Reading Acts is Going to Israel

For the next two weeks I am leading a (mostly) student group from Grace Bible College on a tour of Israel and Jordan. This is my eighth trip leading a group to Israel. I have 35 students and parents on this trip, so it is by far the largest group I have led.

Days one and two are travel, by Wednesday we will be in the Old City. Here is our itinerary with some links. 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 two videos.

At En Gedi, 2009

Day 3: (Wednesday-May 3)  Jerusalem

We begin our morning at the Garden Tomb for communion (8:30 AM appointment), then a walk to the Jaffa Gate and Old City of Jerusalem to visit the Tower of David museum. We continue to walk through the Old City market to the Western Wall, the Davidson Archaeological Park on the Southern wall of the Temple, including parts of the Via Dolorosa and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Day 4: (Thursday May 4Jerusalem

We will spend the morning at the Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem (9:00 AM appointment). 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.

Day 5: (Friday-May 5)  Jerusalem

The day begins 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.

Day 6: (Saturday-May 6)  Galilee-Maagan

We will begin the day by driving from Jerusalem to Caesarea, Megiddo, through Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee to finally arrive at Maagan Holiday Village in the late afternoon.

Day 7: (Sunday-May 7)  Galilee-Maagan

We will begin this day by visiting Mount Arbel, the synagogue at Magdal, the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum, and other sites Jesus visited before returning to Maagan to enjoy the swimming pool!

Day 8: (Monday- May 8)  Jordan, Jeresh, Mt. Nebo, Amman

We will leave the Galilee early and prepare to cross into Jordan at the King Hussein Bridge and transfer busses in Jordan. We will stop at Jeresh for a tour of this spectacular Roman city. We will visit Mt. Nebo and possibly Madaba on to the Petra Movenpick Resort.

Day 9: (Tuesday-May 9)  Petra

We start out for Petra early, walking the Suq to the famous Al Khazneh or Treasury at Petra, a tomb carved out of the mountain stone by the Nabeateans about 2000 years ago. We will have time to explore this UNESCO World Heritage site before returning to our hotel.

Day 10: (Wednesday-May 10)  Aqaba, Eilat, Tamar Park

We will head south to the Red Sea, crossing the border back into Israel at Eilat. After some time swimming in the Red Sea we will arrive at Biblical Tamar Park.

Day 11: (Thursday-May 11)  Mamshit, Tel Arad, Masada

We will be on the bus early to explore several sites in the desert. Our first stop will be Mamshit, a Nabatean trading village which has been beautifully restored by the Israeli Park service. Then we will visit Tel Arad, an ancient Canaanite city captured by Joshua. We will visit the Judean fortress and a reconstructed temple at the top of the Tel. Finally, we travel to 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. Masada is also an UNESCO World Heritage site.

Day 12: (Friday-May 12)  Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, Qumran, The Dead Sea.  We will hike to the waterfall in Ein Gedi where David hid from King Saul. We will visit Qumran, the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We end this day with a float in the Dead Sea.

Day 13: (Saturday-May 13) Bet Guverin, Emek Elah, Old City

We will leave Tamar early to travel into the central hill country to visit the Bell Caves at Bet Guverin and make a quick stop at the Valley of Elah, where David fought Goliath. We will spend a final few hours in the Old City for final shopping. We will end the day at the Sadot Hotel, fifteen minutes from the Ben Gurion airport.

Israel 2012, Day 6 – Everything Floats in the Dead Sea

We started our day with a drive to Mamshit, a Nabatean caravan city near Arad. I had never been there before today, although I did visit Avdat in 2005. Both cities (along with Petra) are along Spice Route and were built by the Nabateans to service caravans traveling from Yemen through Petra and on to Gaza. When we arrived some bedouin boys were herding sheep on the opposite hill, so our young ladies made friends and tried out their basic Hebrew phrases. I expect they are now Facebook friends now.

There are two churches at the site, both with nice mosaics. These are among the oldest in Israel since both date to the early 400’s. The western church has a deep cistern excavated in the atrium, the east has a cover of the cistern so you can see more how the room might have looked. The western church has a cross-shaped baptismal wth very narrow steps. There were two dedications in the eastern church, but the floor was fenced off so it was hard to get a good photograph.

A large Nabatean home has been restored, including stables and a number of other rooms. There are some frescos which are partially preserved whch are worth seeing. A coupe of rooms were filed with unused stones, many of which had interesting carvings or other decorations. One was a square with four round holes, although we could not really tell what it was used for (I suggested “cup-holder” but no one was buying it).

