another blessing) and when we returned, I was able to rest and talk to friends for a while before going to bed.

Day 7: We were back on the road the next day with stops at two very interesting sites and an afternoon all to ourselves. I was feeling much more alive than before, but was still really weak. Our first stop was at a place called Gamla. It is a very interesting and depressing site which I’m surprised I’d never heard of before. In the middle of some rolling grasslands, filled with Stone Age tombs, there is a very deep, steep valley with a knife thin ridge rising up in the center of it. There was a city of Jews at the time of Christ. Much like the Kingdom of Rohan in Lord of the Rings, they built their city on the hillside with houses cascading down the hill and a huge keep at the top. Idiotically, after the time of Christ, they rebelled against the Roman Empire and were sieged because of it. There are different Roman siege weapons and ancient cannon balls from catapults lying around because of this. All the people gathered to the keep to protect themselves when the situation became dire. As the Romans broke in and started climbing upwards, the people pushed each other farther and farther back in the keep until some people started falling to their death on the backside of it. Soon people were jumping and eventually, thousands of people had either accidentally or intentionally fallen to their deaths,leaving the Romans with control over this crucial city. We climbed all the way down the valley then all the way up the thin hill to the ancient city. It took me an extremely long time to get to the summit, as weak as I was, so I stood at the top of the keep looking down the cliff for quite a while. In spite of the horrible things that happened there, it was a beautiful place, much like something you could expect to see out of Lord of the Rings. But I was greatly saddened, realizing that so many had died in such a horrible way from the very spot where I stood. The Jewish historian, Josephus is essentially the only reason the modern world knows of these grave occurrences. I wondered how many other stories there are like this in the world that no one remembers… It gave me solace to realize that while we here may not recall them, God does.

As I walked down the hill, everyone else passed me and I soon began to worry that I would not make it to the bus on time. Going up the canyon then back to the flat plains was torturous—I was so out of breath, I had to stop every few feet. Finally, one of the boys in our group kindly stayed behind to encourage me along. Had he not, it may have taken me much longer to reach the top. It was certainly one of the most difficult things I have done this entire trip, and I felt a great sense of victory when I stood at the top of the cliff, gasping for breath. We walked just as slowly back to the bus where in jest they started driving away, but when they realized from my countenance that I was not doing well, they stopped and let us on. I also determined not to go up or down any hills on our next stop.

The next site was a place named Qazin—an ancient Jewish village of which bits and pieces have been restored. It was once a center for the study of the Talmud, and therefore has remained famous. When we arrived, we watched, in a large room with screens on every side, the oddest movie I think I have ever seen. I don’t even know if I could describe it because it was about a story from the Mishnah (Jewish oral law since put into writing). I had never heard of it before and had no context for the points it was making. It certainly made for some fabulous quotes though, such as “Music, Orchard Music!” said by the narrator and so forth. I know, that makes absolutely no sense. Well, it didn’t make any more sense to us either.

From there, we went to the ancient synagogue much of which has been restored, then to a house completely restored and outfitted with items which would have been in a house two thousand years ago. Because the stone was black, it was incredibly dark inside in spite of the light from the oil lamps, and it was surprisingly small though it did have a second story. It was not long until we left from Qazin and returned to the kibbutz for lunch. There was a rafting trip planned for those who wanted to go, down the Jordan River after lunch. I debated going—after my escapade that morning at Gamla, I didn’t know if I had enough energy, and, we had a major test in New Testament the next day from the hardest teacher we have here. Though I can’t recall my thought processes which led me to this conclusion--I eventually decided to go rafting. We drove to a typical outfitting place for rafters on the shady edge of the Jordan river, and there received our life jackets, instructions and five person inflatable boats to take down the river. They also gave us the most unwieldy paddles imaginable. They were too short to be used by one person effectively on both sides of the boat, and too long to really control well. Not only this, but the actual paddle was small and made out of thick plywood. Because of its unwieldiness, when the person in front of me in the boat started to enthusiastically use it (determined as we were to beat all the other boats) the side of the paddle she wasn’t using smacked into my nose like a baseball bat. Immediately, blood streamed down my face in copious amounts. I am sure I looked raving mad, sitting there in this floating concoction with four other crazy girls, and laughing about the blood gushing from my nose. It didn’t take too long to clean it off and get it under control, and we were soon able to concentrate on our sea battles with the other ships (though it was a full time job just trying to keep out of the voluminous bushes on either side of the river). Soon we had beaten and splashed all the boats ahead of us but one—they succeeded in thwarting us in the end. When we reached the point where they pulled our boats out of the water, we determined to go back in and swim, then splash the other boats as they arrived. I went out with the best of them, right to the forefront of the battle, and, in my vigorous attempts to douse my opponents, had another paddle slammed into my left eye, leaving it bloody and blackening. It really wasn’t my day. When we headed back, one of the boys was kind enough to piggy back my surprisingly heavy weight over the gravel trail as I had left my shoes on the bus.

That evening, we had a dinner of Saint Peter’s fish at a fancy restaurant, and ice cream across the lake in Tiberius. The dinner was fabulous—when they came out with the fish, there was no way you could mistake it for anything but a creature which recently had been happily swimming in the sea right next to us. They fried it with everything on—head, eyes, tail, and even little dorsal fins. It stared at me on the plate. Being at a table of some of my more ridiculous friends, there was soon a chorus of singing, dancing fish, picked up by their respective eaters and made to look as though they were swimming around while their mouth was being moved in a convincing way as they sang “Tell me how I’m gonna breath with no air” and “Under the sea!” It goes without saying that it was an eventful evening. I managed to eat exactly two bites of my fish, and part of a sherbet they gave us. Dessert in Tiberius was fun, though the only eventful part was that I had to find an ATM which accepted my card, and it seemed that all the people we asked had conspired to tell us to go in different directions to find one. Eventually, just before we had to leave, we succeeded and I was able to get money to pay off my debts. I was very glad to get to bed that night, but the thought of the test the next day loomed over everything else.

Day 8: I spent the entire day studying and feeling crummy still because of the lingering effects of my illness. The test in the afternoon went alright and when I received got my score it was better than I had hoped for. There are six people in our class of forty who failed it though. That evening we had a bonfire and my class, exhausted as we were from our two hour test, made it into a festival of ridiculosity. We had stories, boisterous campfire songs and fiddlers playing hoedowns. The people here are exceptionally talented. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve come to live at a music conservatory. Sitting up on the sixth floor of the Jerusalem Center is frequently like sitting in an orchestra pit, which I love.

Day 9: Only two days before we were leaving Galilee, and I was feeling surprisingly ready to go. Though it was beautiful and peaceful there, I had been in far less pain in Jerusalem. Our first stop was at one of the two traditional sites of the Mount of Transfiguration, and, in my teacher’s estimation, the more convincing of the two. Mount Tabor fulfills the requirements that it be a mountain “set apart,” and, in the Jezreel valley where it sits, it is completely separate from all the other mountains. It is also much more local than Mount Hazor which is way up north, and therefore would have been easier for Jesus to travel to with Peter, James and John. We took taxi vans up to the top—they rocketed up the one way switchbacks, pulling over to the side just in time for vans going the other direction to scoot by right next to us. At the top is a beautiful Catholic church with some of the most stunning mosaics I’ve seen. We held a devotional outside of it, discussing the transfiguration and its implications in our theology, on which I took copious notes in my little notebook. (Right now I’m looking over Jerusalem from my balcony, watching the city as the sun first hits it this morning. It turns the entire city this most attractive shade of light pink, and some of the windows are reflecting golden in the sunlight. As always, the Dome of the Rock is radiant right now, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands out with its harsh gray domes turned soft in the morning light. It is truly beautiful).

Afterwards we were free to wander and look at the view over the Jezreel valley. On the way back down, I sat next to a kindly Catholic woman from Great Britain and we discussed (while holding on to our seats for dear life) topics from gardening in England to respecting the priests during mass. The next place we stopped was a tiny village named Nain where Christ raised the widow’s son from the dead. There is a tiny, seldom visited church there with a shrine dedicated to Christ’s miracle. The discussion regarding that miracle was surprisingly touching. Christ would have had to walk through the night to get to Nain in time for the funeral procession of the widow’s son, and, in raising him from the dead, Christ saved the widow who had no other family or any way of making a living after her son’s death. It is a beautiful illustration of how He knows and cares about even the least of all. We then went to a place which had the mosaic of an ancient synagogue from around 500 A.D. It took us about 20 minutes to get in because the woman in charge insisted not only on seeing the National Park cards that the Jerusalem Center program purchased for each of us, but identification which few of us brought along. Eventually she was so frustrated with our lack of ID that she had gave up and let us in anyway. There we watched yet another cheesy movie, this one about the creation of the mosaic. It is a fascinating thing because, against Jewish law, it depicts the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham using human forms (observant Jews believe that the law not to have any graven image extends to not having any form of re-creation of the human body or of animals even) as well as a zodiac wheel with each of the constellations of the zodiac in a circle around a depiction of the pagan god Helios. There is also a depiction of the temple, shofars, menorahs and so forth.

