Saturday, February 11, 2012

Traveler Al’s “Almost a Last Hurrah” Voyages – Jerusalem

Early morning panorama of Jerusalem


On Saturday, the Constellation passengers had a “Sea Day” an entire day out on the ocean.  For some reason I woke at 5 AM and could not get back to sleep. I had an early breakfast, attended some lectures about our destinations and was able to retrieve my passport from the customer service desk.  Israeli officials had collected and taken them for processing to their consulate after we boarded the ship in Istanbul. My speculation is that the processing probably included completely copying the passports to check the passenger’s background for Israeli security purposes.

I went to my cabin in the afternoon and took a long nap that lasted well past my normal dinner time in the ship’s dining room.  I learned later, that the table waiter, Elston, had at my table mates urging called my cabin several times to see if I was coming to dinner.  I went up to the “Sea Café” – the buffet on Deck 10 about 7:30 and had a nice steak and baked potato for dinner.  I watched movies on the TV in my cabin until quite late.

During the night there was a bit of lightning and high winds which caused a bit of ship motion. The storm was to the north east and was following our ship towards Israel.

We arrived in the city of Ashdod, Israel’s modern, main port city on Sunday, November 13th at about 10 AM. From the sea there was a line of sandy hills visible as we passed fish farm pens out at the end of the harbor’s breakwater.

Ashdod is a major port for transferring vehicles from one country to another

A smaller cruise ship the Rio -The fish pens are just on the other side of the Rio along the breakwater.

Ashdod is one of the oldest cities in the world. The city remnants from earlier times had fallen into ruin and almost completely abandoned under the Ottomans. The modern city was planned and developed by several private corporations after Israel became a nation 1n 1948. Because Ashdod is a planned city, traffic flow through the city from the port is quite easy.

The Constellation was to be in port at Ashdod for 2 days and one night.  Some of the passengers had elected to take long tours that required overnight stays away from the ship. 

I reviewed the list of tours as I had nothing planned for the first day in port.  I decided against a tour of Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Memorial as it was listed as “strenuous” in the tour booklet.  So, I stayed aboard, had a nice lunch and read most of the day.  I reviewed some information about Jerusalem and Bethlehem. 
My table mates were one hour late for dinner due to their Bethlehem tour bus leaving 1 hour late and the enormous waiting lines (wait time approximately 2 hours) to see the Grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  They told me of their concern for my absence at dinner the night before.  I had to explain about oversleeping my nap.

My Jerusalem and Bethlehem Tour – Part 1 Jerusalem

I was up at 5:30 AM, had an express breakfast (scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and potatoes with beverages) in the main dining room and then assembled with others in the ship’s theater to be called out for the full day “strenuous” tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

We boarded the buses waiting on the pier.  The tour company was named Patra Travel Agency. The next day the buses and guides for Haifa and Acre were also from Patra Travel Agency.  We were supplied with a bottle of water and a large map of Israel.

On most of the tours I took, the group was supplied with small radio receivers and a pair of tiny ear bud speakers. I use only the left ear bud as I am stone deaf in my right ear. The radios were receivers for the commentary from the tour guides about what we were seeing, the names of the place and the history of the building, etc.  

I do not walk so well and I walk slowly due to a disability – foot drop in my right foot – which can make me fall easily if I catch my right toes on a rock or do not lift my right foot high enough to clear small obstacles on the ground. Therefore, I walk slowly and deliberately in fear of falling. 

It hurts so damn much when I fall !  I was very lucky that I did not fall at any point in all my “Almost a Last Hurrah” voyages.

I often would lag behind the group and would loose radio contact when I got about 300 feet away from the tour guide, when I was on the fringe of the radio’s range, I heard static and the guide’s voice fading in and out. I was challenged by all the tours I took, but especially so in Jerusalem.

Mickey was our guide. He was knowledgeable and very experienced in knowing the sites we would be visiting. Later, Mickey gave me special attention to allow me to see parts of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that others in my group did not get to see.  I appreciated that Mickey did work hard to keep track of me when I lagged behind the group at each stop.  Naturally, I apologized to everyone about my repeated tardiness getting back to the bus.

