There are a lot of destinations that call themselves holy. With that said, few places can claim that three of the world’s major faiths call the place sacred. The land we speak of is Israel. We recently returned from a two week visit and want to give you the ultimate guide to seeing the sacred sites. This will be a two part post, with the first highlighting the religious sites of Israel, and the second will be about a side trip into Jordan. Both are must dos, and compliment each other well.
Ok. First off, let’s take on the biggest reservation we hear about visiting the region. “Is it safe?” The answer is yes and no. Will an AK-47 armed terrorist kidnap you and hold you for ransom? No. Will you run over a roadside bomb driving your rented Toyota down the freeway? No. Could you be pick pocketed in a busy street loaded with tourists? Yes. Could a valuable in your parked car be taken? Yes. If you wander into the wrong area late at night, might you meet some baddies? Perhaps.
Our advice to staying safe is simple. Be aware. Be careful. And be kind. With these three simple guiding principles, you are extremely unlikely to have any issues.
To Tour or Not to Tour
Ok, with that big one out of the way. Let’s take on the second big one. Do I need to go with a tour? To this we offer a resounding NO! Somehow, you found our blog. This leads us to believe that you are the type of person that can do a basic internet search. If you can do that, you can navigate Israel on your own. That simple. If you can read and speak basic English, you will have no challenges there.
A word of disclosure. This was Mike’s second visit to Israel. The first time he traveled with the American Jewish Committee as a part of a leadership exchange. This offered a uniquely Judeo-view of both the history and the spiritual perspectives. We are practicing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) and we traveled this time with another couple who are devout Roman Catholics. We will try out best to offer insights on all three of these perspectives. Regardless of your level of religiosity, you will find the history of the region compelling.
If you need some help packing, not forget the Fighting Couple Packing Guide.
Getting there/Tel Aviv
The major gateway in and out of the country is Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is the secular capital of Israel; Jerusalem is of course the spiritual one. Many of the world’s leading airlines have regular flights there. The airport sits roughly 10 miles west of Tel Aviv. There are many shuttles back and forth. We highly recommend that you rent a car. All of the major rental car companies have representation there.
Once you arrive, depending on the timing, you may wish to overnight in Tel Aviv. Early arrivals will give you the leg up on getting to Jerusalem. The City of David is roughly an hour drive from Tel Aviv. It is all freeway, and could not be easier. If you are accustomed to driving on US or European freeways, you will be very comfortable.
We recommend doing a large circle route: starting in Tel Aviv and driving to Jerusalem. Use Jerusalem as a base to see the sights of the town and then take a day trip to the Dead sea and to Bethlehem. From there drive north to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. We then recommend driving out to the coastal town of Acre and following the freeway south along the Mediterranean back to Tel Aviv.
We took a total of 12 days in see Israel on the route listed above, and saw Wadi Rum and Petra, Jordan.
The first thing you need to know about Jerusalem: there is the city, and then there is the old city, which is a city within a city. Most of the historic religious sites lie within the walls of the old city. Park your car for the time you are in Jerusalem. All sites can be seen by walking and public transport.
The Old City
The old city is divided into four sections: the Jewish Quarter, Muslim, Armenia and the Christian quarter. Armenia is represented, and has a long connection with the city, as they were the first country that officially named Christianity as the state religion. The entire old city is surrounded by a massive wall built in the early 16th Century by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. There are seven gates into the city…ok we lied, there are really eight, but one is no longer in use…and there is an interesting story about that. (https://new.goisrael.com/article/252).
