August 19, 2018
Many nations will come and say, "Come and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD And to the house of the God of Jacob, That He may teach us about His ways And that we may walk in His paths " For from Zion will go forth the law, Even the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. - Micah 4: 2
I am not falling prey to hyperbole when I assert that the holidays of April and May 2018 will be etched forever in my memory in indelible ink. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this was God’s gift to my family (my wife, two daughters and me), a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit the Holy Land (1). I consider the blessing twofold since we were accompanied by Ivan and Shobha Stephen, who have always been much more than a brother and sister to me. The sobriquet ‘Holy Land’ refers to the land located at the extreme end of the Mediterranean, bounded on the North by Lebanon, on the East by Syria and Jordan and on the South by the Sinai desert. Though very small in size (only about 14,000 sq. miles), it has played a very crucial role in history. In ancient times, it linked Egypt with Syria and Mesopotamia. In modern times, it has always been a land of unrest being the venerated holy land of the three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is also an inseparable part of the Middle East, which is the bridge between three continents. For the Jews it is the land of the Bible and their glorious past, for the Christians this is the land where Jesus lived, taught, worked miracles and suffered and for the Muslims it is the land from which the Prophet ascended to heaven. Though this has been a land of love and faith, it has also been a land of war, bloodshed and misery. Nevertheless this has always been a land of pilgrimage with pilgrims coming from all parts of the world to personally experience this land of faith and history, making Jordan, Israel and Egypt three of the most sought after tourist destinations in the world.
The Shalom Group
(1) Map of the Holy Land
25th April was a red letter day for the Shalom group as we had come to be called. Our group, a heterogeneous amalgam of enthusiastic pilgrims, young and old, drawn from different cultures and languages, comprising 48 in all, met at the Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru. Maybe a further substantiation of the phrase ‘young and old’ is in order here, since Mr Nithyanandan, the veritable epitome of wisdom and poise, stood head and shoulders above all the others at 82 years, while little Amber Charisma, my second daughter, at just 10 years, brought up the rear with her precocious energy. Mr Edward Paul, the Proprietor of Transcontinental Solutions, Bengaluru, accompanied us donning the all-important role of Tour Director. Having his better half Ms Sunitha with him no doubt fortified him in the rather daunting task of shepherding us through the length and breadth of the hallowed land. All of us agreed that having a resident doctor in the group in the young and energetic Dr John was indeed a blessing, as was proved later in the tour on more than one occasion! In keeping with the steadfast faith of King Solomon, who vehemently proclaimed in Proverbs 3: 6, “Acknowledge Him in all your ways, and he will direct thy paths,” we began our 11 day tour with prayer, submitting all of us and everything into God’s omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience. Our tour began with aplomb as we embarked the Emirates 777 Boeing to Dubai, a spirited team of excited voyagers, full of expectations of a faith renewing and exhilarating experience of the Holy Land. After a brief stopover in Dubai, we caught the connecting flight to Amman, the capital of Jordan, the first country we were to visit.
A Rendezvous with Jordan...
Jordan is a beautiful country, an exotic juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern. This struck us the moment we alighted in the Queen Alia Airport in Amman. After quickly disposing off the immigration formalities, we were housed in the comfortable Sparr Hotel in downtown Amman, where we were scheduled to spend the next two days. The delectable buffet spread for breakfast the next morning (a variety of bread, butter, cheese, jam, cereals, fruits, cakes, croissants, pies, tarts, juice, salads of different hues and texture, etc. just to name a few) was just a foretaste of the excellent food that awaited us all through the tour. Mr Sulaiman, the man with the infectious smile and encyclopaedic information took charge as our guide early in the morning and our sightseeing began the moment we climbed the comfortable High Tech Mercedes Benz bus piloted by Mr Fuhad, an experienced driver par excellence. Every day prayer by different members of the Shalom group set the day rolling, secure in the belief that everything was in the omnipotent hands of the Almighty. The sights that we visited in Amman on the 26th April included the Citadel (2) (which is said to have been occupied since the Bronze Age and is the site of the ruins of the Temple of Hercules), the Greek Orthodox Church in Madaba (3) erected on the ruins of an earlier church of the sixth century (where the mosaic map of Madaba was found in 1884), the mountain caves of Mekawer (4) (where the nomadic shepherds used to camp with their flocks) and Mount Nebo (the place where Moses was shown the Promised Land, died and was buried).
