Masada, Arad and Swimming in the Dead Sea

Since we are staying at the En Gedi Hotel, we are not far from the entrance to Masada. In fact, we were one of the first groups to go up on the cable car. I have done Masada at the end of a day when it is very hot, but this morning it was pleasant and breezy. Masada is a highlight of any Israel tour, although I am surprised some Christian groups day-trip from Jerusalem or skip it altogether. This is unfortunate for both biblical and modern history.

Masada

Masada was king Herod’s monumental fortress on the top of a flat mountain some 1500 feet above the Dead Sea. To get to the top we ride a cable car (which claims to hold 80 people, and they put about 120 in the car I rode up). We spent most of our time on the north end of the mountain, where we had several really good conversations about what “really happened” here and how Josephus knew (or did not know) the speech of Eliazer. Several students walked down the 180 steps to the rooms on the front of the mountain. I did not hike down the stairs this year, so a few of us got to listen to a younger Israeli guide give her talk on Masada. She was very kid to allow us to listen, although she warned us she was a “Masada Mythbuster.”  Tobe honest, she did not say anything than what I (and our Israeli guide) said to our group.

After walking down the back of Masada and meeting our bus, we drove to Arad. There are two parts to this hike, a lower city excavated to the Canaanite period and an Israelite upper citadel excavated and restored to the eighth or ninth century. I take my group through the Canaanite section first, but many groups skip it entirely in order to get to the “good stuff” more quickly. I want my group to see the differences and similarities between Canaanite culture and Israelite. One example is the Arad House, a reconstructed Canaanite house. At Tamar there is a partially reconstructed Israelite four-room house. The contrast between the two is one of the indicators of when Israelite culture enters The Negev.

For me, the real highlight of Arad is the Citadel. There is a large Solomonic gate and a number of smaller rooms, but the main thing to see here is a Israelite high place. It is similar to the Solomon’s temple, but much smaller. There is an altar for sacrifice, a holy place and a Holy of Holies. Inside the Holy of Holies is a Canaanite standing stone, which may indicate the site allowed for both the worship of the Lord and the local Baal. In 2 Kings 18:4 Hezekiah removed all the high places, perhaps shutting down this particular Temple. Josiah will do the same thing in 2 Kings 23.

After finishing at Arad, we drove back to the Dead Sea for the traditional swim in the salt water. We went to a public area in Ein Bokek this time, which was not at all crowded  The swimming was good and the beach is well maintained.

Dead Sea

Tomorrow is En-Gedi, Qumran, likely a stop at Jesus’s baptism site near the Dead Sea, then a final few hours in Jaffa.

Visiting the Nabatean City of Petra 

Today was the walk through Petra, for many of our students this is a major highlight on the trip. I have been coming to Petra since 2005 and during this time the park has undergone a number of significant changes as tourism has continued to increase. The visitors center now has a large plaza with the number of shops and a small museum. Jeff’s Books and the Indiana Jones store is still there, but the whole entrance is cleaner and well organized. I highly recommend you visit the museum just outside the entrance, a thorough visit might take an hour. (I bought two museum publications in the bookstore, they have a nice selection of serious books among all the usual tourist stuff). There are several short films on aspects of Nabatean Petra as well a a good mix of artifacts from each period of the site. I would have a room dedicated to the Bedouin who lived in the caves until only a few decades ago, but other than that it is a well-designed museum.

Our guide Osama led us down the long walk to the Treasury, stopping from time to time to explain various features of the tombs or the water system in the Siq (the famous gorge through which one enters Petra). This was one of the coolest day I have ever had for a May visit to Petra, barely 80 degrees Fahrenheit most of the day (the morning was even chilly in the Siq).

Petra Group 2022

 

The area in front of the Treasury was extremely crowded when we arrived, which means tourism in Jordan is doing better after COVID. Unfortunately, the sellers were everywhere and there were far more camels that I ever remember.  I did see a familiar Bedouin selling obviously fake coins and “silver” bracelets. If you visit Petra, you must remember there are no real coins for sale there.

