Dateline June 17, 2016 – Israel

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We arrived in Haifa, Israel, early on Friday, June 17th, for a three-day stay. We had previously, when we were only going to be in Israel for two days, made arrangements for a driver for Saturday and Sunday. That left us with no plans for Friday. After much discussion, we decided we should go to Nazareth, where it all began.

We had so much fun with Gordon and Karen in Santorini that we thought we should all go on the adventure together by taking the public bus to Nazareth and then on to the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, about an hour away. On our way to catch the bus, many taxi drivers tried to have us jump in with them for a tour; we ignored them until one gentleman came up and spent a few minutes telling us what to expect by bus; it sounded like a disaster and knowing what we know now, it would have been a bad experience.  He offered to drive us for a reasonable fee, so we went to “Plan B” and were happy we did.


Haim Koren, our driver, took us to Nazareth. There are 19 churches of Annunciation in Nazareth. He took us to the two most often visited. The Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation is located over the cave that is believed to have been Mary’s home, and The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation is located over the spring, where it is believed that Mary first heard the angel Gabriel’s voice.


Outside the Basilica are beautiful mosaics from many countries around the world made specifically for the church. Inside the Basilica, the lower level enshrines a sunken grotto that contains the traditional cave-home of the Virgin Mary. It is believed that the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. In 1966 the Roman Catholic Church began constructing a new basilica over these remains, and today this church is the largest church building in the Middle East.


We then went to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, also known as the Church of St. Gabriel. It was first established in the Byzantine era, rebuilt during the time of the Crusades, and again in the 18th century under the rule of Zahir al-Umar, the Arab governor of  Galilee. The church is located over an underground spring, which according to Eastern Orthodox belief, is where the Virgin Mary was drawing water at the time of the Annunciation. Water from the spring still runs inside the apse of the church and also fed the adjacent site of Mary’s Well, located 150 yards away.

This was our first introduction locally to all the different views as to the exact site of biblical events.

Marriage at Cana The Wedding Church

Haim then took us to Cana, about 5 miles away, where Jesus performed his first miracle, turning water into wine.

John 2:1-11 states that while Jesus was attending a wedding in Cana with his disciples, the party ran out of wine. Jesus’ mother (unnamed in John’s Gospel) told Jesus, “They have no wine,” and Jesus replied, “O Woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother then said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:3-5). Jesus ordered the servants to fill containers with water and draw out some and take it to the chief steward waiter. After tasting it, without knowing where it came from, the steward remarked to the bridegroom that he had departed from the custom of serving the best wine first by serving it last (John 2:6-10). John adds that: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and it revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him (John 2:11)”.

The “Wedding church” in Cana is a pilgrimage site believed by many Christians to be the site of the biblical marriage.

Cana Wine Label

After touring the church, we went across the street to a store that sold Cana Wedding Wine. It was an interesting shop run by an Arab Christian family. They told us how sad they are that the media makes it sound like they, the Arabs, and the Jews hate each other when in fact, they live and work together as neighbors.

Local Wine Label – The wine was good!

River Jordan

jordan river
janice water

We than drove over to the Sea of Galilee and to Yardenit on the Jordan River where Jesus was said to have been baptized by John the Baptist. We considered being baptized but there are no clergy there, you can pay to go into the water and “baptize yourself?”.We took some water from the river into a small bottle provided, visited the store and purchased some gifts for home.


Haim then took us up to the ancient city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, it is a very modern resort city with a lot of restaurant on the water. The four of us found a Lebanese restaurant and enjoyed some local beer and a wonderful meal. Upon finishing lunch we headed back to the port in Haifa for the night.

Masada and the Dead Sea


The next morning we were picked up around 8:30 by our tour guide and drove the two and a half hours south to the Dead Sea. The first destination was Masada.

The fortress of Masada was built in the year 30 BC by King Herod, whose architectural feats were amazing.  He built a palace into the side of this extremely high mountain with steep sides and a flat top like a parapet overlooking the desert panorama to the west and the Dead Sea to the east. 

herods other house

At the beginning of the great revolt against Rome in the year 68, the site was conquered by a group of Jewish zealots, and Masada became their last stronghold.  In the year 72 the Romans besieged Masada and succeeded in reaching the steep fortress after constructing a huge earthen ramp on its western side.  In the year 73, the 960 Jewish zealots living at the top of Masada chose to commit suicide rather than to fall into the hands of the Romans alive. Their deeds left behind a saga of courage, heroism, and martyrdom. King Herod had a home on a level below the top of the village as can be seen from this picture.

The ruins of Masada have been restored but there is a black line along the ruins that shows what was excavated and above the line restored.