From Mamshit we drove forty minutes to tel Arad. Usually this is one of my favorite sites since it is so well-excavated for both Canaanite and Israelite levels. The contrast between the Canaanite Sacred section and the Israelite temple in the fortress is quite amazing. The site gives me a chance to talk a bit about Canaanite religion which appeases the gods and attempts to cajole them into sending the rains and the worship of the Lord. The God of the Bible will bless his people, but only when they are obedient to the covenant. There is no appeasement or manipulation as with the worship of Baal.

One problem with Arad was that it was extremely windy and cold. Around the Dead Sea the temperatures were in the 70’s and less breezy, so fool that I am I left my coat behind.

We drove back to the Dead Sea for lunch and a swim, or at least a float. Most of our group dared enter the waters, although it was quite cold and breezy. I think that the Dead Sea is a great expereince, but it is better in the spring and summer! (In the interest of full disclosure, I sat on the shore and drank a coffee while everyone else froze in the salt water.)

Tomorrow we travel to Caesarea and then on to Galilee. I will be at a hotel in Tiberias, near the Sea of Galilee. Hopefully I can get to the internet for a few blog entries before we cross over to Jordan and visit Petra. I enjoyed the stay at Tamar, Derrick and Kate are excellent hosts. The food was great and the group seems to have liked “sukkah life” after dinner.

Rick in the Dead Sea

Israel 2012, Day 5 – Crossing the Red Sea

I had a great night of sleep and an early walk around the tel. I watched the sunrise over the mountains. Tuttle was in fact chasing the two girls on their morning jog, but as I write he is showing off doing push-up. (Usually you write “push-ups” but in this case the singular is appropriate.)

Today we drove about two hours south to the city of Eilat, a tourist city on the Red Sea.  The highlight of the drive is a stop at the “Cow Palace,” a roadside market and gift shop with an inordinate number of cow-oriented decorations. It was udderly amoozing.  It is still a good place for a rest stop and coffee, so much so that people wanted to stop there on the way back for ice cream (and a number of other edible items!)  The store has chocolate covered manna, which I am sure is totally biblical.

We split the group for the day.  Most of the group went snorkeling at Coral Beach, a national park.  I did not join them, but everyone had a great time and the coral was very good (especially given the low price). Lunch was excellent there, I am told, although one member of our group tried to order pepperoni on his cheese pizza.  That was so non-kosher.

I stayed with rest of the group who went to the public beach swim area. This was a nice spot to lounge by the Red Sea, although five of the group rented a boat and Captain Ray Crumb took them out for a three-hour tour (OK, it wasn’t that long, and the weather never did start to get rough.) I walked along the promenade for about a half hour. There are a huge variety of stores and resturants, everything from trinkets to some trendy fashionable stores I really do not know much about. I had a great pastery and cappicino at Cafe Cafe. Honestly, I had two, but they were small. Ish.

After dinner (spaghetti and meatballs, and an excelent poppy seed cake), we visited Kate’s gallery. Unfortunately she was “out of stock” on her jewelry but she had plenty of her excellent prints of Tamar and other sites from Israel. I highly recommend her art (I’ll post a link to her site when I get back home.) Quite a few of us are sitting around the fire in the Sukkah (which I called the Bedouin Boutique).

Rick Skelley Floats in the Red Sea

Israel 2012, Day 4 – Ibex, Rock Badgers, and Crabs, Oh My!

We had a great day visiting several sites in the Dead Sea area.  I didn’t feel much love when I announced a 7:30 start time, but we managed to be on the bus and ready to roll on time.

Our first stop was En Gedi, where David hid from King Saul (1 Sam 24).  Since we got there early, there were quite a few Ibexes grazing near the trail.  Actually, they seem to have been posing for pictures.  It was too early for the Hyrax (rock badgers) to be up and about, although we saw quite a few on the return walk.  Nearly everyone made it all the way to the waterfall, and we were there before the large groups started their walk so it was quiet.  We also saw a couple of freshwater crabs, something which I have never seen there before.

We drove past Masada to Qumran for a tour of the excavations (and a good lunch).  At the front gate there was a sign which said the “bridge” was closed, which appears to refer to the walkway over the larger cisterns.  There were a couple of other areas roped off for reconstruction of walkways, but we were able to make our way through most of the major rooms.  Since this was my fifth time at the site I noticed that there had been remarkably little improvement to the site despite the fact that I know there are several ongoing excavations.  The gift shop / resturant seems to be doing very well, but most of the people inside never visited the ruins.  I seriously doubt that Qumran is a “money maker” anymore, which is too bad – this is a very important site to both Jews and Christians.

After lunch we drove back south to Masada.  Mid-afternoon in early January  is a great time to visit, there was almost no crowd.  In fact, there was only one other group that I saw and they were leaving  as we were arriving.  We only had time to see the northern Palace, which is the highlight of the site.  Just about everyone walked the 165 steps down to the lower level (and the 165 steps back up!!)  A few walked or ran down the snake path,  those who are sane rode the cable car.  Unlike Qumran, Masada had improved greatly over my five trip to Israel.  The reception areas  are excellent and the busses are well managed.  I do have one complaint – it is time to update the movie!  There are several lines (and expressions) which always provoke laughter, even from this “mature” group.  The footage frrom the old movie needs to be re-mastered or replaced.