From Beit Alpha, we went to a swimming hole called Gan Ha-Shelosha which was a beautiful, giant, natural pool of mineral blue water with a little waterfall off to the side. I had completely forgotten my swimming suit, and so went in clothed, having a change of clothes from friends that I wore the rest of the day. There were tiny fish in the swimming pool which would suck at your toes in a way that was incredibly ticklish. There was as well as a little cave. The waterfall did a magnificent job of massaging me, and, though it started to rain while we were there, the whole experience was surprisingly warm and enjoyable. From Gan Ha-Shelosha, we went to an abandoned Roman city named Beit Shean. During its Israelite days, this city had been the place where Saul and Jonathan had been killed and where their bodies had been hung on the wall as an example. Though David had been alternately running from and fighting Saul, he had some of his men retrieve the bodies so they could be buried. It had also once been under the control of Egypt, as attested by the Egyptian idols found there. But the main city was completely Roman—with a colonnade, ancient pillars and mosaic streets, bath houses, market places and all. We were given a cursory introduction to the place, though the rain was coming down more heavily and it was beginning to get dark. I went all the way up to the top of the ancient tel where the Israelite city had been, and on the way down, I slipped in the mud and slammed my side into some extremely sharp basalt rocks on the ground. I could hardly sit down in the bus on the way back as a consequence. Now I have a nice array of puncture wounds, scrapes and bruises on my hip. We had dinner at the Kibbutz and class that evening again.

Day 10: This was our Thanksgiving Day, the kibbutz planned out a banquet-like meal for us that evening for which we were all very excited. First though, we were off to the beautiful city on the sea of Akko, also called Acre, or Acka or any other derivative of that root you can think of. Its heyday was during the Crusades where it was the home base of both the Templar Knights and the Hospitallers. Built right on the sea, it is everything you could ever want from a medieval city—there are tunnels used during sieges, ancient sea towers knocked over by the Muslims during their sea battles, sea walls with slots for shooting arrows, old fortresses and Venetian market places, left just as they were during the time of the Crusades. I was practically giddy being there—call me a geek, but I have a particularly strong love of the Middle Ages and all of its eccentricities. We watched a movie about Akko in the ancient dungeons of the fortress, then we were taken on a tour of the feasting hall, cloisteries and so forth. The most amazing thing was learning about the Templars and Hospitallers. They were essentially monk warriors—living most of the time as any monk should, studying and praying, but spending the rest of their time out battling whom they called the infidels for control of the holy sites. We explored all of the ancient, vaulted halls, some of them partially restored, most of them original, and then were taken to a beautiful 18th century mosque in which we walked around, exploring, before we realized we weren’t actually supposed to be in there.

We were then given free time to wander or to go with our professor of Ancient Near East as he visited the three famous marketplaces where the rich Italian traders did much of their work. Akko was, for centuries, the center of international trade and goods would literally come in from all over the world. He also showed us the Tower of the Flies, the sea tower I alluded to earlier, which had been successful in protecting Akko’s harbor from invading ships until it was finally destroyed. The story of one battle is particularly interesting: the people who were fighting, I can’t recall who--probably the Muslims, decided that the best way to attack this tower was through making one of their own. They therefore tied two ships together (which is, let me tell you, a feat in itself) and outfitted the mast with enough wood to make an effective tower. With this, they sailed up to the Tower of the Flies and were able to shoot at those defending the tower. But, those on the tower soon got savvy and they shot fire into the boats, burning them into char that was sifted away by the ocean. After our tour, we were free to wander and my group went and bought some of the best falafel I’ve had here. We then saw the templar’s tower which was entirely destroyed by the attackers, and where thousands of people who were packed in there were killed when the tower collapsed. All that is left now are wave-washed foundation stones, serving as tide pools for the Mediterranean life. I wondered how many people who came to Akko knew of that story, and how many just saw it for what it is now. Things like that should not be forgotten. On our way back to the kibbutz for Thanksgiving and our parting bonfire, we stopped at a place called Beth Shearim. Though it was once a city, now all that is left and is accessible from its heyday are the rock cut tombs. These tombs were built for the wealthy and are quite extensive cave systems. The reason people wanted to be buried there is that one of the most famous Rabbis, Rabbi Ben Jacob, is buried there and was revered enough that people wanted to be near his tomb in their death. The caves are full of ancient white sepulchers, some decorated with Jewish designs, some with carvings of pagan gods. We actually had an assignment to identify symbols from each culture.

When we got back to the Kibbutz, we were practically giddy for thanksgiving. When they opened the doors to the dining hall, everything was dark, but people took enough pictures with flash that we could see that it was set up like several ancient banquet halls with tables on three sides. They turned the lights on and we cheered, then, after we sat, they brought out our meal in courses. Considering that they weren’t actually American, they did an amazingly good job of replicating what we expect from Thanksgiving, though they did have the hall decked out in red, white and blue instead of the traditional fall colors. They also brought out the turkeys with sparklers stuck in them when the lights off. It was a very bizarre mixture of Fourth of July, birthdays and Thanksgiving, and it was rather entertaining. The food was fabulous and we discussed things we were grateful for. Afterwards, we had a big bonfire which I was assigned to lead. Since it was our last night in Galilee, we kept it spiritual and made the theme gratitude. We were going to have two bonfires going simultaneously, but one of them would not start so we kept it down to one. It is a good thing we did—everyone pretty much had something they wanted to say and the meeting went on for a good three hours, the wood from the second bonfire serving to replenish the first. The fishermen of the sea came out while we were out there, and the reverberating sound of them throwing in their nets sounded like heartbeats. The moon was waxing and it shone silver over the water, a spectacular site. I wanted to make sure that everyone had their chance to testify what they would on the shores of the Galilee, so, it wasn’t until 10 that I finally closed the meeting with “How Great Thou Art” and a prayer. I went to bed utterly exhausted that evening.

Day 11: that morning was the first morning in Galilee I woke early enough to go down by the shore and watch the sunrise over the mountains. I did that, reading my scriptures and so forth, for a couple hours, then finally went back inside to get dressed and pack. Having inevitably lost our room key, I paid for a replacement, and we were on our way. I must say I was glad to be going back to Jerusalem as I missed it terribly while gone on this trip. Being in the Galilee changed my attitude towards the city of Jerusalem—I want nothing more now than to spend all my time wandering around in the city, whereas before I would often flake out because I was too tired or had too much school work to do. Our first stop on the way back was at a place called Sephoris or Zippora, depending on with whom you talk. It is an ancient tel four miles from Jerusalem, and it was once another center of Talmudic studies. It is also the place scholars suggest that Joseph and Jesus would have worked as he was growing up. The word in Greek which is translated “carpenter” really just means “craftsman,” leading scholars to believe that Joseph was essentially a jack of all trades (also, there is very little wood to work in the Holy Land, making stone work much more likely). Zippora was a city of the wealthy and scholarly, and therefore was a place with much demand for craftsmen. It is likely that a few of the things we looked at could have been created by Christ. There we saw some of Israel’s most beautiful mosaics, there was the floor of a wealthy man’s house, as well as the most famous and beautiful of all the mosaics in Israel with the face of a beautiful woman as part of the decoration. It is truly a stunning mosaic—the craftsmanship is far superior to most of what we had seen so far. Brother Brown told a story of when he went there about eight years ago, there were a few Brethren of the church with him. When one man looked at the picture of the beautiful woman, he said, “My wife is better looking than that.” Another then said, “My wife is much better looking than that,” and the third spiritedly declared, “My wife is much, much better looking than that.” A man next to them who was not part of the group turned to them in amazement, “I’ve never heard anyone talk about their wives that way before,” he said, astounded at their devotion. That story made me happy for the family-oriented nature of the church.

From there we went to a Crusader keep in Acre, a very important location because it is where the generals of the Crusaders decided to fight a battle for which they were unprepared against Saladin, the leader of the Muslims, that lead to the defeat of the Crusaders and the end of the Crusades. From the top we could see much of Israel, and, once inside the twenty foot thick walls at the bottom of the keep, we sang the song “Onward Christian Soldiers,” because of its obvious Crusader connotations (not to say that we were or were not advocating their actions, BTW). We also went to another synagogue which had a zodiac in the floor there, and then proceeded to our next stop on the way back to Jerusalem.

That was Mount Carmel where Elijah defeated the priest of Baal and proved that Jehovah is the one true God of Israel. We sat at the very top of the mountain (the mountain is actually an astounding fourteen miles long, leading all the way to the shore of Haifa) at a monastery, and we read the story of Elijah and the Priests and discussed it for a while. We were admonished to figure out what in our lives were idols we worshiped and to remove them from us. I certainly have plenty of those to work on. There is also a fabulous statue of Elijah killing the priests of Baal after their failure to call the rain which he called after praying to God for only a few moments. Also, the fire from heaven which consumed the alter, the stones of it, the calf on that, and the water they had doused the whole thing in, is pretty awesome. It isn’t still there of course, but I love the thought of it.

Our next stop was an interesting one: the city of Haifa, the most important port city in all of Israel and is the capital of the Baha’i faith. They basically believe that God continually gives revelation through different prophets, including almost every prophet of every religion which ever lived. In effect, they believe that all religions are true. But they also have a theology of their own and their own temples, and for them, Haifa is the most sacred of all cities. Most famous are their gardens—they cascade down a hillside to their temple and each of the large terraces are landscaped symmetrically relative to themselves, as well as identically to the one above and below it. We weren’t allowed into the main body of the gardens without a tour, and we didn’t have time for it, so we just stopped there and looked down at the gardens from above. I would love to learn more about the Baha’i if I get the chance. From there we went to a cemetery which no one but the occasional family and the Mormons ever go to because to most people it is highly unremarkable. But there are buried the first Mormon missionaries who came to preach in Israel before the ban on proselyting. They died of the horrible fever which swept through Israel during the late 19th century. We learned about the missionaries lives from two of their descendents—we were just lucky to have had their descendents along on our trip! Afterwards, we all bought falafel and ice cream then took the final leg of the journey back to Jerusalem, arriving well after dark. I was overjoyed to see the center and the beautiful city. What a place this is.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Galilee--the first three days

Day 1: We left Jerusalem early in the morning again, unsurprisingly. But I was really excited for where we were going: Caesarea is a beautiful city from the time of Herod the Great all the way until the end of the Crusades. It sits right on the sea shore, so the waters crash against the fortress walls, and there the palace where Paul was housed before he was shipped off to Rome to be killed has survived. We wandered around in the ancient theater and the palace, stopping in a room where it is absolutely certain that Paul would have stood to deliver his speech to the leader of the city who declared, “Almost thou hast convinced me to be a Christian.” It is really rare to go somewhere we are certain that one of the New Testament figures would have stood. This is one of them. The port, of which only about a fourth is left, is stunning because it was built by Herod the Great completely from scratch and it remained a prominent port for the next several hundred years. The Crusaders used this as a major base of operation and consequently they had an awesome triple gate and even a real, honest to goodness moat! I was practically giddy on seeing the moat… originally; guess how you had to cross it? Yup, a draw bridge.

