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. Caesarea has always been one of my favorite places to visit on an Israel trip. The city is Herod’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.

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 will Felix was the governor. It is what it was it Caesarea that Paul made his famous appeal to Caesar. There is a cistern in Herod’s palace at Caesarea which claims to be the prison of the apostle Paul, but I think this has about a zero percent chance of being accurate. Since Paul was a Roman citizen it is highly unlikely he he would have been held in a cistern for two years (or at all for that matter).

From Caesarea we traveled through Mount Carmel to Megiddo. I have not visited this site in many years, and although not much has changed, what is there to see is quite important. 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).


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.

From Nazareth we made our way to the Sea of Galilee, stopping at Yardenet, the location for baptisms in the Jordan River in Galilee. Like the precipice, this is not  the place Jesus was baptized (that was near the Dead Sea). But this is the place many Christians come to remember Jesus’s baptism and participate in the ritual. We spent some time reading the baptism story in Matthew 4 and discussed  the voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit.

We arrive at Ma’agan Holiday Village on the Sea of Galilee about 5:00, allowing the students plenty of time in the pool. Ma’agan is one of my favorite places to stay in Israel. And one of my favorite things to do with a group is to gather down by the shore after dinner and talk about the trip so far. Since we were near the half-way point, this is a good chance for students to share their experiences and thoughts about our travel in Jerusalem. This was one of the best times I have had, most of the students shared and were thoughtful as they reflected on their spiritual and cultural experiences.

Tomorrow we will visit quite a few sites related to the life of Jesus.

Israel 2013, Day 8 – Hiking in Petra

Our guide Mohammed scored big points by suggesting a 9am start time (I was holding out for 6:30). But he was right, a visit to Petra is all about timing. Arriving at the Treasury in the morning is best since the sun hits the facade just right and brings out the color and detail. I cannot understand big groups arriving at two in the afternoon, the hottest part of the day and the time when the colors are not as vibrant.


The walk down the Siq was pleasant and cool, if not chilly in the shade. A few moments in the sun reminded you that you were in the desert. Mohammed did a serviceable with the explanations, but I thought he did not do a very good job pointing to the (rather thin) connections to the New Testament period. Perhaps he did not fully understand the audience, but the students could have been better informed. I tried to do this more privately as we walked along.

The Treasury, which is really just the most ornate tomb in the necropolis, was as crowded as usual. It does not look like much has been done with the lower tombs other than to shore up the barrier keeping the tourists back from the steps. I noticed several areas with new barriers, such as the cult site in the Siq, the Byzantine chapel, and quite a few tombs which used to be open. My first time at Petra there were no barriers at all, even at the theater. But with increased tourism comes an increase in wear and tear on the soft sandstone monuments.

Mohammed walked us up to the Royal tombs, specifically to the large tomb usually referred to as the Byzantine chapel. Tis is a long climb up stairs, past a bewildering array of Bedouins trying to be you to “stop and have a look.” The chapel itself is in remarkable, although the large chamber shows off the rose colors of the sandstone nicely. The main reason for hiking up the steps is the views of the rest of the valley. From up at the top you can see just how many tombs are in the necropolis at Petra.

After a quick “box lunch” we gave the kids free time to explore and haggle. I walked with the Shaws to the Temple of Zeus. The is the first time I have visited this location, and it was a rewarding visit. The temple was excavated by Brown University and they have done an excellent job restoring much of the Temple while preserving some things as found. We spent an hour climbing to the top of the temple complex, but at least another hour would be necessary to really see the whole complex.


Are there any biblical connections in Petra? Petra is a fantastic site and everyone should visit it if you have the chance. But why put it on a biblical studies tour? First, the wife who was divorced by Herod Antipas was a Nabatean princess. Second, Nabatean king Aretas IV is sometimes described as the Herod the Great of the Nabateans. He expanded the kingdom to its largest extent. Third, Paul mentions in 2 Cor. 11:22-23 as the King who ordered that Paul be arrested. While there is little direct reference to the Nabateans, the do lurk in the background of the New Testament.

