28 April 2010

Galilee of the Gentiles

19-20 April, 2010

We headed off to Galilee, which is in Israeli territory north of Jerusalem, on the morning of 19 April.  Our first stop was Caesarea Maritima - another city built by Herod the Great, in the years 25-13 BC.  It is a gorgeous site, right by the sea, and was built as an up-to-date Roman city, with theatre, hippodrome, harbour, and a lengthy aqueduct that brought water from springs at the foot of Mt Carmel.

Of course, Herod had a prime site for his palace.

From 13 BC Caesarea was the capital of the Roman province of Judaea, and the official residence of the Roman procurators and governors.  An inscription found there mentions the name of Pontius Pilate.

It was at Caesarea that St Peter visited and baptised a Gentile - the Roman  centurion Cornelius (Acts 10, 11).  St Paul often spent time there (Acts 9:30, 18:22, 21:8), and he was imprisoned at Caesarea for two years before being taken to Rome (Acts 23:23; 25:1-13).

This site was perhaps the most beautiful one we had visited to this time.  It is no wonder that Caesarea was a favourite city of the Romans.

The next stop we made was at Sepphoris (the Greek name), a town that was also known as Diocaesarea by the Romans and Zippori in Hebrew.  Sepphoris is situated near to Nazareth in the central Galilee area.  In the New Testament period, Sepphoris was a major town, and the capital of Galilee.  It would very probably have been visited by Jesus.  In fact, if Jesus and his father Joseph were carpenters/artisans, it is likely that they would both have done business in this town.  Strangely, however, the town is not mentioned at all in the New Testament.

Sepphoris also has an interesting later Jewish and Roman history.  In the 2nd century Ad it was a centre of Jewish religious and spiritual life, and for some time the seat of the Sanhedrin.  It continued to be inhabited by a wide variety of races.  The photo below is from a Roman house built in the 3rd century AD.

Following this visit, we went to our accommodation at the beautiful Benedictine Pilgerhaus (Pilgrim's House) in Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee. 

The rooms and meals were lovely, and we enjoyed the beautiful outlook and situation as well.

A number of us went to Evening Prayer in the nearby Church of Heptapegon (meaning 'seven springs' in Greek).  The area is now known as Tabgha.  The church is believed to be the site of Jesus' multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The chanting by the Benedictine monks was beautiful and there was a great sense of peace there.  The special readings for the Easter season focused on the Christian hope of resurrection, and I felt a strong sense of connection with those gathering for Joan's funeral in Whanganui.

The next morning we set out for Capernaum (or Capharnaum - in Hebrew Kfar Nahum, 'Nahum's Village.)  Jesus came to Capernaum after he had a confrontation in his synagogue in Nazareth, his boyhood home. Since he was rejected in Nazareth, he decided to relocate his ministry to Capernaum. It was an ideal spot for him to carry out his ministry.  It was a larger town than Nazareth and was on the main Damascus Highway. As a result, Jesus was able to reach out to more people. Soon after Jesus settled there, he began to preach in the synagogue (Mark 2:1). Matthew calls Capernaum "Jesus' own town" (Matt 9:1).

We saw the ruins of the house that is thought to have belonged to Simon Peter's mother-in-law, which Jesus also visited, when he healed her of a fever.  It is thought that this was also the home of Simon Peter.  Various churches have been built on this holy site, but the most recent church was raised up and built above it, so that the archaeological remains are left visible.

Just a few steps away was the synagogue - although the synagogue ruins we could see came from the fourth century AD, they appear to have been built on the black basalt ruins of the first century synagogue.

The site was impressive and there was a strong sense of connection with the life of Jesus.  But the thing that struck me most of all was the beauty of the location.  It was an incredibly beautiful spot, and that was not something that I ever really grasped through reading the Gospels.

I walked around with a deep sense of gratitude, marvelling at the fact that I was there.

Our next stop was at the Church of Peter's Primacy, also in the Tabgha area.  This church focuses on three important gospel events - the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6), the multiplication of the bread and fish (Matthew 14:13-21), and the third apparition of the risen Jesus where there was a miraculous haul of fish, breakfast for the disciples by the lake, and Jesus commissioned Peter, "Feed my lambs..., look after my sheep" (John 21:1-19).  Inside the Church a rock is featured as the rock on which Jesus served breakfast to the disciples.  The sign in Latin calls it 'the table of Christ'.

