The 2023 Grace Christian University Israel/Jordan trip began with a long travel day (all day Monday and Tuesday). We started with a two and a half hour delay out of Chicago, and another hour in Istanbul. With the time change some in the group had been traveling for more than 24 hours straight (and not being able to sleep on a plane makes that feel even longer). This is my eleventh student trip to Israel, and we have an additional six adults joining us. Everyone was able to roll with the unexpected delays with flexibility and good humor. As I have done the past few trips, I began in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Since our hotel is a 10 minute walk from the Garden Tomb, we started our first day in Israel with a visit to this beautiful garden to read the story of the resurrection and reflect on Jesus’s death and burial. Our guide in the Garden Tomb (Mike from Texas) was excellent (as is usual for Garden Tomb guides), especially since he had to negotiate space between several large groups. After a very nice orientation to the Garden Tomb we celebrated communion.
From the Garden Tomb we walked a short distance to the entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, the Damascus Gate and on to the the Church of Holy Sepulcher. Our guide took in the “back way” through the Ethioptic church to enter the plaza in front of the church. Most of my group had no idea what Ethiopic Christians were, nor Coptics for that matter. It is always good to expand their knowledge of eastern forms of Christianity.
The Church of Holy Sepulcher is really a collection of churches and chapels on the traditional site of Golgotha and Jesus’s tomb. I took some of the students to Golgotha and had a good discussion of the value of traditions which support the site (some are very good, others are very weak). The line to enter the actual tomb of Jesus was very long so I took the students into the Syrian Chapel. There are usually very few people in the Syrian chapel, but there are two first century tombs in the back of the chapel which are good illustrations of the tomb people are waiting an hour or more to enter.
All things considered, the Holy Sepulcher has a better claim on being the actual location of the crucifixion and location of Jesus’s tomb, but the Garden Tomb is a much better place to actually worship.
We made our way to the Jewish Quarter, stopping at the Broad Wall, which is unfortunately completely covered for some sort of project. The wall likely built in 700 BC by King Hezekiah. We were able to see the Cardo, a small portion of street from the early Byzantine period depicted on the Madaba Map.
After a quick lunch (falafel and water for me) and a stop in Moriah Books (only one book purchased, which demonstrates considerable restrain for me), our guide Ofer suggested something different: A visit to St Mark’s Church. This is a Syrian Christian church built on the site of John Mark’s home mentioned in Acts 12:12. A group of Christians gathered in the home owned by Mary to pray for Peter when he was arrested by Herod Agrippa. The church claims this was the location of the Upper Room, the Last Supper and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. This is a beautiful chapel and more people need to visit it, but I was not able to see any archaeology to support the claims this is the location of the Upper Room. On the other hand, I have not see the archaeology to support the Upper Room most tours visit.
The day was getting late, so we made a short visit to the Citadel neat Jaffa Gate. This site is good for showing the real depth of the Old City of Jerusalem, from Hasmonean times (150BC) to Herodian (first century BC); there are Crusader era fortifications and Ottoman walls. The top of the building offers an excellent view west to the new city of Jerusalem and to the east to see the Dome of the Rock, the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, and other major sites in the city. I have usually visit the Citadel early on the first day to give the group an orientation to the Old City, but it was good for the group to see here they had been earlier in the day.
We ended the day by walking back to the Damascus Gate on the Ramparts. I used to do this with groups before the Citadel was open Since we had to go back to the Damascus Gate anyway, this was an interesting way to get there. By the time we got back to our hotel everyone seemed exhausted (I am told we walked 6.6 miles). But they were also excited for the pool and (more importantly) for the dessert bar at dinner.
Tomorrow we start at Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum, then on to the Israel Museum and the Western Wall Tunnel tour.