After our lunch of sandwiches (falafel for me, with pomegranate juice), we split up into several groups. One brave group went up to the Monastery. This is another tomb like the Treasury, but it is quite far from the main site at Petra at the top of about 850 uneven steps. If you can make this hike, you ought to do it, but maybe leave that one to the young. Another group went with me to the temple of Zeus a Byzantine church (called the Petra Church) and then to the Royal Tombs. This is a fairly easy walk up a series of steps, and provides an excellent view of the entire valley. I had not visited the church before, there are some unusual mosaics in the church (I would like to find documentation to identify a few of these). There was a cache of papyri found in this church as well.

Great Tempe of Zeus

By the time we reached the Urn Tomb there were fewer tourists and we were able to spend some time in the cool of the cave looking at the patterns on the walls. I have an excellent singer in the group, and she led us in How Great Thou Art. The music echoed beautifully, very inspiring. We walked back to the Treasury for final pictures and more water before the long uphill walk back up the Siq to the visitor center.

We met at 7 o’clock for dinner most of the students told me they were absolutely exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep. I don’t know how accurate this is, but I did more that 22,000 steps today, which google tells me is over ten miles.

Tomorrow we crossed back into Israel at the Rabin / Arava crossing near the Red Sea. We should have sometime to swim and snorkel in the Red Sea, but we have to do another COVID test to re-enter Israel so that may take us some extra time. FYI, Israel announced they are discontinuing the test requirement on May 20, three days after we reenter! The theme of this tour seems to be “bad timing.”

Caesarea, Megiddo, and the Sea of Galilee

We left at 730AM for a drive north and west to Caesarea. Everyone was on time, but due to an extremely large group in the hotel and the complication of Sabbath elevators, a few were just a bit late. Since it was the Sabbath it was virtually no traffic on the road. We had a little stomach sickness today, hopefully that works itself out with a good night’s sleep.

Caesarea has always been one of my favorite places to visit on an Israel trip. The city is Herod the Great’s tribute to the Roman Empire. By building such a beautiful city Herod demonstrates he is the ideal Roman client king and makes the claim that Judea is not something backwards end of the Roman empire, it can hold its own against any other Greco-Roman city.We spent a little time talking in the theater about the death of Herod in Acts 12 and Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea later in the book of Acts. This was likely a house arrest, Paul was likely in a similar situation to his house arrest at the end of Acts.

This was my first visit to Caesarea since the new visitor’s center was finished. It has a small museum with a few artifacts, but the main feature is a film about Herod’s life and his need to impress Rome by building the city. It is a bit too influenced by Game of Thrones, but it fairly accurate and gives first time visitors an insight into why the city is so intentionally Roman.

Caesarea Palace

As for biblical significance, Caesarea is the city Peter visit when he preached to Cornelius in Acts 10. In Acts 12 Herod Agrippa was struck dead when he entered the theater looking like a God (a story confirmed by Josephus). Philip the Evangelist lived in Caesarea with his four daughters when Paul passed through the city on his return from Ephesus. Paul also spent two years under house arrest awaiting trial while Felix was the governor. Later, when Festus was governor, Paul made his famous appeal to Caesar in Caesarea.

From Caesarea we traveled through Mount Carmel to Megiddo. I visited Megiddo on my 2019 trip, and the visitor’s center has been significantly improved during the COVID shutdown.The short video has been updated with flashy edits, drone shots and interviews with Israel Finklestein. Overall, it tells the story f the site as well as the history of excavations in less that ten minutes. The old model of the site has been upgraded with some video overlays, but that was not particularly effective.

Why is Megiddo important for biblical Studies? According to 1 Kings 9:15 Solomon fortified Megiddo along with Hazor and Gezer. Jehu assassinated Ahaziah (2 Kings 9:27) and Josiah was killed in battle by the Egyptian army led by Necho II (2 Kings 23:29). Aside from the spectacular view of the Jezreel Valley, there is a 3000 BC Canaanite cult center and a major granary and other storage buildings. But the main thing to see at Megiddo is the water system, a passage carved through the rock to a hidden spring. (Megiddo is the inspiration for James Michner’s The Source).