Mickey - the best guide in the Patra Agency

The ride to Jerusalem crossed the fertile coastal plain and low coastal hills of Canaan – the land of milk and honey – to begin the climb up to Jerusalem.  The fields went from fertile dark brown and black soil to hillsides spotted with white or golden beige boulders of limestone everywhere.  Blocks of this golden white colored limestone are the main building material in Israel, creating buildings that glow in sunlight.

The fertile coastal plain

Beautiful rich soil 

Onward to Jerusalem

We followed the same path used by vital truck convoys that brought supplies during the war that started immediately after the United Nations vote created the State of Israel in 1948. All of the new country’s Arab neighbor states immediately! This route was the lifeline that allowed the Israeli’s to fight and survive to win their independence. The bus passed a memorial to the truckers as we climbed towards Jerusalem.  The memorial was a line of badly damaged, shot up trucks painted in bright colors.

Jerusalem lies at 800 meters (2,624 feet) above sea level. I was surprised at seeing how steep the hills and valleys around the city are.  The drive from Ashdod to Jerusalem is about 38 miles and uphill all the way. If we had continued downhill to the east for another 38 miles or so, we would have arrived at Amman, the capital city of the country of Jordan.  Jerusalem lies at the edge of the Great Rift Valley that contains the Dead Sea which is the lowest point on earth at 1,380 feet below sea level.  Bethlehem is a suburb of Jerusalem lying just slightly to the south east. Going east from Bethlehem would put you in the Judean Desert that borders the western shore of the Dead Sea and continues south.

See a map of Israel

We stopped at a turnout to get our first view of the ancient city that is home to three mono-theistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam that are all centered on the city. Because of the smoggy, early morning air, we could barely see the golden shine of the Dome of the Rock Mosque where the stone is located that Abraham was said to sacrifice his son on. According to tradition (Islamic belief) the rock bears the footprint of Mohammad from where he ascended for his visit to Heaven.

The foundation stones of the 2nd Jewish Temple, built by Herod the Great, form the Western Wall which lies below the Dome of the Rock Mosque. 

Getting closer to the modern city of Jerusalem

Now we are in the city

  The Mount of Olives is over <--- this way.   Panoramic View of Jerusalem - Old City to the left side around the Dome of the Rock Mosque

Map of the Old City in Jerusalem

Almost to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane

Looking south down the Kedron Valley - In ancient times this was the city dump and location for cemeteries.

Our next stop was on the Mt. of Olives for the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of the Nations.  The tour bus dropped us off on the Jericho Road and we entered the Garden which is now part of the Church of the Nations plot on the north side of the church.  The olive trees are amazingly old and twisted. Some of them had to have been alive when Jesus and the Apostles stayed here and where he was arrested by the Romans.  The spot where Jesus was tempted by Satan is said to be located on the other side of the Church of Nations.

On the Mount of Olives on Jericho Road about 200 feet from the Garden of Gethsemane

The Garden and Church were overwhelmed with visitors. There were lines of people to slowly enter the Garden, slowly walk around the perimeter of the Garden to take photos and then to enter the front door of the Church of the Nations to view the beautiful mosaics inside.

Ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane

Ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane

The Church of the Nations alongside the Garden of Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane from the sidewalk alongside the Church

All the sights of Jerusalem are thronged by visitors - Church of the Nations

Mosaic in the Church of the Nations - The Judas Kiss

In the Church of the Nations

The facade of the Church of the Nations 

The Garden and Church of the Nations are across the Kedron Valley from the Golden Gate – which was sealed by the Ottomans after the fall of the Crusader’s Kingdom of Jerusalem.  

The Golden Gate 

The Golden Gate, the wall of the old city and a cemetery - burials were not allowed inside the city.

An Islamic cemetery below the Old City Walls

The holy sites were located by St. Helen, Mother of the Emperor Constantine I The Great in the late 3rd Century AD.  Helen was 88 years of age when she was charged by the Emperor (and given an open purse) to go to Palestine to make a definitive determination of the holy sites of Jesus life and to build churches at those sites.  