A great way to really get a feel for highpoints of the Christen sites is to follow the Via Dolorosa. This follows the path of Christ’s last moments. To those of the Catholic faith, each of these stops will ring very familiar. https://www.dolr.org/stations-of-the-cross/jerusalem
The walk begins where Christ was condemned to die, walking to where he sees his mother and where Simon takes up the cross for the Savior, and ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The path is mostly cobblestones and pavement. You will definitely want good walking shoes. There are plenty of places to stop along the path for water or refreshment.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchure
The last four stations of the Via Dolorosa are contained in the church. It is massive. Here you will see the slab of rock that Christ was placed after his crucifixion. Many other sites were identified by St. Helena. Constantine the Great converted to Christianity in 312AD. Shortly thereafter, he dispatched his mother, Helena to the region to begin the process of identifying where the stories of the Bible took place. By inspiration, advice, and some other more interesting methods, she was able to key in on were everything happened. On her direction, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was constructed on the site of an old pagan temple. It has expanded and changed over the centuries since. A mixture of crusades, Muslim protection, earthquakes, and internal architectural disputes have led this building to be one of the most interesting and disputed structures ever built. One of more intriguing stories is the “immoveable ladder.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immovable_Ladder
Today it is the home of six Christian orders with each sect battling an internal turf war within the building for control and real estate. Often these disputes turn to fisticuffs. Make sure and read the Wikipedia profile of the Church. Very helpful: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_Holy_Sepulchre If you wish, a number of parishioners call be “locked” into the church overnight.
To those of the LDS faith and others, visiting this site can be a bit overwhelming. While held in reverence by so many sects, the crowded, smoke filled church is constantly loud, contentious, gaudy and combined with forceful docents, we found it difficult to make a strong spiritual connection to Christ while inside the church. Luci got yelled at while trying to go inside the tomb by a demanding priest who wanted people to hurry and our friends got kicked out of mass even though they are Catholic. However, we should note that we were befriended by an Armenian priest, who blessed us with holy oil and that was the highlight of the visit to the church.
One of the biggest challenges for us as Latter-day Saints and others is the desire to stand, or be near the exact spot “where it happened.” Few places exist today were one can say with sureness that “this is the place,” where the Savior stood. Yes, you are within hundreds of feet of where these events took place, but exactness is hard to come by. In addition, the real stones the Savior would have walked are typically 80 to 100 feet below you as the city has been conquered and rebuilt. In the end, we learned that it’s ok to be “ok” with this. As the “Fighting Couple” always says… “make sure you are fighting for the right things.”
The Garden of Gethsemane
Across the valley from the old city is the Garden of Gethsemane. The word Gethsemane translated means “oil press.” It is here that tradition holds that Christ prayed, as his disciples slept the night, before his crucifixion. Today the Church of All Nations is on the site. The ceiling is a stunning blue and décor is incredible.
We felt a strong connection to Christ in this area. It was less crowded, and being among the 2000+ year old olive trees really lends to quiet refection on the Atonement. We also bought small bottles of olive oil here.
The Garden Tomb
One of the most peaceful places we have found in Jerusalem is the Garden Tomb. Many Protestant groups claim this as the tomb of Christ. It is located just outside the Damascus Gate. Those of the LDS faith will immediately recognize this setting. Pictures of the Garden tomb appear in many versions of the standard works. It was unearthed in the mid 1850s. It is surrounded by a peaceful garden and is an ideal setting to contemplate.
Many claim John’s comment, “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.” KJV (John 19:41) to be evidence of the correct location. Again, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact location of the Tomb.
While a number of LDS leaders have had a strong affinity for this being the Tomb of Christ, no definitive declaration has been made that we are aware of. Mormon scholar Dr. John Tvedtnes shares some interesting research on the topic: (https://www.lds.org/ensign/1983/04/the-garden-tomb?lang=eng&query=garden+tomb)
The Western Wall
Perhaps the most sacred spot for Jews is the remnant of the temple wall. Jews come from all around the world to pray, and worship at the foot of what would have been the temple. Especially at the close of Shabbat, or sabbath the place is filled with songs, prayers and rejoicing. The Western Wall is separated into a men’s and women’s side. Jew and Gentile must cover their heads as they approach the wall. You can also write prayers and stuff them into one of the cracks in the wall.
The Dome of the Rock
The most recognizable structure in all of Israel is the beautiful Dome of the Rock. It is one of the most sacred houses of worship for Muslims. Its beautiful blue octagon walls and golden dome rival any temple we have seen. The location is believed by Jews to be the place were Adam was created. It is also believed to be the location where the Old Testament prophet Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son Issac. This is also believed to be the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. While you cannot enter the mosque as a non-believer, you can enjoy the peacefulness and beauty of this site.
BYU JerusalemLocated on the Mount of Olives is the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. The center is a satellite campus of Brigham Young University, one of the largest religious universities in the world. A few hundred students reside at the center for a semester. The center is open for tours and often offers free concerts from their concert hall overlooking the old city. It is a view not to be missed. The LDS Church leases the property, thus it is difficult to know how long the center will remain in its current location.