We had some quiet time for meditation and then we shared a Eucharist, at which Bob Osborne, a recently retired Dean from Winnipeg in Canada presided.  He had seemed a bit tired out on our travels up till that point, but suddenly came alive as he presided at the Eucharist.  It was a lovely thing to see.  He talked about having presided at Eucharists by lakes in Canada and having said to people, "imagine you are by the Sea of Galilee".  And now we really were.  Bob spoke of the privilege of presiding at that Eucharist and he did it beautifully.  For me, this was one of the highlights of our trip to Galilee.  (I did not want to take photos during the service.  This was taken just before it.)

Our next stop was a fish restaurant by the Sea of Galilee, and then we were off to the northernmost point we reached during our travels - Caesarea Philippi on the Golan heights.  (This site is also called Bani Yas as a corruption of Paneas, because Pan was worshipped there at a gushing spring that flowed out of a cave.  Following a major earthquake the spring now seeps through the rock outside the cave.  It is the source for a river that provides 25% of Israel's water.)

In the year 3BC the tetrarch, Philip II, founded a city at this site, and the ruins are still evident today.  The city itself was mentioned twice in the Gospels, in equivalent passages: Mark 8:27-30 and Matthew 16:13-20.  These passages tell of Jesus' question to his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" and Peter's response, "You are  the Christ, the Son of the living God"  (Matt. 16:16).  Connecting with this affirmation of Peter, we had a service at the site to renew our own baptismal vows.

On the way back to our accommodation we visited the tell that is has been identified as ancient Bethsaida.  Bethsaida used to be on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but this site is actually 1.5 kms away nowadays.  This distance raises some uncertainties, but the change may have come partly through earthquake activity, and partly because the Sea of Galilee was more extensive in Jesus' time than it is now.  The tell of Bethsaida has been excavated fairly recently, and a house there was found to have many fishing implements.  Because of this it is known as the Fisherman's House.

Bethsaida is known as the birthplace of three of the Apostles – Peter, Andrew and Philip. Jesus himself visited Bethsaida and performed several miracles there (Mark 8:22-26; Luke 9:10).

By the time we left this site I was looking forward to a swim in the Sea of Galilee to cool down, and when we got back to the Pilgerhaus at Tabgha, I had a long and refreshing swim.  It was a great end to a memorable day.

26 April 2010

The Holy City

18 April, 2010

Today we visited non-church sites in Jerusalem.  We had an early breakfast and left for the Temple Mount area, where the first and second temples (the temples of Solomon and Herod) were built.  This area is known to Muslims as Haraam ash-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.

In the centuries after the destruction of the second temple by the Romans, this area became a rubbish dump.  But when the Muslim Ummayad forces took control of Jerusalem, they cleared it of rubbish, and built on it two beautiful buildings - the famous shrine known as the Dome of the Rock, and the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The Dome of the Rock is the oldest Muslim monument still standing.  It is not a mosque, but a Muslim shrine. It was built  in the late seventh century by the Umayyad Caliph Abd ul-Malik over a sacred stone that has important associations both to Jews and to Muslims.  In Jewish tradition the stone was thought to be the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac.  It also marked the place of the Holy of Holies in the now destroyed Temple.  In Muslim tradition the stone is believed to be the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven during his Night Journey to heaven.

The first Al-Aqsa mosque was built by the Caliph Omar, and a much extended version was completed by the Caliph Al-Walid in 709AD.  The building that you see above is actually the third mosque on this site, completed in 1135.  Al-Aqsa means 'the farthest', and it received this name because, when it was originally built, it was the farthest mosque from the Islamic heartland of Arabia.  It is the third most important mosque in Islam after the mosques in Mecca and Madina.
Sadly, Christians and Jews are not allowed in the Al-Aqsa mosque nor the Dome of the Rock, but pictures of their interiors can be found on the internet if you are interested.