(2) Citadel, Amman, Jordan
(3) Posing with a local Jordanian
(4) Caves of Mekavar
Israel: Walking Where Jesus Walked!
Excitement was rife among the Shalom group early 27th morning as the realization slowly dawned that sometime during the day we would set foot on the hallowed soil of the Holy Land for the first time in our lives. We would also walk on the very land where Jesus walked, lived, worked His miracles, suffered for our sins, died and rose again! We were taken to the Sheikh Hussein Border where we were fortunate to be able to complete all the emigration and immigration formalities without hassles and in minimum time. We were all delighted to meet Marina who would be our friend, guide and philosopher, throughout our stay in Israel and our pilot Imad who was entrusted with the crucial task of ferrying us around Israel. The first visit after we arrived in Israel was to a very important site in the context of Christion faith – Yardenit, a baptismal site located along the river Jordan (5) in the Galilee region of Northern Israel. The Jordan River is a stream that flows from the heights of Mount Hermon to the depths of the Dead Sea and enjoys prominence both in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In fact, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
(5) Jordan River, Baptismal Site
(6) The Church of Beatitudes
(7) The Rock of Mensa Christi
(8) Peter's Fish
(9) Sea of Galilee
Next on our itinerary were visits to the Mount of Beatitudes (6) (the traditional site where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5), Tabgha (from the Greek word meaning ‘Seven Springs’, traditionally the site where Jesus fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and two fish – Mark 6: 36-44), the church of Peter’s Primacy on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (built in 1934, over a massive rock called ‘Mensa Christi’ (7) the traditional site where the Risen Jesus appeared to His disciples and gave Peter the pastoral commission of “Feed My Sheep”). After having a unique St Peter’s Fish lunch (8), we were treated to another delightful experience – a traditional fishing boat ride in the Sea of Galilee (9). Actually a lake which is 13 miles long, 7 miles wide, between 130 and 157 feet deep, about 32 miles in circumference and 686 feet below the sea level, the Sea of Galilee has also been known by the names of Tiberias and Kinneret. What excited us was the fact that the abundant fish were still caught in traditional nets as in ancient times. Listening to our National Anthem played as we ‘sailed’ around the calm azure waters, added a touch of patriotic fervour to our tour. An eventful day ended with a restful evening and night in the lovely Hotel Bali at Tiberias in Nazareth.
(10) Excavated site in old Nazareth
(11) Mount Tabor
(12) Altar of Church of Transfiguration
(13) The Church of Annunciation in Nazareth
(14) Mother Mary in Indian Saree
(15) Haifa Port City
(16) Bahai Gardens
Constraints of space in this travelogue make it inevitable that I cover only the highlights of our tour. I will try to place them under three main heads – Nazareth (10), Bethlehem and Jerusalem, though some overlap is unavoidable due to the small geographical area. 28th April, Day 4, began with a visit to the scenic Mount Tabor (11) which is crowned by the enchanting Church of Transfiguration (12). Traversing the forested mountain in small jeeps through the thick mists hovering around made the experience unforgettable. We next visited important sites like the Annunciation Church (13) (a magnificent church which boasts of architectural excellence) which houses the Grotto of the Annunciation and is believed to be the traditional site of the Annunciation. We were excited to see a statue of Mother Mary draped in an Indian saree there! (14).Another site of importance was Cana which is known throughout the Christian world as the scene of Jesus’s first miracle when “He changed water into wine” (John 2: 1-11). Some of us grabbed the opportunity to buy some bottles of the famed Cana wine in the shop we stopped at there. Two other sites we visited in passing were Joseph’s Workshop and Mary’s well before advancing towards Haifa (15), a bustling port city in Northern Israel, where we were to enjoy the bewitching Bahai Gardens (16). However, a disappointment awaited us there when we found out that the gardens were closed due to unforeseen reasons. After spending some time in Mount Carmel and Elijah’s cave, we retired to the Shepard Plaza in Bethlehem. A special thrill was manifest in the demeanours of all the pilgrims when we crossed the check point and entered Bethlehem (which means the House of Bread), the blessed place where Jesus Christ was born.