After the long uphill hike back to the bus, all people wanted to do was to return to the hotel and hit the pool. I cannot blame them, as wonderful as Petra is, this was an exhausting day.

We are back to Israel tomorrow, spending a bit of time at the Red Sea and sleeping at Tamar before our big day in the Negev.



Israel 2013, Day 7 – Crossing into Jordan

Because of our extremely long day driving to Petra I was unable get a post finished yesterday. We arrived at 8pm, so by the time we had some dinner, it was far to late. In addition, I have been fighting a cold most of the trip. For whatever reason it chose to settle in my sinuses, so I tried to get a good night sleep. Thanks to Whitney’s traveling pharmacy I was able to get through the day. (It turns out the girls on this trip have about half the pharmacy section of Walgreens with them…which is good since the guys did not bring anything with them!)

Our long travel day began with crossing the border in Jordan. This went very smoothly since the tour company provides me with the proper paper work. We were almost the only people crossing at the Tiberias crossing, which helped. We met our Jordanian guide, Mohammed, who walked us through the Jordan side of the crossing. Again, we were the only people entering at the time, so it went fast.

Mohammed took us to the bus where we met out driver, Said, and the travel security agent also called Mohammed. We are assigned a security agent mostly for our peace of mind, there is really no danger in Jordan, especially where we travel. Our bus was more of a van with delusions of grandeur, but the air was cool (mostly).


We had about an hour drive to the first stop, Jerash. Mohammed did a decent job with he usual tour guide chatter, saying the word “agriculture” in some form several dozen times. Jeresh is an important city excavated to the Roman period for the most part. There is a large gate dedicated to Hadrian, although a smaller version of the gate is the actual entrance to the city. A major highlight is the column-lined oval plaza which connects the Cardo to the Temple of Zeus. While we were listening to Mohammed explain how the plaza we discovered, we were surrounded by elementary school girls who wanted to talk to us. Hillary’s long blonde hair was a huge hit with the girls, who were probably sixth grade, all wearing school uniforms, playing with cell phones and giggling a lot. So pretty much like an American elementary school field trip.

From this plaza we walked up to the Roman theater. This one of the best preserved I have seen. The acoustics are repaired and work perfectly. If you stand in the center spot and speak in a normal voice, you an be heard throughout the theater. Unfortunately the school girls were already there and climbing everywhere. As usual, a pair of men dressed as Jordanian soldiers came out and played bagpipe and drum. This is a tradition that dates back to Lawrence of Arabia, although our guide insisted bagpipes were invented in the Middle East. The school girls linked arms and began to dance (while still giggling and screaming, which I would not have thought possible). If ever asked to define “cacophony” I will describe this scene.

We retreated from the theater and briefly visited a Byzantine church with a fascinating collection of mosaics. Unfortunately we are not permitted to get close to the, but the viewpoint makes for some good pictures and was mercifully not on the school girl’s tour for the day.

The temple of Artemis dominates Jerash, as it would have in the mid second century when it was built. The huge pillars are designed to sway with the wind or small earthquakes. If you place a stick or spoon in one of the crack, it will show how much sway the pillar has. I suppose you could use you fingers, but that might be an unfortunate end to your tour.

Ben Stout, Roman

Ben Stout, Roman

We walked down the sacred steps leading up to the Temple of Artemis (seven sets of seven steps, which is either mystical numerology or just a nice pace for people). This long stairway opens on to the Cardo, the main road through a Roman city. Mohammed took us into one of the Roman shopping area where several “bell” stones are house. These were originally set on pillars along the Cardo, and if struck, a bell inside sounds. We banged on the top with a rock (Ben Stout actually laid down a funky beat). It is thought this was some kind of warning system in case of an earthquake, but that may not be the case.