It seems slightly wierd that in Jerusalem the Temple Mount, which is so sacred to the Jews, has two Islamic monuments on it.  The Jews have focused their attention on the Western Wall (the Wailing wall) which is a wall of the support structure for the Temple Mount, built by Herod the Great.  This is now the holiest site for Jewish people.

We went from the Temple Mount to the Western wall, and took the opportunity to pray there.  In the picture above you can see a small enclosure on the right, which is the women's section, and the section on the left is for men.  Christians are welcome to pray there, and as is customary, I took a prayer, written on paper, to insert into the cracks of the wall.  As I laid my hand on the wall and prayed, I had a strong sense of the faith in God and religious devotion that had been expressed in this place.  I had not expected to be moved as I visited the Western Wall, but I was.

After leaving the Western Wall, we went to view the excavations at the southern wall.  There was evidence there of the destruction of the Temple.  These paving stones were broken by stones that were hurled down by the Romans from the wall of the Temple.

Also found were many ritual baths (mikvehs), where people would ritually purify themselves before entering the Temple.

I began to feel tired from tramping around looking at things, so I decided to sit down.  I found a seat that looked a bit large for me, but worked fine.

Not far from this site were the southern steps of the Temple, outside the current city walls.  These were steps up and down which Jesus would have walked as he visited and left the Temple.

After lunch in the old city we visited the City of David excavations and Hezekiah's tunnel (outside the current city wall further down the hill on the southern side of the Temple Mount).  Recently the Israelis have been excavating the old Canaanite-Jebusite city area, which David captured and made into his own city.  Among the houses and other buildings in the city of David (also known as the Ophel) they have found signs of the destruction caused by the Babylonians in 586BC.  Records were burned in the Babylonian destruction, but in some cases the seals on them survived the fires.  A number of these seals had names on them that were known from the Bible, such as Gemariahu son of Shaphan, who was a high-ranking official in the court of King Jehoiakim (Jer. 36:9-12).  So as the excavations continue they are uncovering parts of our - as well as the people of Israel's - biblical heritage.

Hezekiah's tunnel (also known as the Siloam tunnel) was built in 701 BC, in in the time of King Hezekiah, when the kingdom of Judah was under imminent threat of attack by the Assyrians under King Sennacherib (2 Kings 20:20).  It is an amazing piece of engineering, bringing water from the Gihon spring, which was outside the city walls, to a point within the city walls - the pool of Siloam.  (This was crucial to the survival of the city, because the city could only survive a siege if the inhabitants had adequate amounts of fresh water.)  In fact, King Hezekiah did not want the Assyrian army to get any water from the Gihon spring, so he somehow diverted the water so that the Assyrians could not gain access to it (2 Chronicles 32:2-4,30).

The tunnel itself is a curving channel 533 metres long, cut in the bed rock.  It was, of course, all done with hammer and chisel.  The gradient for the water is only 30 cm (0.6%).  An inscription found within the tunnel states that the tunnel was cut from both ends simultaneously.  By some feat of engineering - possibly by the guidance of sound from the surface tapped into the bed rock, they managed to make the two tunnels meet.  We were allowed to walk through the tunnel.  The picture on the left below shows the discrepancy between the two tunnels at the point of meeting - only around 30-40cms.  In the other photograph you can see the water level, which for most of the way was just above ankle height, but at the beginning was quite a lot higher, with the water rushing from the spring.

At the end of the tunnel we came to the Pool of Siloam, which was a lovely, peaceful spot.

A visit to Bethlehem

17 April, 2010

This morning we set off for Bethlehem, which is only 15 minutes drive from Jerusalem, but in the Palestinian territories.  That meant that we needed to go through a checkpoint to get there, and to get back.  On the way to Bethlehem, we visited Herodion, one of Herod the Great's favourite palaces/forts.

Herod was a great builder.  In building his public works, such as the Temple in Jerusalem and the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron, it is possible that he was wanting to gain popularity with the Jewish people (he was only half-Jewish himself, and seems to have been more Roman than Jewish in his way of life).  He was hated by many Jews, but his public works were certainly impressive and religiously significant - likely to gain him favour with the people.  With his palaces and forts he appears to have been focusing on his own status and security - about which he took great care.  He put to death even members of his own household and family in order to maintain his position, and obviously had a  paranoid streak.  I do think it is ironic, though, that the hated and hardly-Jewish King Herod was the builder of what are now the Jews' two most sacred sites.

