In May 2019 I traveled with 27 students, parents and friends to Israel and Jordan. Professor Scott Shaw was a co-leader; without his help it would have been impossible to manage a group of this size. The students were remarkable – very attentive and inquisitive and (almost) always on time. I wrote these posts while in Israel or Jordan on my iPad, so think of them as “live reports from the field.” I revisited them once I was home to add additional photographs when internet was bad and correct some typos.
The last day our the 2019 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 with their pups on the hike and a large group of ibex on the way out of the park.
From En-Gedi we drove north to Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. 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. Even the video at the beginning of the tour tacitly 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 parks 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. 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).
My plan was to return to the Old City in Jerusalem for final shopping, but it was the first Friday of Ramadan and many streets were closed to traffic. We could have walked to Jaffa Gate, but that would have cut down on our time. Our guide suggested driving to Jaffa instead. As it turned out this was a good idea. He walked us through several points of interest in Jaffa, although there is little I can say 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). After a 45 minute walk, we turned the group loose in the shops and they contributed much to the local economy.
We stayed at the Tal Hotel in Tel Aviv, just a block from the Mediterranean. This was a very nice stay, although it was far too short: our wake up call was for 2:00 AM and we were at the airport by 3:15 AM for a 6:15 departure. Since I am now back in Michigan, I can cay they long day of travel went well despite an hour delay in Vienna for engine maintenance and extremely long lines at immigration in Chicago (easily the worst I have ever experienced there).
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 cool 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 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
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.
But the real highlight of Arad is the Citadel. There is a massive 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.
Since the time was getting late, we skipped Mamshit and drove back to the Dead Sea for the traditional swim in the salt water. We went to the En Gedi Spa this time, which was overly crowded with day trippers since it was the Jewish Independence day. We ate lunch there, but it was busy, expensive and not all that great. The swimming was good, although you have to take a shuttle down to the beach since the Dead Sea has receded so far.
Tomorrow is En-Gedi, Qumran, likely a stop at Jesus’s baptism site near the Dead Sea, then a final few hours in the Old City.
Every tour has a necessary travel day, in this case we left Petra about 7:5 and drove to the Arava Border crossing to return to Israel. The drive was uneventful, except for a short bathroom break at a new shop with very clean restrooms.
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.
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 the En Gedi hotel. This 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, Arad and Mamshit. Our internet is slow here, so I will add some photographs later.
This morning we left Ma’agan in Galilee early in order to cross the border to Jordan. This was relatively painless although one of our group had two Israeli flags confiscated. I have never had this sort of thing happen before and it struck me as odd.
We met our guide Mo’taz who us eased us through the entry process and immediately started winding out way through the hills to our first stop, Jerash. Since it was the first day of Ramadan most of the villages were nearly deserted and we made excellent time. 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.
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.
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 Ceasarea) 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.
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?
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 since it was Ramadan many were leaving work jsut as we came through the city. This meant it took more than an hour longer than planned so we had to skip the Madaba Map (which is an interesting visit but difficult to get to quickly). Instead we visited Mount Nebo, 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.
We did not arrive to our hotel in Wadi Musa until 8:30, so we had a quick supper and tried to get a good night’s sleep to prep for a long day at Petra. The Grand View Hotel has a good reputation, but the hotel itself is long past its prime and in serious disrepair. Although it does have a great view, I cannot recommend the hotel to anyone not looking for a budget stay. We had trouble with bugs in one room (on the order of an Egyptian plague) and none of the rooms had working air conditioners. Fortunately we could open the windows and get a slight breeze.
Tomorrow we hike Petra, the highlight of any trip to Jordan!