We wandered the length of the Cardo and returned to the bus. We had ordered ahead “box lunch” so we could eat quickly and get back on the road. I had a lamb kabob, in fresh pita. This was one of the best lunches I have had on this trip. Very tasty indeed, with French fries, some veggies and a coke, $10.

From Jeresh we drove through Amman, the modern Capitol on Jordan, taking its name from the Ammonites of the Old Testament. Our next stop was an hour and a half south, Mount Nebo. This is the place where Moses viewed the whole land just before the died. There are a number of interesting mosaics there, although the church at Mount Nebo is still being restored, so we cannot see them all. We also saw the Madaba Map at St, George’s church in Madaba. This is a large mosaic dating to the sixth century AD which locates sacred sites in the Holy Land for pilgrims. Think of it as an early Tourist Information center.

From Madaba to Petra (Wadi Musa) is a long, three and a half hour drive though quite boring desert. This is an area where Israel crossed before entering the land in Joshua, but the Desert Road does not offer much variety of scenery. About half way we made a “bathroom break.” There are several of these places about an hour and a half from Petra. They are clean bathrooms (please tip the man who has the paper towels) and a wide selection of Jordanian souvenirs. The marked prices are very high, so negotiations are required. Ben Stout had a thousand dinar ($1500) sword in his hand, but I doubt he was really going to buy it.

The Marriott at Wadi Musa is very nice, the college students are usually thrilled with the big rooms and great food, not to mention the free wifi in the lounge. Like most Arab countries smoking is permitted (encouraged?), so this is not the most pleasant place to sit in the evenings.

Tomorrow we are up early for a long hike to Petra, one of the highlights of the trip.

Israel 2013, Day 6 – The Jesus Sites

I usually refer to this day on the Tour as the Jesus Sites day. That was only mostly true this year because I chose to stay an extra day in Jerusalem and omit the usual trip through the Golan Heights because of the troubles in Syria. We started at Yardenet, the tourist site for the Jordan River. It is set up to handle massive baptisms, but we just snuck into one of the many stairwells and read the Baptism story in Matthew. We talked about the likelihood that this was even close the the story in Matthew (the students decided it could not be since people were coming from Jerusalem to be baptized.)

After a short bus ride we hiked Mount Arbel, not a biblical tie, but it has a spectacular view of the northwest end of the lake, with the major locations clearly identified. The view of the “Horns of Hattin” is fantastic.


We then drove to the Mount of Beatitudes, the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount. This again has a fairly low chance of being the right place, primarily because the site has shifted overly the years. I think that just about any hill will do, and there are some problems thinking of the Sermon on the Mount as a single sermon “preached” at a single time. The current church was in part funded by Mussolini and is a small octagonal chapel with each wall dedicated to a Beatitude. The garden itself is pretty, and is as good a place as any to read Matthew 5. The students wandered a bit, reading scripture and praying. I spent just a few minutes reading the Beatitude to Ben Stout. It was very moving to hear him re-word them in ways that got to the heart of the saying.

From the Mount, we drove to Capernaum and the traditional site of St. Peter’s house. Unlike the Mount, I can say that is certainly Capernaum, and the house is really a first century house. The tradition that identifies this as Peter’s house is fairly old. I am willing to accept this tradition, although for me that does not matter too much. We read Mark 2, the healing of the paralytic at Peter’s house. What this story does is reveal who Jesus is (the one who forgives sin). They are doing a great deal of work on Capernaum, the front wall and the shaded area is roped off and torn up. I am not sure what they are doing, but right now many of the finds along the side fence are no longer visible.

After lunch at the Jesus boat museum (sandwiches and juice) we drove a hour to Tel Dan. The park is putting cement paths in, so there was a slight detour, and we were under a bit of a time crunch since it was two hours to closing. We got a good picture at the Pistacio Lookout point, I think that is two or thee times for that picture. The gate has not changed much, although I do not remember the cult stone at the entrance. We walked to the cult center, where Jeroboam built one of the two golden calves after the kingdom split after Solomon’s death.

