September 6, 2013, Türkiye
The renowned religious masterpiece meaning “Holy Wisdom” currently stands in its third state of construction. Originally built between 532-537 CE as an Orthodox cathedral on the foundations of a pagan temple, it then morphed over the years in structure and religious tradition, turning briefly into a Catholic cathedral in the 13th century, followed by a Muslim mosque in the 15th century during the Ottoman period, as noticeable by the added minarets, and now currently serves as an interfaith museum, in essence exhibiting a marvelous blend of art from its Christian and Muslim worshipers. The lofty domed building reflects the engineering wisdom of its time and the impressive efforts of its some 9,000 construction workers and 1,000 artists.
Dinner at Kamkapi
This area is known for really good fish, and rightfully so. Though, even more pleasing is the amusing atmosphere. As the evening turns to night, one by one more musicians emerge on the square to the point that music engulfs our table and floods our ears — in the best way. Drums reverberate in my chest and the elongated whines of Turkish men slink across the cool currents of the late summer wind. The sweet smell of hooka curls into my nose and I am all consumed.
Sprawling peach, fuchsia and white colored majnooni (lit. “Crazy” in Arabic, a.ka. bougainvillea) and elegant, high-reaching palms decorate our road and greet us as we enter the seaside city of Tiberias. We’ve arrived in Galilee! I’d like to believe the sight was something similar in the days when Jesus walked here, that is, minus the paved road, cars and hotels.
We drive up to Mount Arbel for a panoramic view of the area. As our bus climbs up the hill olive trees sweep past us on the left and almonds fly by on our right. We then bend right and see new, nice, modern-looking homes while the left reveals Wadi Haram (Valley of Doves) which opens to the glistening sea. This valley is the shortcut to the sea from Nazareth, about a day’s journey away, and a path surely familiar to Jesus’ sandals.
Standing at the top of Mount Arbel to the southwest of us sits the loaf-shaped mountain, Tabor, quite possibly the location of Jesus’ Transfiguration. As we stand with our faces to the east, the Golan Heights lie ahead in the distance while Jordan lies to the south. Magdala is the closest city to us, laying just below toward the east. As we look farther northeast we see Capernaum, above and beyond which is the Mount of Beatitudes, and past that is where the feeding of the 5,000 (plus) took place. I’m amazed at how close everything is to each other!
Dolomite rocks craft Mount Arbel which indicate this natural high-rise once dwelt under the sea! It now towers above the sea, or, lake, rather, and houses caves used centuries ago by the people of Magdala. Sadly, according to the historian Josephus, a mini Masada took place here. Roman enemies descended Arbel’s cliff-top on ropes and threw the people out of the caves to a bitter death. Thankfully, now only signs of peace pervade the mountainscape. Today one meanders through a hearty meadow of tall, wispy, tan grass and climbs amidst hefty boulders and plentiful pebbles. It is a magnificent, serene sight to behold.
Bicycle Day, Christian, Christianity, cross, crucifixion, death, Faith, God, Holy Land, Israel, Jerusalem, Jesus, Jewish, Judaism, Middle East, Religion, Travel, Via Dolorosa, way of sorrows, Yom Kippur
Today is known as “Bicycle Day”, at least around Jerusalem. You may be familiar with it, too, but under its more familiar name, Yom Kippur—the Jewish holy day of Atonement.
It feels like we have the whole city to ourselves. We cross streets and boulevards entirely empty except for the stray car here and there. We walk up to Jaffa Gate into the Armenian Quarter where we begin to see a handful of other people. A few shopkeepers begin to setup their outdoor displays while men in yarmulkas and women with wrapped hair emerge from the quiet side streets into the early morning sun.
As it’s a predominantly Jewish city with Jewish customs most of the shops are closed and no cars are allowed to drive in the Jewish Quarter, hence the sparse crowds. Therefore, most of the people out “doing” things are Christians and Muslims. It’s nice as a tourist in some ways because there are fewer people overall, yet, it also means we are all concentrated among fewer sites. It seems most of us have decided on the Christian highlights this morning, namely, The Via Dolorosa, “The Way of Suffering”—the 14-station marked route upon which Jesus carried the crossbeam of his cross to the site of his death, Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull”.