Helen was said to have found several pieces of Jesus’ tunic. Helen ordered a basilica to be built at the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands. The current church was built much later after the Crusades. As Helen had the ground cleared and leveled the ground   an old cistern was discovered. Inside the cistern three wooden crosses were found. Helen supposedly tested for the True Cross by having a very ill woman touch all three. The woman miraculously recovered when she touched the third cross. Pieces of that cross - now called the True Cross - are now in the Treasury of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The main part of Jesus’ tunic is now located in the cathedral at Treve, (Trier) France – along with a relic of St. Helen ... her head !

See and learn more about Helen, Emporer Constantine I's mother

Much more recently, Protestant Christians have found the Garden of Gethsemane, Calvary and the Garden Tomb of Jesus at a different place in Jerusalem.  Most scholars of the subject do not agree.

We made a short stop in front of a monastery where the tomb of the Virgin Mary is said to be located.

Monastery entrance where the Tomb of the Virgin Mary is said to be located - Gethsemane is to the right a short distance away.

Our group was dropped off at the Dung Gate to enter the ancient city. 

We proceeded a short way to a security station to enter the vast courtyard in front of the Western Wall, the only remnant of the 2nd Temple.  

There were throngs of people waiting to get through security. You must have your belongings x-rayed and pass through a metal detection portal.  

Mickey pushed our group to the front of the line and kept us together even though other people tried to push into and in front of our group.

Courtyard in front of the Western or Wailing Wall

Basins to wash yourself before prayer

The Western Wall the holiest place in Judaism - Men pray to the left and women to the right

The courtyard slopes down to the Western Wall. Women pray to the right and men to the left. There were numbers of families whose young sons were celebrating their Bar Mitzvahs at this most holy site of Judaism.  The courtyard had special places fenced off for the tables and chairs for these family groups to celebrate with food and drinks after the boys said the required prayers at the Wall.

A proud young man and his prouder grandmother

Mazel Tov ! Boys!

There were many police and Israeli soldiers keeping an eye on everyone.  I also noticed a large metal bomb explosion containment vessel off to one side.

Explosion Containment Device

From the Western Wall courtyard our group proceeded by archways through several buildings to narrow streets leading to the Via Dolorosa where we then took the difficult, narrow rout that Jesus was taken to his place of execution.

Leaving the Courtyard by the Western Wall

Map of the Via Dolorosa - or "The Way of Grief" Jesus's route to his place of execution

I understand that the agreed upon Via Dolorosa route has changed several times during the past 2,000 plus years.  A modern day person following the route is probably at least 8 to 12 feet above the level of the streets and passages that existed back then due to the slow accumulation of detritus and paving and repaving level after level one on top of another century after century. Today, no one can really say that they followed in the exact footsteps of Jesus.

The street was literally packed with visitors, residents of the area, and shopkeepers in front of many, many souvenir shops. The sun was shining intermittently with occasional rain drizzles. It was hot, steamy and the stone under my feet, polished by foot traffic, was very slippery. 

I was so afraid I would fall ! 

On the Via Dolorosa - Mickey looking back, "Where is Al?"

On the Via Dolorosa

On The Via Dolorosa

The route led upwards. Every 10 feet of so there was a small step of from two to 6 inches high. Soon, my legs were throbbing and felt like rubber, sweat was dripping in my eyes and I kept dropping farther and farther behind Mickey, our guide.  My heart was beating fast and I could not catch my breath!

I only managed to take two photos while on the Via Dolorosa.  I did notice we were passing through distinct neighborhoods with the final one near the Church of the Sepulcher - the Coptic and Ethiopian neighborhood, that looked poorer, trashier and less clean than other parts of the route. 

We reached a courtyard area at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and entered through the ancient doorway.  An interesting sidelight is that the key to that door is in the custody of a Muslim family since the time of Saladin as part of an agreement Saladin made with King Frederich I of Jerusalem when the Crusaders were forced out of Jerusalem. By this agreement Christian pilgrims could continue to visit Jerusalem and the other Christian holy places.

Entry courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The stairway with all the people on it is the exit from the top of Golgotha, where Jesus execution happened.  Note the small ladder at the window above and to the right of the entry door.

The only entry to the basilica.  The inside stairway up to the top of Golgotha is immediately behind me as I took this photo.

The church is large, but the area where the final part of the Passion and entombment of Jesus happened is actually quite small. The church totally encompasses all of the sites. The design of the church is unlike any other. There are many levels up and down inside the church.

