Vacation, Thompson style. Day One.
I think if I could count that high, I would say we have seen a million cool places all over the world. Famous places, not so famous places, a few infamous places and super cool, off-the-beaten-path places. Most we plan, some we stumble upon, and some become amazing after we ponder and realize the significance.
Our trip to Israel truly encompasses all four of those descriptions. We went for 5 days, including travel time, and hired a personal guide (a rabbi) to show us around. Not only did Eitan know his favorite cities inside and out, he was able to weave the Judeo-Christian history into just about everything we saw. He was full of stories, facts and de-bunks…and a bit of the American humor we have missed. We spent two nights in Jerusalem and two nights in Tiberias. We went up north to the Golan Heights, and down south of the Dead Sea to Masada. As full and rich as our trip was, it was really the corner bite of the brownie of what we would love to experience there.
Now, the sensational trip aside for a moment, you must know that despite esteemed locations, the Thompsons always manage to miss the mark on either the food or the lodging or (more times than I can remember), both. Here is how our trip began:
We had an easy trip (thanks, Easy Jet!) and going through the passport control/customs was easy, too. We got a cab rather quickly, and headed to Jerusalem. It was about a half hour drive from the Ben Guiron airport to our hotel, from flat land to inhabited hills. The cab was nice enough, but there was a television screen where the GPS would normally be, and the news was showing. Our driver was extremely passionate about what was on (Syria, F-16’s and the US Embassy change) and was screaming at the TV and gesticulating with his hands in exasperation. My rosary beads were spinning in the backseat, where I sat with Liam, willing the driver to keep his eyes on the road and not be mad at us because of world events. The cab driver (finally!) dropped us off at the bottom of a hill and charged what we thought was an exorbitant amount, but what do you do? It is dark, the car had no meter, and we had to get to the hotel. It doesn’t bode well when you think your first interaction was a bit of a hijinks, but we moved on. Literally. Down a dark, exiguous alleyway, above the pet store and across from a building renovation and a bar, we found our way to this hotel that looked “great on the internet”, which is code for our family meaning it was NOT what we thought we were getting. Ready to put the trepidation behind us, only to be told we couldn’t check in (it was 7pm and after sundown) and because of Shabbat, the people in our room requested a late check out. Okay. Not a problem. Then, apparently we had a reservation for two on the first night and three the second, so we had to pay a larger amount than what we paid in our reservation. Okay. We asked the rather petulant desk person where we should go to dinner while we waited, and he pointed to the right, which we saw the next day in the light that all the restaurants were to the left. Again, okay. We walked around the dark streets, feeling the stares of the few people out. Nothing looked good for dinner but we finally found a pub~ loud, smoky, smelly, which worked out well enough to feed our bellies with fried food and Israeli libations. When we came back to the Gotham hotel, the room was ready and we were happy to just get there, get showered and ready for our big day.
Well…we get up to the room and the door is open! They were still cleaning it. We stood in the hall as the guy finished, and then thought we were set. Liam jumped in the shower and Wade and I were watching TV, when someone just unlocks the door and walks into our room! Oh, good gracious! They had the wrong room or were given the wrong key…Whatever. It was disconcerting and then struck us hysterical. We were definitely punchy at this point. We were finally ready to go to sleep…that is, until 11:45pm, when there was a knock at the door and then a stronger banging. I opened the door (no peep hole) and there is the housekeeper with a duvet. I took it and put it on L, but was completely perplexed as we never ordered it and it had been hours since we checked in.
Our hotel (which was highly rated on the internet) is in West Jerusalem, across from a roof top bar~and apparently, that night was a huge Israeli soccer match on TV. Plus, they had a DJ, just to add to the pandemonium. There were car alarms going off all night and morning long…and the workers began working on the renovation across from our room at 6 a.m. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep! Well, Liam did, all comfy cozy in his duvet delivered at midnight.
But, what does that matter when we had Jerusalem waiting? We headed to the Jaffa Gate to meet our tour guide, Eitan.
We first went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. We went through the church (with a thousand pilgrims) and decided to not stand in the 1.5/2 hour line to see the tomb since we were coming back for Mass at 6:30 that night~We figured we’d come early for church and see it then. It brought tears to my eyes thinking about what happened on Calvary and standing in the courtyard where the hill was, seriously gave me a pain in my heart and I felt for a second I couldn’t breathe. I was taken back in time in my thoughts and reacting in time with my body. Surreal.
We walked through all four quarters of the Old City. We walked the Via Delarosa backwards from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, stopping to reflect on the Fifth Station (Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus) and the Sixth Station (Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.). It was so incredible if you could tune everything else out…the crowds, the photos, the merchants, the shops, etc. Stopping also at the First Station, where there is an arch that is believed to be where Pilate stood when Jesus was brought before him (“Ecce homo”). This is in the Armenian quarter and the walls that Hadrian built have been recovered there. We went into the Church of the Flagellation. AMAZING. Again, being in the courtyard took my breath away, literally. There is another chapel there, the Church of Condemnation, where Jesus was stripped, and carved into the floor, in the stone, is the gambling game that the Roman soldiers used when they cast lots for Jesus’ tunic. I had always pictured a random dice game for some reason, but apparently it was a game with a “board” and rules.
We had tea with an Armenian Catholic who owns an icon shop. When the Russian Jews came to Israel, they had no money so they used their icons as currency. The Armenians, who have the best view of the city of all the quarters, have most of the Icons. It was like walking through a museum with delicious tea and a new friend. Oh, and yes, we bought an icon. =) It is unique and will be a lovely addition to our collection and an extremely special memento.
