Unlike the deserts of Egypt and Jordan Switzerland is what I would call The High Country. The sweep of your view always seems to be up and down, rather than left to right. From the valley floor to the mountain peak, you are always straining your neck to take it all in. Outsiders always wonder, “How do they live in this place?” “How do they get around?” “How did they ever make a living before mechanized help?” Despite the usual questions this country always amazes visitors with its awesome mountains and gorgeous valleys. Kathy’s side of the family came from here so we have a natural affinity with this place.
We entered Switzerland through Milan, Italy—a central hub for this region. We picked up our rental car at the airport and that was our first surprise: they upgraded us from a compact car to a mid-sized Audi. Quite an upgrade! We then drove north to the lake country where we stayed overnight at a lovely little town called Stresa on the shore of Lake Maggiore. We had been here before and it became one of Kathy’s favorite places, mainly because of the three beautiful islands just off shore. This time, however, it was just a sleepover place so we could reach our first destination: Saas Fee, a small mountain town we have always wanted to see near Zermatt, Switzerland. Instead of going into details here, let me just show you some of the places we saw in a slideshow.
I'm sorry about the long delay. More complications. I owe you one more blog (at least) about the Holy Land before we begin a new phase of our travels. The last three days of the tour were spent in Jerusalem and vicinity and were done mostly on foot in the old city. That’s really the only way to see the biblical parts. But I want to start with the Holocaust Museum which they call Yad Vashem. The entire building in which are housed all the pictures and paraphernalia of the Holocaust years is shaped by symbolism, from the size to the flow to the textures and colors. There has never been an event quite like this in all the tortured years of the Jewish people. And it is poignantly portrayed in every room. Our guide was an American Jew who was not born here but moved here because of her love for the Israeli people. She had a heart for what she was telling us, and her presentation lacked none of the drama and tragedy that needed to be told—in detail. Don’t miss this if you visit Israel sometime.
Before returning to Jerusalem I need to take you down to Bethlehem first. David’s city is only six miles south of Jerusalem, basically in the suburbs today. This is the place everyone loves to come to, even though it is in the West Bank and governed by the Palestine Authority. We had a special guide for this. His name was Ramsey, a young Palestinian Christian who was eager to give us the handshake of Christian fellowship—a wonderful young man with a love for the Lord and who spoke excellent English. He took us into Manger Square, the open space that exists just outside the Church of the Nativity—the oldest church building still standing in history. The original was built by the first “Christian” emperor Constantine in the early 4th century A.D. and then rebuilt by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Ramsey’s timing was perfect. He got us there just ahead of the large crown that always clogs the square. We had to get in line to see the traditional place where Jesus was born (marked by a silver star) in the cave beneath the church. Three Christian groups share access to this place: the Armenian Christians, the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox church. We were fortunate to get in and out of this place without too much trouble, especially since the Pope was coming the next day for a visit and was to hold mass in the Square. Security and preparations were everywhere. But we were able to see everything we were brought here to see. Following our visit to the church Ramsey took us to a Christian shop where they sold everything made out of olive wood (that’s what everyone comes here to buy, especially manger scenes, and they have them from the smallest to largest—some of them actually life sized!)
The last two places I want to share with you are back in Jerusalem. The first is the location and contents of the Garden of Gethsemane. Look closely at the old olive trees Kathy has included, because they tell us that at least seven of these old trees are more than 2,000 years old. So they would have been growing here while Jesus was praying in this garden. There would probably have been far more than seven, except when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD they pretty much destroyed everything they touched with their armies and siege machines in every direction of the old city. If you will recall, Jesus prophesied about that, saying that not one stone will be left standing on top of another when the opposing armies got through with their destruction.
The last visit—and the most memorable one—was to the place of Jesus crucifixion and burial. There are two traditional locations for this. The oldest and most ornate is the church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is a very beautiful church building supposedly holding the location of the crucifixion and burial. But there are problems about this location. One is, that it is located too far inside the walls of the old city. And Jewish law forbade the crucifixion of anyone inside the Holy City. The other location seems to fit the picture better but its tradition goes back only about 100 years or so. It’s referred to as “Gordon’s Calvary” because a first World War British General was the one who first proposed this location as fitting the Scriptural accounts better than the other tradition. Jesus was taken to a place called “Galgotha,” meaning, the place of a skull. That could mean it was a cemetery or that the rocky hillside looked like a skull (and it still does). The text also says, “And in that place was a garden with a new tomb that had never been used.” And here they found a “Garden tomb,” with a place where the stone could be rolled against the tomb, and there was only one burial place constructed. This is the “Garden Tomb” where many believe Jesus was buried. I had the opportunity to lead a communion service for all of our tour people following our visit to the tomb. This is always a moving experience to be in this place, and a visit few will ever forget.