From there we stopped at something which was equally awesome, though it didn’t sound like it. It was an aqueduct. And lest you think of a pipe running below or on top of the ground, know that it is actually a seventy mile long wall of beautiful arches which carried the water along the top. It ran right along the sea shore too, and let me tell you, it was the perfect place for a photo shoot, well, and for being ridiculous in general. The day was cloudy and the landscape the striking twin of California’s prime agricultural/orchard land. It started to get colder and colder, and this lent itself well to our next stop… Armageddon.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, we went to the place which the great battle which is supposed to end the world will take place. The valley, the Jezreel valley, is beautiful and flat, stretching up towards Nazareth and the mount of Transfiguration. The city which Armageddon is named for is now just a tel, called Megiddo. We learned all sorts of awesome stuff about the history of the place, but the coolest thing by far was sitting on the ridge of the ancient city and looking over the valley, the wind cutting right through our jackets, and reading about the end of time. Cool? I think so.

The day just kept getting better and better because our next stop was Nazareth. The city is almost exclusively Palestinian now, and it is chock full of churches dedicated to Mary or Joseph or Jesus. Interestingly, on the outside of the “Church of the Visitation” where the angel was supposed to appeared to tell Mary she was chosen to give birth to Christ, there are large banners in English and Arabic which say something to the effect of (quoting the Qu’uran) “God never was and never will be begotten, nor does he beget,” and, “Islam is the only truth, those who reject it will be thrust down to hell.” It reminded me of other such propaganda I’d seen in the U.S., propagated by a different faith against another. It was a good reminder that people are the same no matter where you go. We blazed through the “Church of the Visitation” and the place where Mary and Joseph may have lived then ran up to see the alternate “Church of the Visitation” which is run by the Greek Orthodox Church. Having two churches dedicated to the same occurrence, both claiming to have the actual location of occurrence, is far from unusual in the Middle East.

We arrived at Galilee that night, late enough that I was utterly exhausted and was glad to crash in the bungalows which four of us shared. The Kibbutz where we stayed is right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee; I would see it out my window were it not for the other bungalow in the way. Despite my exhaustion, I had to wander along the shore for a while, just soaking in the fact that I was now in the place Jesus loved. While he certainly spent a fair amount of time in Jerusalem, and the most important occurrences happened there, the Galilee is where he wanted to be. The moon was barely a crescent that evening, and a bunch of us waded out into the water, standing so we could look out over the sea. What a beautiful place that is.

Day 2: The first place we went was not that memorable, or in other words, I have little recollection of it past the fact that it had a palace which was constructed almost identically to Herod the Great’s temple. The other place we went that morning was quite something. In the Old Testament, whenever they’re referring to the whole of Israel, they say “From Dan to Beersheba.” We’ve already been to Beersheba, so this was our chance to go all the way to the top of the ancient kingdom of Israel. Dan was named for the tribe who was given the land after they were pushed out of their original lot by the Philistines. It is stunning because there are three different springs which gush out of the mountain and make the place a virtual rainforest. We wandered through it for a while until we got to the original city where the idiotic Old Testament King of Israel after the end of Solomon’s reign, decided it would be a good idea to create golden calves and put them in Dan and another city named Bethel so the people of Israel wouldn’t go down to Judea, the rival kingdom, to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This sin was the main problem which plagued Israel for the next few hundred years until it was destroyed by The Assyrians. We saw the foundations of the temple they built there.

The next place, Caesarea Philippi, is the place where Christ told the Bread of Life sermon. A famous spring comes directly from the mountain there and a temple was built right on top of it a few thousand years ago, a pagan temple dedicated to the God pan. It’s gone now though, but the spring is still pouring out water. We headed from there to the coolest castle I’ve ever been to. It was stunning, built high on a mountainside overlooking a valley, and had been used by the Crusaders then the Arabs after the defeat of the Crusaders. It is one of the best preserved castles in all of Israel, the walls at least ten feet thick, and the whole place large enough to hold several thousand people if needed. It is called Nimrod’s castle because the local population said that it was such an impressive castle that only the biblical figure Nimrod, the great hunter would have been able to build it. I loved being there; I could have stayed there for hours more. A few hundred years ago, there was an earthquake and, awesomely, it rocked the castle walls so that the keystone of a hall of arches started to slip out, but then the walls rocked back, trapping the keystones again. So there is the is long stone hall you can walk along where the keystones of all the arches have slipped out exactly the same amount almost as though it were planned. From it, you can see the exact actions of the earthquake. How cool is that? We stopped briefly after this in the Golan Heights, one of the most contested pieces of land in the world. We parked near mine fields so we could take pictures near the signs which say, “Danger, Mine Field,” in English, Arabic and Hebrew. It is a sad reminder of the hate between these peoples and the problems which continue today in this area. Later that night we had a bonfire right on the beach of the Galilee. It was a wonderful event, we just stood up and sang or told stories if we felt like it. The group of students here is the most incredibly talented group I’ve ever been in. My talents are positively dwarfed by theirs and we’re always kept entertained by someone. The bonfires we enjoyed while there were some of the most memorable things we did, though it was mighty cold outside of the influence of the fire’s warmth.

Day 3: We had New Testament for three and a half hours straight in the morning of this day, and then studying for the rest of the day.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Learning to love the locals-- a fabulous week

This week was something entirely different from the rest of this trip, but in a very good way. Let's start at the beginning shall we?

Sunday was our fieldtrip day, giving us Monday as an exam prep day for what many people feared would be the hardest of our exams. Since we're just now starting the New Testament, we are starting to have our fieldtrip emphasis on the period around the year 0. Therefore, our tour this week was on Herodian Jerusalem--pretty much everything that was in Jerusalem which we still have from the time of Herod the Great. When we left, pretty early in the morning, our first destination was the kotel tunnel. This tunnel goes along the length of the actual western wall--they started digging down there a few years ago, so now you can walk from one end of the Western side of the temple mount (which is huge by the way) to the other, mostly underground. The tunnel is hugely controversial, mostly because there are houses on top of it and people are afraid that the foundations of their house will be weakened, but also because some of the Jews who were originally digging it started to head UNDER the temple mount itself, something which was hugely taboo for the Muslims. It was a pretty big deal for a while. The wall was beautifully made, and as we walked along it, we were encouraged to touch as much as possible. Remember, for the Jews, the spirit of God left the Temple upon its destruction, and came to inhabit the wall. According to tradition, the holy of holies of the original Temple was exactly where the stone of the dome of the rock is now. So when we reached the point which was directly closest to the holy of holies, there were perhaps twenty women praying at the wall just like they do at the traditional parts of the western wall. They were all very traditional, rocking back and forth, and praying with their beautiful little books. I would have liked to have stayed and watched. We exited the tunnel on the opposite side of the city, and from there, headed to one of the few discovered homes of people from the time of the destruction of the temple in 70 a.d. It is deep underground, unsurprisingly, as Jerusalem is a tel after all, and there are only a few stones on top of each other dividing the rooms of the house. They found a spear head and right next to it the arm of young girl, detached from her body. It is striking evidence of what happened there 2000 years ago. They showed a very badly acted movie based on the people who lived in this house during the Jewish revolt and the Roman destruction. It was such a ridiculously crazy time--there were Jews trying to incite their fellow Jews to fight, and as the Romans besieged the city, these Jews (Zealots) went around and burned the food storage of the people. Many people ignored the problem, others ran to Alexandria, everywhere there was fear and chaos. When the temple itself was destroyed, no one could believe it. It had been one of the 7 wonders of the world, it, like the titanic, was unsinkable. We went to other houses from this period, all of them priestly, aristocratic (Sadducee) homes. They were full of beautiful mosaics, mikvahs (or ritual baths) and stone pots because stone does not transmit impurities. Every one of them had been burnt to the ground in the deluge. From there, we went back to the temple mount, and we went through the archeological museum there. It is ridiculous how many peoples of different periods have built things there-- from the Mamluks (Mongolian looking Muslims) to the Byzantines, to the crusaders and templar knights, and all the way back to Solomon. The most interesting there was the pile of stones from the original temple. They had been a part of the temple wall but had been pushed over by the Romans. There is a large stone which had been the very pinnacle of the mountain and which smashed the pavement of the road below it when it was pushed over. In Hebrew, it says "the place of the sounding of the trumpet" and it is where the priests would stand to blow the trumpet to announce the beginning of holidays or the Sabbath. We had a fabulous little talk about Christ's experiences on the temple mount before we finished. When we left, I went to an extremely interesting, and controversial, place. Called the third temple institute, it is the organization dedicated to recreating everything which was in the original temple exactly as it had been so when they were able to (as in, when the Dome of the Rock was gone) they could immediately step in and rebuild the temple. The people there could be alternately called fanatics or dedicated, depending on your perspective. It was fascinating--they showed us the priestly clothing, the recreated alters and menorahs and other things used in the temple and even offered their explanation for how they hoped to solve impossible situations; most prominently, the lack of the ark of the Covenant. According to them, the ark was hidden under the temple mount during the destruction of the temple, and it is there still. They just have to get to it. It was amazing meeting people working so diligently on such a thing as this. I don't know if I've ever met anyone so dedicated to something so incredibly controversial. Our tour guide was a girl who, instead of going into the army, was doing national service by working in the institute. She said she had come into it slightly skeptical, but she now saw this as one of the most important things anyone could be doing.