Megiddo Tunnel

We continued across the Jezreel Valley to Nazareth, although we did not do much in this very crowded and busy city (which looks nothing like it did in Jesus’s day). We drove up to a view point some 1290 feet above sea level. Although it is highly unlikely, some Christians this this is the place where the people Nazareth tried to throw Jesus off a cliff in Luke 4:29. The precipice is  outside of town and clearly very high, but it is so far from the original Nazareth village of the first century to be an authentic location.

Valley of Jezreel

From Nazareth we made our way through Cana to the Sea of Galilee. Since we had time this afternoon, we visited Migdal. Like Megiddo, there has been a great deal of work in the three years since I visited. The hotel is now finished (and it is beautiful) and the grounds have been improved. This was the first time we went into the church, there are some interesting modern mosaics there and a stunning mural of the woman who touched Jesus’s tassels in a small chapel in the lower level. I appreciated the attention to detail: the entry to the church used the same mosaic motif as the synagogue found on the property and the lower chapel was designed to look like the building.

Although this village was the home of Mary Magdalene, the place is rarely mentioned in the Bible. However, a first-century Synagogue was recently excavated along with an unusual carved stone found near the center of the synagogue. Some scholars have suggested the stone was carved to look like the Second Temple, although this is not particularly conclusive. What is important is this is a first century synagogue not far from Capernaum. Although there is no evidence Jesus taught in this particular synagogue, the gospels portray him is teaching in many of the synagogues in Galilee. So it gave us an opportunity to discuss what teaching at the synagogue might have been like. There are a number of other excavated buildings adjacent to the synagogue including what appeared to be two or three mikvoth.

The group ended up walking all the way to the Sea of Galilee to put their feet in the lake and take pictures knee-deep in the water.We checked into the Nof Ginosar Hotel and had an excellent dinner. Since we are a student group we are saying in the Village rooms, which are small, comfortable bungalow style rooms with a camp-like atmosphere. The walls are thin, as I type this I can hear the man in the next room taking face-timing someone (fortunately I do not speak enough Hebrew to follow the conversation).

Tomorrow we will visit sites related to the life of Jesus, beginning with a hike up Mount Arbel to view the Sea of Galilee.

Visiting the Old City of Jerusalem

After a long travel day (Monday and Tuesday!) we arrived in Jerusalem to start the 2022 Grace Christian University Israel/Jordan trip. This is my then time leading a student trip, although this time I have more adults than students. This complicates things sometimes (more bathroom breaks and more questions about what is at the top of the stairs we are about to climb).

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 (Edgar) was excellent, as is usual for Garden Tomb guides, especially since he had to negotiate space  between three large groups all arriving at 9AM.

Garden Tomb 2022

From the Garden Tomb we made a long walk up to the Jaffa Gate and made a brief stop in the Citadel. This site is good for showing the real depth of Jerusalem, from Hasmonean times (150BC) to Herodian (first century BC); there are Crusader era fortifications and Ottoman walls. This is all visible from one viewpoint! 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, and other major points of interest.

Citidel View

We made our way from the Citadel through the Armenian Quarter to the Jewish Quarter, with a quick stop the Cardo (a small bit of street from the early Byzantine period and at Broad Wall (likely built in 700BC by King Hezekiah). After a quick lunch, we walked down to the security checkpoints for a visit tot he Temple Mount.

I have not been on the Temple Mount in several years, and given recent events I thought we would skip this part of the tour. But there were no problems for us at all, in fact, it was a very quiet and peace time. Except, nearly every one of the women in the group were told to wear coverings (provided by the security guards in change of hemlines). It wasn’t too bad and the women took this in stride. While we were in from of the Al-Aqsa Mosque we were approached by a guy telling us to come around to the side of the building and peer in the windows and take a few pictures. Of course he was also asking for money for his trouble, but I was happy to pay for the chance to get a peek inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque. There are number capitals and one pillar sitting on the east side, all unidentified. We were later than expected and the security started telling people to leave a little early, so we only had a quick look at the Dome of the Rock before we exited via the Cotton gate. We stopped at a little cafe and had mint tea or Turkish coffee.