Dead Sea and Masada National Park
One of the side trips we highly recommend is a three hour drive south east to the Dead Sea. Swimming in the Dead Sea is a once in a lifetime opportunity. There is nothing like it. You will float no matter how hard you try not too! The water feels slick like a truck load of essential oils were dumped in it. To get the most of the experience, cover yourself in mud, let it bake, and swim in the sea to dissolve it. Your skin will feel like you just left a five star spa. There are a number of public beaches that have changing facilities and you can buy mud at local stores.
Looking down on the Dead Sea is the might fortress of Masada. Once a last refuge from the Romans, Masada is a collection of ruins atop a lofty plateau that can be accessed by a strenuous hike or a comfortable tram. This is an important and moving place for Jews. It symbolized the rebellion against Roman invaders and a last desperate act against domination. It is both a spiritual and patriotic place for Jews. For Americans it would be like combining Valley Forge and the National Cathedral. The views of the area are worth the price of admission. A couple hours is really adequate in our eyes to see the area. Check out the museum which has the actual rocks or lots where the men of Masada wrote their names as too who would be killed next.
The birthplace of Christ is a must see during your visit. Bethlehem is located 5 miles south of Jerusalem. The city is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. It has a very different vibe than what you have been experiencing in Jerusalem. The Church of the Nativity is being remodeled at the time of this writing. In the grotto you can visit what is believed to the be manager where Christ was born. Take a public bus to get there from outside the Old City. We suggest bus #21. It’s safe and easy. It will drop you off a ten minute walk to the Church of the Nativity. Taxi cabs in Jerusalem will try to swindle you by charging $200 to $500 to take you to the Church.
While there is not a definitive spot where tradition holds the Savior was baptized, the Jordan River holds a special place in the Christian tradition. Just south of the Sea of Galilee, in a wide spot in river, is a commercial baptism center. Here patrons can be baptized. It felt a bit like the baptism scene in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.” There is a changing station if you want to pay to get baptized and a sizable gift shop. You can put your feet in the water without paying, but swimming is discouraged.
Capernaum and the Mt. of Beatitudes
On the north shore of the Sea of Galilee are the ruins of the City of Capernaum. During Christ’s ministry, he spent a great deal of time here. It is here that he met Peter and a number of his other apostles including Andrew, James, and John. He taught, lived, and worshiped here. We learn of many healings that took place in the city:
Mark 2:1-5 And again he entered into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house.
2 And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word unto them.
3 And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four.
4 And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay.
5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.
Today you can walk around the ruins of the city and there are a number of alcoves and areas you can stop for reflection. In the center is the octagonal church. It is here were Catholic tradition holds that an invalid was lowed through the roof and was healed by Christ. One of the highlights for us is as you walk in through the front gates, there is a statue of Christ on a park bench. It almost looks like it is a vagrant taking a nap. It is only after you see the nail prints in his hands and feet to you realize who the person is. It is very impressive.
Just above Capernaum is where tradition holds that the Savior would have given the Sermon on the Mount. With its lofty view of the Sea of Galilee, it is perhaps one of the best views in the Holy Land. A peaceful and reflective spot!
Nazareth is the town that Jesus was raised. Here you will find the Basilica of the Annunciation. This is by far, one of our favorite churches in the Holy Land. It was built to feel like it was made of wood. There are many stunning stained glass windows throughout. The theme of this church is the figure of Mary. There are many colorful pieces of artwork, done by artists around the globe that surround the outer courtyard and the inner basilica.
According to Catholic tradition, this is the spot where Mary’s childhood home would have stood. The current church there was built in 1969, on the top of an earlier Crusader era church. It has been classified as a minor basilica. Mass is celebrated there in multiple languages.
On the way back
You have hit the major religious sites if you have followed our plan above. Now how about some sun, sand and surf? Head east till you need a boat. The Mediterranean Sea is a beautiful and warm reward for tired bodies. We spent some time in the Medieval city of Acre. Very interesting history and architecture. We highly recommend spending a day or two unwinding before you head back to busy Tel Aviv.
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