Monday was essentially dreadful--in theory I studied all day, in reality, I wandered around studying everything else and occasionally studying the right subject. Tuesday was dominated by preparing for the final in the evening. It went remarkably well, and then I was free of finals for another month and half! Woot! As nothing of any consequence occurred on Wednesday, I'll skip right to the good stuff on Thursday morning. After classes, a few of us had agreed to go do service in the old city with an organization called the Good Samaritan center. It is right in the middle of the Christian quarter. I'd noticed it before, but I'd never thought to go in. When we arrived, we were shuttled up a flight of steps in a building which was obviously built over a period of years and different needs and styles, so the whole place, much like the old city, was an amalgamation of haphazard walls and misaligned rooms. We were led into a nicely Middle Eastern room where we waited for a while before having an hour long introduction to the program from its saintly director and founder, Raja. He told us of all the troubles which plague the Christian quarter of the old city where he had grown up and where he hoped to spend the rest of his days. There was a lot of drug abuse, alcoholism, broken families who, though they lived in the same house, would never speak to each other, poverty, children who had free reign of the internet from a young age and who were consequently filling their minds with the dirt of the world, mistreated mentally retarded people, and 450 elderly who were frequently without family or, if they had them, were frequently neglected by them. It is all of these people who Raja tries to help in whatever way he can. He started by bringing meals to the elderly who were unable to cook for themselves and had no one to do it for them. He provides services for taking people to the hospital in wheelchairs when they need it. With the help of many volunteers, he assures that the elderly have a blood sugar and pressure check every week, and that those who live alone are visited by someone every day. He knows each of their needs and he will work to find a way to solve them, for example, one woman we visited had no bathroom she could use, even though her family had one upstairs, and so she had to go outside. Raja has been working on repairing the neighbor's bathroom on the condition that this woman would be allowed to use it. He knows everyone in the Christian quarter personally. He watches over the children to assure that those who have drug addict parents are looked after, and those whose parents simply don't care about their whereabouts are being safe. He is just about to start a program where he'll have volunteers teach the parents how to use a computer so they can monitor their child's doings. The organization has even adopted seven girls who are completely neglected, and he assures they have somewhere the live, food, friends, and he even goes to the school to assure that things are going well there. To teach the children the bible which most of them don't know, he has put signs up all over the quarter which are scriptures in English and Arabic, and has the children memorize them for prizes. Every year, people get Christmas presents from the organization of things like some chocolate, new toothbrushes, soap and towels (this year, we provided all of that for them). He even started putting trashcans in the street so the people would stop throwing their trash all over the road. It worked perfectly, and the Christian quarter is much cleaner than the majority of the rest of the city. I am astounded by this man, and I hope to emulate him in some way. He has completely transformed this part of the city from what it was before.
Anyway, to continue. We visited three different homes. In the first was the oldest man in the old city--he is 105! I've never met a person over 100 before and he was 105! He could easily have been 80 with how mobile he was. His wife and he spoke excellent English, though they had difficulty hearing. They're house could have been taken straight out of the 1920s. It was adorable. The next house was much more saddening. We went upstairs to a tiny apartment where the bedroom was also the sitting room and the only other rooms were the kitchen and bathroom. The old woman living there had a deep, gravelly voice and she hobbled around on swollen feet. Her daughter, I think, had a deformed arm and a prominent limp; though she insisted on giving us the good seats and even getting up to give us the culturally demanded chocolate. The horrible thing was that next-door, a new family had moved in and for three years they had been doing renovations during the day. It sounded like someone was using a jackhammer in the middle of the room. The woman looked like she was on the point of tears with all the noise, and she complained of pain in her head and the back of her neck. I could barely hear myself think and I'd only been there 20 minutes. Raja had tried several times to convince the people living there to do renovations for less time each day or at a different time of day, but nothing had made a difference. We sang them a couple songs, and by the time we were ready to leave, the old woman was smiling and clapping along. It felt good to make some good of her day. We then went to probably the most pitiful house we had been to yet, and the sweetest woman. Her name was Aida and she had been the seamstress for Queen Noor of Jordan. She lived in a single room, smaller than my bedroom at home, where she had a narrow bed covered in some of the bed sheets she had sewn, and a tiny couch we squeezed onto. Next to her half sized fridge, she had the smallest camping stove I had ever seen, where she was making coffee which she offered us. I was amazed by her face. She still puts on makeup every day, though she is probably over 80. Her hair was nicely died brown, and her eyes, surrounded by kohl, seemed to jump out at you. They were the image of sweetness. She was so tiny, I don't think I've ever seen someone that hunched and skinny before. Wearing all black, it was like her head was a little bobble on top of a stand. But she smiled so sweetly, and she refused to sit while we were there, though we are all young. We sang to her too, and she smiled pleasantly the whole time. Then she slowly shuffled over to the fridge and tried to find us some chocolates, even though she had hardly any food in there. She was unsuccessful, but we assured her it didn't matter. She insisted on telling us some of the stories of some of the things she had made through Raja acting as our interpreter. I didn't want to leave her there all by herself--she is the woman who I spoke of earlier who has no toilet, though her family lives right upstairs. This sort of thing should never happen. No one should be shoved into a hole because they're too difficult to take care of. We had to go so Raja could get back to his work, and we were returned to the center. Later that day, I was able to get out and meet some of the families across the street from the center. Though I speak only a little Arabic, and only a couple of them spoke English, we had a really fun time being together. I love the girls here, they're generally really sweet. They smile easily and laugh with sparkly eyes. I also learned about Islam from the father, Samir, who promised to try to take us to the Dome of the Rock. He read some of the Qu'aran to us.

The next day was fabulous. We went over to another family's home and stayed for a while, playing with their adorable children. The oldest girl, Aya, is good friends with a girl from our center who I admire hugely. She made us dinner while her parents were out to a concert (we would have gone if we had arrived when we said we would, but we had some hold ups) and they have a beautiful little girl and a five year old boy. They had SO much energy, it was astounding. We stayed with them for hours and went caroling at some of the houses of the people here. It is strange in their culture to do that, but they appreciated it. It is sometimes nice to be a foreigner because you can be as weird as you want and it's ok. We stayed at their house until ten--they kept feeding us! Oh, by the way, the 15 year old boy I forgot to mention (it was his birthday) played Runescape the entire time we were there. It is taking over the world!!!! AAACH!!! I loved getting to know those children. By the end of the evening, they had warmed up to me completely and pulled me all over the place to show me all their toys and all the stunts they could do. The older girl speaks English really well, but the two younger kids speak no English. It didn't seem to matter though, they rattled of descriptions of their day and the items in their rooms all the same. My Arabic came really in handy there. It was a fabulous evening. Today was another wonderful Sabbath--I went to the garden tomb again, which I always love doing. And tomorrow, we're going snorkeling in the red sea down at the southern tip of Israel, and then on Monday, we're off to Galilee for two weeks. Yay!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Petra, Amman, Jerash, and everything else you could ever want. :D

First day--Driving to Jordan.
This is what I wrote the evening after we arrived at the portal to Petra:
We left this morning at six o’clock, and it wasn’t long until we were crossing the checkpoints on the West Bank side of the Jordan/Israeli border. There were people with huge guns everywhere, as there is all throughout Jerusalem, so it wasn’t surprising. The border crossing into Jordan was quite easy; easier and quicker than going into Egypt—though I heard that it will not be that way coming back at all. We’ll see.

Once we were in, we had to take a different bus (because our bus for Jerusalem has Hebrew on it) and we met our tour guide. He’s a very tall man who speaks remarkable English, even for a tour guide. But, like all tour guides, he talks the entire time we’re driving so there is really no time to just think. Our next stop was at Mount Nebo, the place where Moses looked out over the Promised Land which he would never see and also where he “died.” Of course no one has found his tomb.

Unfortunately, the famous church there is closed for renovations, but the view from Mt. Nebo was stunning — overlooking the Dead Sea (which, by the way, I went swimming in a couple weeks ago), the Jordan river, and, if the day had been clearer, even the Mount of Olives where our Jerusalem Center is located. There was also this really cool stone with inscriptions in various languages about Moses on it which has a hole positioned so that on June sixth, in the morning of every year, the light shines through the hole and exactly onto a depiction of the sun they’ve carved into the rock on the ground. After Nebo, we drove for only a short while before stopping at a city named Madaba, which is surprisingly quaint for a Middle Eastern city. Not really comparable to Ein Karam, I visited yesterday, but still fabulous. There we saw the oldest map in the world of the Holy Land in a mosaic on the floor. It is mostly destroyed, but what is left depicts the Dead Sea and Jerusalem in tile as it was back in the first few centuries after Christ. A much needed lunch followed, and then we were off again. This time we drove for a while through the heart of the desert of Jordan. There was very little to see in any direction except for the occasional Bedouin on a horse or a donkey, herding goats or sheep. Yes, there are Bedouin and yes they still live in tents. Actually, the country of Jordan has a total of 70,000 Bedouin in the state among a total population of 6 million. There were Bedouin living in the caves of Petra until only recently when the government kicked them out so Petra could become the tourist destination it is now. But finally, we came to the coolest site of the day—a Crusader’s castle. Granted, most of it had been destroyed after the Crusaders left, and had been rebuilt by the famous Saladin who conquered all of the Holy Land and much of the Middle East in about the year 1000, but it was still an honest-to-goodness castle with many of the rooms completely undamaged. It sits on a lone bluff amongst the barren hills of the desert, and it had served Saladin as his main fortress from which to stage his attacks. I truly felt like a medieval princess running around in there. The only setback was that my camera died after Mount Nebo, so I could only get pictures of myself there from other people kind enough to take them. The sun was setting and the half moon just got brighter and brighter as the sky darkened. Jupiter was right next to it making for the perfect trio of the castle, the moon and the king of the planets. I honestly wished we could have stayed there all night mulling astronomy or the like, but, alas, Petra called. Though one really can’t complain when Petra is doing the calling…. It was only a half hour drive in the darkness to the city where we were to stay the night, Wadi Musa. The next day, at 5:45 a.m., we set out to see one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World. (It was actually built from 200 BC to 200 AD, but it is called a “modern wonder” because it was not appreciated until just recently).