Dome of the Rock 2022

After that well deserved rest, we picked up the Via Dolorosa at the third station and walked past many of the other stations to the Church of Holy Sepulcher. Our guide took in the “back way” (which sounded sneakier than it really was). We basically avoided the crowd by cutting through the Ethioptic church to enter the plaza in front of the church. Most of my group had no idea what Ethiopic Christians were, or Coptics for that matter. 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. After a very nice orientation by the Garden Tomb’s own guide we entered the tomb and then celebrated communion. Since we were the last group of the day, most of the students were able to spend a few minutes privately reading Scripture or praying in the quiet garden.

We ended the day by walking through the Muslim Quarter to the Damascus Gate and back to the hotel. Tomorrow we start at the Mount of Olives, should be a great day!

 

 

Grace Christian University Tour of Israel and Jordan 2022

Grace Christian University Israel Trip

For the next two weeks I am leading an Israel / Jordan tour with students from Grace Christian University on a tour of Israel and Jordan. This is my tenth Israel trip and the first since COVID. We have 27 in the group, with a wide range of ages. This is a diverse group and I look forward to getting to know the whole group as we travel together. I am using Tutku Tours for the second time in Israel, previously they have done two tours in Turkey for me. I have traveled in Turkey, Greece and Egypt with Tutku, always excellent trips. If you have questions about biblical studies travel, please contact me directly via email or a direct message on twitter @plong42

Days one and two are travel from Grace Christian University to Chicago, a flight through Istanbul to Tel Aviv. By Wednesday we will be in the Old City. I include a basic itinerary of the trip here, I plan on posting each day, so check back often  for updates. There is a tab near the top of this page with posts from previous trips and a few videos.

  • Beginning on May 11 we will be in Jerusalem. We start the tour by walking from our hotel to the Garden Tomb, then to the Jaffa Gate and a visit to the Church of Holy Sepulcher. We will be touring the Temple Tunnel, the Western Wall and the Davidson Archaeological Park on the Southern wall of the Temple.
  • On Thursday May 12 we will spend the morning at the Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem We will spend the afternoon at the Israel National Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Shrine of the Book, the Jerusalem Model, and the Archaeology Wing of the Museum.
  • On Friday May 13 we begin on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley. Walking down the Mount we will visit Domiunis Flevit (where Jesus wept over Jerusalem), the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. We will walk across the Kidron Valley past Absalom’s tomb and up to the City of David and Hezekiah’s tunnel and the pool of Siloam.
  • On May 14 we heard north to Galilee, driving from Jerusalem to Caesarea, Megiddo, through Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee to finally arrive at Ginosar Village in the late afternoon. On Sunday May 5 Galilee we will start the day at Mount Arbel overlooking the Sea of Galillee and then visit the synagogue at Magdal, the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum, and other sites Jesus.
  • We cross the border to Jordan on May 16 and visit Jerash and Mount Mt. Nebo on our way to Petra. Jerash for a tour of this spectacular Roman city.  May 17 we will spend the day at Petra, walking the Suq to the famous Al Khazneh or Treasury at Petra. On Wednesday May 18 we cross back into Israel at Aqaba visiting Eilat for a swim in the Red Sea. We are staying at the En Gedi Kibbutz Hotel (this is my second time there, it is excellent!)
  • Thursday May 19 starts with a visit to the Nabatean trading village Mamshit, Tel Arad, and the highlight of the day, Masada, the famous fortress built by King Herod and the site of the last stand of the Jewish zealots in the first Jewish War against Rome. On Friday May 20 we will start the day with a swim in the Dead Sea, then on to the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, hiking to the waterfall in Ein Gedi where David hid from King Saul, then a visit at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We will finish out the day with some shopping in the Old City in Jerusalem before driving to Tel Aviv for our last night in Israel.

All of these places are important historical and cultural sites, but they also challenge students to think more deeply about the story of the Bible and will encourage them in their walk with God. Plan on following along with our adventures as I post updates Reading Acts each day.

The Garden Tomb

At the Garden Tomb in May 2017