This is the last night in Galilee, which disappoints everyone since Ma’agan is such a good hotel. Tomorrow early we cross the border to Jordan and work our way down to Petra. I may be a bit late with one or both of those blogs since I am not sure the Internet will be affordable at our hotel.


Israel 2012, Day 10 – Hiking in Petra

At Petra, January 2012

We arrived quite late to our hotel in Petra the Beit Zaman. This is a very nice hotel although it is a ten minute drive to the gates of Petra.  The hotel is a series of bungalow style rooms designed to look like the original village of Beit Zaman.  I found the beds comfortable and the food quite good.  The only problem is that the rooms are laid out like a maze with little (or no) signs to mark the correct path to your room.  Since all the rooms look alike, the directions “go out and to the left” sent our group on a hunt for their rooms.  To make matters worse, they were tired and hungry from the long drive down to Petra.  Eventually we found our rooms, got the luggage to the right rooms, had a late meal and got a great night’s sleep.  I slept right through the night, although I was awakened at 5:15 AM by the call to prayer.We planned to start our day at Petra at 9AM, so naturally it was about 9:20 before we heading to the gates.  For those of you who have visited Petra more than a year ago, the visitor center is still under construction, although it is getting close to finishing.  I talked to a shop owner who said he expected to be back in his regular place in six months.  The parks authority has raised the rates for Petra quite a bit in the last five years (now 50 dinars, it was 21 in 2009).  Hopefully all that money will result in a nice visitor’s center.  I also noticed that the donkey boys were more prominent than my other visits but perhaps that is the result of being here in January when there is no school.  (Although in my experience the children of Petra often skip school to sell in the park – this is another thing that needs to change since the children are missing their education and are being used to more or less beg from the tourists.)

Our guide Suliman did a great job explaining the major points of interest on the walk down to the Siq, stopping briefly to point out significant tombs or comment on the carving process.  Our whole group walked down together and everyone did a great job keeping up.  I have always enjoyed watching people as they finally get to the point where the Treasury is visible from the Siq – jaws drop then the cameras start (as if the cliffs are going to close up before a photograph can be taken!)

It looks like they have continued to dig around the front of the Treasury, although I have not read any kind of a report on what has been found in the lower rooms.  Since they are working in front of the building, the steps are now off-limits.  I think this is ultimately a good thing for the site since the human damage to the Treasury would only increase as visitors continue to arrive. We had a few brave souls who rode the camels for a few minutes, providing great photo opportunities! Joyce and Joan in particular seem born to ride a camel, but the Kemper clan has mastered the signal to make the camel kneel.

There seemed to be more Bedouin than tourists wen we arrived, although as we were leaving I noticed many more tour buses int he parking lot, even at 3PM they were still arriving and starting what must have been a very fast walk to the Treasury and  back again.  (Honestly, this is a disservice to the tourists since they pay a lot of money to visit the site, to hurry them through in less than 2 hours is ridiculous!)

After a “box lunch” (not the best I have had in Petra) the group split off into several directions.  A few went up to the Monastery, others to the High place, both offer spectacular views.  Karin blazed her own trail, winding around the site in a way that I did not think possible.  I wandered up to the Royal tombs, not the highest of the hikes possible, but I just happened to get there at a time when there was virtually no other person on the cliff sides.  This gave me the time to poke my nose into several tombs (one occupied by a donkey) and get several very nice photographs.

We had six full hours at Petra and saw only a tiny fraction of the site.  You can spend four days hiking to some of the more remote locations.  I think that our group had good experience and hopefully will all return in the future.  I was chatting with our guide about the drop-off in tourism due to recent word vents in Arab countries.  Jordan is by far the most stable Arab country to visit and has a great deal to offer.  You really could make a ten-day tour of just Jordan, our two days seems far too short.

Tomorrow we are off to the border for a last visit to Jerusalem then the long plane ride home.