After we arrived in Wadi Musa, I went with some friends down to the main street of the town. The entire place is devoted to tourists so all the shops were pretty much the same. But the people were nice, and I enjoyed speaking to them in Arabic. Afterwards, we got some ice cream from a Swiss hotel, we passed by a large number of our group dancing in the street to an Arab man beating a drum, and we finally meandered back to the hotel. I was psyched for the morning.
Morning. I went down to breakfast (on the coolest elevator in the world by the way--it has only three side so you can see the wall falling past on the door side) and was greeted by a very iffy set of eggs and the most ridiculously loud birds squawking in a tree outside. We rushed off, shoving our bags in the busses, and soon we were flying down the street on our way toward the extremely non-descript hills ahead of us. Seriously, from afar, you would never guess that a wonder like Petra was enclosed in their white, barren walls. No wonder it was only known to the Bedouins until the 18th century. We parked amid dozens of other tourist busses and jostled down the wide road which leads to the Siq. A Siq is about one of the coolest things in the world. Over thousands of years, the waters of the desert, what little there were, carved a knife-thin canyon through the bare rock hills of Petra. This was capitalized on by the Nabataeans (c. 100 BC) who carved it to be more consistent and then used it as the main (really only) thoroughfare into their city of tombs. I was anxious to go into this Siq because I had seen so many pictures of Petra’s famed Treasury building (remember Indiana Jones?).

At first it was unremarkable but for some of the huge, square-cut tombs along the side. There are also a lot of staircases which lead nowhere, carved by the Nabataeans. Apparently, they would build these staircases so the person who stood on the top of them was standing closer to heaven and therefore on holy ground to commune with the gods. That is one theory at least. For every random staircase, there is an equally random rectangular block carved out of the wall to represent the Nabataean's head god, Dushara. I thought the name was pretty fabulous myself.
Probably the coolest parts of the Siq were the water channels on either side which were built to carry the much needed water into Petra's heart. They are just little gutters dug into the side of the rock, with even the occasional curve to slow the water's movement. So, with all of these pieces in mind, you are now picturing the Siq of Petra but for one most important part: the rock which I said was just white, well as we walked, it went from plain white to gold, to orange, to red with streaks of silver and yellow and white and orange which swirled up and down the canyon sides and met in blobs or seemed to fall in streaks. The colors were astounding. I would have come all the way to Jordan just to see this! As it was early morning, the walk was cool and slightly dark. It was much longer than I thought it would be, but I was so overcome by the beauty of the Siq I wished it to continue even farther.

Eventually though, our guide stopped us, had us line up into five parallel lines to march forward with our heads down. I was too impatient to not look, so I tilted my camera up to look ahead of me and I peeked in its screen. There in front of me was the Treasury: huge, magnificent, orange, and framed by the Siq's walls. I gasped and put the camera down, now almost bursting out of my skin in excitement. When he told us to look up, there it was, stretching above us just as magnificent as you can imagine. Personally, I think the guide revels in the gasps of his group, and I'm sure he wasn't disappointed. After taking a few pictures, while half running to get closer of course, we left the thin Siq and stood in the huge plaza before the Treasury. If you've never seen a picture of it, go look it up. < > It is quite something to see.

Our guide explained exactly how it was designed and when, though I must confess I wasn't really listening. Instead, I took off up the Treasury steps and walked around examining the pillars which were wide enough that it would take several people holding hands to encompass them, as well as the colorful inside of the Treasury itself. Lest you might have believed that most abominable film, Transformers II, there is no life source thing behind the wall, and there certainly is no tunnel which leads to the Holy Grail. Unfortunately... : )
We found several other caves (all of which, unfortunately, smell like urine) and I took numerous pictures. The sun was just beginning to hit the rocks above the Treasury and turn them golden when we finished our group picture and continued down through the valley of Petra. There is so much to explain, there was so much to see, I could literally write dozens of pages about it. Seeing as I have so much else to write, I'll limit myself to a couple things.

There were tombs everywhere, some grand, some relatively small and most remarkably well preserved for sandstone. Really, I could almost imagine the people who had lived there when it was still a sacred place and when it had been filled with trees and flowers. There were Roman roads everywhere -- Rome made this a part of its empire -- and they were some of the best preserved in the world. There is also a huge stone-cut Roman theater just like the ones you see from pictures of ancient Greece and so forth. Amazingly, the theater was built in such a way that they even had to knock down a few of the tombs; something the non-Romanized Nabataeans would never have allowed. We ran around, looking at everything we had the time to see and following our guide as he steadily lead us down the valley.

Soon we stood at the end of it under the shade of one of the few trees in Petra, and he pointed to a narrow path of 1,000 stairs which leads up to the Monastery. Actually, I think it was more like 900 stairs but 1,000 sounds more epic. And that it certainly was. The first 200 were fine, but after that, I was certain I was going to faint. After I passed that stage, I knew my knees were going to give out, or my shoulders would suddenly fall out of their sockets, or my back was on fire, or I was simply going to die from exhaustion. But I didn't stop, and we kept pressing forward past all of the Bedouin vendors and up to the Monastery.

This place is well worth going to -- it is actually the largest rock cut structure in the world, therefore being even MORE epic than the Treasury. When we finally reached it, I stood for a moment in awe at seeing such a beautiful, symmetrical structure cut out of rock which was so rough and tumble right next to it. I soon became distracted by a little Bedouin girl with flies on her face whom I spoke to in Arabic for a while (but we mostly spoke in English...I think people become irritated trying to communicate with me when I understand so little). She promised to show me the spring where Moses had hit the rock and the water had come out. I had heard the spring was up there, but we weren't planning on going to it. I didn't really trust her, but she was only six and I kept good hold on my camera.

She led me down a short canyon to where there was a metal plate in the ground with a lock on it. She seemed pretty irritated that the lock was there because that was supposedly the spring, but she did show me that there was a stream coming from it, and that there was a jug of water nearby. There was also a flock of goats which she kept throwing rocks at when they got too close. It was rather entertaining the way they ran away bleating, even though the throws were far from the mark. After our little escapade, I walked up to a tall pinnacle which has a tent at the top which declares, in rather large letters, "View of the end of the world." The view was rather spectacular -- it was all desert, mountain and the inevitable rock stretched out as far as the eye could see. It was almost like being on the top of Mount Sinai again.
It seems I haven't written about Sinai yet. Brief description: it was a really, really hard walk, with its own 900 stairs, and at the top we watched the sun rise and sang church songs. I talked with the Bedouin for a while, we had a Testimony Meeting which was awesome, and I rode a camel down because my knees were killing me. I tried to get the beast to run, but a camel will be a camel and he lumbered on as contentedly as ever. Well, that is except for when he tried to bite me twice. At the bottom at St. Catherine's monastery, we saw what is supposed to be the descendent of the burning bush, and then left. It was awesome. Anyhow, back to Petra. When I came down from the end of the world, I climbed up into the large room of the Monastery -- so called because when it was discovered by the monks hundreds of years ago, it was temporarily used as a Monastery. Originally, it was a tomb like almost everywhere else. The entire room echoed a lot, so I started to sing a really haunting tune which reverberated off the walls. A friend of mine joined me, and, since we couldn't find any other song which we both knew, we sang Silent Night. A crowd gathered outside the Monastery and clapped when we finished, demanding an encore. I let my friend, who is a voice major, sing a beautiful Aria. After the descent, which was rather questionable on my highly protesting knees (I sound like an old lady...), we had a quick lunch in a pink restaurant (meaning, the walls, the seats, the table cloth and napkins were all different shades of pink). Then we had some free time. Most of the people climbed up to the "great high places" which is even higher than the Monastery and which really is only a flat rock where they used to sacrifice year old camels. I didn't go for fear of massacring my knees, so instead Tara, who is one of the most wonderful people I've met, and I wandered around several temples and ancient tombs. We soon found another group of our friends, and we were greeted by a little Bedouin boy who poked his head out from around a rock. He was only two years old. Soon two other little boys came and joined him and they played with our cameras, taking loads of pictures. Don't worry, I didn't take it off my wrist... which made for some very interesting pictures and a camera smeared with dirt. They were utterly adorable, and when we were leaving, they followed us. Some of the people in the group played a game where they would swing the little boys between them, and they were giggling so that they were almost doubled over. It was utterly adorable. I may have more pictures of them than of the tombs.... There are also some very awkward pictures of my shirt taken by the little boy who snapped pictures any direction he could. When we finally left, it was afternoon. I was loathe to go, but I was excited for the way of our escape--horses! If you know me, you may know that I have a fear of horseback riding, but this was different. After I waited my turn in line, I got on a beautiful gray horse and the Bedouin man who led me allowed me to trot. It was great fun, but for the life of me, I couldn't get the horse to go any faster. I guess camels and horses both really know when the person on their back have no clue what they're doing. That was one of the most fun moments of the day. When we left, we drove all the way to Amman, which is a huge city and capital of Jordan. We stayed there the night.