(17) Star of Bethlehem which marks the place where Jesus was born
(18) Interiors of Church of Nativity
Day 5, 29th April, was destined to be an eventful day for all of us. After visiting Hebron, known for its flourishing fruit trees, and Mamre, the traditional site where Abraham built an altar to God, we spent some time exploring the Cave of Machpela. The Mosque of Abraham, as it is known today, is built in the Crusader style and houses six tombs which are said to stand directly above the graves of the patriarchs and their wives buried in the cave. The tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are covered with green and gold cloths while those of Sara, Rebecca and Leah with crimson cloths. After a stopover for shopping Israeli souvenirs and lunch, we set out to what is arguably one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world – the Church of the Nativity which is built over the consecrated cave where Jesus was born. A patient wait of nearly three hours in a long and winding queue along with scores of fervent devotees of different nationalities, all jostling to get a glimpse of the place where Jesus was born, was definitely worthwhile when we finally got to bend on fours and touch the silver star with the Latin inscription meaning ‘Here Christ was born’ (17). The rectangular shaped cave lit by 48 lamps has the Holy Manger to its right. The Basilica is built in the shape of a cross, 170 feet long and 80 feet wide, and still has the beautiful Greek Orthodox choir made from hand carved wood from the cedars of Lebanon (18). After a brief stopover at the closed gates of the Shepherd’s Field where it is believed the Shepherds heard the herald of the angels at the birth of Christ, we moved towards the heart of Israel, the undisputed queen of the world’s cities for 30 centuries, Jerusalem, which still stands high amidst the barren Judean hills.
(19) Western Wall Tunnels in Jerusalem
(20) Dome of the Rock
The Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall, is the holiest shrine of the Jewish world. It is revered as the last relic of the last Temple. It is a portion of the retaining wall that Herod built around the second Temple in 20 B.C. This came to be known as the Wailing Wall from the custom of Jews who come to the wall to lament the dispersion of their people and weep over the ruins of the Holy Temple. The custom of praying at the wall has continued for centuries. Spending some quiet time in the large esplanade was a once in a lifetime experience for all of us. An unexpected treat in store for us was the exploration of the Western Wall Tunnels (19) led by a specially designated guide who gave us a wealth of information regarding the excavations undertaken there.
The last day of April held in its grasp a lifetime’s worth of unique experiences for all of us. We began the day in Mount Moriah, also called the Temple Mount, which is the site of two very important monuments, the Dome of the Rock (20) and El Aksa. Beneath the Dome of the Rock, easily the most exquisite and striking monument in Jerusalem with its Byzantine design and oriental decorations, lies the rock of Mount Moriah or the Rock of Creation. This rock which is 15 yards long, 12 yards wide and rises to a height of 2 yards above the ground, is the traditional rock where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son and is believed to be the centre of the world. The Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven in a night journey from this rock and consider this as their third holiest place in the world. Very close to this lies the El Aksa, also called the distant Mosque built between 709 and 715 AD. This stands almost on the site of King Solomon’s palace.
(21) The Garden Tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem
If at all I were asked to choose one place which made the biggest personal impact on me, I would without any hesitation declare that it was the Garden Tomb! (21) This site north of the Damascus Gate is believed to be the place of the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus Christ. The rocky hill which resembles a human skull, the presence of the rock hewn tomb and the peaceful atmosphere of the Garden Tomb give the place a truly spiritual ambience which inspires profound faith and devotion. Partaking in the Holy Communion there, added piety and a sense of fulfilment to the entire Holy Land pilgrimage experience. Quick visits to the world famous David’s Tomb, Dormition Abbey and the Last Supper Room preceded the visit to Mount Zion where we were shown the church of St Peter in Gallicantu which marks the place where Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. This is built on what was Caiaphas’ House where the desolate dungeons where Jesus was tried and tortured are still preserved, bringing alive the agony Jesus underwent for our sakes.
(22) Anointing Stone where Jesus' body was laid
Post lunch we had the marvellous opportunity to walk around the Jerusalem old city, down the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows) where Jesus was made to carry his heavy cross and walk down the narrow path to Golgotha (also called Calvary), past the Flagellation Chapel, Condemnation Church, all the stations of the cross, culminating in the well-known landmark - the Holy Sepulchre. The most memorable monument in the Holy Sepulchre which attracts swarms of pilgrims from all over the world is the anointing stone where Jesus’ body was laid and prepared for burial (22). This also gave us the opportunity to spend some time in the Church of St Anne, a church endowed with special acoustics (mikes are not necessary here), located near the Lion’s Gate almost where the Via Dolorosa begins. This Church will forever hold a fond place in my heart since my daughter Rachel Priyanka got the blessed opportunity to sing for the glory of God, the haunting solo ‘Via Dolorosa’.