We went through the Muslim quarter, into the Jewish quarter. We went to the Western Wall (Wailing Wall), where I had to go off by myself to pray at the Wall, while the boys went to the larger section, because the men and women worship separately there. The sun was out and the wall was crowded and my heart was full and happy! We went to lunch at a place Eitan likes that had great shawarma and falafel. I was totally in heaven with all the Mediterranean food! Lunch was very good and it was nice to people (and cat) watch. There were a plethora of adorable children and oodles of cats.
After lunch, we went to the Tomb of David and the Abbey of Dormition, where it is said the Blessed Mother went to sleep and Jesus came and took her to Heaven. It is beautiful, even though I had never thought of her dying here in Jerusalem. I believe she was Assumed Body and Soul, and from what I was taught, I didn’t think of it happening in Jerusalem. It is a beautiful church though, no matter how you think she left this earth. We went to where the Last Supper supposedly occurred (the Cenacle/Coenaculum). It is now a room that the city of Jerusalem was going to give Pope Francis when he visited, but local Muslim officials said that the city can’t give it because it was a mosque, even thought it was a Catholic Church before the Ottomans turned it into a mosque. So now the city owns the room for all to visit. Our guide told us it is unrealistic that this was THE room of the Last Supper because it is above the tomb of David, and pious Jews wouldn’t have had the Passover meal over a tomb. Plus, it was built in 12th C. , and is very Gothic. BUT, the site of the Last Supper was near there, somewhere. This room very well could have been where the Apostles stayed (in the upper room) when the Holy Spirit came to them at Pentecost. This is by the Zion gate in the Jewish quarter. So. Incredibly. Amazing.
We then drove around the city wall, along East Jerusalem up to the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Basilica of the Agony, all on the same hill. It is a place of importance for the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.
The Basilica of the Agony, also called the Church of All Nations, is the third church that was built on the site. The first was in the 300’s, Byzantine, then again in by the Crusaders in the 1200’s and most recently in early 20th century by Italian monk and architect, Antonio Barluzzi. Many nations contributed to the building, hence the name. As an aside, Barluzzi also was commissioned to design/restore (to name just the ones we visited) the Church of the Flagellation, Church of Mount Tabor, the Church of All Nations, the Church of the Visitation, and the Church of the Beatitudes. It is unknown if the olive trees we saw were there in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was there~some say yes, some say no, but they are about a thousand years old, and maybe even older. We went into the church, where it was the end of Mass, during the Eucharist, which was so beautiful to watch. The Mount of Olives is mostly brown, covered in thousands of little Jewish tombs. That caught us off guard that it would be so brown, but learned the compelling history of the ten thousand-plus tombs. Looking from above the tombs, you can see all of Jerusalem and imagine life two thousand, three thousand years ago.
We drove around the city gates the other way and Eitan dropped us off at the Jaffa gate so we could go back to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for Mass. We had plenty of time so we could visit the tomb and pray before Mass. Great idea BUT the Church was closed and locked. Wade learned from a TV reporter who was there at apparently there was an issue with the city claiming back taxes weren’t paid and the Church (owned by the Latin, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches) said they were exempt…and so in a matter of unfortunate political timing, they shut the Church at noon (just after we left that morning) and it would be closed until this was resolved. It was disappointing for us and extremely disheartening for all those who may have saved for years and have traveled so far for their pilgrimages. At least we got a lot of it in that morning~and hopefully those who traveled so far to get there were able to go in later that week when it reopened.
Near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the Russian Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky’s chapel. There, the wall that Jesus referred to in Matthew 19:24, about the eye of the needle and the camel is preserved. There is also the archway and stones that Jesus walked on and through on His way to be condemned. Can I say again how incredibly cool it was to be standing right there?
We ended up leaving the Old City after that (well, with one more check at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) and walked home along the the Jaffa Road. The day was full of sights, spanning thousands of years. Our brains and our hearts were full. I am reminded of Psalm 122, never really thinking I would be able to literally be saying this prayer: I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” And now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem. Jerusalem, built as a city, walled round about. Here the tribes have come, the tribes of the Lord. As it was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. Here are the thrones of the house of David. For the peace of Jerusalem pray: “May those who love you prosper! May peace be within your ramparts, prosperity within your towers.” For family and friends I say, “May peace be yours.” For the house of the Lord, our God, I pray, “May blessings be yours.”
Whether some of the sites were THE exact sites or not, we know what happened and that it happened right near there, so with faith, it doesn’t really matter if it was the precise point. There are some places that are exact, and those truly brought tears to my eyes and made my breath catch. It was humbling being there in Jesus’ footsteps. The one place I wanted to see more closely was the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, where he denied Jesus three times on the night of His arrest. We got near the church, but it is further in East Jerusalem and we had a full day already…I did get to see it from above at David’s tomb. It truly is amazing being where our Church began, where the Christ, the Apostles, and now we, trod. And how the three major religions all hold this area as holy, and it is all respected.
The graces received are immeasurable. To see so many faithful, Hebrew and Christian, warranted reverential attention. There is a peace there in this ancient, holy, walled city, a peace that is outwardly displayed. Maybe it is tolerance, but I believe it is a genuine peace. A peace that comes from above, that fills the hearts of all who meander through the streets. Those who live there, those who work there, those who traveled to be there and those who have lived to be able to be there. If only this peace could be taken and spread further~through all of Jerusalem, all of Israel, through all of the Middle East, through all of the world. It is there. I felt it. I saw it. I want to always live it. I want the whole world to feel it. To know it. To live it. SHA-ALU SHALOM YIRUSHALAYIM”.