We had thought we would get a chance to swim in  the Dead Sea, but Masada ran late so we bumped that to a later day.  Derrick greeted us at Tamar with “wood grilled chicken” — an excellent dinner indeed.  Ken led us in an evening devotion  around the fire, challenging us to think about the “desert experience.”

I think that most people are off to an early bed tonight, but I do hear rumors that two “Strong and athletic” young ladies are planning on chasing John Tuttle on an early morning run.

Israel Tour, Days 13-14: Back in the USA

May 15-16

Our last day in Israel was a drive to the Allenby Bridge to return to Jordan.  Things went smoothly until we arrived.  First, the Jordanian bus was an hour late, mirroring our arrival in Israel.  Second, the exit tax was higher than anticipated (I was misinformed).  Aside from a little wait in the terminal things went smoothly and we were met by Salim, the driver we had for the first four days, and , a retired guide who entertained us with vaguely inaccurate versions of the story of Moses and several nominally funny jokes.

We got back to the Jerusalem Inn by 1PM, so we walked down to a Jordanian mall not far from our hotel.  There was a McDonald’s and a few other fast food type restaurants in the food court.  I had a Sbarro style pizza, although many opted for the American-style hamburger.  It is always enlightening to go into a mall in another country.  You see things that are familiar, but still not quite right.  I was amazed at the number of trendy stores in Jordan, including several Victoria’s Secret knock-offs.  This is a window into the struggle between the young Arab who has seen the West and envies it and the traditional who has seen the West and hates it for destroying his culture.

Several of us went to the Wireless Café for coffee and free wireless.  I caught up on the last few blog posts I missed while in Jerusalem and enjoyed my last Turkish coffee.  I also enjoyed watching a couple share a hookah for the better part of an hour.  A young man and woman shared the smoke, both frequently checking their phones, but rarely talking.  Again, East meets West.

The flight back to Chicago was long and I was unable to sleep much.  We left at 10AM Amman time and arrived at 4PM Chicago time, back to Grand Rapids by 10PM.  With the time change, this made for an incredibly long day. I tried to get up fairly early and get into a normal routine on Tuesday, but that just did not happen. I plan on revising the blog posts for the whole trip (spell check on an iPad is suspect, and there are several weird word-replacements I see I need to fix), and I plan on updating the pictures to higher resolutions.  I will also move the whole trip to its own page so people can read the days in order.

All things considered, this was an excellent trip.  My first time will always be the best, but I think I enjoy traveling to Israel more each time.  My fellow-travelers were wonderful, I enjoyed their company and we all got along quite well.  I am already looking forward to January 2012 for the GBC/GGF tour and May of 2013 for the next GBC Student tour.

We Miss Feras!

Israel Tour, Day 12: Rainy Days and Demonstrations Really Get Me Down

May 14

Today is our last touring day, and started very well.  The Leonardo Hotel is a ten minute walk from the Garden Tomb, so we left about 8:40 for our appointment.  Our guide was Dutch, speaking fluent English and German to the group assembled for the tour of the Garden. His explanation was clearly Evangelical.  Whatever we think of the burial site, it is certain that Jesus is not in the Tomb.  We had a short time of sharing some things we have learned, or been challenged spiritually by during the trip.  Ryan Vegh led us in two songs, and I served Communion for the group.  We had time for people to take a few minutes in the Garden by themselves for prayer.

We met Feras at 10:30 at the hotel, and he told me there had been incident in Silwan, near the City of David.  A 17 year old boy was killed during demonstrations in the village of Silwan, although the news the next afternoon was unclear on how this happened.  (I will update this when I have more information).  We were likely in the City of David when the  incident occurred, although I have not confirmed that.  We had noticed an unusual police presence, mostly wearing riot gear, but things had been peaceful the whole day.  Feras was concerned for us, but there was no indication that the Mount of Olives would be a problem.  He talked to several drivers but there was  nothing out of the ordinary.  But the fact that they were going to bury the boy at 11 am was a cause for concern.