(23) Old Olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane
(24) Jacob's Well
(25) Cable car ride in the Mount of Temptation
Day 7, the last full day in the land of milk and honey was far from being the least since we began our day by visiting a ruined Byzantine Church followed by Pater Noster, said to commemorate the place where Jesus taught His disciples the Lord’s Prayer. This place has the Lord’s Prayer in almost all the well-known languages of the world. One can imagine our excitement when we found one of its walls presenting the Lord’s Prayer in our very own Kannada. Next we walked down the Palm Sunday road on the slopes of the Mount of Olives past the oldest and largest Jewish cemetery in the world to the Dominus Flavit, also called the little teardrop church, crossed the Kidron valley, (which separates the mount of Olives from the City of Jerusalem), to the beautiful garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus loved to spent his time in prayer and solitude). This is also the garden where Jesus spent the last night before crucifixion and underwent the most sorrowful hour of His passion. Some of the olive trees still found here are said to date back to many centuries (23). One of the highlights of the morning was seeing Jacob’s well which amazingly still carries potable water (24). Next, we made our way to Jericho to the Mount of Temptation. Jericho lies in the Jordan valley which is a great rift in the earth’s crust, extending from Mount Hermon in the North to the Gulf of Aqaba in the South. The breath-taking aerial view from the cable car ride to the Mount of Temptation (25) added novelty to the lunch experience there. The mandatory task of shopping for high quality dates was completed prior to lunch. After halting the bus briefly in front of the Sycamore tree made famous by Zachaeus, we reached the Qumran National Park. The impressive 3D sound and light show there, gave us interesting insights into the history and lifestyle of the desert nomads, the Bedouins. This is also the place where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found, confirming beyond doubt all the old Hebrew religious texts.
(26) Dead Sea
The rather hectic day was rounded off by spending nearly two hours of relaxation at the Dead Sea (26). This unique geographical phenomenon bordering Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, is a salt lake whose banks are more than 400 meters below sea level. Its hypersaline water with very high density makes floating easy and its mineral-rich black mud is used for therapeutic and cosmetic treatments. The fact that this was the lowest point on Earth that people could travel to in the open air made the whole experience very special for all of us. The day ended with a visit to Bethany where we climbed down into Lazarus’ Tomb. The last evening in Israel was earmarked for the special feedback meeting with the organizers wherein a very pleasant surprise awaited the Shalom Group. Each member was presented with a medal and certificate proclaiming him/her to be a certified Jerusalem Pilgrim. Justin Timberlake’s exhortation still reverberates in my mind, “The Holy Land... What an experience. I will never forget this day!”
Romantic Egypt, the Gift of the Nile!
2nd May, the Day 8 of the tour began with a long drive to Tabha where we were shown a replica of the Holy Tabernacle of the Israelites and a guide familiarised us with the rituals practised by the Israelites of the Old Testament. After lunch, we drove through the Wilderness of Judea, a fascinating journey through the vast deserts full of sand dunes of different shapes and hues, a veritable treat for the eye! After passing the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah and taking a quick peek at a rock which looked very much like a pillar in human profile (traditionally believed to mark the place where Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt), we bid a fond farewell to Israel and our dear friends Marina and Imad, in the emigration check point. The immigration formalities on the Egypt side were efficiently completed with the help of Nour, our Travel Coordinator, and Meher Habib, our affable guide, and the Shalom group stepped into the third country on our itinerary, Egypt, bringing back nostalgic memories of the geography teacher of our childhood talking about the generosity of the gift of the Nile. An hour’s drive through the bewitchingly beautiful landscape, on both sides of the road, brought us to the picturesque resort Le Meredien in Dahab, where we stayed overnight and rejuvenated our flagging spirits.
