Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

A. Wayne Benson and Arlene G. Taylor

[Please click links for pictures.]

One of Arlene's memories is of her father singing a favorite song: "I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked," a memory that was invoked repeatedly on our trip to Israel. The occasion for the trip was the opportunity for Arlene to serve as a Senior Fulbright Specialist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, Israel. It also became a bit of a pilgrimage for us in the Holy Land. Someone once said that a trip to the Holy Land is a "Fifth Gospel." Indeed, it is.

We flew Continental from Pittsburgh to Newark and Newark to Tel Aviv. A long trip! We were met there by Dr. Snunit Shoham, Chair of the Department of Information Science, and her husband, who took us to our basic lodging for our stay: Hotel Kfar Maccabiah. Hebrew students will recognize that Kfar is the word for village and it points to the origin of this hotel-convention-sports center complex. In 1936, Hitler banned participation in the Olympic Games in Berlin to all Jews. Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan was the "village" for participants in the Maccabean Games, an alternative to the Olympics for the Jewish people. We went early in order to "decompress" for Arlene's first presentation at the University. Well that we did, for we were hit with the Israeli version of Montezuma's revenge (Jeshosaphat's Revenge?) known to travelers in Mexico. It did a number on our respective alimentary canals! We both recovered - Arlene in time for her presentations and Wayne in time for our sight/site seeing.

Our sight/site seeing was done in two segments. We engaged a guide (referred by a friend) and traveled by auto in order to pace the process. Our guide was Pamela Levene, a native of Leeds, England, the birth home of Arlene's grandfather. We went first to Megiddo (= Tel Megiddo =Har-megiddo =Mt. Megiddo =Armegeddon). The excavated "tel" is part of the National Parks of Israel and maintained by them. Included is what is thought to be the original circular altar on a high point (then covered up by successive habitations and excavated) and the passageway up the hill. Included amongst the excavations is a grain silo, walls, and mangers for a large stable for the horses of King Ahab, and a shaft and tunnel that led to a hidden source of water outside the fortifications (used during a siege). On top of the "tel" we looked across the Plain of Jezreel, the supposed setting for Armageddon, to Har-Tabor (Mt. Tabor, thought to be the mount of transfiguration) and Nazareth in the distance. James Michener drew on this excavation for his book "The Source." The "tel" was originally excavated by G. Schumacher in 1905-06. We were surprised in the museum there by another "pilgrim" who turned out to be the great-grandson of G. Schumacher!

From Megiddo, we traveled to the Sea of Galilee (=Lake Kinneret). We stayed at the YMCA on the banks of the Sea at Tiberias, where we could hear the waves lapping on the shore outside our window. It was a beautiful sight with the morning sun reflecting off the lake and breakfast on a veranda overlooking the lake. The next day we traveled first to see the "Jesus Boat," the remains of a boat found in the mud in 1986 by a couple of fishermen when the Sea was at its lowest point in years. The Israel Antiquities Authority oversaw its removal (digging around it and encasing it in polyurethane foam) and preservation (ten years in a special concoction that kept it from being "eaten" by bacteria and otherwise disintegrating.) The hall where it is kept is air-conditioned to a constant temperature. The boat is thought to be from the first century CE (Common Era) and could well be the kind of boat Jesus and the disciples used or the kind of boat used in a futile struggle with the Romans at the time of the destruction of the second temple (70 CE). From there we visited the church erected at Tabkha where it is thought Jesus fed the 5,000, and a church built around a rock thought to be where Jesus in his post-resurrection appearance at Galilee dubbed Peter "the rock (petra) on which I will build my church." Then we went on around the Sea to the east side to Kursi, thought to be the land of the Gerasenes/Gadarenes where Jesus healed a man possessed by demons, which were thought to have been sent into a nearby herd of pigs, who then plunged into the Sea and drowned (Mark 5:1-20 - a favorite passage of Wayne's from which to preach). The remains of a fifth century church and monastery built there have been excavated and partially rebuilt. Included is an ancient olive oil press. On a nearby hillside is a revered spot, which may mark the point where the pigs made their plunge or of a cave harboring the man possessed by demons. We saw the Jordan River twice that day: near its entrance into the Sea and also near its exit. The latter spot has become a special stop for some Christians who can don robes and be baptized (or re-baptized) in the river in a specially-constructed spot. Our final stop that day was the Kinneret Cemetery where many original settlers of the original kibbutzim are buried.

We didn't get back to Capernaum before the gates closed, so after another night at the Y, we returned and saw the excavated ruins there. One was the spot where Peter's mother-in-law is thought to have lived (an early church was built over the place) and another is the excavated ruins of a fourth century synagogue, which in turn had been built on the ruins of a first century synagogue (see the lower-level, darker stones) - possibly where Jesus worshiped and preached. From there we went to Tsipori (=Zippori =Sepphoris), the ruins of a Roman town that flourished near Nazareth at the time of Jesus. We saw excavations of an underground aqueduct for the city, houses built like stair steps on the hillside, and the outdoor theater. The remains of an 18th century building that was built over a Crusader foundation serves as a visitor center. This is where the Crusaders set off for their ill-fated last battle with Saladin. A Roman-style villa, thought to have belonged to the Jewish Sage Yehuda HaNassi, a revered religious leader and a good friend of the Romans, has been excavated nearby and allows one to view the uncovered mosaic floor. Such floors seem to have served the purpose that rugs serve today. The excavated cardo or Roman main stone-paved street runs beside the remains of a structure with several rooms with mosaic floors, one of which was especially elaborate, depicting the source of the Nile and its flow to Alexandria, Egypt. On our return trip to Ramat Gan, we stopped briefly at Caesarea on the Mediterranean. There we saw the remains of the extensive raised aqueduct, supported by a series of arches, dating from the first century BCE, as well as the sea and the beach.

