By Meher Castelino
Avisit to israel is like travelling through time, in the footsteps of jesus
Israel is a country that evokes strong images: of war and strife against neighbouring Palestine, of the rise and fall of dynasties through 2000 years, and above all, as the backdrop for the birth and death of Jesus Christ. So when an invitation came from El Al, the Israeli airline, to visit the Holy Land, it was a chance I wasn’t going to miss.
We landed near Tel Aviv before dawn. As our van raced over the highway, we caught a glimpse of Israel and parts of barren desert brooding in the dark. We hurtled through the early morning, alone in the endless highway, waiting for the sun to rise. Which it did with deliberation and drama. As we neared the Dead Sea, the rising sun gradually lit up the hills of Jordan on the opposite shore. The large red orb peeped shyly between the hilltops, and within minutes it revealed itself, boldly glowing with its red circular face rising higher and higher as its reflection sneaked over the Dead Sea towards us. Soon, we felt the full impact of the 40º C dry desert heat and the sharp rays of the sun.
A dip in the salt- and mineral-laden waters of the Dead Sea is therapeutic. Its mud, air and sun are world- renowned, luring invalids to heal from chronic skin ailments, joint aches and heart and lung ailments.
For the spiritual tourist, magnificent Jerusalem is where Israel’s spiritual history shouts out at you from every nook and cranny.
Our first panoramic view of the Holy City was from Mt Scopus. Jerusalem, the old and the new, spread below us like a lush carpet. The beige stone houses nestled on the hill slopes or on flat land, clinged so close that they formed a mono coloured stone tapestry of design, with the doors and windows standing out as tiny black holes. The walls of old Jerusalem rose in the distance, engulfing centuries of history within.
We felt it imperative to start at the beginning—The Upper Room just outside the Old City where Jesus had his Last Supper with his disciples. The large, spacious, now empty room evokes memories of the spirit and solemnity that must have reigned over that historic meal as Jesus served the wine and broke the bread; a symbol for his flesh and blood, soon to be brutally spilt over the streets of Jerusalem. Located near King David’s tomb, the light brown stone walls are mute witnesses of that fateful night when goodness, love and compassion was fatally compromised by the greed for gold.
The Old City is divided into four quarters—Christian, Armenian, Jewish and Muslim. We entered through the Sha’ar Zion Gate in the south from the Armenian quarter. Tiny restaurants and eateries lined the narrow cobbled lanes, serving the most delicious falafel. We grabbed a quick bite before moving into the bowels of Old Jerusalem where time stood still, architecturally, jerked back to the raucous present only by the ubiquitous Pepsi and Coke posters.
From here, our journey took us through the Jewish and then into the Muslim Quarters to the start of the Passions of Christ as I had seen it in the recent Mel Gibson movie.
Via Dolorosa—the Way of Sorrows—is the path through which Jesus carried the cross on his way to the crucifixion. Of the 14 stations, the last four are in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Along the 10 stations, we walked over the cobbled narrow lanes, imagining the frail man and the two condemned thieves carrying heavy wooden crosses on their shoulders. The narrow lanes must have had jeering crowds then as well as many who were weeping, but now souvenir shops lined the path selling the very popular Jerusalem cross, the Mazuza, scrolls, rosaries, Arab scarves, Jewish Candelabra and knickknacks like plastic sandals and shoes made in China. Frantic haggling is a must if one wants to strike a good bargain! At times, one nearly forgot the pain Jesus endured as aggressive salesmen chased us along the route.
But Moosa, our genial 75-year-old guide, reminded us of the number of times Jesus fell, where he met his beloved Mother, the place where Jesus was helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross. Scenes from The Passion of the Christ flashed through my mind, Veronica wiping Jesus’ face, his heartrending second and third falls and of his blood-stained clothes being stripped off him.
As we finished the tenth station, we came to a small quadrangle in front of the hallowed gates of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Christians consider it as one of the most holy places on the globe, for inside is the Rock of Golgotha, the site where Jesus was nailed to the cross. The actual place was up a steep narrow staircase inside the Church, by a large painting of Jesus being nailed to the cross. A dim candle-lit altar marked the spot of the actual crucifixion nearby. Kneeling down, I touched the spot, which is covered with a glass canopy with a magnificent cross shining down.