We walk it backwards which is unfortunate, but it’s still meaningful at each individual station. Thus, we begin at the Holy Sepulcher, the site of stations 10-14—Jesus is stripped of his garments, nailed to the cross, crucified, and his body is prepared for burial by Mary. As I enter I look past the tomb, past the panorama depicting Jesus’ removal from the cross,
I tilt my head up at a mosaic-decorated panel along the arched ceiling. I am seeking connection. I gaze at the illuminated faces of gospel authors and prophets. I hear, “Remember the story.” And, somehow the truth becomes a little more alive in me.
I begin to wander past the crowds around a dark hallway bending to my right. I find a set of quiet-looking stairs descending into the depths of the church. They open to a large room with an illustration on the floor. It’s lovely, but I am not moved. I see another set of stairs traveling yet farther down. I take those. I discover a space hallowed in reverence and adoration for St. Helena. Helena, Constantine’s mother, was sent by her son around 326 to Jerusalem to find Jesus’ crucifix and other relics. She found, under what was then a pagan temple built by Hadrian, what is believed by many to be the site of Golgotha, where the this church now stands. Therefore, we have her to thank for the restoration of this as well as many other important Christian sites.
But, none of that is on my mind as I enter the virtually empty space. Rather, my attention is drawn to one elderly woman sitting on the lowest step, crouched over her knees with her forehead in her hand. I stare at her. She seems tethered to the space. Together we are held in—by the space, in the calm quiet. The silence is magnificent. Sacred. A gift. All we can hear are the soft chants of monks behind us in the distance.
I think, how blessed and special it is we are visiting this site, the place of Jesus’ costly crucifixion, on the day of atonement for the Jewish people. To share that together is marvelous.
To my left lay the stairs ascending to the site attributed to Golgotha. I begin to climb. I feel a sense I am walking up as if it were my own passion. I take small steps trying not to crush the fingers or toes of anyone sitting on the stone staircase. I reach the top which opens to a stone floor bearing a sea of faithful visitors. Between the darkened figures held in the low light of glowing lamps and candles I can see the Greek Orthodox altar upon the location marking the place of the cross.
I look around at the scene as beautiful, sacred music streams into my ears. I do not know the words or song, but join the melody. With the little Italian I can recall from my college days I am able to gather we are singing of “The son of the cross”. It is a lovely, mournful song. The priest leads us into prayer and between petitions we pour out cries to God, “kyrie eleison”, Lord have mercy. All the while, I revel in gratitude over the gift of being able to worship with brothers and sisters from around the world in this holy place.
I realize I have no clue where my group is. I feel a bit like Jesus “left” in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). Though, unlike Jesus, I think it best to leave and begin looking for my family.
I eventually do find them and after taking in more of the church we leave and migrate with the many other “pilgrims” through the winding, ancient roads to the remaining stations.
I feel a strange tingling and pain as I enter the doors of the Church of Flagellation. An eerie, awful feeling sweeps over me. I breathe for a few moments, look down at the black and white mosaic-checked floor and exit.
“This is the beginning,” I hear myself say within as I sit on the dark wooden pew and imagine what Jesus might have thought and felt as he was sentenced… His heart sinking, nerves and fear rising, the long walk ahead unknown… All for us.
To many Jericho may appear to be just another bustling Arab town. However, a few words into it’s history and one becomes aware of a rich gem. It is both the lowest town on earth, resting 900 feet below sea level and the oldest inhabited city, boasting 10,000 years in age. It is also the oasis of this desert region with numerous fresh water springs, which explains why it was additionally a crossroad for the trade routes.
Though a well-established city today, it was only about 50 acres during the time of the Old Testament leader, Joshua, when he and the Israelites came in and took the land from the Canaanites. What is also fascinating is that two walls were found here, each 64 ft thick and when they fell they crumbled outward, not inward, as one might imagine a siege would cause. It is proposed perhaps a supernatural power like an earthquake caused this event, as Biblical scriptures hint at. However, other scholars contest that the “…Walls came tumbling down!” as the spiritual, “Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho” proclaims. Instead, these scholars and archeologist suggest the walls fell 400-600 years before Joshua.