SIDE NOTE: Our visit to the Garden Tomb was the very last thing we visited on our very last day of our tour. But when we got off the bus and were walking to the tomb we were overwhelmed by several “vendors” who were trying to sell us postcards and trinkets. They are found everywhere you go in the whole Middle East but this day they were very aggressive and ended up assaulting our tour party. One man was manhandled by a vendor whose hands were all over his body and he had to push him away. One of our young ladies had her cell phone stolen from her bag, and another man pushed his post cards into my face so I couldn’t see him unzip my bag and steal my video camera. So all my video for the entire tour is gone as well as my camera. The police were called by the Garden Tomb employees, and a report was made (this was the second time that day that an assault on a tour member was reported). So, even though I am insured for the loss, there can be no replacing all the video that is on those two memory cards in my HD Video camera. Oh well, at least I still have all the photos my trusty companion has been taking (about 5,000 in all).
How does a nation just disappear? Well, some come to an end gradually as times change. Others come to an end suddenly when conquered by an invading army. There was a time when the latter almost happened to Israel in the 6th Century B. C. when the armies of Nebuchadnezzer conquered Jerusalem and took thousands of its people into exile in Babylon. But the Israelites came back, re-established their city and rebuilt their temple. Yesterday, our tour group visited the old desert fortress called Masada—a huge chunk of rock that kept the national hope going as long as its defenders stayed alive. But when the Roman armies finished their Judean campaign Israel ceased to exist as a nation….until 1948.
Most of you are probably familiar with the story, how the Jewish nation revolted against Roman rule and suffered the consequences as Jerusalem was taken and destroyed in A. D. 70 and those still alive were taken as slaves to Rome. But a group of Zealots (an extremist group of Jews) fled Jerusalem before it was destroyed and climbed up into an old mountain fortress built by Herod the Great and held out against the Roman army for over 2 years. Over 900 men, women and children stayed alive because of their location, until the Romans starved them out and they all committed suicide rather than be taken as slaves back to Rome. And that was the end of the nation….for a very long time.
I visited this place a couple of times when I was younger and climbed the old Snake Path for a strenuous trip to the top. Today you do it by cable car and it takes about three comfortable minutes. Masada was just one of old King Herod’s fortresses. He had two more, since he was so paranoid about people wanting to take his kingdom away from him. He had unique palaces built on this flat mountain, many granaries and food storage areas (that is why the Zealots could last up there for so long), and a unique system of rock channels that carried all of the rain water into huge cisterns built for bathing and drinking. You will see some pictures of the place below.
It was very hot on the top of Masada, so we went from there up the road on the west side of the shrinking Dead Sea north to a place the Old Testament calls Ein Gedi. It is a natural spring flowing from the mountain into the Dead Sea. David brought his men here when Saul and his men were chasing him through the Wilderness of Judea. It is a resort area today, because of the presence of fresh water. Israel is a great producer of figs. They have fig farms all over the country but especially down in the Dead Sea valley. We stopped to refresh ourselves here and watched a specially made vehicle they have constructed just to tie up the figs and also to harvest them when they ripen. I have never been partial to figs, but these are special, sweet and meaty. We drove slowly through Ein Gedi hoping to see some of the wildlife, like Conies (similar to prairie dogs), Ibex, Hyenas, etc. We only got to see a few Ibex among the palm trees.
When we stopped for lunch along the road from the Jordan Valley up to Jerusalem, our guide, Ruthie, knew of a restaurant where they had a camel named Shoo Shee who could down a whole Coke from a bottle and then not-so-politely burp afterward (Hey, you’ve got to have a little fun along the way!) You’ll see a picture of her here.
Back in Jerusalem we visited the “wailing wall” as they were graduating new soldiers into the army fresh out of basic training. They used to do this on the top of Masada to remind them that “Masada will not fall again!” But they no longer do that because it is too much trouble and expense to get them and their families up to the top of that fortress. At the wailing wall they have a men’s side and a women’s side, and unfortunately Kathy’s camera battery died just before we got there so we couldn’t get any pictures for you. We are having a few problems with logistics here since the pope is visiting Israel this week and many of the sites he will visit are being shut down for security reasons. But we were able to visit King David’s tomb and the traditional Upper Room, where Jesus celebrated the Passover Feast with his disciples. More later.