How did I feel touching a part of history where God’s Son gave his life? It’s an emotion that I cannot put down in words. The history, the turmoil, is now a thing of the past. In its place, the faithful and the weary sat in front of the cross sending their silent prayers to Him. Down the steep narrow steps was the place marked by a stone slab covered with a canopy where His body was lowered from the cross and washed. The tomb where Jesus’ body was placed is a few steps away. Very tiny, with a centre podium for candles, the entrance to the inner sanctum is so narrow, with a room for barely five people, that one has to literally crawl in and pray briefly.
Before leaving the walled city, we moved from the Christian quarter back into the Jewish section to visit the
world-famous Western Wall or the Wailing Wall, as it is popularly known. Considered as one of the holiest sites for the Jews, it is the only remnant of the Temple built by King Herod. Part of the ruins from the wall surrounds the Temple of the Mount at a length of 488 metres. The wall with a giant plaza in front is a place of prayer for pilgrims. Male and female sections are cordoned off with chairs heaped with copies of Holy Torah. Moosa told us that if we wanted to ‘email’ God, all we had to do was fill a tiny chit with our wishes and stick it in the cracks of the wall. We wrote our intentions on our visiting card, hoping that the return address would remind the Lord about the sender. But finding a crack that was not overflowing with requests was one of the most difficult tasks of the pilgrimage. “Don’t worry. God listens and reads all the messages,” assured Moosa confidently.
As the sun set, the Mount of Olives offered an amazing view of the Old City. The Church of Ascension as well as the Greek, Lutheran Augusta, Greek Orthodox and Eleone Churches are the famous landmarks on the Mount of Olives.
Having traced the footsteps of the Lord as he wearily went to his death, our next stop, against chronological wisdom, was to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus and the location of the Basilica of Nativity. 2000 years ago, it was in this small sleepy village that Joseph brought a pregnant Mary to register according to the orders of Emperor Augustus. When we entered the Basilica, which is divided into the Greek Orthodox and Christian sections, we witnessed a service in the former. Priests sat on either side, reading from the bible. Down a narrow staircase under the Basilica was the Grotto where Mary gave birth to her son Jesus. The tiny spot is marked with the Star of David and an altar facing a narrow tunnel. By its side was the spot where Mary laid the new-born baby, before the three wise men visited the manger.
A quiet dimly-lit place, it is the ultimate site for the faithful, the crucible of the birth of their Lord.
The next day, driving along the Jordan border, we reached the Sea of Galilee. But to appreciate this 200 metres below sea level water body, Moosa took us to Golan Heights, a name heard so often in connection with political summits. Golan Heights, a plateau, is one of the most fertile regions of Israel with farms of onions, tomatoes, and watermelons lining the road. At the Golan Heights, an ultra-modern holiday home, and one of the most expensive resorts in Israel, the panoramic view showed the serene Sea of Galilee below us on which Jesus once walked.
Moosa insisted we drive to the point where the Jordan river flows into the Sea of Galilee at Yardenit where Jesus was baptised by John. It is now a major Baptismal site on the Jordan river with a convenient ramp and platform built for mass baptising. A delightful add-on is lunch by the Sea of Galilee, with the menu comprising fried St Peter’s fish. The enormous fish, resembling a bony pomfret, is fried to a crisp and eaten completely—skin, fins, flesh (except the bones) with a squeeze of lime.
The Basilica of the Annunciation is where the Angel Gabriel revealed to Mary her Immaculate Conception. In the courtyard are paintings of Mary presented by different countries of the world. The Basilica on the ground floor with its cordoned altar has a large spacious area for service. On the second floor containing another magnificent altar, were paintings of Mary and Jesus from different parts of the world in the traditional attire of the countries.
Close to Nazareth is Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning six jars of water into wine at a wedding feast of the poor. The Franciscan Church of Cana shows the six jars of wine through carvings and frescos on the wall. Of course, we couldn’t leave Cana without buying the famous wine with a mini jar accompanying it.
The last day: Benny suggested a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews, killed by Hitler in World War II. Leaping great heights, from the ultimate sacrifice to the ultimate mayhem, we had surely covered a wide expanse.
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