The day began at the famed Western Wall, also known as the “Wailing Wall,” the closest that modern Jews can come to the site of the former temple. The bottom courses of the Western Wall are from the time of King Herod, dating to more than 2,000 years ago. The wall was not part of the temple itself, but a retaining wall built to strengthen the Temple Mount. When Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. and “not one stone was left upon another” as Jesus had predicted (Luke 21:6), all was destroyed but the western wall.
To enter the Western Wall area, we had to go through security, and at least one of our female members was pulled aside by an Israeli woman we called the “shawl police” for having sleeves too short and flouncy. She was given a shawl to wear while visiting the wall. Because the site is controlled by Orthodox Jews, men and women must pray separately. Many in our group followed the tradition of writing payers and tucking them into cracks in the wall or between the blocks (top photo).
Multiple Bar Mitzvahs were being conducted (they’re usually held on Mondays and Thursdays), and we were able to observe young boys binding on their tephilin, or phylacteries, for the first time, reading from a large Torah Scroll (kept in the wooden cabinets), and being pronounced a man while simultaneously be showered with hard candy. The Bar Mitzvahs are generally held by the dividing fence so women family members can stand on chairs and watch over the fence.
From the Western Wall we went through a different (and more thorough) security checkpoint on the way to the Temple Mount, which is under Muslim jurisdiction. Though we had all worn clothes that covered our knees and shoulders, we were harangued by a man who complained that some of the women’s sleeves were too short. He and our guide Doron carried on an animated conversation in Arabic as a couple of men who had T-shirts beneath donated their outer shirts to those with the shortest sleeves and we slipped onto the Mount.
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem has been under Muslim control since a Muslim Kurd named Salahadin reconquered Jerusalem near the end of the Crusades. Though Israelis are in charge of security, out of respect they allow Muslims to continue their control of the site, which is the third holiest site for Muslims, who believe that Muhammad (along with Jesus, Moses, and some other prophets) ascended to heaven from a rock that is now in the Dome of the Rock, also called the Mosque of Omar.
Our next stop at the remains of the Pool of Bethesda brought a refreshing surprise for most of our travelers – not from the pool (which is dry) – but from a short time of worship at St. Anne’s Church, a Crusader structure built to honor a tradition (almost certainly inaccurate) that Mary’s mother was there, and that Mary had been born in Jerusalem. Outside the church, we read the story of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool, and inside the church we sang hymn after hymn in a place with the best acoustics we’d ever heard: sound would continue to echo and ring in the stone sanctuary for many seconds after we’d stopped singing. Some could have stayed and sung all day.
Walking into Jerusalem, we came to the Antonia, also called “Pilate’s Judgment Hall,” a large Roman guardhouse built to watch over the Temple Mount, and a possible place where Jesus might have been temporarily imprisoned and appeared before Pilate. In a low-ceilinged room beneath the present street, we came to where archaeologists have uncovered what they believe to be the very pavement upon which Jesus would have walked.
There we read the story of how Jesus was abused by his captors, and
then had the opportunity to walk on the same stone pavers that Jesus might have trod. Some chose to remove their shoes, as if walking on holy ground, while others took a moment to contemplate the significance of the place.
We enjoyed a walk through the Arab Quarter on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcre, passing stalls that were redolent with large bags and mounds of spices, or colorfully covered in candy – something my son Samuel would have liked.
Getting through the market without getting lost or separated too far from each other was a challenge: the narrow aisles were crowded with shoppers, shopkeepers, hawkers, and delivery boys bouncing down the path with carts filled with pitas or other items.At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built atop sites with ancient traditions of its being the place where Jesus was both crucified and buried, we saw lots of marble and gold, but few hints of anything that looked like “a hill far away.” Inside the church, we could climb stairs to what is there called Golgatha. A bit of rock is visible beneath glass panels, but most of the space is taken up by ornate lamps, statues, icons, and an altar. Greek Orthodox line up for the chance to kneel and lean forward under the altar to kiss an icon of Jesus.
After lunch and some free time for shopping in the market, we went back in time, walking down to the City of David, which was the first part of Jerusalem to be settled, outside of the present city walls. There we saw recent excavations that have uncovered remains of public buildings and structures that go back to the time of David in the 10th century BC. In fact, the pavilion at which we bought tickets and cold drinks is built on stilts directly over the remains of what some believe to be David’s palace.
The fun part came when about half of our group climbed down many steps and braved the cold waters of Gihon Spring to walk through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, an underground passageway built in the 8th century at the order of King Hezekiah, who wanted to protect the water supply during a time of siege. A tunnel was built to the gushing spring, and it was then covered over, both hiding and protecting the city’s access to water.
Our day’s touring ended at the Garden Tomb, which has a much shorter tradition, but a much closer feel to what we imagine the place of Christ’s death and burial would have been like. The site, which was purchased and is maintained by a British organization, overlooks “Gordon’s Calvary,” a hill whose face bears a clear resemblance to a skull – overlooking the terminal of an Arab bus company.
At the tomb, we heard an explanation of why the site’s operators believe it is more likely to be the actual site, and each person had an opportunity to go inside the tomb for a few moments. Afterward, we adjourned to a nearby pavilion for a time of worship. We sang “The Old Rugged Cross,” and David Vesper, pastor of Beaufort Original Free Will Baptist Church, led a time of reflection on the significance of the resurrection. Dr. Wakefield then led us in receiving the Lord’s Supper, which included real wine in little olive wood cups, where we were allowed to keep as souvenirs. The garden was so peaceful, and the experience so meaningful, that many wanted to remain their much longer, but the site managers were anxious to close for the day, and we were not able to tarry long.
As the bus returned us to Ramat Rachel in time for dinner at 6:30, seriousness turned to levity as Dr. Wakefield, clad in a jaunty academic hat and hood, was awarded a “Master of Punology” degree by those who have a special appreciation for his unique sense of humor and lightning-quick pun reflex.
Following dinner we prepared for another early wakeup call. Tomorrow, we dig.
[Note: all of the photos in this blog can be expanded by clicking on them.]
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.