There were paintings on the walls and beautiful mosaics on the floors all preserved over the centuries.

snake path

You can get to the top of Masada by walking a winding “snake path” or by a cable car.  Needless to say, we took the cable care up and back.

Dead Sea

After experience Masada it was time to take a swim in the Dead Sea.  We stopped and first grabbed some lunch then it was time to join a few thousand of our new friends for a dip in the Dead Sea.  Muddy, rocky and crowded.

All you can do is float for a few minutes and YOU ARE DONE!!  Shower, get dressed and say goodby to an experience that you can check off on the Must Do List.   Glad we did it!


We drove back to Jerusalem from the Dead Sea where we were staying for the night rather than the 5 hour round trip back too the ship in Haifa. We were staying at the The Sephardic House hotel which is nestled at the very heart of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. The Sephardi House, in the main square of the Jewish quarter, served the Spanioli Jews as a place of study. The courtyard level (currently used as a patio) was designated for widows and orphans, while the upper floor housed the educational institution. There is a Jewish school connected to the hotel, very interesting. By the time we arrived there was just enough time to clean up and head out to dinner.

2nd floor restaurant

It was Saturday so the Sabbath continued until sundown.  The young lady at the front desk gave us a card for a restaurant in the Armenian Christian area, not far from the hotel.  We walked from the Zion Gate to the Jaffa Gate and looked for the restaurant.  We stopped at a restaurant and was  escorted to the second floor.  We of course had some local wine, great and examined the menu. There was a Palestinian Plate of the day, which surprise us.  We discussed the offerings with the owner and asked if the restaurant was Palestinian, he told us that yes it was and he was a Palestinian Christian.  Had a great conversation, we ate a lamb shank that was wonderful.  Great experience.

fur hat

We walked back to the hotel and there were many heading home after the end of the Sabbat. There were a number of men in large fur hats, apparently very expensive as told to  us by our guide. A shtreimel (a fur hat worn by many married haredi Jewish men, particularly (although not exclusively) members of Hasidic groups, on Shabbat. When we returned to the hotel we gave the person at the desk some cards and found out we went to the wrong restaurant, she was Armenian Christian and was not excited about us going to a Palestinian Christian restaurant, our first introduction that even within a single religion there is conflict in Israel and elsewhere.

Jerusalem, Mount Olive and Bethlehem – A  Special Day

wall zion gate

We got an early start with our guide picking us up at the hotel.  We walked up past the Zion Gate where we got an appreciation for how big and strong the walls were.  We then walked up to the room that Jesus and the apostles held the last supper.

old roman street

One of the interesting aspects is that most of the buildings actually date back to the crusades, not biblical time, it is the best information available that these are the locations of the events.  We walked out and headed through the main section of the Old City where an old Roman Street, called Cardo was excavated.  The Cardo was the main north–south-oriented street in Ancient Roman cities, military camps, and coloniae.  Around the corner was a the large Jewish Hurva Synagogue.  It was original built in the Ottoman style looking very much like a mosque. 

It was destroyed several times, the last time druring the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.  After many plans to rebuild, after Israel won the 1967 war, a plan was approved in 2000 to rebuild it like it was in the 19th century, in the Ottoman style.


We passed the golden menorah. It is forty five kilograms of twenty four karat gold displayed inside a transparent case in the Jewish Quarter, overlooking the stairs that lead down to the Western Wall plaza and the Temple Mount.  The construction of the menorah was made possible through the generosity of Vadim Rabinovitch, a leader of the Jewish community of Ukraine.

temple mount

The views of The Temple Mount are stunning, a hill located in the Old City of Jerusalem, is one of the most important religious sites in the world. It has been venerated as a holy site for thousands of years by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The present site is dominated by three monumental structures, the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain.  Currently it can be reached through eleven gates, ten reserved for Muslims and one for non-Muslims, with guard posts of Israeli police in the vicinity of each. After the Muslims first came to Jerusalem in the 7th century, Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan ordered the construction of an Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock, on the site of the Temple. The shrine has stood on the mount since 691 CE; the al-Aqsa Mosque, from roughly the same period, also stands in the Temple courtyard.

The Dome of the Rock, like many Muslim sites, are purposely built on top of older Jewish and Christian holy sites in order to suppress those religions. Of course, the Muslims who control those sites refuse to allow Jews to pray there.

stairs to mosque

Later our guide tried to get us in through one gate by heading up the stairs at the end of the market,  to to take a picture.  Because it was Ramadan, we were not allowed even up the steps to take a picture.

