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



Turkey Day 7 – Ephesus

Our full final day included a walk through Ephesus. This is the highlight of any tour to western Turkey. Although Perge and Hierapolis were large sites with many restored buildings, Ephesus has more to see and it is a far more significant location historically. Paul spent up to three years in Ephesus, Timothy was in Ephesus when Paul wrote 1 Timothy to give him instructions on how to deal with elders who were defecting from the faith, John likely wrote his Gospel and the three letters of John from Ephesus and the Book of Revelation was written from Patmos and sent first to the church at Ephesus (Rev 2).

Artemis of EphesusSince we are staying in Kuşadası, we had a short easy drive to the Ephesus Museum. Why did we start at the museum rather than the archaeological park? There was a slight chance of rain in the morning, so by going through the museum first we were able to miss any sprinkles. Unfortunately one of our group was not feeling well and had to go back to the hotel. The rest of us walked through the museum. The museum has a large display of statutes from Ephesus, all very clearly arranged and labeled. A number of displays were dedicated to items discovered in the Terrace houses. These illustrate the lifestyle of the wealthy in the city. In the courtyard between the two buildings are several important inscriptions, but these lack transcription and translation.

The highlight is the room with two first century Artemis statues. Both are impressive, the smaller is slightly older and is in better condition, the larger has her full crown and is significantly larger.

Just beyond the rooms with the two Artemis statues is a display of items from the Imperial Cult, including a portions of a monumental statues of Domitian. Or is it Domitian? The head and forearm are usually identified as Domitian, but more recently scholars have suggested the head looks more like Titus. In fact, at the Imperial Temple site in Ephesus the sign has it both ways. I am intrigued by the possibility the statue is Titus since he was the general in charge of the destruction of Jerusalem. If John was influenced at all by the Roman Imperial cult in Ephesus when he wrote Revelation, then calling the emperor who destroyed Jerusalem “the beast” who was inspired by Satan has a bit more anti-imperial venom.

After the Museum we drove to the upper entrance to Ephesus at the Magnesia Gate. There is an Odeon dating to A.D. 150 just inside the entrance to the site, but the first thing to interest me is site of the Imperial Temple (dedicated to Domitian? Titus? the Flavian Dynasty?). The massive structure is an indication of the strength of the imperial cult in Ephesus at the end of the first century and the early second century. In this square is a  a reproduction of a Nike relief (the real on is in the Ephesus Museum). Be sure to see the caduceus in front of what would have been a health clinic near the entrance to the Imperial cult center. If you are interested in Greek inscriptions, there is a collection in this area although the main gallery is locked and you would need to have special permission to enter (which I did not have).

From this spot tourists can get a great photo of the sloping Roman street (the “Avenue of the Curate”) leading to the Library of Celsus and the Agora. There are several interesting things to see on this street, including a public toilet and bathhouse. The entrance to the bathhouse has inscriptions dedicated to both the Empire and Artemis. For some reasons people love to see the ancient toilets, although Ephesus has roped these off so tourists can no longer take awkward photos. The Hadrian temple has been largely replaced with replicas, but still offers a view of the imperial might of Rome in Ephesus.

Terrace House in Ephesus

Although an additional ticket is required, the Terrace Houses is a major highlight of a tour of Ephesus. Sadly, only about 1.5% of all visitors to Ephesus pay the extra ticket price to walk through the six residences are across from the Hadrian Temple. These are large homes for the wealthy and elite citizens of Ephesus, occupied as early as A.D. 25 through the seventh century. The houses look like modern condos, with open air courtyards, water pipes (and at least one indoor toilet). Many of the walls have the original art and a few have ornate mosaic floors. The entire complex is covered to protect it from the elements, and the stairs work their way up the hill, exiting with a view of the street which passes by the agora, leading to the large theater. From this point on the hillside you could hike to the Cave of Paul and Thecla, assuming you have arranged for the visit (and paid the fee and can make the hike. It is too muddy in March to even attempt to see the cave).

