Our destination was Israel, the Middle Eastern country that is well known as the Holy Land. The land, especially Jerusalem, is holy for Christians, Muslims and Jews. Israel is associated with the birth, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whom the Christians regard as the Savior or Messiah. So, Israel is indeed the ultimate pilgrimage destination for most.
Personally, the trip provided an out-of-the world experience and brought life into the biblical stories I had learnt as a child. For my wife, Alice, the trip was more of a spiritual experience.
Alice and I boarded the United Airlines flight UA 954 from San Francisco to Tel Aviv. We enjoyed the flight and it did not feel tiresome, probably, because of the anticipation of what lay ahead of us,
We were thrilled to set foot on Holy Land as we arrived at the Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport around 10 PM on a Sunday. The airport, named after Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, is the main international airport of Israel. It is around 20 km southeast of Tel Aviv City, the main economic and technological centre in the country.
We did not have any hassles picking up the baggage or at the passport control and were picked up outside the airport by our pre-arranged driver. We were driven to our hotel, where the booking had already been made. After checking in and freshening up, we decided to venture out for a walk, just to experience the nightlife of Tel Aviv.
Day 1, Monday:
The next morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we met our family friend and his Australian wife as well. It was time to start our exploration of the Holy Land. An air-conditioned van picked us up outside the hotel at the pre-determined time. The driver was also doubling up as guide for the tour of Israel.
On the first day, we drove through Tel Aviv city, going towards south, passing the cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon to Beersheba, the largest city in the Negev desert of Southern Israel.
Our next destination was the ancient fortress of Masada, Israel’s foremost archaeological park. Masada is located on the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. We managed to get access to the cable car to ascend to the top. Among the ruins on top, we explored the King Herod's Palace, the synagogue, bath house and cisterns. However, the most scintillating experience of all was the breathtaking view of the Roman camps and the Dead Sea from atop.
The Dead Sea is called so for a reason. Situated 1,412 ft below sea level, it is said to be Earth's lowest elevation on land, with the highest salinity and mineral content, that makes the life of plants and organisms impossible. It is regarded as the world’s first spa and was used by King Herod. Its salt and minerals have been used in many cosmetic products for long. I saw hundreds of people mud bathing there with mud all over their body. Though, I wanted to venture into the sea to experience the floating, the dirty water and the excessive crowd put me off. The sea, though, is receding fast.
By the end of the day, we arrived in Jerusalem and checked into our hotel room.
Day 2, Tuesday:
The next morning we started our tour of Jerusalem – New City. We visited tourist spots like Mount Scopus, passing the British Cemetery, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
We also saw the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus Christ prayed and his disciples slept, the night before his crucifixion. It was a moving experience to actually stand in a place where the Messiah had spent his last night in anguished prayer as his disciples slept, knowing he would be betrayed.
Our next stop was the Church of All Nations at the foot of the Mount Olives. It enshrines a section of bedrock where Jesus is said to have prayed before his arrest. It is a beautiful Roman Catholic Church, with a neoclassical look, with domes, aisles, columns and facade mosaic. We then moved onto the large-scale renovated model of the Herodian city of Jerusalem and later to Yad-Vashem, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The centre has vast resources on the persecution of Jews.
The next halt was at Ein Karem, the birthplace of John the Baptist. We really enjoyed the downtown Jerusalem notable for Mahane Yehuda, a vast, bustling open market.
In Jerusalem, we were put up in ‘Grand’, a decent hotel which also had a buffet dinner as part of our tour package.
Day 3, Wednesday:
Having done with the New City, the next day we went to Old Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
In Old Jerusalem, we visited ‘the Temple Mount –Dome of the Rock’, which is a Muslim holy place, and later to the popular Jewish spiritual place "the Western Wall". This ancient limestone wall is believed to be the remnant of the historic Jewish Temple.
Jews are restricted entry beyond the Wall. This place is also called the ‘Wailing Wall’ and is a sacred pilgrimage point for Jews. Devotees write their prayers on a piece of paper and stick it to the wall. Its niches are filled with thousands of such prayers.