This morning’s activities started rather solemnly. We left the hotel at 8:00 AM and drove around the west side of the Sea of Galilee in order to get to the outlet at the south end of the sea, which is the Jordan River. The Jordan River is an ancient body of water, as seen by its meandering nature. It doesn’t so much flow straight as an ordinary river, but rather meanders, like a snake moves across the sand. To give you an idea of just how “back and forth” it is, the distance between the outlet of the Sea of Galilee and the entrance to the Dead Sea is about 70 miles, as the crow flies. But if you were to get into a boat and follow the course of the river you would travel 210 miles.
Near the outlet from the Sea of Galilee we followed the Jordan River to the place of baptism. This is not the place where Jesus was baptized. That would be much nearer the Dead Sea, and the Jordan River at that point hardly exists anymore. This place of baptism is for the multitude of tourists who come here wanting to be baptized in the Jordan River like Jesus was. As I said earlier I was appointed to be “John the Baptist” (and I’m not even a Baptist!). We had about a dozen people who were wanting to be baptized in the Jordan so I gathered them together in one of the little alcoves they have for this purpose and had a little teaching session from Romans 6:1-6. We had several Catholics, Presbyterians, non-denominational church people, and some without any particular church background so I knew I had better be as plain as I could be from the text of Scripture. They were all very appreciative of the teaching and my assistance in this matter. I hope it bears some spiritual fruit for all of them. As a memento of this special experience each of the baptismal groups were videotaped and when we were ready to leave everyone was able to buy a DVD of their baptism. Our tour group consists of forty people and are quite a cross section of ages and interests. So any tour guide has his hands full appealing to everyone, but I think we are all working fairly well together.
After leaving the Jordan River we passed through the biblical town of Bet Shean and stayed long enough to view an ancient Roman amphitheater. It was quite well preserved and only recently were they able to purchase the entire property from a local owner so they could complete the archeological dig and open it up to view for tourists.
We then went on to Jericho where we were able to see the hodge podge of results when various archeologists take turns trying to find the old city walls of the town and none of them agree on the results. Why is that important? Well, when Israel entered the Promised Land to conquer it Jericho was their first conquest. And everyone knows the story of “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came a-tumbelin’ down.” Which walls? And when did this happen? They are still arguing about that, but in the meantime there are these huge ugly mounds of dirt lying around that I am sure the city fathers would love to get rid of. Jericho is also considered the oldest continuosly inhabited city in the world. And it was called the city of palm trees. We can vouch for that. Another thing people want to see when they come here is the Sycamore tree. What Sycamore tree? You know, the one that Zaccheus climbed in order to see Jesus as he was passing through the town. Well, we did see a Sycamore tree but can’t vouch for the idea that “this is the one.”
The group then went on to visit one of my favorite places—Qumran. It was here that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947—one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century. Why was this important? It seems that the oldest copies of the Old Testament manuscripts we possessed before 1947 were from about the 10th century A.D. –about 1,000 years after Christ. It had always opened up the criticism that the Old Testament Scriptures couldn’t be trusted since our copies were so late in history and far removed from the times they wrote about. But when the Dead Sea scrolls were found they contained copies of almost every Old Testament book (except Ruth), including two complete copies of the book of Isaiah (a book filled with prophecies of the Messiah). And when the newer copies were compared with the much older copies (dated about the 2nd Century B. C.) , it was found that they were almost exactly alike—a great testimony to the scribes who copied them during that 1,200 year period. And, of course, it weakens the argument stated above.
We continued our trip from Qumran (located by the Northwest shore of the Dead Sea) to our hotel located by the Southwest shore of the Dead Sea. I was amazed at the resort amenities in this very hot wilderness location. The last time I was here there was no activity in this region except for a few hyenas and Ibex roaming about. But now we could sit by the salty sea in a lounge chair and even dip our bodies in this slimy body of water and bob around like a cork, as you will see Kathy doing in one of these shots I have provided for you.
Bud was temporarily indisposed today so Kathy posted her pictures of the day's activities around the Sea of Galilee.
Well, I was “outed” yesterday. The tour guide was evidently told by someone in the group or the tour agency she represents that I was the only pastor In our group. I am not sure what her faith is yet, but I am assuming she is a Jew, because she said, “Oh, good, because I am not qualified to baptize anyone when we come to the Jordan River.” Like most groups, there are always several who would like to be baptized in the Jordan River when we get there. And, evidently, I have been “appointed” to take care of that. I told Kathy, “What an opportunity! Because I always take the time to instruct people who approach baptism for whatever reason.” This can be an unexpected teaching moment. So, please pray about it.
