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.