This view of Herod's Palace at Herodion was taken from a little way up the Herodion hill, on the top of which was Herod's fort.  The large square area was a pool in his palace, with a little round island - perhaps originally topped by a statue - in the middle.  The buildings close to the hill may have been staff quarters.

At the top of the hill was the fort.

The fort was built and used in the time of Herod the Great, but it was also used by partisans at the time of the first Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 66-70AD, and the second Jewish Revolt (also known as the Bar Kochva revolt) in 132-135AD.  As with other sites we visited, there were huge cisterns in this fort, to preserve copious supplies of water for use in times of drought or siege.

From the top of the fort, you could see for miles in all directions.  (We were able to see some of the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank from here.  Jewish settlements typically have red tile roofs.)

A recent find at Herodion was Herod the Great's tomb.  It was built into the side of the hill and is still being excavated.

Our next stop was Bethlehem, where we went first to an area called The Shepherd's Fields.  This is traditionally identified as the place where the shepherds received a visitation from angels at the time of Jesus' birth.  Churches have been built on this site, incorporating the caves where shepherds may have taken shelter.

We had a short reflection and sang a hymn in the cave.  Then we went out into the garden are for a time of quiet meditation.  There was a special, peaceful atmosphere here, and it was good to take some time to be quiet.

After some time souvenir shopping at a local store that sold local handicrafts, we went to lunch at a very nice local restaurant.

After lunch, we went to the Church of the Nativity - which is supposed to be situated on the site where Jesus was born.  As a consequence, it is thought of as one of the two holiest Christian sites.  The church was built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, after the destruction of an earlier, Constantinian church.  It is the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land, as it was exceptional in not having been destroyed by the Persians in 614, when they invaded.  The church is understood to have been spared because the magi were depicted on the outside of the church, and one of them was in Persian dress.

The front door is very low - apparently made that way in the 16th century to stop people riding into the church!  It is often called the door of humility, because any adult will have to bend down in order to enter it.

The church was very busy when we arrived, and the Dean found that there was a service taking place in the grotto where Jesus was born, with a long line of people waiting to enter the grotto when the service ended. 

So he decided to take us next door to the Roman Catholic (Franciscan) St Catherine's Church, and the caves underneath, which adjoin the sacred grotto, and where St Jerome lived and worked on his translation of the Bible.  We did not go back into the church and I realised then that we were not going to get into the grotto, which was a disappointment.  But the Dean said that if we wanted to go into the grotto, we could do that on one of our days off.  I thought that that would be a good idea, and I later had the opportunity to do that.

On the way back to Jerusalem we passed close to the 24 foot high separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories.  While ordinary tourists don't have much trouble getting through the check points, Palestinians can have significant problems.

After dinner, I went with two others from the course to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  It was great to be there when there were fewer people and I managed to get into the two holiest places there - the place where Jesus' resurrection is thought to have happened, and the place where he was crucified.  I left my camera at the College!  So I don't at this stage have any photos to post.

25 April 2010

A journey to the desert

15-16 April, 2010

We packed up early today and headed off for a two day trip to the desert areas of the Negev and the Judean desert.  Our first destination was the West Bank (Palestinian) city of Hebron.  Our bus took us into the old city of Hebron, just by the souk, and Paulette, an American woman, came to meet us.  She was working with a group called Christian Peacemaker Teams.  She gave us an introduction to an amazing situation where 400 Jewish settlers have illegally occupied a site in the centre of the old city.  Because they are there (albeit illegally) Israeli soldiers have moved in to protect them (and the local Palestinians) from armed conflict.  (Normally security in this area is under the control of the Palestinian authorities.)  There were two massacres in the twentieth century - the first of Jews and the second, in 1994, of Palestinians.  Paulette believed that there were four to six times as many soldiers there as illegal settlers.  There was a roof-top army post just next to Paulette's house, which we were not allowed to photograph. 