These details we may never know, but what we do know is numerous containers of grains were found which not only helps us identify the diet of the time, but supports the scriptures that God told the Israelites not to eat the food in the land. Therefore, somehow, it was left untouched. We also know this site bears the ruins of a watchtower. Thus we can say this was the first public building we have in the world. Incredible! It was the first building for the public and built by the public—and it’s still intact!
We have also learned Jericho was a wealthy city due to its abundance of balsam. Interestingly, this plant source, originally from Yemen and used primarily for perfume, was only grown in Jericho. Now, quite sadly, balsam is extinct.
Additionally, we know Jesus surely travelled through Jericho. He did not merely stop and take photos and write in his journal, but was out among the people, and took this path through the city en route to Jerusalem from Galilee as it was a six-day journey in total from Nazareth, but only about one day’s walk from Jericho to Jerusalem.
To bring it back to the present, while touring the ruins we suddenly noticed black smoke billowing from the roof-top of the restaurant across the street—the one we had just finished eating in! Of course, all our minds jumped to the worst. Andre, our guide, didn’t seem too concerned however. Nevertheless, we all stood frozen in our tracks. Soon from the smoke emerged a long, brilliant flame. Then, about 10 minutes later it was all gone—smoke, fire, everything. It appeared the fire began within a pipe scaling the side of the building. Perhaps a cigarette butt had caught some trash at the bottom on fire, we’ll never know. Surely damage was done, sadly, but it was certainly not as severe as what might have resulted if the fire had spread. Wow, some first few hours in Israel and Palestine.
This morning I watch the sunrise upon the Sea of Galilee. It creeps over the ledge of the Heights, rising like a fiery sphere of molten lava which at last bursts with radiant beams as with the joy of finally being set free from darkness. As it ascends through the clouds it streams with rays up to the heavens and down upon the sea, in the center of which it pools like brilliant, thick gold. Doves in small flocks sweep across the glorious scene; their wings flapping quickly with a gentle hush at each stroke. All feels tranquil in this moment.
Baptism, Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Christian, Christianity, Dove, Down By The Riverside, Faith, God, Holy Land, Holy Spirit, Jesus, John the Baptist, Jordan, Jordan River, Middle East, Religion, River, Travel, water
The Jordan River, like many of the sites I’ve visited in the Holy Land and have yet to visit is hard to connect with. We don’t know where exactly along the Jordan River Jesus was baptized and the churches and monuments rarely help me imagine and make a connection with “this” site being “the” site. I try though. I long to make some connection–to feel in my core what I think and know in my head. To feel the wonder and awe of being in the same place my savior took part in this sacred cleansing ritual of baptism and the heaven’s parted and God said, “This is my beloved with whom I am well pleased.”
I walk along past the gleaming gold-domed Orthodox church, along the dusty dirt path, past the wooded monument at the intersection of the river with the spring, past the mosic of Pope John Paul II mosaic (seriously), to the green opaque river. I find some solace in the sound of the birds. I hear no other noise but their song and the soft hush of pebbles and sand beneath my feet. I realize there is something holy about this place because the birds chirp with a joy as if they know. They know what happened here.
I’ve been wrestling with some painful challenges along the trip. So a renewal of my baptism felt like a welcome gift from God. I crouched upon the lowest of the wooden stairs leading into the cool, sage green liquid and dipped my cupped hand in. I poured it on my head three times as I poured out my thanks and transgressions. Pouring, patting, and holding own hand tenderly on my brow. Repeat and repeat. I rubbed the wet water around my face and felt my body and soul refreshed. Astounding grace.
September 10, 2013
We are driving north, leaving Petra, and it is bare. Linda, one of our group leaders, reads from Numbers 20 where the Israelites are complaining to Moses about the lack of water. I peer out my window–rolling hills of sand, rocks and low shrubs. I envision the 300,000 or so Israelites wandering through this land in their exodus from Egypt. I can see why they grumbled and longed to return to Egypt. At this point even slavery seemed better than trudging through these scorching sands.