We were met yesterday by our Israeli guide Ruthie (pronounced Rootie) at the Jordan/Israeli border crossing on the Allenby Bridge at the Jordan River. It was really no big deal, in spite of the bad feelings these two neighbors have had over almost everything in recent years. However, we have yet to detect any bitterness or sarcastic remarks by either Egyptians, Jordanians or Israelis. I am happy about that. The one thing that all three entities agree wholeheartedly about—at least the ones we have met--is their utter disdain for anything that smacks of terrorism or intolerance. So they have all done their respective countries proud. And they have all been very informative and open about addressing any question that comes up from the tour participants, including political ones. These guides are pros when it comes to their own territories. And they are all firm believers in the integrity of Holy Scripture. We have had an Arab Muslim guide in Egypt, an Arab Catholic guide in Jordan, and now a Jewish guide in Israel, and their statements all affirm the truthfulness of Scripture. There may be various ways they will interpret a certain passage but they never question the truthfulness of the passage. In fact, our Jewish guide keeps telling us: “When you confront a Bible passage always question yourself; never question the Bible.” One of the reasons for that is that they all live here and are confronted with Biblical places and events every day. You can’t get away from that experience even if you wanted to.
Yesterday’s itinerary took us from the border crossing into Israel to Tel Aviv. On the way, we passed through Jerusalem (we will come back to Jerusalem later). It is significant to know the elevation that is involved here. Jericho, which is right near the Jordan River, is about 800 ft below sea level. And in 17 miles its road rises to 2600 ft. above sea level at Jerusalem. That is a rise of 3,400 ft. in just 17 miles. We could feel the bus engine straining all the way up that road. Why is this significant? Well, when Jesus told us the story of the Good Samaritan he started by saying, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” He certainly did. 3,400 ft down. Little insights like that just help you to feel the truth of that statement that whoever is speaking in the Bible knows what he is talking about. It always has the ring of truth.
This is a very small country and every time you turn around you are confronting a biblical place. For instance, we were taken up to Mt. Carmel, where the prophet Elijah confronted the false prophets of Baal (450 of them). He challenged them to a contest on the highest point of the mountain. The text indicates just where this contest took place by the little incidental things that are in the story. And while we were up there on the mountain we could see the Kishon River where the prophet Elijah slew the false prophets and had them buried, the location of Har Megiddo (often found as Armaggedon—the place of the last conflict of God’s forces with those who oppose Him), Mt. Tabor the traditional location of the place of Jesus’ transfiguration before His disciples Peter, James and John, and many others. Like I said, how do you doubt the history of this land when every location of Bible events is all around you.
The final event of this eventful day was the trip down the hillside into Tiberius on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is always an emotional moment when you first see this beautiful body of fresh water as you reach the crest of the hillside above it. So much happened here during Jesus’ ministry. And just like we said earlier, you can read the gospels and picture all of those events in your mind as you look down on this body of water that has attracted so many pilgrims over the centuries.
On Friday we left the Sinai Peninsula and headed for the northeast border with Israel. We passed by the many resort hotels and compounds that line the shoreline of the Gulf of Aqqaba. It is difficult to believe that so many people in Egypt are suffering from a long recession and lack of business when you see how many people they are preparing for in these resorts. I realize that their customers will not all be coming from Egypt but whoever makes use of these expensive facilities will have to be pretty well healed. Last week they had one of the worst rain storms this area has seen in years. It flooded everything and washed out some black top roads on the coast. The customs area we had to use to enter Israel was covered so badly in dried mud that they had to improvise somewhat to be able to accommodate us.
Our trip into Israel was just temporary, for now, since (if you look on a map) you must first enter Israel in order to enter Jordan. Four nations come together along the shore of the Gulf—Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. For now, they have worked out a treaty so that there is free movement for all four nations within that area.
Our first destination after entering Jordan was to drive north along the route followed by the Israelites when God finally directed them out of their wandering days in the wilderness. That route took us right by our destination for the day—the Rose Red city of Petra. This was a city constructed mostly by the Nabateans who inhabited this place while Imperial Rome was doing its thing in the rest of the world. Later, the Romans conquered this place too and threw the Nabateans out, but not before they had made some beautiful changes to the red sandstone that literally fills this place. The most famous of these monuments is “the Treasury,” the building seen in the Indiana Jones’ movie “The Last Crusade.” After walking through the mile long trail (known as the Siq), we arrived at “The Treasury,” a very Roman style building carved completely out of red sandstone.