The presence of the settlers means that some areas of the old city have been marked out as for Israeli settlers only.  In effect, the 150,000 Palestinian inhabitants of Hebron are being prevented from going about their day to day business because of 400-600 settlers.  The photo below shows Paulette leading us down an empty souk street on a week day morning.  Things are so difficult in this area that few people come, so the shop keepers have closed down.  Never in all the time I have spent in the Middle East have I seen a souk this empty during a working day.  This is a different kind of desert.

Another example of the trouble caused for the local inhabitants is the story of an old Palestinian lady who lives close to Paulette.  The Israeli army has forbidden Palestinians to use several streets close to the settlers.  As this lady is not allowed in the street in front of her house, she now has to do the following things to enter her home.  She has to climb a ladder to a neighbour's roof, and go through a hole broken for her in a wall between their two houses, climb down a ladder to her back yard and enter her back door.  We saw the ladders and the hole in the dividing wall.

As well as being a major Palestinian city, it has a very important site sacred to three faiths - the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a family burial place (Gen. 23).  The bodies of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah and Leah are thought to have been buried there in the caves well below the current monument - the Ibrahimi mosque, and for this reason the site has been sacred since at least the 10th century BC.

The Ibrahimi mosque is said to be the oldest building in the world in continual use, with its walls having been built in the reign of King Herod in the first century BC.  Note the huge stones, which are typical of the buildings of Herod.  (The man with his back to the wall - so to speak - is our guide Nasser Elias.)

This place is the second most sacred site for the Jews, after the Western (Wailing) wall in Jerusalem, and a portion of the building is in use as a synagogue, while the rest is a mosque. As the site of a mass murder of Palestinians by a Jewish man in 1994, it is very highly policed (photos prohibited!).

Inside the mosque (or in an adjoining building) are the cenotaphs (empty tombs) of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  This is the tomb of Isaac.

After some time at the mosque we headed back to the bus and went on our way to Be'er Sheva in the Negev desert.  Along the way we were stopped at a checkpoint, going from the Palestinian territory (West Bank) back into Israel.  Both our bus driver and our guide were Palestinians, and that might have been one of the reasons it took us a while to get through.  After the hold-up we went on to Be'er Sheva, often spoken of in the Bible as the southernmost part of Israel (e.g. 'from Dan to Be'er Sheva' - Judges 20:1).  Here God appeared to Isaac and he dug a well that struck water (Gen. 26:23-33).

Be'er Sheva had been on a trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia that was used for thousands of years.  There are signs of habitation from the Chalcolithic period (around 4,000 BC) onwards.  As always, the presence of water in this place was a key factor in establishing it as a city.  We went down a huge cistern built into the tell.

We headed up to the Be'er Sheva Tel (the city mound where the archaeological excavations had been undertaken).  Archaeologists believe that most of the remains there date from around 1,000BC.  You can see from the photo below where the ancient walls have been added to in the process of restoration of the site.

We entered a huge water cistern that had been found in the tell.  As in other archaeological sites we visited, this cistern went down into the tell.

After looking through the cistern, we headed off to our campsite for the night at Kfar Hanoqdim ('the village of the shepherds') a Bedouin settlement in the desert.  When we got there a group of camels had been made ready for camel rides, so most of us had a very slow and sedate camel ride, led by the Bedouin staff of the settlement.  That's me on the 'single-seater' in the middle of the photograph!

We got our bedding sorted out and then went to a tent for a welcome presentation from our hosts.  While someone told us about the Bedouin lifestyle, others roasted and boiled coffee for us and some fire-baked bread.  The man who spoke to us also answered questions, and I thought that he had a lot of interesting things to say.  He seemed to share as a host rather than simply give a spiel for the tourists.

After the talk I went for a walk in the desert and recognised Massada not too far away in the distance.  This time I was seeing it from the Arad side.  Here you can see the Roman earth ramp built almost 2,000 years ago, about two thirds along the mountain side from left to right.

