2015 Pilgrimage to the Holy land


Our pilgrimage was planned for August (during the UK school holidays), when the weather in the Holy Land is very hot and sunny. Visits included Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth and Capernaum, with free time for relaxation and reflection. We walked along the Via Dolorosa, had the opportunity to float on the Dead Sea, ascend the Mount of Masada by cable car and sail on the Galilee.

Israel August 2015
A Holy Holiday in the Holy Land
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles

We had a fantastic trip to the Holy Land! Flying from Luton (a new and not unpleasant experience), we spent Monday 17th travelling, arriving on time and in time for an evening buffet supper.

Day 2 Tuesday 18 ~ Introduction to Jerusalem

This time of year is quiet in the Holy Land, and we found we were the only pilgrims in The Golden Walls hotel, and very unusual experience for Stephen and I. On our first day Tuesday 18th we set off early to go to the Mount of Olives, to a church associated with Jesus teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, where it appears on the walls in over 150 different languages. Then we went to the church of Dominus Flevit (Jesus wept) to admire the view and celebrate an opening Communion Service, which was very special as we prepared to enter into a spirit of pilgrimage. Then we walked down Olivet to the Church of St Mary Magdalene (where Prince Philip’s mother is buried). Is is an Orthodox Church, not always open, but with a special association for us of course. As with so many places we sang a hymn there, enjoying its resonant acoustic and the joy of praying in song. (S)he who sings, prays twice! We continued through the Garden of Gethsemane to the modern Church of All Nations. After lunch with the Scottish Presbyterians we went to the Israel Museum to study the great model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus and to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. Then we visited Abu Gosh, a proposed site of the Emmaus road encounter. It is a beautiful crusader church with a resonant acoustic and we sang ‘Lead me Lord’ and ‘Abide with me’.

Day 3 Wednesday ~ Jewish quarter and Mount Zion

On Wednesday 19th we walked to the Pool of Bethesda, sang in St Anne’s Church and walked the Via Dolorosa, through the winding streets and souks of Jerusalem. It is a modern experience with ancient and holy resonance. Two unusual stop-offs were possible: Stephen knew the owners of a site where the first station really was, and we discovered the more likely site of the Upper Room in the Armenian Quarter at the Syrian Orthodox Church of St Mark’s Convent, near to where we had a lovely lunch. Then we walked through the bustling, modern, Jewish quarter (which I had never done), to the Western (‘Wailing’) Wall of the Temple, where we paid our respects, before spending a peaceful and inspiring time at the Garden Tomb, a Victorian reconstruction of the place of Jesus’ burial and resurrection.

Day 4 Thursday ~ Yad Vashem and Bethany

On Thursday 20th we went up Mount Zion to St Peter in Gallicantu, the site of Caiaphas’ house, and of the imprisonment and trial of Jesus. Fittingly the place overlooks the ancient site of Gehenna, a byword for Hell. It also has the ‘holy steps’ down which Jesus walked into Jerusalem. It is a very authentic place and also has the cistern in which Jesus was probably incarcerated when arrested. We descended to it and sang ‘Jesus remember me’, a profound a moving experience of our Lord’s suffering. And as was so often the case, we remembered those we had brought with us in spirit who rejoice on a greater shore, those who have been pilgrims on our journey in the past and who have reached their destination in peace and joy and hope. This profound visit was followed by a contrasting trip to the Yad Vashem Memorial Museum, where the Holocaust is commemorated, explained, and used as a justification for the creation of the modern Israel. Some of the ironies of the place are lost on many. A people who were forced to live in ghettos, but who now have a land, exclude Palestinians by building walls around them, creating ghettoes of a different kind. Nevertheless the place is a sad and salutary place, and the children’s memorial is unbearable in its candlelit beauty. A few of our number missed this, preferring to see the Chagall Windows elsewhere, also very beautiful. Appropriately, after lunch we crossed into Palestinian territory to Bethany, to remember the raising of Lazarus, and then to visit the Jeel boys home and school.

Day 5 Friday ~ Bethlehem

On Friday 21st we went to Bethlehem, very much in Palestinian territory, visiting en route, Herodion, King Herod’s man-made fortress-mountain. Beautiful views, fascinating history, ruins and a walk through the inside of the mountain make this a terrific place to visit. Jesus undoubtedly saw it too. Then to the Shepherd’s Fields, where we celebrated communion and sang ‘While Shepherds watched’, and ‘O Little Town’, but also remembered the modern problem articulated by Martin Leckebusch:

‘O West Bank town of Bethlehem, how still thy victims lie;
the grieving weep, deprived of sleep, militiamen roam by;
for through thy dark streets rageth the never-ending fight:
such hopes and fears, such bitter tears are met in thee tonight.’

After our service we went to a Palestinian Co-Operative for shopping (Christmas shopping perhaps?!), and then to lunch at the Bethlehem Rehabilitation Centre, which is the nearest thing to a hospital in that part of the world. From their roof it is possible to see the Israeli Security Wall, its projected course and to hear about the impact it will have in isolating the communities on the wrong side of it. After lunch we went to Manger Square, and visited the Church of the Nativity (where the queues were not too bad) and the cave revered as Christ’s actual birthplace. It was, like all of our days, hot!

Day 6 Saturday ~ Masada and The Dead Sea

On Saturday 22nd we had a day in the desert, visiting the discovery place of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, home of the Essene community around the time of John the Baptist. They were a Jewish sect obsessed with cleanliness and purity, and it may be that he had some association with them and that the Christian concept of baptism owes something to them. Then we travelled to Masada, location of the revolt during which the inhabitants committed suicide rather than be captured and sold as slaves by the Romans. Ironically, built by Herod, presumably by slaves, its final inhabitants preferred death to slavery. It was hot (Stephen climbed up rather than take the cable car!), but afforded stunning views and a real sense of a mountaintop, besieged community. After this we descended and made our way to the Dead Sea, where after a lovely lunch we went for a float, after having traversed baking hot sand and pathways. Some of us had done this in Jordan in November 2012 – this was much hotter, but still a very pleasant experience. We returned to Jerusalem via a view of a monastery snuggled into to some sheer cliffs at Wadi Qelt.

