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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Herodium, Bethlehem, and Gethsemane

Today was our first full day in Jerusalem, and it was most certainly full. After breakfast, we wound our way through the streets of East Jerusalem to Road One which pointed us south. This road was at one time (before 1967) the old demarcation line between the Jewish western city and the Arab east, with a small “no man’s land” buffer between.

We followed the road along the old Turkish wall built centuries ago by one of the sultans. We drove past elite markets, the King David Hotel, St. Andrew’s Church of Scotland, and day laborers waiting to be picked up, no matter how late the hour (see Matt. 21). We passed the Armenian section, and Anton recalled how, in the year 303 A.D., the Armenians were the first to accept Christianity as their national religion (ten years before Constantine’s Edict of Milan). The Armenians established themselves in Jerusalem very early, coming with the Crusaders as guides. The Turkish Armenians were later (early 20th century) massacred by Muslims for their cooperation with the enemy. Refugees scattered to various places, including Jerusalem. There are presently about 30,000 residents in the Armenian Quarter here. They are a proud people who work hard and have a reputation among Jews and Arabs as upright citizens and good neighbors.

Soon we were at our first military check-point of the day. We have negotiated several of these so far, both Israeli and Palestinian, and all have gone smoothly (no passport checks, etc.). Now we were in the West Bank, and city gave way to Bedouin herders and flocks. This is the Shepherds’ Field Road—the land of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. Here, shepherds still watch their flocks and keep food and animals in rocky caves that pock mark the area.

First stop, Herodium. Like a giant bubble, this mostly man-made mountain blows up out of the desert. Herodium was Herod the Great’s home, the place where he spent the majority of his time. His slaves built this incredible complex, and it is amazing to see it and think anyone could have done all this two thousand years ago. We parked the bus and hiked up to the top of the mountain, where you then look down into the hollowed out summit. This was old Herod’s world—bath house, a huge pool with an island, cisterns, even a synagogue. It’s not hard to imagine why Herod—who was despised by the Jews for being an Idumean and a Hellenist—wanted a retreat like this one, just far enough from Jerusalem to seal himself off from the stinking rabble there. Of course, this was just one among what may have been as many as eight palaces belonging to Herod.

From the summit, it’s striking how close Bethlehem and Jerusalem are, within eye and earshot. Did the crazy old king hear the screams of parents in Bethlehem the night his soldiers slaughtered their babies? Did he see the Magi riding in from the East long before they arrived? Everything being so compact here is one of the real revelations of a trip to the Holy Land. This is not Texas. Places are close together, by our standards. From Herodium, you can see the Mt. of Olives, downtown Bethlehem. You can see the village of Tekoa to the south, the prophet Amos’ hometown.

Herod died in Jericho, but ancient sources say he was buried at Herodium. After years of looking, his tomb was discovered about five years ago on the north side of the mountain, about halfway up. The archaeologist who had spent much of his life looking high and low finally found it before he died.

We exited the top of Herodium through an inner passage. An intricate set of narrow tunnels (a water system) that eventually served as a refuge for Jewish guerrilla rebels during the Second (Bar Kochba) Revolt in the 120s B.C. This was a very interesting site, and my only regret was we didn’t have more time, but we had other places to go.

Next we traveled back through the Shepherds’ Fields to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. First we went to the Kando family antiquities shop, where we shopped for a good while. The Kando family’s grandfather was the shoemaker who first got his hands on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940s. In fact, one of the jars that held some of these treasures is on display in the shop. They have coins, lamps, olive wood pieces, jewelry, and many beautiful things. We spent maybe an hour there, and I guess everyone left with something.

Oh, one curious side note… Melinda and some of the others in our group had a brief brush with celebrity. Leaving the store, they met TV personality and trainer Jillian Michaels (“The Biggest Loser”). Seemingly, she comes here with some frequency. At any rate, pictures were taken, and we moved on.  

Bethlehem, like most West Bank communities, is a teeming mass of humanity, most of who are struggling to get by. The population is about 30,000. As we navigate the crowded, littered streets, it’s hard not to think about Micah’s prophecy (5:2—“one of the little towns of Judah…”), not to mention carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  Bethlehem means “house of bread,” and here—where Ruth gleaned grain—the Bread of Life would be born. The place Israel’s greatest king, David, would call home—here is where the Son of David would appear, announced first to nearby shepherds in the field with their sheep.  

When we arrived at the Church of the Nativity, we were besieged by street vendors—water, curios, postcards, you name it. We indulged one guy who took a group photo of all 36 of us, which many of us wound up purchasing, because it came out so well.

The Church of the Nativity was built by Constantine in the early 300s A.D., spearheaded by his mother Helena, who came to the Holy Land to identify holy sites. This site was marked as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The location is shared by Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian, and Anglican groups.

We entered the Orthodox side, replete with icons, and waited our turn to enter the grotto under the main altar. Inside, we saw the traditional spot in a cave here Jesus was born (in Bethlehem, caves were used as barns or animal stables and still are). Just across the small room, we saw the rock (not wood) manger where Scripture says his mother laid him. We exited out the other side into the Roman Catholic side and went into the sanctuary that hosts Christmas Eve midnight mass every December 24th. One can only what this place is like with tens of thousands of holiday pilgrims filling the streets.

Next, we went to a late lunch at a local Bethlehem spot—“Ruth’s Restaurant.” The choice, as usual, was falafel (hummus in pita bread) or shawerma (chicken in pita). This has become our standard lunchtime menu. We could all use a burger or enchilada in a bad way, but we’ll get that soon enough. No complaining.

By now it was late afternoon. Our final stop was the Mt. of Olives and Gethsemane. Passing through another army checkpoint, back into Israel, we wound our way up north to the east side of Jerusalem, past the Valley of Hinnom. This was the old garbage dump where ancients burned their children as a sacrifice to Molech. It’s the place Jesus referred to as Gehenna, where fire and worms never die. Today, it’s just trees and grass and pleasant-looking homes and buildings.

We went to the top of the Mt. of Olives (also called Mt. Scopus) and spent some time just taking in the amazing view westward, across the Kidron Valley, into the city. Then we began a long, steep walk downward toward Jerusalem. This is about the path Jesus would have taken when he arrived on Palm Sunday. Coming from Bethany, to Bethphage, he would have topped the Mt. of Olives with followers singing hosannas in tow. Down we went, past the graves of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Down we went, Anton telling us about the large Jewish cemetery. He also told us about how, in the days of Jesus, Passover would have filled the Kidron Valley below with the blood of slaughtered lambs.

Soon we were at Gethsemane. It was smaller than I expected, really just a garden courtyard to the Church of All Nations. Gnarled, ancient olive trees make this spot look very much like it probably did when Jesus and his disciples came here so long ago. Gethsemane means “place of pressing,” referring to the olive vat and press that was once here. Here our Lord was pressed too. Here he agonized, struggling with his flesh on the night of his arrest and trials. Here he prayed, “Father, take this cup away. But your will be done.”

We went inside the gorgeous church (Catholic) and sat in on a few minutes of worship. A priest presided over the table, while nuns sang and read Scripture. It was beautiful. In front of the altar of the church is the focal point called the Rock of Agony, supposedly the very rock where Jesus knelt and prayed, while his sleepy disciples dozed a few yards away.

By now it was late evening and time to call it a day. We returned to the hotel and made plans to start earlier than usual tomorrow for another big day. Tomorrow may be the day we get to wade through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. We’ll let you know in 24 hours.

שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם  Shalom Aleichem
Brent and Melinda

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