Before dinner I checked my mobile for a text, and I was shocked to read that my mother-in-law Joan had died that morning New Zealand time.  I was very sad to hear the news, as I had thought that she was getting better after a health crisis, and I was looking forward to seeing her on my return.  I was sad too, of course, for all those at home who loved her.  I felt rather useless, so far away from home at that important time.  I texted Helen to say that I would call her on my return to St George's College.  We had spoken earlier about the possibility of Joan dying and had worked out that I would stay on my course if that happened.

After dinner, we settled in for a marae-style night with 40 of us in a single tent.  The family was very much on my mind, so I took some time to go to sleep....

The next day many of us rose with the dawn.  Before breakfast we had a Eucharist, at which Joan and the family were remembered.  We headed east down to the Dead Sea area and turned north to travel past Massada and En Gedi to Qumran.  There we viewed the site where the Essenes (an ultra-Orthodox Jewish ascetic community) had lived at the time of Jesus.

The Essenes are famous because of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in caves in the hills surrounding Qumran between 1947 and 1956.  Nearly 900 scrolls were found, many of them in fragmentary state, which members of the community appear to have hidden from the Romans at the time of the Jewish Revolt (66-70AD).  The scrolls covered three main areas, Hebrew Bible texts, commentaries on the texts, and other community-focused texts, including a rule for the life of the community.  Two amazing thing about the Biblical texts are firstly that they were around 1,000 years earlier than any other Hebrew Bible texts found to that date, and secondly that although this great time gap separated the ancient and the medieval texts, the texts had been copied so faithfully throughout the ages that the medieval texts were correct in all but a few minor details.  The Dead Sea scrolls were the greatest discovery of ancient texts in the 20th century.

One of the caves in which the scrolls, contained in pots, were found, is this one that can be seen from the Qumran site.

After lunch at the tourist cafeteria at Qumran, on our way back to Jerusalem, we headed on to the Dead Sea to swim (or rather, to float).  The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, 422 metres below sea level.  The marketers use this as a point of difference!

The Dead Sea is unique in being approximately 30% salt and other minerals, instead of the normal 3%.  That means that it is the most buoyant body of water anywhere in the world.  The truth of this is plain (but not pretty) to see!

The Bible and its Setting

14 April, 2010

My next course at St George's - the Bible and its Setting - started today, with a Eucharist at St George's Cathedral.  After breakfast and introductions, we had an introductory lecture on Biblical geography by the Dean of the College, Stephen Need.  He spoke about the 'holy lands' - including Jordan, Syria and Lebanon - not just the Holy Land.  He also talked about biblical archaeology as we will be going to a number of archaeological sites on this course.

In the afternoon, we set out for Bait Abraham on the Mount of Olives - a place we had visited on the previous course (see my post 'Monday of Holy Week' posted on 29 March) - as there is such a great outlook over Jerusalem from the roof (and also a great lunch).  Stephen pointed out various sites - the Kidron Valley, Mt Zion, the Temple Mount, the Hinnom Valley (biblical Gehenna), and the excavations of the City of David, which is outside the city walls on the southern side rising up towards the Temple Mount, plus many other sites.

The city of David excavations date back to the 10th century BC, and are built on top of older ruins from the Jebusite kingdom that King David captured, which was settled by 1800BC.  The attraction of this site was a water source.  The Gihon spring was just outside the ancient city walls.  The site is not much to look at from afar, but it is amazing to have such an ancient and important site coming to light at the moment.  We will visit it later in the course.

An interesting thing about the holy sites is that they don't have to be the actual (historical) site where things originally took place.  Stephen pointed out that the place where something is remembered becomes the holy site.  So for example the Temple Mount is viewed by many as the site where Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice, even though the real site was a long way to the south, somewhere in the Negev desert.  The Mount of Olives is also identified in some traditions with the Mount of Transfiguration, although that must be a long way to the north, beyond the Sea of Galilee.  What is happening here is that people want to remember important events in their own neighbourhood, and designate places that serve as places of remembrance and become hallowed because of the memory associated with them.  It's a different way of looking at sacred history from ours.

One of the great things about this new course is that a friend from the Wellington Diocese, John Hughes, Vicar of the Karori parish, is on the course too. Here we are at Bait Abraham with the city of Jerusalem behind us.