Hiking at En-Gedi, visiting Qumran, and Qasr al Yahud

The last day of the 2022 Israel tour began at En-Gedi, where David hid from King Saul in a cave (1 Samuel 24). This is one of the more beautiful hikes on the trip since the Israeli Parks service has developed Wadi David as a nature preserve. The mile and a half walk is relatively easy since there are cut stairs and handrails, but there are a few steep flights and one passage through dark tunnel made of river reed. The walk also has several waterfalls and pools, the highlight being the final one at the end of the canyon. We saw a few hyrax and a few ibex on the way into of the park, but it seemed to me that there was less wildlife than previous visited. The water lever at the King David Waterfall seemed lower as well.

From En-Gedi we drove north to Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The last time I was at Qumran, the new visitor’s center was under construction. It is now complete and has a very nice reception area, but the vido and small museum is the same. The film was not working, which is good (in my opinion) because it is a bit strange.

The archaeology of the site is relatively simple, although the water system collects far more water that the site might need to survive. The reason for this is large number of ritual baths used by the community for purification. Almost everything at Qumran is controversial and the Dead Sea Scrolls have encouraged a wide variety of fringe ideas about the nature of both early Judaism and Christianity. The video at the beginning of the tour  suggests a relationship between John the Baptist and the Qumran community. This provided an opportunity to talk about these theories with the students. At the viewpoint overlooking Cave 4 we had a good discussion about the contents of the Scrolls and their value for biblical studies.

 

Since we have a long drive to Tel Aviv, we stopped only briefly at Qasr al Yahud, the more likely of the traditional sites for Jesus’s baptism. This site has been open since 2011 and is now on the Israel National Parks card, so it is an easy add-on for for groups using the park pass (see this Times of Israel story on the re-opeing of the site for tourist groups). Qasr means castle, and Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist does indeed look at bit like a castle. Unlike the site at Yardenit in Galilee, this is a far more authentic location since it is in the general area John the Baptist was active (although it is still not certain this is the place). Another clear difference is the lack of commercialism compared to Yardenit. The majority of the crowds queuing to be baptized in the muddy stream of the Jordan were Orthodox, although there appeared to be a handful of protestants and Pentacostals. The site on the other side of the Jordan is only a matter of feet from this location in Israel. The Jordanian site is called Al-Maghtas, “immersion” in Arabic. UNESCO listed the Jordanian side as a world heritage site, but not the western side (likely due to the political situation in West Bank).

Qasr al Yahud

 

For our last few hours we drove through Jerusalem, stopping for lunch at Elvis American Diner in Neve Ilan. (Here is the Atlas Obscura article on the diner, a Times of Israel article, and a YouTube video). This was one of the best hamburgers I have ever had. I highly recommend the Elvis Diner if you are in the area (and tired of falafel, which I was not, but this American group seemed to appreciate meat, fries and ketchup!

When we arrived at Jaffa, the traffic was even crazier than expected for a Friday afternoon. Our guide walked us through several points of interest in Jaffa, although there is little that is authentic. There is a traditional site for the home of Cornelius and a Franciscan church commemorating Peter’s departure from Jaffa to Rome (although that is not in the Bible, if he left for Rome by ship Jaffa is the likely port). There are several spectacular views if the Mediterranean Sea and Tel Aviv.

 

We stayed at the Metropolitan Hotel in Tel Aviv, just a block from the Mediterranean. This was a very nice stay in a great hotel. But it was far too short: our wake up call was for 5:30 AM to get to the airport for our 10:30AM flight back to Chicago. Since I am now back in Michigan, I can tell you the flight was delayed in Istanbul, and we had a lost bag in Chicago. That made us an hour and a half late for your ride back to Michigan. I got home about 1:30 AM Sunday, and some of the group had much longer dives home that me.

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.

Swimming in the Red Sea

Every tour has a necessary travel day, in this case we left Petra about 7:50 and drove to the Arava Border crossing to return to Israel. The drive was uneventful, except for a short bathroom and snack break.

The passage through the Jordanian was quick and easy (you pay the money they let you through), but the Israeli side involved a lengthy bag inspection, about 75% of our group had to open their bags and the search was quick thorough. Since I tend to buy books as souvenirs I always get tagged for inspections (the xray machines cannot see through two or three thick books). It might be frustrating but I appreciate the extreme care for safety and security, as well as the generally friendly people digging through our filthy clothes to check out water bottles filled with Sea of Galilee water. This time I needed to open my laptop, took thirty seconds once they got to me.

The only event on the agenda was a swim in the Red Sea at Coral Beach. This is on the national parks pass so entrance was paid for, but snorkeling gear cost about $10 to rent. Some of the group snorkeled, the rest waded into the water in the one or two open swim areas. Several sat in the shade and read a book (my favors option at the beach). It was a very cool day compared to previous years and there was a pleasant steady breeze.