We drove up to the Mount of Olives, and there were a few tourist buses and everything looked normal.  It was, however, very cold and rainy with a significant breeze.  Most of our group gone back to their rooms for a coat, I did not since I did not bring even a light jacket.  We did the usual talk at the top of the Mount and took a few pictures, and then started down to Dominus Flevit, the Church of the Teardrop.  When we got to the overlook, it was starting to rain,  but that was not the big problem.  It was about eleven, and we began to see people marching out of Silwan toward the Old City, shouting and singing as they went.  This was a demonstration in honor of the boy who was killed, and their path was pretty much the way I had intended to walk to Gethsemane.  We watched from a safe distance and the group got larger, people kept joining until there were maybe two or three hundred gathered in the Arab graves along the Kidron Valley.  They settled into a spot and began to toss rocks into the road.  We talked about it, and no one wanted to walk down the hill at all.  I called Feras and he was able to meet us back at the top of the Mount of Olives in a half an hour.  Unfortunately this was the worst of the cold rain, so most of the group took refuge inside the church where they sang and prayed.

When the bus arrived, Feras got a round of applause.  We were quite glad to be out of East Jerusalem, but we had a half day left.  I suggested we go back to the Jaffa gate, find something to eat, then go down to the Holy Sepulcher. This was agreeable to everyone, so Feras dropped us there and we split up for food.  I bought a coffee (10 shekels) and then some Jerusalem bread.  This was  7 shekels at Damascus Gate two days ago, today the guy wanted 25!  I gave him a couple of dollars and told him he was charging too much, and he took the money, said it was a “special deal” for me.  I found a spot to eat my bread and drink my coffee, watching people pass by the Jaffa Gate. The sun finally came out, so it made for a nice time for me.

We walked through the Christian Quarter, which is the same sort of market as the Arab Quarter, but with much more Christian tourist shops.  We found our way to the Sepulcher, and it was (as usual) very busy and crowded.  Still, there are many things to see inside, quite a bit of art.  The place has such a historical significance it is hard to skip, but the Garden Tomb is a much more pleasant place.  I am glad I visited, but the crowds were really overwhelming.  I also need to read more on the site since I was unaware what the various chambers were.  The line to enter the actual tomb was extremely long and tightly packed, I had no desire to wade through that to see the cave.

Tomorrow we pack up and return to the Allenby Bridge for our last day in Jordan and a long flight home.

Israel Tour, Day 11: Southern Temple and the City of David

May 13

I wrote the first part of today’s blog in the Old City, near the plaza which overlooks the Western Wall.  I browsed a Jewish book store, remarkably only purchasing one book.  I could have seriously damaged my credit in the store, but I did not want to buy anything that was easily available at home.  It is still quite chilly in Jerusalem, where I am sitting there is a cold breeze, making wish I had not worn shorts this morning.  Last trip it was so hot here, I am quite surprised at the low temperatures.

Most of the group has gone into the Old City to finish their shopping, so I have stationed myself in a shaded walkway with a very nice latte.  From here I can people-watch a bit, and of course get ahead on this blog.  I am always thinking of my readers!

My goal was to spend some time in the Old City and then the city of David.  We were able to do this for the most part, although today and tomorrow is Naqba, the Palestinian day of remembrance for the loss of Jerusalem, sort of an anti-independence day.  The word means “catastrophe,” and while I have never heard of any trouble on this day, there is always a potential for problems. (Obviously this year was different!)

The police presence in the old city is remarkable, we saw several units of police equipped with riot gear at the gates of the Old City.  I chose therefore not to try and enter the Temple Mount, which is a disappointment.  Our driver Feras suggested we avoid it, and I thought it best to take his advice.

We therefore visited the Southern Wall excavations for two hours.  The museum is nice, although the film lacks production value.  I think it does a good job describing religious practice in the Second Temple period, and I was able to highlight a few things after the film which looking at the model of the archaeological park.  For me, this is one of the most remarkable sites in the Old City since the Antiquities Authority has done such a nice job excavating and restoring the Second Temple streets and buildings.  Robinson;s Arch is easy to find and there are several artist’s reconstructions around the area to help visualize the architecture of the first century.  I particularly appreciate the fact they have left man of the stones pushed off the Temple Mount as they were discovered so that we can see the extent of the destruction of the city.

The city of David was our next stop, walking back out the Dung Gate to the national park site. Five brave souls opted for Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the rest of us (the wise) went through the dry Canaanite tunnels.  The walk is narrow in places (although that might just be my problem), but the lighting is good most of the way.  At the end of the cave there is a nice park to view the Jebusite walls.  The area was so nice and peaceful we rested there for ten or fifteen minutes before walking the rather steep stairs to the visitor center.  The peace of the Garden is all the more remarkable because it is the Silwan Valley, one of the more disputed areas in Jerusalem.  It really was hard to believe that just up the hill there was a serious conflict.

Feras picked us up at the Dung Gate and brought us back to the hotel. I spent some time in the lobby of the hotel catching up on my journal, and watching a large Jewish family arrive for a Bar-mitzvah celebration. Some of the kids were running around and sliding on the marble floors, like kids do. It is refreshing to know that kids are the same in every culture.