(27) The Red Sea in Dahab, Egypt
(28) Corals under the Red Sea
I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say that the glass boat ride the next morning (Day 9, 3rd May), easily ranked among the best and most enjoyed activities of the tour. We were taken into the reddish- blue waters of the lovely Red Sea (27) in two special motor boats with see- through glass bottoms which gave us a rare peep into the eye-catching, colourful sea-world, rich with tropical fish of different hues and shapes and scores of enticing corals (28) of rare shades. This was a lovely prelude to what was easily the longest and most arduous journey of the entire tour – the road trip from Dahab to Cairo. After a brief stopover at St Catherine’s Monastery, where we saw ‘Moses’ burning bush and Moses’ well, we continued our travel towards Cairo via Rephidim (a place where the Israelites camped during their exodus from Egypt), Marah ( the Israelites couldn’t drink the waters because it was bitter), Elim (an oasis where there were 12 wells and 70 palm trees with ample drinking water) and the famous Suez Canal (an artificial sea-level waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez, officially opened in 1869). The saving grace in all our road journeys was the rapturous singing of many of the gifted singers in the Shalom Group whose angelic voices truly lifted our sagging spirits. Our first glimpse of Cairo reminded us of our very own Mumbai, a busy metropolis surging with throngs of people. After encountering a mild traffic jam, we reached our destination, the majestic Grand Nile Tower, resplendent in the heart of the city on the banks of the spectacular Nile. The opulence and grandeur of the hotel where we were scheduled to stay the last two nights of our tour was like an icing on the cake for the Shalom group.
(29) The Pyramids of Giza in Egypt
(30) Cave church in Cairo, Egypt
The dawn of a new day (Day 10, 4th May), after yet another sumptuous breakfast in the hotel, saw us set out to visit one of the most awesome wonders of the world, the magnificent Great Pyramids of Giza (29). The photo shoot with the pyramids in the background, the visit to the vantage point where we could feast our eyes on the panoramic view of all the pyramids together and a fleeting look at the mysterious Sphinx took most of our morning. The hour spent in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo (which houses more than 120,000 pieces of invaluable antiquities of ancient Egypt), was an educative experience for all of us. This was followed by visits to a factory where many expensive, exotic, aromatic perfumes were available for sale, a government approved outlet of Papyrus scrolls and a shop where exquisite clothes made of the world famous Egyptian cotton were sold.
Post lunch, we forayed into the Mokattam mountain in Southeastern Cairo, the site of the Cave Church, also called Saint Simon Monastery (30). It is fascinating to know that this church is located in an area known as the garbage city because of the large population of Zabbaleen (garbage collectors) who live there. The church can seat more than 20,000 worshippers at a time making it one of the largest churches in the country. The hallmark of the St Simon monastery is the large number of beautiful biblical episodes and scenes sculpted over its rocky walls. After this we were allowed some free time to shop for artefacts and mementos at the famous Ein El Khalil market in Cairo. All of us who climbed the bus to return to the hotel were in for a pleasant surprise. Nour and Habeeb’s company and Mr Edward Paul had jointly sponsored a very unique gift for every member of the Shalom Group, a beautiful scroll of papyrus with the Ten Commandments etched in Hebrew! It was only befitting that the lovely day in Cairo was crowned by the much sought after Nile river cruise on the glittering boat ‘Andrea’. The surprise birthday party arranged for Shermel Nathania, daughter of the Nesans in the Shalom Group, added joy to the regular attractions of the cruise (which included sensational acts like belly dance, juggling, calisthenics and oriental music) and made the evening remarkable and memorable.
The morning of 5th May (Day 11), saw most of the members of the Shalom group harbouring mixed feelings. Joyous that we would be back home after the travails of a hectic 11 day sojourn in three countries and melancholic that the lovely tour we enjoyed so much would end soon! The last morning in Cairo was spent in visiting the Coptic Churches which included the Hanging Church, the Greek Church of St George, etc. St Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Hanging Church, is one of the oldest churches in Egypt dating back to the 3rd Century AD. It is believed in Christian tradition that the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus) visited this area and stayed here for some time. Coptic Cairo was a stronghold of Christianity in Egypt until the Islamic era. After having lunch we travelled directly to the Cairo International Airport to begin our return journey by the Emirates Boeing 777 to the Kempe Gowda International Airport, Bengaluru, via Dubai.
The well-known contemporary American novelist Ursula Le Guin hit the nail on its head when she exhorted in her science fiction novel ‘The Left Hand of Darkness”, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” I’m sure that all of us, who were a part of this Divine journey will cherish till our very last breath God’s munificent gift of visiting, experiencing and savouring the truly wonderful encounter with the land where our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was born, grew up, served, suffered, died and rose again for our sake. I would also like to believe that, as David Mitchell puts it very succinctly in his Cloud Atlas, “…there ain’t no journey what don’t change you some”, I’m confident that all of us came back from our pilgrimage, a little mellowed, a little rejuvenated,... a little changed!