Day 7 Sunday ~ Worship in Jerusalem

Sunday 23rd was our final day in Jerusalem, and one of our number (an unnamed male churchwarden!) went to the Holy Sepulchre at dawn. No-one else managed such holiness, but we all set off after breakfast to go to the Temple Mount, the Haram al Sharif, where the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque sit atop the Western Wall. Typically idiosyncratic, and changeable dress codes were observed and it was a lovely peaceful place to walk around even if we could not go inside anywhere. It is one of the most contested, controversial piazzas on earth, but maintains an aura of peace most of the time. We walked back via the Wailing Wall and went to St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, for a lovely Arabic/English Communion followed by coffee (and amazing sesame biscuits) and the Dean gave us some time to tell us what it is really like being a Christian in Israel. It is important to realise and remember that some Palestinians are Christians, our brothers and sisters in a deplorable situation, who very much value our support and prayer and encouragement. These people are the living stones in a desert land almost devoid of Christianity. The old stones of the past are fascinating, but dead. It is people, and faith that matter. After a very hospitable lunch we boarded the bus for the journey to Jericho, where after a brief shopping stop to consider Dead Sea products, we went on ascend the Mount of Temptation, commanding wonderful views of the surrounding lands. Some intrepid climbers made it to the monastic summit, where, amazingly they were admitted to see the icons. Refreshing drinks at the Temptation Restaurant accompanied our recollections of the temptations of Jesus! Then we descended to the plain to continue our journey to Tiberius in Galilee and the wonderfully appointed Ron Beach Hotel, with lakeside access and swimming pool included. We were both pleased and sorry to leave busy East Jerusalem behind us and delighted to arrive at this Jewish lakeside retreat.

Day 8 Monday ~ Sepphoris and Mount Tabor

Monday 24th was our first day in Galilee and we began it with a visit to the ancient Roman ruins of Sepphoris, where Joseph almost certainly plied his trade as a carpenter and builder. Jesus would have known it too, perhaps learning his earthly father’s trade there. It was surrounded by a copious collection of the most luscious cacti we had ever seen! Then came an ascent of Mount Tabor, supposed location of the Transfiguration. The coach can only go so far up the mountain, thereafter were took to minibuses, which deposited us on top of the world, with views to relish. After a wonderful Italian lunch at the convent atop Tabor, we had a simple but memorable open-air Eucharist in the grounds of the crusader ruins before coming down the mountain renewed and refreshed, for a hard afternoon’s sunbathing and swimming in the lake and pool.

Day 9 Tuesday ~ Nazareth

The next day, Tuesday 25th took us to Nazareth, to the well that Mary certainly used, and the Basilica built on the site of her house where the angel Gabriel spoke to her and a synagogue church where Cwm Rhondda bounced off the walls splendidly. We also sang ‘Gabriel’s Message’ as close to the site of the Annunciation as we could. Then we headed off for the Nazareth Village, a sensitively and educationally ordered theme park focused on the original contexts of Jesus’ life and ministry. The visit included an authentic first century Palestinian lunch, which was memorable. After this we went to nearby Cana, a place that only has limited authenticity, but evokes the miracle of water into wine and, of course, sells pomegranate as well as grape wine too! Then it was back to the pool….

Day 10 Wednesday ~ The Lakeside Ministry

By Wednesday 26th it was dawning on us that our miraculous time was coming to a close. We spent the day at Capernaum, where the synagogue Jesus used, and the house of Peter’s mother-in-law is still situated, and we visited the church of Tabgha (associated with the feeding of the 5000. Sadly the place was the target of a terrorist attack a few weeks ago, and we were struck by the burned timber and smell of fire. Fortunately the damage was limited by quick thinking brave folk who saw it immediately. Nearby is the beach where the primacy of Peter among the apostles is celebrated at Mensa Christi, which some remembered from a visit many years ago with John Sampford. It was always poignant to carry his and other people’s memory with us and to pray especially for the sick known to us as we walked and talked and prayed and yes indeed, wept, occasionally. ‘Blessed are the sorrowful, for they shall be comforted’. And indeed it was to the site of this saying, Jesus’ Sermon on the hillside that makes a natural amphitheatre, that we went next. Recorded in Matthew 5, there is a church there and a convent where we had lunch. Bony St Peter’s fish was on the menu, and the church was closed, but it is a beautiful place overlooking the shores of Lake Galilee. And then it was on Lake Galilee that we had our final, profound experience. Sailing from Nof Ginosar (Genessaret), some took the opportunity to see the ancient boat dug up from the mud, before we set off in a ‘Jesus boat’ to sail the very waters of our Lord. Accompanied by worship songs and beautiful scenery, and thinking of the past and the present, and of the terrible war on the other side of those Syrian hills, we kept silence, sang, held hands, cried and laughed as we headed home. Before disembarkation a brief fishing demonstration took place, and two fish actually got caught (they were returned to the sea).

Then it was that swimming pool again….

Day 11 Thursday 27 August ~ Cæsarea Maritima

On Thursday 27th, we set off for home, challenged, changed, suntanned and grateful for a truly remarkable experience. We visited the Roman maritime port of Cæsarea, beautiful in the Mediterranean sea and light. Some got their feet wet before we went to Jaffa (Joppa) for lunch and then onto the airport.

Photos © Gordon Giles and Luke Reeve