The next day was fun, mostly because we went to one of the best preserved roman cities in the world. Called Jerash, it was built at the time of Hadrian who built the famed wall that divides England and Scotland and a gate which still is visible in Jerusalem. The city is astonishing. Most of the roads and stones are still visible and many of the columns still stand making the entire place look like a field of Roman columns. There was a giant theater, larger than the one in Petra, where we heard a retired Royal Bagpipe Band play, and we sang some hymns. There was also a temple to Artemis and I think there was one to Athena, though don't quote me on that. There were also 3 Byzantine churches whose mosaics are still visible, and a wonderful fountain from the Roman era. Of course it doesn't work anymore. The entire city must have been quite something in its heyday. One of the best things by far was the show we saw in the ancient hippodrome. It was, quite honestly, a chariot race. That is right ladies and gentlemen; I sat in an ancient Roman Hippodrome and watched as Jordanian men drove three Roman chariots around in a circle as fast as the horses could go. It was spectacular. I am not at all surprised that chariot racing was the most popular race of all – the people had races five days a week with15,000 citizens attending every time. There were only a total of 30,000 people living in Jerash.
Oh, I got a little ahead of myself. Before we saw the chariot race, a legion of Roman soldiers came out and demonstrated the tactics, the orders given and the weapons and armor they used to fight. Did you know that Romans would march into battle in blocks and that the only person expected to fight was the person in front? He would fight for eight minutes, than he would fall back and the person behind him would take over and so forth. That way, every soldier spent most of the battle resting or getting their wounds looked to. I think that's pretty rad. And when you see the soldiers arrange their large, curved shields so that they're protected from the front and on top, it is pretty easy to tell why Rome was able to dominate most of the known world.
Anyway, after the chariot battle, the gladiators appeared. Most of them weren't that impressive, and their fights were slow enough to see that the defense came before the attack, but there were a few who were awesome, including one where the guy ran into the stands and had to be dragged back. Then we voted using our thumbs whether he should live or die. I'm not telling you my vote, but he died. The biggest and muscle-iest of the gladiators slit his throat and they used a gag where real looking blood spewed all over his shirt. A little gruesome, but effective. Then they dragged him away.

After that I was able to take pictures with some of the guards, and the guy on the chariot even took me for ride! It was INCREDIBLE. You would not believe how fast you feel like you're going and how easy it would be to fall off. I held on for dear life and laughed the entire time. Someone took pictures of me which I'm hoping they'll put on Facebook. In my chronic idiocy, I brought my camera but left the battery in my hotel room.

After Jerash, we went to Amman, to the LDS Branch Meeting House in Jordan where the Branch President discussed the progress of the church in the Middle East and so forth. I skipped dinner in favor of going with my professor and a few other kids to an ancient tomb, which was sacred to the Christians and, after the rise of Islam, became a Muslim shrine.

This was the first of two times I had to wear a full black dress over my clothes and a black hood on my head. I looked just like a death eater. It was amazing. Though rather hot. According to legend, there were seven people faithful to Allah who were being persecuted. To protect them, God put them to sleep in this tomb, a cave for 100 years and when they woke up they went outside and talked to the people who were there. They convinced them they were who they said they were with the coins in their pockets and so forth. Then they died the next day. The tomb was awesome because they had collected all of the bones found there and put them into one of the crypts which they put a glass window in. If you flashed you're camera, you could see the bleached bones inside. We went out that night to a mall which could have been plucked right out of a poorer part of the U.S. and got ice cream.

The next day we went to a beautiful mosque called the Blue Mosque where our tour guide taught us about Islam. I had to wear the black dress again and a scarf on my head. There are some pretty rad pictures of it online.

<> The mosque was the biggest in Amman until recently. Then we went to the ancient part of Amman which is now called the citadel. I, unfortunately, was sort of out of it and I didn't really comprehend a lot of the explanation.

The view of Amman was beautiful. It really is the white city -- everything is faced with white and all the buildings are similarly built -- rectangular and flat topped. There was a temple to Hercules on the top of the citadel. By the way, this was also the place where David sent Uriah, the husband of Bathsheeba, to be killed. The coolest thing there by far was a little museum. It had artifacts from every period in Amman, I took tons of pictures. But what made it so special was that they had the COPPER SCROLLS inside. If you're Mormon, you've heard of these scrolls because they discount the argument that Jews of ancient times did not write on metal plates. They are actually a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls and, even more incredibly, they're an honest-to- goodness treasure map. They give directions where to find several treasure troves of things from the temple. Unfortunately, the clues as to where to find them are worded like "turn left at the large tree" or, "go past Ugg's house." Of course, I'm not being accurate, but you get the idea. The clues are basically useless to the modern treasure hunter. After this, we had a while at the hotel where we stayed the night, and I went to a place called "Mecca mall." It was fabulous because it was probably the biggest mall I've ever been in except for the one in Provo -- it is five large stories tall! We wandered around and I got a Mrs. Fields cookie which was like a miracle. Minus the many veiled people and the Arabic over the loudspeakers, you would never have guessed it wasn't in the U.S.A. Most of the time, the stores’ names were even in English!
The next day we left to return to Israel. First though, we stopped at Bethany beyond Jordan where Christ was baptized in the River Jordan (at least they think it was here -- it is hard to tell). It was amazing, I stood in the water and got some of my own. We had a really neat meeting about baptism and John the Baptist. And I especially loved going through the Greek Orthodox churches located there.

Crossing back into Israel took most of the rest of the day because it seems the Minister of Tourism hadn't gotten the word down to the people stamping the passports that we could be allowed in! We had to sit there for hours and wait. It wasn't as bad as it could have been -- this border crossing into Israel from Jordan is said to be one of the most difficult in the world. As we left, clouds were gathering and I (recently) discovered that during the next day there were monsoon-like storms in Amman. This wasn’t the only reason the timing was good -- there was a lot of fighting in Jerusalem’s Old City the day after we left, including gas bombs which injured some Israeli soldiers, but by the time we returned, everything had calmed down. God is good.
This week has been ridiculous. All finals. I've studied enormously. Thankfully, I have only one final test left which I'm not too worried about. If I study as much as I need to, I'll be fine. But I did manage to go out twice this week anyway.

I went to a couple of churches on the Mount of Olives, and then on Friday, to Mary's tomb (which is amazing, by the way), the Grotto of Gethsemane where Christ was supposed to have been betrayed by Judas, and a whole bunch of tombs carved into the hillside of the Mount.
It was a good week in all, and today has been a wonderful Sabbath. Sabbaths are by far the best days here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The worst and the best

I'm on my way out the door to Jordan, therefore, I have not had the chance to proof this for errors... though if you were to look at some of my earlier posts, you wouldn't think I proofed them at all. Nevertheless, hope you don't mind. I'll be back in four days! :)

Sunday, October 25, 2009 2:24 PM

This week encompassed essentially every emotion possible—anger, sadness, flashes of hate, grief, great joy, plenty of pain, excitement, laughter and silliness, and so forth.
Why the first of these? Monday was the day we went to Yad Vashem—the Israeli Holocaust Histotry Museum. I’ve studied the Holocaust on and off for years. This is mostly because I find the storiy of how people were able to survive astounding. They were thrown in the most difficult circumstances known to man, in most cases without more than a shred of hope, yet they still made it through somehow. With this background knowledge of the holocaust, I went into preparing to go to the museum thinking I pretty much knew the major points already. But reading the fifty page assignment our professor of Zionism gave to us, I realized how incredibly out of the loop I’d been. Concentration camps were just one part of it—there were Nazis who marched around Eastern Europe gathering the Jews of every town they visited, marching them to a pit where they would have them strip and get inside, and then shoot them all. There were death camps, which, if you were brought to them, within about four hours you would be dead. There was no separating of the fit and unfit in these camps—they were all just murdered. There were ghettos where the Jews were smashed in so tightly, the disease and starvation would do most of the work for the Nazis. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning with Yad Vashem.

When we arrived, it was a pretty warm day for this time of year, and I was already feeling a little exhausted. Our professor of Zionism took us on an hour long tour of the museum and memorials, focusing specifically on the way that Israelis over the generations have regarded the Holocaust. Remarkably, for the first twenty years after it, no one ever spoke of it unless they had been part of the few people who had resisted the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. This was because there was a pervading belief that if you survived, it was because you did something selfish or horrible to keep yourself alive—you may have bribed someone, or hidden behind another person who died in the holocaust. Essentially, the survivors were regarded as cowards.
This all changed around 1967, when the Israeli people began to realize the similarities of fear and so forth with the impending war with their Arab neighbors (later called the Six Day War). It was then that the definition of heroism broadened from those who had physically attacked the Nazis to those who had fought to live when all the Nazis wanted was them dead. This was said by a famous Rabbi, he declared (to paraphrase poorly) that because the Nazis wanted the bodies of the Jews, it was heroic to keep that from them, and to therefore win against them. That was about when the holocaust began to be spoken of again. That and the trial of a famous Nazi Otto Adolf Eichmann who had hidden in Argentina for years. When he was found and brought to Israel to be tried for his war crimes, the chief prosecutor, Israeli Attorney General Gideon Hauser, who is a national hero in Israel, starting his opening statement with, (and this is another poor paraphrase), “With my finger, I point the fingers of six million people in accusation.” It was then that the holocaust became almost the religious basis for secular Jews—it is the reason a lot of them are proud to be Jewish and want to live it fully. They still won’t let people like the Nazis win.