We continued down the stairs and walked over to the Western Wall Plaza which was filled with people, tourists and other locals praying.  The Western Wall Plaza was built after the 1967 war to allow for more people to pray in front of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

whailing wall

The Western Wall (Ha-Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi) in Jerusalem is the holiest of Jewish sites, sacred because it is a remnant of the Herodian retaining wall that once enclosed and supported the Second Temple. It has also been called the “Wailing Wall” by European observers because for centuries Jews have gathered here to lament the loss of their temple.

muslim market
via dolorosa
station seven
coptic chritains black

We continued in the Muslim section of the market  to find the beginning of the “Stations of the Cross”.  We had wanted to include the circuitous route along Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering which is believed by many to follow the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to his crucifixion.  We started at the 3rd Station where Jesus falls for the first time. We continued to walk towards the final destination. Each station is marked with information regarding that position. It sends chills down your back as you walk along the path that Jesus did with the cross to the church of the Holy Sepulchre. You enter the Church by first going through the Ethiopian and Coptic Monasteries. The church has 3 chapels representing the catholic, Coptic and Orthodox religions. There is no chapel for Protestants because they do not believe Jesus was buried here rather they believe he was buried in the Garden Tomb, a burial cave located outside the Old City walls, in a peaceful garden just north of the Damascus Gate.

mt olive

In the center of the church is a tomb where they believe Jesus was buried after the crucifixion (it is being restored at this time). For many years a Muslim was in charge of opening and closing  the doors to the church, sitting at the door during the day  because there was often fighting between the christian groups, this has changed in the last five years. This was truly a moving experience. Haim then drove us up to Mt Olive. This mount is predominantly a very large Jewish cemetery. At the top we met an old man with his donkey almost done for the day so we had our picture taken with him on the mount. From the bible, Judges “Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpet and you who walk by the way”.

closed wall

There were great views of the old city, this one is the wall with the gate that is permanently closed, this is the Eastern Gate.

It was walled up in the 1530’s by the Ottoman Turks. Many believe this was done to prevent the entrance of the Jewish Messiah through that gate as was foretold by known Old Testament prophecies. However, Ezekiel prophesied the shutting of this gate itself around 600 B.C. — that it would be shut “because the LORD (Jehovah or Yahweh), the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.” Jesus entered Jerusalem through the East gate around 30 A.D. (long before it was blocked by the Ottomans) as he came down from the Mount of Olives and entered the temple according to our understanding of Luke 19:28-48. He would have entered through the original gate in the wall which was destroyed with the city by the Romans in 70 A.D. Ezekiel says concerning this closed gate that the “Prince” (which the Messiah is often called throughout the Old Testament and Jesus is called in the New Testament) shall enter it again. Jesus, having entered the city, said that he would not be seen again until Jerusalem acknowledges him (Matthew 23:37-39). The Eastern gate is presently considered by the Arabs to be their exclusive property. It is sealed up and blocked off. However one day, the Messiah will land on the Mount of Olives, with all His saints, and walk down to and right through the Eastern Gate and into the Temple area.

outside navity

We left Mt Olive for our drive to Bethlehem. Since Bethlehem is on the Palestine side of the border our guide handed us over to guide from Bethlehem, a Palestine Muslim.  He drove us into Bethlehem. He was born there and owns a small  gift shop that sells many items but he focuses on olive tree carvings done by the local people. He was able to drive us up the hill to the Church of the Nativity, nice since buses had to park at the bottom of the town. He led us into the church, ahead of all the lines, to see the birth place of Jesus

and the chapel of the manage, a small grotto in the church. This church,  like the Holy Sepulchre Church, has 3 chapels for Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic Christians. After seeing the birth place of Jesus we sat down in one of the chapels to give thanks for our lives and this experience.

We left the church and went to the store, one of the things you must do is spend time at a Palestine store when you see Bethlehem. He was very nice and Janice did purchase earrings that were the Jerusalem cross.

We left Bethlehem to head back into Israel but there was a fire at the road we were trying to go out.  Our driver tried another crossing, but the traffic was all backed up. He parked the car and off we walked to get out of the area. After walking for about 10 minutes he pointed to a walkway and told us to just keep walking and Haim would meet us at the other end of the path.  This turned out to be a bit of an adventure winding our way through a tunnel, many checkpoints and finally entering Israel at a guarded area. Our Israel guide told us not to tell anyone we did this..YIKES. A few pictures we took.

Visiting so much history highlighted by where Christ was born and where he was crucified and buried sent emotional chills through both of us.  A lifetime experience that we hope all our friends and family can experience, if they have not done so.

Israel in general was one of the most special stays of all our travels.  Our thanks to all the wonderful people we met druirng our three days.