The ship was originally to dock in Ashdod (about one hour from Jerusalem), but upon boarding we discovered a change in itinerary to Haifa (about two-and-a-half hours from Jerusalem)! Luckily, our pre-organized-via-the-internet guide was able to accommodate the change and we were met and whisked away from Haifa on busy Sunday morning. We were a group of ten in a small bus with an excellent guide who gave us a terrific overview of life in Israel as well as historical facts.
We drove south along the Mediterranean lapping on beautiful sand beaches on one side of the road, and manicured banana plantations on the other. Arriving in the outskirts of Jerusalem, the traffic became quite dense as in any metropolitan area and we skirted the old walls and drove directly to Bethlehem, passing through the checkpoint at the very high and oppressive looking wall dividing Israel and the Palestinian Territories. I was very pleasantly surprised by the small part of Bethlehem that we saw – much more progressive and tidier than I would have imagined, with the locals going about their daily lives as everywhere else. Our guide in Bethlehem was a Christian Arab whose church uses the Aramaic language – he very beautifully recited the Lord’s Prayer for us in Aramaic. We visited the church of the Nativity and despite long queues, were even sneaked into the crypt area where it is believed that Jesus was born. Leaving Bethlehem was not as fast and easy as entering, but nonetheless after about 30 minutes, we were on our way to the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem.
Our tour of Jerusalem comprised the typical sights – the church of Mount Zion and the site of the last supper; through the Armenian and Jewish sections where we saw mostly orthodox jews going about their business to the Arab sector and through the bazaar to the via del Rosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The wailing wall (or Western Wall) never fails to impress, especially being there in the late afternoon when the warm light was illuminating the gold on the Dome of the Rock, and the limestone surrounding the square and off into the distance. Golgotha and the Mount of Olives, where it’s believed that the magnificent olive trees could have witnessed events from over 2000 years ago!
Jerusalem has grown and spread enormously in the 35 years since I was last there, but I am thankful to see that the beautiful Jerusalem limestone continues to be used. Our visit was much, much too short, but at least enough to gain a sense of the place and its very rich history for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike – layer upon layer.