After this tour, a tour guide for the museum came to replace our professor as guide. She was short, wearing all black, and spoke with a British accent. She led us through the museum. This is not your typical museum. I’ll try to describe it to you the way I’ve described it to a couple of other people, but it’s difficult. Imagine a tall triangle, elongate it into a column, make it out of gray rock and then shove it through a hillside with part of it hanging off either edge. That is essentially the way this museum is designed. When you walk in, you go underground and you don’t go above ground again until you leave. At the entrance to the museum, they had a continuous reel of old movies playing about life for the Jews of Europe just before the Holocaust. It is a good reminder of how unaware they had been, and of all they lost. When we turned around, we could see to the end of the long triangular building, literally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But to proceed through the museum, you have to turn to your right and enter a dark room full of the exhibits of the rising of Nazi Germany.
We went through that and crossed back across the hall to where we could see the end again, then entered another dark room where we learned about the beginning of persecution. We considered this all the way through the museum, continually getting closer to the end, but having to enter many rooms full of reminders and stories about those who suffered and died in the holocaust. There were a couple of things which stuck with me most: First a letter by a Nazi soldier who traveled around in the “Einsatzgruppen” throughout Eastern Europe, systematically shooting Jews, and, secondly at the very end of the museum where they have the names of three million of those who died contained in thousands of cases on the walls, leaving room for the other three million names they’re still gathering.

The letter of the Nazi soldier to his family was fascinating because for me, it explained how a seemingly normal person could become such a monster. He wrote something to the affect of, “It is considered a weakness to have trouble seeing dead bodies. The only way to fix it is to do it more often…” and then, We have great faith in our Fuhrer and that gets us through doing these difficult and thankless tasks.” While I still have questions about the process a person travels from goodness to evil, this letter answered a lot of them. It was because they trusted their “commander,” (Hitler) who had, after all, pulled them out of a broken state of a depressed economy and lost honor leftover from World War I. The soldier did it because of this trust and his desire to help what he saw as his country. This was at least his excuse for his actions.

The room with the names in it was incredible, partly because of a quote in the entrance. I wrote it down, “Remember that I was innocent and, just like you, mortal on that day, I, too, had a face marked with rage, by pity and joy, quite simply, a human face!”—Benjamin Fondane, Exodus. Murdered at Auschwitz 1944. This stuck with me for obvious reasons. When you walked into the completely circular room, you immediately were drawn to look up at the large canvases of faces that surrounds you. They created a collage of peoples who died in the holocaust. Then you look downwards toward the center of the room where a large stone pit was dug, much like a very wide well, with a pool of water at the bottom. This, they said, was put there was because water is a symbol of continuance in Judaism and we must continue to remember what happened. It was a striking chamber to be in—surrounded as we were by the thousands of black boxes stretching from floor to ceiling for several stories and knowing that each of those contained thousands of names of the dead. And why they were dead? That is still beyond me. The children who died should still be alive as grandparents now.

When we left the museum, it slopes upward and the triangle column splits open like a banana peel, revealing the hills of modern Israel filled with comfortable suburban houses. The guide said that this was the future and ihat we had the choice in assuring that something like this never happens again, to anyone, anywhere.

As difficult as this all was, the hardest was yet to come. We went to the children’s memorial. It is not what you would expect; there are no graphic images of the dead, in fact, there are hardly any pictures at all. The building is entered through a short tunnel, and after passing a lit collage of some of the faces of these children who were murdered, you enter a completely dark room. All around you, the walls and ceiling is made of mirrors which reflect the lights of the candles they have somewhere. It creates the affect of there being thousands of little golden lights, some closer some father, strewn through the darkness. As you walk on the little winding path holding hand rails, a voice calls out the name of each child who died as well as their age and birthplace. We were asked to remember one name. I crouched down by the footlights and listened for mine, writing it down in my notebook. He was Vol Spres, 12 years old, Poland. Then he was gone, another of the 1.5 million names of the dead children being read. Our guide told us to never forget the name of the child we had heard because if we didn’t forget, then that child would never be forgotten. I stood in the memorial for a good fifteen minutes, feeling like I was in space, looking at each star from a perspective not clouded by the atmosphere. Why should they have died? The sadness was momentarily replaced with anger at the people who did this, and those who began it. But then it was gone, and I felt completely -- empty.

When we left Yad Vashem, we immediately went to a place which our professor calls the holy of holies of secular Judaism. I suppose it is appropriate that this place of hope is right next to the place of reminder. Together, they should show the observer what happened and should never again be, and then how they are trying to resolve it. That is at least what I think the designers intended. This is where Theodore Herzl, the father of Israel, is buried. It is also where the various prime ministers are buried. But I won’t go into it any more than this, there is just too much to say.

That was essentially my Monday, most of the day filled with Yad Vashem, and the rest filled with mt. Herzl and scrambling to prepare for tests and turn homework in. I didn’t go out at all the rest of the week because of having four different midterms, but at least they’re over now. On Friday, when I was finally able to get out again, I went with a group of nine people to the American Consulate here in Jerusalem. There are actually four consulates, but this is the main one. The US does not have an embassy here because they do not want to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. To do so would be to say that it was not going to be the capital of the Palestinian state that the US is hoping to help create, and that would be a poor diplomatic choice. But much of the consulate here is beautiful—the main building was actually a monastery, so it is old and the architecture is medeivel and quite stunning. Our group was being given a lecture on becoming Foreign Service officers. We have about six different people in our Jerusalem branch who work for the consulate, so two of them gave us this lecture. I’ve heard some of it before, but it was informative nonetheless. By the way, this week we also had a wonderful Arab culture night, featuring a performance of the call to prayer by two of the men who do it at Al-Aqsa mosque every day (the main worship mosque in the dome of the rock compound). They also did their prayers in front of us so we could see how they are done, and they “sang” (they call it “reading,” though there are notes and it sounds like singing) the chapter in the Qu’uran about Mary and Jesus. After that we had a wonderful Arabic food dinner, then traditional Palestinian folk dancing. It was fabulous.

Continuing now with the best day of the week by far. If Yad Vashem was the low point, this was certainly the high point, though it was so remarkable it is almost to compare a foothill to its mountain. For church, we had the primary program (for those of you who do not know LDS lingo, that means that the children were given parts to sing and tell us for our service). I smiled so much the whole time that my face hurt afterwards. They were so adorable. Then we went to the garden of Gethsemane, which is one of my favorite places in the world, as it is where Christ suffered for our sins. There were too many people there this time for it to be really spiritual, but I met some wonderful women from India who offered me a place to stay if I were to ever come, and a couple of very nice men from Uganda who promised to write me and tell me all about their country. On the way back we met a group of Palestinian children from the neighborhood. They were so wonderful and sweet, it was a real blessing to talk to them. But the best thing was that Elder Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, came and had dinner with us at the center, and then gave us a fireside afterwards. I have never met an Apostle before, so I was utterly brimming with excitement like everyone else. He gave the most beautiful sermon, standing as he was in front of our stunning view of Jerusalem. It was about how Christ is ultimately a merciful being and how, in Christ’s kingdom, mercy will always trump justice. He said those words exactly. If any of you are interested, I took copious notes of the meeting. I met him a couple times, and he was so kind and sweet, just like a Prophet of God should be. So basically, it October 24 is the best day ever.

Today we went to a really remarkable stalactite cave as well as a quaint city named Ein Karem where there is a church for the birth of John the Baptist there as well as the visitation of Mary and Elisabeth. It was a wonderful day, but it happened a little too recently for me to want to write it all down. We also saw the Chagall windows at the Hadassah church, if any of you have heard of him. That was remarkable as well. It was a wonderful day all in all, no doubt about that.
While the week certainly contained every possible feeling, I am extremely glad that I experienced it. The only thing I would change, really, is to have some of you with me here to experience it. This whole place is just so remarkable—it is jaw dropping.
Oh, and by the way, I’m going to Jordan. In just a bit too. Literally. I’ll be in Petra rather soon, looking at all the red rocks and so forth. Envious? You should be. :D

Monday, October 19, 2009

Land of the bible. Plants and animals included

What an interesting week this has been. For our weekly, all day field trip, we went to a place called Neot Kedumim where they have recreated the biblical landscape and environment. All the plants and most of the animals that are mentioned in the bible can be found there. I, obviously, being the nature freak I am, was in heaven. It is so cool to see the plants mentioned in the bible.

Case in point: even heard of Hyssop? Well, it is this herb that is used like four times in the scriptures as the comparison against the Cedars of Lebanon as the smallest plant in the world. It is sort of the thing you say, "from the hyssop to the Ceders of Lebanon" which means that it encompasses everything. It’s the equivalent of saying "from Dan to Beersheba" which I think I mentioned in an earlier posting. Anyway I think it is mentioned in a couple Psalms and it is mentioned in relation to the wisdom of Solomon. The plant is also what was used as the brush which painted the lamb's blood on the doorposts of the faithful during the Night of the Angel of Death. It is also what they used to dip the water in to give to Christ when he was held up on the cross. Anyone notice the connection? Anyway, it’s pretty much awesome. Its modern usage is huge. In Arabic, it’s called Za'atar and it's the herb they put on bread ALL THE TIME which really means that almost anything you get in the city that goes with bread will be za'atar. I had it my first day here and I love it. With olive oil and pita, it's delicious. So it was growing there right next to a very small cedar of Lebanon (the cedars take 60 years to mature). According to our guide, it is supposed to be a symbol of the people of Israel because it comes back year after year and it doesn't take much time for it to blossom. Also it is not unbending like the cedar. That's just an example of the things we learned about the plants in the bible. There were so many others.