Library of Celsus

Library of Celsus and Gate of Augustus

The Library of Celsus dates to the second century (completed about A.D. 114), so this is not the place Paul rented space from Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). Although the library was destroyed in a earthquake in A.D. 262, the reconstructed façade of the library is spectacular, with replica statues of Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence) and Arete (virtue). The library was eventually converted into a bathhouse, although only a large pool remains.

Next to the library is the entrance to the entrance to the agora. This is the largest we have visited on this trip (525×240 feet), although very little has been excavated or restored. The Hellenistic agora sits lower than the street running from the Terrace Houses and the theater (Roman period). This theater seats up to 25,000 and is the location of the riot in Acts 19:21-34. Since it faces the harbor, the noise of the riot would not have been heard in the boule near the Magnesia Gate, explaining why it took some time for the town clerk to arrive. A street leads from the theater to the ancient harbor. Unfortunately for us there is an extensive renovation project so the area in front of the theater is closed, We sat on the steps and read through portions of Acts 19 and talked bout how Paul’s Gospel impacted the culture of the city, including the magicians of Ephesus.

Theater at Ephesus

Theater at Ephesus

We ate lunch at a Turkish rug factory. This is fairly typical of a tourist visit, and the shop gave a very interesting demonstration on how they obtained from the worms and how the women who make the rugs work the loom. They brought out about 50 rugs while we waited and I am glad someone in our group bought one to offset our free lunch. I would have preferred to skip the rugs and spend another hour at Ephesus, but that it was not a total waste of time.

We ended out day at the Basilica of Saint John, the traditional burial site of the apostle John. There are a few things of interest at this site, including the tomb of John and a large baptismal room. It is also a good place to see what is left of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus: a single reconstructed column (with a stork nest on top).

We start the long journey home tomorrow at 8AM, should back to Chicago in the late afternoon. This has been a good trip, but it was made greater by my traveling companions, the hard work of our tour guide and driver. Thanks to Tutku Tours for making out time in Turkey so memorable!

Turkey Day 6 – Didyma, Miletus and Priene

This day was a series of firsts for me since I have not visited any of these three locations on previous tours of Turkey. Since this is a “missionary journeys of Paul” tour I wanted to include Miletus, the location of Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20), although we will not be visiting Ephesus (Acts 19) until tomorrow morning. Since we are driving all the way over to Miletus, it made good sense to start the day in Didyma, then visit Miletus and Priene after lunch.

Temple of Apollo at DidymaUnfortunately, it rained heavily on the drive from Izmir to Didyma on the Aegean Sea. Although it was barely sprinkling when we arrived, we had to deal with mud and slippery marble while exploring the Temple of Apollo and Artemis (the twins implied by the name Didyma). The Temple was founded sometime after Alexander the Great took the territory from the Persians, the temple was designed by the same architect as the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. A ten-mile sacred road connects Miletus and Didyma.

Even though the temple was not completed it functioned as an oracle. This gave me an opportunity to talk about how oracles functioned in the Greek world and I related this to Paul’s encounter with the slave girl in Philippi (Acts 16:16-18). Alexander the Great, Seleucus I and Seleucus II all received oracles from the temple at Didymas. The temple was finally closed by under Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395).

One of the nice side-benefits to this day is the drive through the countryside of the south western end of Turkey. The area between each of these sites is largely agricultural (cotton, but also fruit trees and olives).

At Miletus we walked from the parking area to the theater. Once again, it rained while we were driving, but as soon as we got out of the minibus the rain stopped and for most of our visit it was sunny. The main thing to see in the is a seat with a Greek inscription mentioning the God-fearers. The God-fearers were Gentiles who chose to worship the God of the Jews and even keep most of the Law, although the men stopped short of full conversion because of the stigma of circumcision. Both Cornelius (Acts 10) and Lydia (Acts 16).

Theater at Miletus

After lunch (a lamb kabob), we drove back to Priene. This is a beautiful site but is a long steep hike from the parking area to the Hellenistic city. The first half of the hike is on a broad, smooth path, but eventually the path becomes a stairway of Roman stones, very uneven and rough. But the hard walk is worth it since this is one of the more beautiful archaeological sites I have visited. There are pine trees shading most of the area and there is a constant view of the a forbidding Mount Mycale behind the city and the fertile plain below.