After a stop at the shop at Yotatava (the one with the cows), we drove straight to En Gedi, but there was a major traffic accident on route 90 (three evac helicopters), closing the road, We had to turn back and take a long detour, delaying our arrival at the hotel by at least two hours. The En Gedi hotel is a beautiful kibbutz turned hotel, The location is right next to the En Gedi Nature Park and the grounds of the hotel are a wild garden of plants and trees. Dinner was exceptional (finally, stuffed grape leaves!)

Tomorrow we will will visit several desert sites, including at Masada and Arad, along with the traditional swim in the Dead Sea

Jerash and on to Petra

This morning we left Galilee early in order to cross the border to Jordan. Today was a classic example of best laid plans…we left on time (rare on this trip!) and got to the border crossing all in good time. But someone decided that today everyone must use the shuttle bus. After an hour of arguing (our guide and driver making calls), we had to wait behind three other tours caught in the same bureaucratic nonsense (“formal stupidity” was the phrase I heard). The upshot of all of this is that we were three hours late meeting our guide Osama in Jordan. That really upset our plans for the day, which were already difficult since we intended to visit Jerash, Mount Nebo and then drive to Petra.

The drive from the border crossing to Jerash is a winding road through the hills. For most of our students, this was their first experience in an Arab country and I have already had several conversations about the differences in the various cultures we have seen on this trip. Our driver took a few “short cuts” which brought us to the back side of the archaeological park to get an overview of a few things we cannot see on such a short visit.

Jerash is a large Roman city with several structures which illustrate what a huge imperial city looked like in the late first century and early second. First is the Hadrian Gate on the south side of the city. When Hadrian went on a grand tour of the Empire, many cities honored him with a new Gate or arch. Jerash built this new gate well south of the city, but it does not appear the city ever expanded south as planned. If you are wondering what the flags in the gate are, the site was filming one of those Amazing Race shows and that was one of the checkpoints.

Jerash Hadrian Gate

Second, just inside the gate is a large hippodrome. Only one section has been restored but the ends of the structure are clear. The guides will usually walk a group through the hippodrome; if you have been to virtually any other hippodrome (such as Caesarea) you can skip this.

Third, after passing through the actual south gate of the city there is a spectacular Oval Plaza leading to the Cardo (the central street in a Roman city). From the Oval Plaza you can see the Roman Temple of Zeus, which is built on top of the Hellenistic Temple. There is a small museum below this temple but I have only been able to enter it once; as usual it was closed on this visit.

Forth, a short walk up the hill from the Plaza is a very nicely restored Roman theater. All the acoustics are restored so people can speak from the central part of the stage and be heard throughout the theater. I enjoy watching the students speak a few words, the step on to the central stone and hear their voice projected all around them. Virtually every time I have visited this theater a Jordanian bagpipe player and drummer are there to show off the acoustics.

Jeresh

The Cardo

Fifth, we walked across the hill to the Temple of Artemis. This is an incomplete temple, like Sardis in Asia Minor. I have read speculation that the eastern Empire became increasingly Christian so work was stopped, but it is just as likely they ran out of money, perhaps because Rome withdrew from the region. Usually guides like to demonstrate how the pillars flex just a bit by putting a spoon in the lower crack and pushing the pillar (our guide did not even walk us up to the temple platform; I insisted on taking the students up myself). It really is impressive, but I wonder why it is always the same pillar: do the others not sway?

Jeresh temple of artemis

From the temple of Artemis we walked down the sacred ascent to the Cardo (the easiest route even though it would be more authentic to walk up the stairs to the Temple). I noticed a Latin inscription with the name Diana and a Greek inscription opposite it about three-quarters up the steps. They were unidentified and I am not at sure where they were originally located.

Sixth, walking down from the ascent to the Temple we joined the Cardo and worked our way back to to the Oval Plaza. This central colonnaded road is lined with shops and a few sacred spaces. I noticed there are far fewer inscriptions at Jerash than Ephesus or Perge (for example). I am not sure if there were many Greek inscriptions and they have been moved or lost, but compared to virtually every city we visited in Turkey, Jerash is inscription-less.

By now it was getting late in the day and traffic through Amman was terrible. It is always terrible. But three hours late on the border crossing meant we arrive just as the Mount Nebo site was closing, so we were only able to see the norther view of the Jordan Valley. Mount Nebo is the place where Moses died after viewing the Promised Land (Deut. 34:1-2). Several students asked about whether this is really the place, so I pointed out it is Mount Nebo and the best viewpoint to see the land in the area is there, and a pass through the mountains is at the foot of the mountain. So it is plausible this is Nebo, even if it is not at the exact place of the Church.

Mount Nebo

We did not arrive to our hotel in Wadi Musa until 10:00 PM. I am certain a few traffic laws were bent/broken on the way (it was a wild ride, especially since we were in a thirty passenger bus; we felt every bump along the way). Our driver cut at least a half hour off of our estimated time (and we kept the bathroom break to just that, no snack shopping!) We had a quick supper and tried to get a good night’s sleep to prep for a long day at Petra. We are in the Movenpick across from the Petra site, and the hotel is excellent. I cannot say enough about the service considering how late we arrive. .

Tomorrow we hike Petra, the highlight of a trip to Jordan!

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.