Actually, the word “Treasury” had nothing to do with what this building was used for. It was a very beautiful façade for a rich person’s tomb. In fact, tombs fill the entire valley, as do the cave-like entrances to the homes of the Nabateans. There is also a Roman style theater built into the side of the hill and some other temple-like buildings, all with facades that look impressive but contain nothing of use on the inside.
Although Petra was built at the same time as Imperial Rome it was lost to history for hundreds of years during the Middle Ages until it was accidently rediscovered in about 1812. Since then, it has become Jordan’s most viewed man-made structure.
About our guide. It was a surprise to me to find that our guide was a Jordanian Catholic who felt very strongly about his faith and spoke about it often. He never got too deeply into religious differences, but was perfectly comfortable talking about his faith and how it fit very well into the tolerant culture in Jordan. It is not the usual picture one gets in the West about the intolerance and warfare that is racking the Middle East. But Jordan has managed to stay away from the extreme elements that seem to emanate very frequently among Muslim states. Of course, Americans want to hear what people here think about the West and our presidents and how political matters are being handled by us. He was not afraid to be blunt and say exactly how he felt about things, never insulting but sincerely stating what he thinks should be done and how we are doing it (or not doing it). I thanked him for his openness, stating that Americans are weary of being told lies by politicians and really want to see the world through the eyes of those who are forced to live daily with these circumstances.
So far, the tour arrangements have been excellent. The hotels are very nice four star facilities and the food has been just outstanding. Kathy and I are not used to staying in places like this, eating this well, and being cared for with such grace. We could get used to this!
In the last blog entry I made reference to the price you must pay if you want to do it all. We paid the price and are still "suffering" with the aches and pains. But we wouldn't have it any other way. We gave up almost a whole night's sleep to spend about five hours ascending a high mountain. People who take camel rides normally think it's great fun, but not when you are on his back for nearly three hours. We both have blisters in places you should not have any. And they have nasty temperments. They don't make good pets and they don't have endearing personalities. For humans they exist to get you from point A to point B, and that's about it. But the reason they are so important to people who live in the desert is that they can carry heavy loads for long hours and long trips, especially when you are going uphill. My camel was the lead one, since he had good concentration and didn't get lost. And we were doing this trip in the dark. But we were especially blest that night since it was a full moon, so we didn't get lost either. These bedouin folk who inhabit the Sinai region give their camels names, but they are mostly derisive ones, like Mickey Mouse, or Desert Bus. So I decided to raise their status a little by calling mine Socrates. Why? Because he was the smart one. He didn't get lost. He knew the way and didn't deviate from the path. He was all business. But when I tried to pet him and whisper my appreciation he only growled at me. So I'm keeping my dog, but only renting this camel.
Jebel Mousa, or the Mountain of Moses, has a very long tradition in the Sinai region. There are debates that have been around for centuries whether this was the actual place. So how can we know for certain that these very important events happened right here? Well, of course we can't be totally sure about that. But the tradition is very old and the names of regions, deserts, wells, trees, and a whole host of things associated with the desert wanderings are also very old. So the events spoken of in the Bible involving Moses, a multitude of people, Pharaoh's army, miracles and all of that can't be completely dismissed as fabrication or legend. So climbing this mountain and viewing this place is on a very large number of "bucket lists" for many people, and not all of them religious. So, back to the camels.
The reason we take camels (and not everyone chose to do so) is simply because it saves your energy for the last part of the climb. The camels can only go about two thirds of the way to the top, and from there each rider has to climb the last 700 steps. Since camels can't climb steps each rider is on his own for the very last part of the journey. And that is the most grueling part. About one thousand years ago a monk from the monastery built these crude steps as part of his penance for whatever he did in the sight of God. All the steps are different sizes so your legs have to adjust to each one, and the angle of the steps is very steep. Fortunately, the bedouin leader of the group saw that I was having difficulty with my balance in the dark and offered me his arm for stability.....all the way up and all the way down. Thank the Lord for Eid (his name).
At the top of the mountain of Moses is a rather crude chapel and right beside the chapel is a crude mosque, one of the few places in the world where you will find that scene (another place is in the monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai). The monastery itself was built around the year 550 or so, by the Roman Emperor Justinian, who happened to be a Christian. The monks that lived here at this place were experiencing danger from marauding tribes and thus appealed to the Emperor for protection. He provided that protection for them by building a fortress, inside of which they could live and minister. This is an impressive place at so many levels and after the investment of so much energy and pain, it is one of those experiences you will remember for life.