A really short one I’ll share is when Abraham had two holy men come to him who told him his wife was going to have a son in his old age, he had them sit with them under a Tamarisk tree which is awesome because when you sit on the ground underneath a tamarisk tree is always 2 to 3 degrees centigrade cooler than places around it. Why? They think it is because it collects dew on it in the morning and it takes the dew a while longer to evaporate than usual, so it cools down the area under the tree. Therefore, Abraham was being as hospitable and respectful as he could be when he invited the men to go sit under the tree. Cool huh!

But moving away from plants….. You give me a moment, and I'll go off about them for pages. We also did something really amazing that we got to herd sheep and goats. That's right, I went with a group of completely inexperienced city slickers and had to organize 16 very oblivious, occasionally murderous, animals into a circle of rocks, keep them there, then make them circle around a tree and come back. We were surprisingly good at it, partly because (for some reason) the animals took a liking to one of the girls in our group and the whole lot of them would trudge after her wherever she walked. When she went around the tree, they followed. It was rather entertaining when she was walking back up the hill to where our group was sitting and they were still following her.

But anyway, the guide taught us a lot about shepherding and how a shepherd knows his flock and uses the natural leader among them to lead them where they need to go. You know the Psalm that starts, "The Lord is my Shepherd"? Well, David is comparing himself to being the lead sheep who is following the direction of the master. I was in the first group to go and take the sheep and goats around. The second group had a more difficult task, they had to separate the sheep and goats and then get them into different circles of stone. That was rather entertaining to watch because, let me tell you, those sheep and goats see absolutely no reason why they should ever be in anything other than a tight wad of smelly fur.

After all of that, including with the hyssop and such, we went on a tour of the history of the four species that the Jews use in their holiday Sukkot. It is a long and involved story, therefore, if you want to know more, look up "four species" and I assure you, it'll pop right up. If not, add Sukkot and you're golden. I really like the history though; it's worth taking a moment to figure out.

We also saw the seven species that are traditionally grown in Israel, and we learned how to thresh wheat. If you've grown up in any Christian faith, you'll know the parable of the wheat and the chaff. Even if you aren't Christian, you may have heard of it. It’s basically the idea that after you've done all sorts of stuff to get the wheat cut, to slice the long stems into manageable portions and so forth, you have to separate the beautiful, useful little grains that make the bread from all the straw that accompanies it. How you do this is pretty interesting. Basically, you take the whole lot of it and throw it up in the air and the light straw flies away, (hopefully not back into your neat little pile) and the grain is supposed to fall back down where it started. I always, and still do, wonder what you do if there is no wind. Or, if there is such a wind that you're grain goes right along with the chaff. But anywho, our tour guide entertainingly took a whole bunch on a shovel and threw it up in the air, with all the chaff flying right into the face of the teacher accompanying us.

Ooh, I utterly forgot, we saw the COOLEST thing. They have a Torah scribe who works there, and he demonstrated what is used to create a kosher Torah scroll, and even showed us a Torah scroll that was made over two hundred years ago. It is SUCH an involved process, let me tell you. Everything has to be correct, and if you make a mistake, you have to scrape it off, or, in the case of the name of God, you have to completely excise the piece, replace it with a patch, and then in a special ceremony, bury the name of God with other retired books and such that carry God's name. The technique he was using was hundreds of years old, and the art of being a Torah scribe had been in his family for almost as long. Did you know, for instance, that the Torah scroll is not written on paper but on parchment--or in other words, on the skin of an animal? That is why they don't disintegrate very quickly and also why it takes so long to create a complete tradition scroll. Now, thankfully, there are machines which make the skin into parchment for them. He then demonstrated reading the Torah in the three different traditions. I'll give you the names, though they probably don't mean much to many of you: Ashkenazi, Sephardic (this you may have heard of, I know I had a slight inkling of what it was before I learned fully) and Yemeni. It was all very beautiful, and fascinating. I took tons of pictures of all the things he uses in the ink and so forth. It was a lot like those displays at revolutionary war re-enactments. I loved it.

So, moving on, when we left it was already four in the afternoon and we had a half hour drive back to Jerusalem. BTW, as we were driving through hills covered with the olive groves I saw several ancient watch towers ... just like the ones in the parables.

That whole evening I spent studying as I did all of Tuesday and most of Wednesday. I did get to go into the city on Wednesday. We went back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was a lot better this time because on Tuesday we had a lecture from the man who used to be in charge of Religious Relations for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. He talked about relations between Christian faiths here and gave us some pretty entertaining stories about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity. He also taught us a lot about the general structure of the church. So when I went back on Wednesday, I took a map of the place along and we explored -- this time knowing where Golgotha supposedly is, as well as the places Christ was supposedly tried and where he was flogged.

There were two other things which really stood out to me about this trip.

First, the church is shaped, unsurprisingly, like a big cross. At least it was before a whole bunch of things were added, but you know. In the large rotunda where the apex of the cross is where they have the "aedicule," or in other words, the cave where Christ was supposed to have been buried. It looks nothing like it did back then; actually, it just looks like a tiny, highly decorated room in the middle of a church. The floors all around it are utterly filthy. Why? Because the aedicule area is run by all five of the churches which have dominion over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That basically means that none of them cleans it because, in ancient time in the Near East, cleaning is a sign of ownership. But that's beside the point.

Directly behind this aedicule, in line with the little clay figure they have that represents the middle of the universe (that's right, I've touched the center of the universe. Beat that!) was a tiny Syrian chapel which had been gutted by a fire years ago. I have no idea why it hasn't been repaired. There is a little hole in the wall there which is just large enough to go through if you duck. It leads to first century tombs. There is no light, no tour guides or anything in there; in fact, it is barely large enough for two crouching people to get into. But just inside it, right next to the head of two of the tombs, was a little candle that was still burning but was burnt almost to the end with several photographs laid right next to it. They showed some people who looked like a family. The walls were black with the soot of the fire, and the ceiling was for some reason sticky. While I know this part of the church is by no means unknown, probably everyone who stays in there long enough has seen it, it still seemed like a secret kept long away from the world. I would like to read more about it.

The other thing I want to relate is that on the exact opposite end of the church, there is a flight of steps that leads down to a chapel called the "Chapel of Saint Helen." When we first went down those steps, I failed to notice that on our map, there was a little line that pointed to the steps and read, "29 steps with cross graffiti." As we descended, I was thinking about how observant I am when I'm interested in things, and how I had managed to notice everything that should be noticed about the chapel we entered. Of course, I was proven wrong when I looked at the map and saw that little caption. As soon as we finished looking around the chapel, we raced back up to the 29 steps and looked for this famous cross graffiti. We had almost decided that it was gone before I realized that there was a tiny cross carved into the wall that leads up the steps. And next to it there was another one. I stepped back and realized that the entire wall was made up of little carved crosses, some smaller, some larger, some in clusters or by themselves. This was the case on both sides of the steps and the wall around the carved crosses was black with the fingers of thousands of people who had traced their contours or perhaps carved the crosses in themselves. I felt like I had made another amazing discovery, sort of like Indiana Jones.

While neither of these stories have any point, I chose to relate them because they sort of emphasis for me what the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is like. It is a fascinating place. I assure you, I could go back again and again and not tire of it.

Oh, oh, I must mention this. There is a little Muslim man that sits on a bench just inside of the church. He is there almost every day, as his father before him had been, and his father before him. His family has been in charge of holding the keys of this much disputed building for hundreds of years, since the time of the Ottomans. We met him as we walked in and he showed us pictures of him meeting the Pope, and told us how he met Barak Obama when he came to the church. He also gave us each a little card that reads:

Wajeeh Y. Nuseibeh

Custodian and Door - Keeper

of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Tel. Resid. 02/6285910 Jerusalem

Church 0522992524

He was adorable in his self importance and his kind welcoming of us. "You Mormons?" He asked when we first walked by. Everyone can tell in the city, even when we wear NOTHING with any BYU or Mormon-ish logos on it. We have several theories of how they can tell, but even on our way up to the church, wearing by chance nothing which would give our faith away, we had three different shopkeepers call us over by saying, "Mormons! We love Mormons!" or something similar. It is rather entertaining, though it is a good reminder that we'd better do the right thing because everyone knows who we are.

Thursday went by with five different classes -- a total of 7 hours spent in class in all, and Friday was almost the same. But there was a definite perk to Friday.

Just before sunset, we went to a synagogue in the City of David. It was actually in a scout building which is used as a synagogue on Fridays and Saturdays. We arrived in our Sunday clothes, received prayer books with English translations and transliterations so we could sing along, and after an introduction by our Judaism professor, we went in and sat down. The particular congregation we attended had many attendees from the U.S., so most of them spoke English almost perfectly. Not that we spoke during the service, it was mostly singing Psalms and reciting portions of the Talmud. The congregation is liberal-orthodox, or in other words, they're Jewish enough that they really observe the Sabbath well and wear the kipa, but most of the women don't wear head coverings. They are also of the "neo-Hasidic" persuasion, which basically means that for them Shabbat is a joyous time that should be full of boisterous song and some dance. We sang and danced right along with them, we women on one side of the synagogue separated from the men by a white cloth barrier. At one point, we even danced around the chairs in a circle holding hands, our hands going up and down in time to the song. They were very welcoming and I enjoyed the entire thing.

As we left, we spoke with some guys attending a local Yeshiva, literally meaning "place of learning," which traditionally is attended by observant Jewish young men who want to learn the Tanakh (The Talmud, Torah, and Mishnah put together) as well as the Halakha (or Jewish law). This Yeshiva, they said, is best termed a "pseudo-Yeshiva" because it doesn't require you to be observant and is co-ed, which is almost unheard of. Anyway, they were great fun because they were all from the Midwest or east coast, so they had great Chicago or New Yorker accents and a sharp sense of humor.

Our Jewish history teacher walked home (as it was now officially Shabbat) with his adorable three-year-old girl who came along, and we drove back to the Center in time for dinner.