From the Wailing Wall, we proceeded to the ‘Church of Holy Sepulchre’, the holiest Christian site, which is where Jesus Christ was crucified. It was a very moving experience tracing the path along the narrow Dolorosa, along which Jesus Christ walked on his way to crucifixion.
We then visited the tomb of King David and ‘Room of the Last Supper’. As the name suggests, this is where Jesus Christ had his last supper along with his disciples, before his crucifixion. This place has been immortalised by the painting, “The Last Supper”, by the famous 15th-century painter Leonardo Da Vinci.
In the afternoon, we visited Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ.
The distance between the two cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem is less than 16 km. Along the way travellers have to go through a narrow check point with metal detector and also show passports. Bethlehem is under Palestinian authority and is beyond the West Bank barrier -- a high, long wall separating the two cities. Neither our vehicle nor its driver was allowed to pass through the Israeli security post. So, we arranged another vehicle on the other side of the wall and continued our journey to Bethlehem; luckily, we easily got another vehicle for the journey with a Palestinian driver.
Bethlehem is considered the cradle of Christianity. The Church of the Nativity, which contains an underground cave, is here. Christians believe that Mother Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ here.
We got back to Jerusalem in the evening.
Day 4, Thursday:
The next day, we visited Beit She’an, Nazareth and Safed and drove through Jericho, the oldest city in the world. To get to Beit She’an, we rode through Jordan valley and new settlements. We also visited the excavations of the beautifully preserved Roman City. Once we finished exploring the same, we continued our journey to Nazareth and visited another of the Christian holy sites, the Church of Annunciation, also known as the Basilica of the Annunciation. This is the place where angel Gabriel, appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear the Son of God.
We then moved on to Safed, the city of Kabbalah and stayed in a hotel on the hills of Galilee in northern Israel.
Day 5, Friday:
We are now in the last leg of our spiritual journey through Israel. Golan Heights and Sea of Galilee are on the list.
Golan Heights is a Syrian territory occupied by Israel and is situated 9,232 ft above sea level. From the top, we could get a good view of the troubled part of Syria and Israel below. In the valley below, we happened to notice the temporary buildings put up by the United Nations in order to maintain peace in the area. Golan Heights is not a safe place as it is a mine field with hundreds of mines. These mines were laid by Syrian army some 50 years ago, prior to the 1967 war. It is said that to date, Israel has cleared around two lakh mines across the place.
We proceeded to Capernaum, to view the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake 200 meters below sea level. This lake happens to be the lowest fresh water lake on earth, and second lowest overall, after the Dead Sea. We sailed across the Sea of Galilee in a boat and visited the house of St. Peter.
Later we visited the Mount of Beatitudes, which is famed for the Jesus Christ’s miracle of feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Thereafter, we returned to spend another night at the hotel in the Galilee Hills.
Day 6, Saturday:
On the last day of our Israel tour, we started our journey to Acre, Haifa and Caesarea.
Haifa is a very beautiful city. We went to the top of Mount Carmel to have a panoramic view of the Haifa City, the Haifa Bay, the Persian Garden and the Bahai Shrine.
We then proceeded to Caesarea to visit the Roman Theater and the crusader fortress known as the Masterpiece of Herod the Great.
From here, we proceeded to Tel Aviv to fly back to the United States. In Tel Aviv, we got back to our hotel and as we did not spend much time in Tel Aviv, decided to stay one more day, to spend time in Jaffa, to enjoy the great beach.
Finally, we took our direct flight to San Francisco. As we sat back and settled into our seats, the sights and sounds of our journey through the Holy Land of Israel, tracing the life of none other than Jesus Christ, passed before our eyes and ears.
It was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The duration had been just one week, but it seemed like an eternity with each place creating a lasting imprint on our minds. It was a humbling, soul-stirring experience that can indeed prove to be one of the best one may have in life.
As we touched down in San Francisco, there was an immense sense of satisfaction and joy having completed this long-awaited trip, and also a bit of sadness that it all got so over fast.