Temple of Athena at Priene

There are several highlights, including a small theater. Even though it is small, there are five thrones for elite members of the audience right at the floor level. Each has animal feet carved into the base and inscriptions below the seat (I took photographs to work on later). From the theater we moved into a later Byzantine church and made our way to the temple of Athena. Like the temple at Didyma, this impressive structure was initially sponsored by Alexander the Great but never completed. It is comparable to Didyma or Sardis, but only five of the massive pillars have been re-assembled. The whole area of the temple is a maze of pillar drums, although I cannot imagine how anyone could do a major restoration project on the top of this hillside. Nevertheless, the Temple is very impressive. Prine also has a small synagogue with two or three small graffiti menorahs. Other than these marks, there is little in the building to hint at the use as a synagogue.

We are staying at a very nice hotel right on the Aegean Sea (an advantage of off-season travel) and will visit Ephesus in the morning.

Turkey Day 5 – Pergamum

The cryptoportico at the Asclepion at Pergamum

The cryptoportico at the Asclepion at Pergamum

Today we headed to the city of Pergamum. For those who have visited this impressive Roman site in the past, you might recall the sky-tram running from the base of the mountain to the park entrance. At this time, the system is being repaired so the larger busses have to hire a series of cabs to ferry people to the top. Since we are a smaller group traveling in a van we went up the winding road ourselves. There was one larger group ahead of us, otherwise we had the acropolis to ourselves. 

The city has a rich history. Pliny the Elder considered the city “the most important in the province” (Naturalis historia 5.126). Pergamum was the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon 281–133 BC; in 133 BC Attalus III died without an heir and gave the kingdom of Pergamon to Rome in his will. 

Although Pergamum was the site of the first imperial cult in Asia under Augustus, the imperial cult site at the acropolis was redesigned for Trajan (who died before it was completed) and Hadrian. The city reached its peak population of about 200,000 at this time. 

One of the main points of interest is the platform of the Temple of Zeus. The temple itself was dismantled and moved to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, but one can still imagine how impressive the building would have been sitting at the time of the acropolis. For many interpreters, Revelation 2:13 refers to this temple as the “place where Satan has his throne.” For others, this is a reference to the imperial cult, although the impressive imperial Temple was not constructed until after Revelation was written. A few have suggested Satan’s throne is the Asclepium (see below).

Imperial Cult Temple at Pergamum

Imperial Cult Temple at Pergamum

The imperial temple has been partially reconstructed. There are a number of impressive pillars and the vault system is open to visitors. A partial statue of Trajan is still standing, everything else has been moved to a museum. In a small open-air collection of inscriptions next to the imperial temple is an inscription honoring Trajan. After listing many of his imperial titles, the main part of the inscription ends with the words, “of the earth and the sea, Lord.” This is the imperial claim that the Emperor was the Lord of the Land and Sea, probably reflected in Revelation’s beast of the earth and beast of the sea (Revelation 13).

The theater is the steepest in the ancient world. The 78-rows could hold up to 10,000 people. Pergamum also boasted a large library containing as many as 200,000 volumes. 

One member of our group grabbed a wooden handrail and was skewered by a massive splinter. After a brief detour to the hospital for stitches, we spent some time at the Asclepion. (I suppose we could have waited for the healing waters of Asclepius, but we thought a tetanus shot was a better idea). 

Theater at Pergamum

I had not visited the this site in my two previous trips to Turkey, I was really looking forward to seeing this center of healing in the Ancient world. Asclepius was the god of medicine and the Asclepion was equal parts cultic center and medical center. Certainly the sick  benefited from medicine and hygiene, but they were also encouraged to sleep in the presence of the god and listen for his voice in the night suggesting medical treatments. The famous ancient physician Galen worked at the Asclepion in Pergamum for many years, 

We had a late lunch and a visit to an onyx shop (many contributed to the local economy) before heading back to the hotel for our last night in Izmir.