Floor Plan of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher - Note the way the church is divided up among the 6 Christian religions.

The Basilica is now inside the walls of the city, but when Jesus was executed and entombed at this site, it was located outside the wall of the city.

3D virtual tour of the area inside the main part of the Church

You will notice that in the 3D virtual tour webpage, there is only one person in the photo - he is sitting there to assert and guard the rights of his religious faction to that part of the Basilica!

Immediately to the right of the only entry doorway is a set of narrow steps up to Calvary or the top of Golgotha where Jesus was executed by crucifixion. I did not climb those stairs due to the tightly packed crowd of people on them.  I understand that this area is under control of the Greek Orthodox Church and has the most elaborately decorated alter over the site where the cross was raised and Jesus died. Visitors exit from the top of Golgotha via a stairway back out to the courtyard alongside the entry of the church.

Mickey had me sit on a step next to the stair way to Golgotha to rest while he took the rest of the group up the stairway.  I did see the slab of stone where Jesus body was anointed. In my research for this blog I have found that the stone now present was installed in 1810. I took a few photos inside the church, particularly of the beautiful mosaics and lamps.

The site of the Stone of Unction where Jesus body was annointed and prepared for entombment

Mosaic depicting preparing the body for entombment

Removing Jesus body from the Cross

In this photo Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified is up and to the right.

Chapel where the crack that split Golgotha caused by the earthquake that legend says happened at the moment of Christ's death is preserved.

The crack that split the rock of Golgotha.  There is also a legend that the skull of Adam was found here.

When Mickey came down, he brought our group into the mass of visitors under the rotunda above the “Edicule” which is a structure built around the remnants of the cave tomb where Jesus body was placed. Edicule means a covered niche or cell. In this case, it is a marble structure that is in dreadful condition held up by steel scaffolding installed by the British Mandate after World War I to keep the marble slabs from peeling off the structure underneath. 

The Edicule that surrounds the Tomb of Jesus - the Marble sheathing is falling apart.

Near the Edicule - the Steel support members were added by the British Mandate prior to WWII

Inside the Edicule are two chambers consisting of a small chapel and the actual tomb.  The church was constructed around all these sites. The interior of the Edicule and the tomb are not visible to visitors. The exterior rock around the cave tomb was removed leaving just a shell of rock that surrounds the interior space of the tomb.


I must be blunt, my impressions of the church are negative.  There is absolutely no feeling of sanctity at the site. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is dark, dirty, deteriorating and quite unsafe to walk around in. 

The floor is not level.  It is overcrowded and there is only one entrance and exit available to the throngs of visitors which will lead to a tragedy when there is another fire in the building. There have been many fires during its long history.

There are 6 Christian religions that divide up the space, the rights, various privileges and duties in the church. These areas, rights, duties and privileges of 1787 were re-established by a firman or ruling (now called “The Status Quo”) issued by the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire in 1851 !  

The Ottoman Empire ceased to exist when Ataturk and the Young Turks had a revolution in Turkey in the very early 1900’s.

The 6 different religions do not display the tenets of their religion because they  are jealous, grasping and constantly bickering and striving for improvement of their share of the basilica or working to the detriment of the other groups who share the church. Those religious groups are: The Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic (Franciscans), the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopic Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. 

The 6 groups had agreed to improve the condition of the Edicule back in 1899 … not one speck of planning has been done to actually accomplish any improvement or repairs to that structure before it collapses under its own weight!  The administration of this church would be much better handled by the Disney Company!

This rivalry has resulted in really odd situations such as a ladder that was left on the roof over the entrance to the church sometime around 1852. The various factions cannot agree on whose ladder it is and all are fearful of removing it - which might cause, as Mickey said, “the start to World War III”!  

You can see the ladder in my photo of the courtyard and photos in the Wikipedia article as well as a record of the brawls and fistfights among the various religious factions over silly things like moving a chair out of the hot sunlight or leaving a door open during a service!  

We had a short walk from the church back to the tour bus.  I was tired, my legs felt like Jello! I needed a bathroom break and a nice cold Coke! The tour group was taken to a fine hotel for our lunch break and a chance to think about the morning's sights.

Heading back to the bus and soon lunch! 

Next – Bethlehem

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