I can see how their trek turned into a confusing desert parade. Everything looks the same! The sun sort of directs you, the stars help a little bit, but in the end it’s still one sprawling expanse of hot tan. The exhaustion and frustration! Hiking through Petra for even 5 hours yesterday, with water, SPF clothing and tennis shoes, mind you, was a lot! I cannot even begin to fathom decades! Distant plateaus must have looked terribly daunting and to avoid them could have meant s significant detour. To top it off, 40 years would mean many deaths. Can you imagine how many people were in mourning? A group in perpetual mourning…in a scorching desert? Miserable! What a strange, uncomfortable time…
I regret that my entires have been slow to arrive. I couldn’t access the internet while in Jordan so I’m finally posting now that we’re settled in Jerusalem. Enjoy!
September 8, 2013
It’s about 1 a.m. and I write by the glowing blue lights of our bus. We bounce softly as we race through the black of night. Houses are sparse and sand is abundant. We’re in the desert.
Again, I’m in a daze. We pass a blue sign with indecipherable Arabic calligraphy and suddenly I snap out of my fog, “I’m here,” I hear myself say inside.
Jordan. Now what Bible events took place here? My mind draws a blank. Oh yeah, Edom, red stone, Esau, Abraham and Sarah. The ancients. Oh, and Jesus’ baptism… God chose here, I find myself thinking. It sinks in slightly — God chose to come here.
There’s something about it here–the Middle East–it touches me somewhere deep. It pulls like a magnet upon my whole being. I still don’t know what it is, or if it’s even an “it”. In ways I’m scared to explore it. It’s been a wondrous mystery for so long. What if it turns out to be some passing feeling that proves to be not so deep or not so big a deal? What I do know is: it’s good to be here.
I look out my window just in time to read the words spread across the top of a giant sandstone building, “Modern American School”. Ha, that’s surreal. And there goes KFC…next a mini market belonging to someone named “Abu”. A Hardees and Burger King come into view moments later. I frown a little. But, it means Amman is approaching.
We have arrived in Turkiye! A thrill! The airport is clean, nice, busy, but efficient. After a winding, packed, yet quick line through customs and record-short wait for our luggage we move outside to get on the bus.
One step out of the sliding glass doors and I think, we could be anywhere. The cement awning and wide cement columns largely resemble LAX, but cleaner, a third fewer cars and 10 times the cigarette smoke.
My mind is swarming with thoughts. When I quiet the cluttering, demanding voices I am left with only thanks–a mind and heart swollen with thanks.
Julide is our guide, a fresh-faced, blonde, cordial Turkish woman who lives, like many, on the Asian side of the bicontinental city; most of the business is done on the European side. As we begin our drive the sun streams across the western sky through my window, warming my right cheek. International flags wave by the dozens over our steady-cruising bus as we make our way along Kennedy Street. Yes, named after our president.
We bend, circling a round-about and to my left a gigantic, elegant fountain appears, shooting and splashing powerfully and happily in the golden evening light. The Bosphorus, the natural connector between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea is on our right. Our hotel is on the north end of the Bay of Golden Horn, Julide goes on to say.
I zone out for a bit and find my eyes drawn to a large grey and and black bird on the sidewalk outside taking an end of the day bath. He dips his head in the pool of excess sprinkler water and flaps his wings in it flinging droplets off as he pulls them out. The cycle repeats. He seems satisfactorily clean, or, at least refreshed.
I am delighted by the number of small parks I see scattered along our drive. They’re littered with people. My heart is particularly warmed by a set of older couples picnicing. It’s a sweet scene. Julide tells us, “[We] love our parks.” She, with thousands of others, protested in Taksim Square against the demolishing of one of their beloved parks for the building of yet another shopping mall. ‘The shopping malls can be built elsewhere, on the outskirts of the city,’ she asserts.
Suddenly on my left emerge the ancient walls which once guarded Istanbul, then known as Constantinople. They soar perhaps 20 feet or more in height, made of grey rock with Georgia clay colored red brick stipes running decoratively through. Turrets with crenellated parapets split the wall into sections and offer an additional decorative touch as their militaristic function is long over.
The sun is now set, the gold, pink, and grey are faded into the sea and we have arrived at Larespark. A hearty meal, new friends, a quick peek around Taksim Square and a comfy bed await me. I don’t know what, but can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings! What I do know is, I like it here.