After a night back at Kfar Maccabiah, we took a taxi to Jerusalem and the YMCA there where we would stay for the following two nights. Although it is on King David Street and across from the King David Hotel, our driver had never been there. He would pull alongside another taxi and ask "imcah?' Made sense to them, apparently, for we got there fine. We changed guides at this point to Madeleine Lavine (no relation to Pamela, but also a native of Leeds!) Actually, she had put us in touch with Pamela, since she has a full time job at the YMCA (hence our stay there) and couldn't do the Sea of Galilee trip. She took us to Masada, a part of the mountain range to the west of the Dead Sea. Those of us who have traveled in the Southwest USA would probably want to call it a "mesa." Access to the top of the mesa is by a cable car. Herod, the puppet king under the Romans in the time of Jesus, made it a fortress and refuge. Extensive storage units marked the "mesa." At one end, Herod had built a tri-level palace carved into the rock, along with many cisterns to catch and keep rainwater. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, a group of zealots fled to Masada and took up residence. When the Romans learned of their presence, they besieged the fortress. Rocky outlines of the Roman camps at the base of the mountain can still be seen. When the siege was not successful, the Romans built a ramp on one side of the mesa and proceeded to break through the walls. In the meantime, the Zealots refused to surrender and entered into a collaborative suicide pact, and the Romans found only corpses. You may have seen the TV dramatization of this some years ago.

As we headed back to Jerusalem, we stopped at a spa on the Dead Sea and took a dip, if bobbing/floating in salt-heavy water can be called a dip! The Dead Sea is so called because it has no life in it. There is no drainage from the Sea and the salt build-up is incredible. In addition, the level of the Sea is at an all-time low, making it even brinier! We stayed the night at the YMCA, a unique institution dedicated to promoting harmony between the Christians, Jews and Muslims. One third of their staff is drawn from folk of each religious background. The "Y" has many typical "Y" type programs in addition to the hotel-like accommodations. It was designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, the architect who designed the Empire State Building, and is distinguished by a tall tower. We took the elevator to the top and had a 360-degree view of Jerusalem.

The next day was devoted to Jerusalem. Our guide took us first to the Mount of Olives where we could look at the Temple Mount, the wall and former city gates. We stopped in the Church of All Nations, noting the ancient olive trees on the grounds. We then went to view the excavations along the south wall of the Temple Mount done in recent years. Near these excavations are excavations of steps that are thought to be the actual steps leading up to the temple in Jesus' time. We then went around to the Western wall, a special place for Jewish people to pray, since it was for many years the only tangible remains of the Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. From there we wound our way through the narrow streets of the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which houses the traditional sites of Golgotha (now encased in slabs of stone and marble) and the Tomb of Christ, likewise covered. To the rear of this tomb was a cave that must have been something like the original location of the tomb. Then we explored the streets some more, stopping for lunch of houmous (a chick-pea paste), falafel (which reminded Arlene of "hush puppies," for those of you from the American South), pita bread, and a salad of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers chopped very fine (Arlene has to pass on the latter!)

After we did some shopping for gifts, our guide summoned a taxi near the Jaffa gate and we returned to the hotel. Comparing notes, we realized we had both spotted something we wanted just before we left the old city, so after dinner we went back on our own and purchased the items. Near the Jaffa gate we encountered a couple of boys with a camel, offering rides. Arlene took advantage of this unique form of transportation. That night was the beginning of the Israeli Independence Day and the next morning we were picked up by Susan Lazinger, professor at Hebrew University, and Brian Negin to go to their place for a picnic. (Arlene already knew Susan's name from her writing that Arlene has cited.) We were joined there by Sara Fine (a retired Pitt professor, with whom Arlene worked during her first years at Pitt, and who now teaches at Bar-Ilan University) and Paul Glasser, with whom we later shared a taxi back to Ramat Gan.

The night before we left Israel we were graciously given a tour of parts of Tel Aviv and the old city of Jaffa (=Joppa) by Miriam and Shmuel Farber. For us, this was of interest in being the approximate location of the house of Simon the Tanner, who hosted Peter when he had that tremendous vision of God's love for all people (Acts 10). Dinner was in an interesting little restaurant in the artists' quarter formed by covering the space between two buildings with a plastic roof.

There were places we would have liked to see that were excluded by our time commitments or by the political situation there (as in Bethlehem, for example, which is in the West Bank and apparently has a good deal of tension). We had been somewhat apprehensive of a visit to Israel, but the time we were there was marked by an absence of violence. Outside of a few checkpoints and soldiers on patrol, life seemed to go on as usual. Of course, we did not go to Gaza or the West Bank! For Wayne, it was a bit of déjà vu since he had been there exactly 25 years before.


© 2004 - Arlene G. Taylor and A. Wayne Benson