Our pilgrim group has seen many interesting sights in Israel, including a large number of young soldiers scattered here and there. Military service is compulsory for all Israeli citizens except Orthodox Jews, including women. Men must serve three years, and women a bit less than two. The women’s uniforms are surprisingly fashionable (if hip-hugging fatigues and sandals can be considered fashion), and some of our folks couldn’t resist asking for a picture with them.
On Friday morning, our first stop was Hamat Teverya, an ancient synagogue on the south side of Tiberias, which is called Tverya or Teverya in Hebrew. The synagogue, like many of the second-to-sixth century buildings we’ve seen, had a beautiful mosaic floor.
What sets this one apart is the non-Jewish influence seen in the building: the largest element in the mosaic is a zodiac. The end closest to the bema, a raised place where the elders would sit, includes two giant menorahs (seven-branched candlestands) and a large ark (a chest in which the Torah scrolls are kept).
From Hamat Teverya we went to the baptismal site, and from there we drove south through the rift valley to the site of Bet Shean, where an ancient tell comprising some 20 layers of civilization overlooks the amazing ruins of the first and second century Roman city of Scythopolis. Scythopolis was so-named because it was settled by the Scythians (modern Ukraine), and it was the only one of the ten Roman cities called the “Decapolis” to be located on the west bank of the Jordan. The Decapolis cities, home to Gentiles, were mentioned several times in the New Testament (Matt. 4:25; Mark 5:20, 7:31).
The old Canaanite city of Bet Shean is close to the Jordan River, but was controlled by the Egyptians for much of its history. During the 10th century, the Philistines managed to gain control of it for a period when Saul was king. It is best known to us from the story of Saul’s death and its aftermath in 1 Samuel 31:8-13. Saul died in battle with the Philistines at nearby Gilboa. When the Philistines found him, they cut off his head and hung his body on the walls of Bet Shean. Later, brave men from Jabesh-Gilead, on the eastern bank of the Jordan, came and recovered Saul’s body so they could give it a proper burial. The wall pictured here is atop the tell and may have been part of the city wall system.
Only a few of us ventured to the top of the tell, which required a long hike up some very hot steps: we were well below sea-level, the temperature was in the 90s, and it was also very humid). Those who made the effort, however, were well-rewarded, as we saw a variety of artifacts, including the detritus of a temple to Zeus, and the remains of the 12th century B.C. Egyptian governor’s residence. The walls of the residence were built of clay bricks made with straw, much like the ones the Israelites made in Egypt. Several statues and stelae were found on the tell (these are copies: the originals are in the Israel Museum). We also spotted some ancient Egyptian dancing girls who were remarkably well-preserved.
The tell also offered a birds-eye view of the Roman city below. You can see large public baths to the right (the part that has a tent-like top over it), the columned “cardo” or main street down the center, the cultic area to the left, and the theater at the top left of the photo.
The theater itself is remarkably well preserved, with two of the original three levels still largely intact.
Arched entries and exits allowed access, and a “dress circle” of front row seats had backs so patrons could lean back.
We were even able to visit the public toilets just behind the theater. The Romans were persnickety about cleanliness, but not about modesty. In the photo, one can see a small trough into which men could urinate. For those needing to sit down, marble slabs with beveled edges were set into the wall over a larger trough through which water wa
s diverted, washing the sewage into a nearby stream – which carried it to the Jordan River. Doron encouraged the men to pose first, then the women.
From Bet-Shean we drove on to Jericho, leaving our guide Doron to cool his heels in a service station while we drove through a checkpoint and into the city. Jericho is a Palestinian city within the occupied West Bank, and Jews are not allowed to enter. We had no trouble getting through the checkpoint, and virtually nothing to see in Jericho – the old tell there is small, and very few remains have been found. Of those that have been uncovered, however, there is a tower thought to date from as much as 10-12,000 years ago, making Jericho one of the oldest, if not the oldest, cities in the world. In the Bible, it figures prominently in the story of Israel’s entrance to the promised land (where “Joshua fit de battle ob Jericho”), and in the New Testament, where Zacchaeus climed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. We stopped by an oft-photographed sycamore tree so the group could see what it looked like.
Our main purpose in going to Jericho, truth be told, was to visit an outlet store for ceramics and blown glass made in Hebron, which is also in the West Bank, but off-limits for tourists, too. The walls of Jericho didn’t come tumbling down, but the dollars did. After a long-awaited shopping spree, we stopped briefly to photograph the traditional site “Mount of Temptation,” picked up Doron from his temporary exile, and drove to Bethany, following the course that Jesus might have taken when he came to Jerusalem.
While Capernaum was Jesus’ home in the Galilee, Bethany was his home when he came to Jerusalem, lodging there with his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. We visited an old tomb that is the traditional site of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. In honor of Lazarus, the village is no longer called Bethany, but El Azariyah, the Arabic spelling of Lazarus.
After emerging from the tomb, we accomplished what many in our group had been longing for, “going up” to Jerusalem. Doron played “Jerusalem” on the bus stereo and asked us to sing along as we drove through a tunnel and out onto a ring road around the city, from which we could look to the left and see the Old City. We arrived from the east, but drove around to the south side, where we parked at a place called “The Promenade” for our first pictures of the city.
After satisfying our shutter-happy fingers, we heard Psalm 122, a psalm in praise of Jerusalem. We then sang “Children of God, we are marching to Zion,” and as the psalm encouraged us to do, we prayed for the peace of Jerusalem.
A long day ended at our hotel, Ramat Rachel. Though within the city limits of Jerusalem, it is not far from Bethlehem. We were all glad to find there was room at the inn.
[Note: some of these photos, including the last one, can be expanded somewhat. The signal speed comes and goes, but I was able to get a larger version of Jerusalem posted.]