Bright and early, we met Rami and drove the hour from the port of Ashdod into Jerusalem, where we began our tour on top of the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view of the city and the Kidron Valley. After he pointed out the various sites, from the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus sweat drops of blood to the gates that the Messiah is expected to return through, he looked at us and said, “This is no longer a story, it is now real.”
What a way to start off the day.
Unfortunately, we would have to wait to visit the Old City because of Sukkoth, the current religious holiday that has caused a few traffic issues considering the number of pilgrims in town.
Instead of fighting the traffic, we focused on exploring the sites outside of the city’s walls. Our first stop was the Church of All Nations, located in the Garden of Gethsemane, where 2,000 year old olive trees are still growing strong.
Next, we visited the Garden Tomb, a beautiful dedication to the crucifixion and burial place of Jesus. Just like Capernaum, the setting had the ability to transport guests back in time – the willowy garden area surrounded the tomb, creating the perfect environment to remember what happened here.
In order to accommodate the Jewish holiday, Rami decided to schedule in a trip to Bethlehem for the afternoon. Because Bethlehem is a Palestinian territory, Rami was not allowed in (“This could be a one way ticket for me,” he told us). So, Kenes organized an equally amazing Palestinian driver and guide to show us around the city. While we felt safe and capable in their hands, there was no denying the overall discomfort of entering into Bethlehem. Crossing the border was very easy, but eerily quiet (this is one reason to go with a private tour: they took us to the back entrance to avoid the long lines from the busloads of travelers visitng the country through the main entrance). Our driver, Ari, was patiently waiting on us, peeking through the twelve-foot tall barbed wire fence that surrounded the compound.
Once inside the city walls, it felt as though we had entered a different world. The streets were lined with rugged buildings, the atmosphere could best be described as dim. It was like the ghetto of Jerusalem, so set apart in nature that it wasn’t even the same country. As we drove through the town, a Marc Anthony song played on the car’s radio. Moments like this are why the word “juxtaposition” came into being.
It was the first time on this trip that I realized we are truly in the Middle East. For some reason, Israel just hadn’t felt like it. Haifa was a little industrial and Jerusalem was entirely different, a living monument to the city that it is. While the Israeli government isn’t the wealthiest (most of their money goes toward defense), the people who live in Jerusalem are very well off. Bethlehem, however, was very close to what I had always imagined this part of the world to look and feel like. After it became a Palestinian territory, the economy plummeted, taking with it many of the citizens’ jobs and the overall living conditions.
The main site in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, which is the one reason worth visiting, from what I could tell. From the outside, the church doesn’t look incredibly ornate. However, after hunching through the “door of humility,” the interior of the church was unexpectedly beautiful. Elaborate gold-encrusted baubles and chandeliers hung from the ceilings, catching rays of sunlight pouring in through the windows.
Our guide, Nicolas, pointed out a line of people spanning the length of the church – all waiting to glimpse, touch, and kiss the fourteen-pointed star that marked the birthplace of Jesus. Luckily, Nicolas managed to get us around the entire line, further evidence as to why I highly recommend private tours with my Virtuoso partner companies.
Having marked off the most important (and only) thing for us to see in Bethlehem, we made our way out of the country. Passing back through the border, we managed to get lost (three minutes without a guide and this is what happens to us) and had a brief moment of panic. What if we can’t get out of here?!
Side note to Ansley, Cassie, and Beth: Would you rather live forever in the fake village or Bethlehem? My answer: the fake village.
We finally made it through the gates after being stopped by two Israeli soldiers, both about my age.
“Where are you from?” they asked me.
“Georgia!” Papa answered, flashing his passport. “Hawkins. Ronal Hawkins.”
Papa has a wonderful habit of stating his name in every possible situation. He begins his day onboard the cruise by ordering eggs over easy and, when asked his name by the waiter, he states full first and last. I’m surprised he hasn’t started pulling out his passport to show the chefs.
The two Israeli guards waved us along with a funny grin on both of their faces. I assumed this was because we couldn’t possibly be more of a typical American family.
A few minutes later, the girl checking passports wore the same chagrined look. Having had bad experiences with passport checkpoints in the past, I was a little nervous when she kept me from passing through the gate.
“Excuse me, miss?”
Afraid to turn around (I don’t want to stay in Bethlehem!), I hesitantly replied, “Yes?”
“The guard wants me to tell you something. The one with the blue eyes? Him? He wanted me to tell you that you are very beautiful.”
HA!! This was by far the best border crossing I had ever experienced. Usually the guards like to detain me for carrying back souvenir bottles of rum into the US underage!
“We can’t take you anywhere,” Papa said over my shoulder.
The incident would become a joke for the rest of the day. “You sure you don’t want to come live in Israel, Lins?” Nan asked.
When we spotted Rami, my mother looked as if she might hug him. While I thought of Bethlehem as another unique pushpin to add to my map, my parents and grandparents were uneasy the entire time.
Once we were back in the car, Rami looked at us and announced, “Welcome back. You can breathe now.” He told us the story of the walls around Bethlehem and how, before it was built, suicide bombers from Palestine would charge over the borders and into Jerusalem. Six years ago they built the wall and the bombings have completely stopped. This is truly a country constantly under attack.
The rest of the afternoon we spent touring a Holocaust Museum & Ein Karem, the birthplace of John the Baptist. I have never been to any sort of Holocaust memorial before, so the Holocaust Museum was very impactful and visually striking.
By the end of the day, we were so exhausted that we could barely move. Cities and cathedrals jumbled together in my brain to the point where everything became a blur. If you are planning a trip here, just know that it will be overwhelming. But it’s worth pressing forward to see everything, which is what I learned on my second day in Jerusalem (that post coming soon!).
What I’m reading in Jerusalem Today:
The love of truth has its reward in heaven and even on earth.