We left early to beat the crowds to the Temple Mount, and (at least I think) it was 100% worth it! A little bit of rain meant the stone walkways were exceedingly slippery the rest of the day, but it certainly didn't slow our progress - it enhanced our pictures. :) Before we climbed the wooden walkway (visible in the night picture), Dan explained the difference between the Temple (built by Solomon/variously rebuilt by others) and the Temple Mount (built by Herod). The Temple was the place God chose to be worshipped, built on Mount Moriah (where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac). The Temple Mount was a gathering place Herod built for a variety of reasons, but as small models later highlighted for us, the original topography was a hill, not a flat surface - "first of all, there are a few unnecessary mountains that you have to remove." When we went in the Rabbinic Tunnels under the Muslim Quarter, the extreme humongousness of the scale of the building project became evident. Later when Titus came through, systematically burning Israel to the ground in 70 AD, he couldn't thoroughly destroy it. Think about that. The ROMAN ARMY (possibly the strongest military the world has ever seen) couldn't destroy this thing, and they tried, with chisels. They finally gave up, as we could see in the lower levels. One of the gigantic foundation stones is 44 FEET long, and only about 1/3 as high as it used to be. But it still weighs SEVERAL HUNDRED TONS. Dan said that because there are many theories floating around as to how these stones were placed, it basically means "we have no idea."
Back to the Temple Mount, which is only open to non-Muslims during certain portions of the day. The major structures on top are the Al Aqsa Mosque (the dark silver/black dome), which is the functional mosque, and the Dome of the Rock (the golden dome), which is the pilgrimage site, sacred to Muslims because they believe Abraham was going to sacrifice Ishmael there on Mt Moriah. As we are not allowed to enter either, we went to the southeast corner where we viewed the Mt. of Olives and Kidron Valley with its Jewish cemetery through Crusader-era archery slits and talked about Abraham. Next we went to the current (but somewhat archaeologically problemmatic) site of the "Golden Gate," through which Jesus would've entered the old city on Palm Sunday. After that, we walked around the Dome of the Rock to a place where the actual bedrock was visible and Dave stood on it (Orthodox Jews wouldn't) while talking to us about David and the angel at Araunah's threshing floor (after David took the census, demonstrating he was relying on the strength of his army rather than on God).
We descended to the Rabbinic Tunnels after that, and while the huge stone was definitely a highlight, we saw a huge network of underwater cisterns (whose use was eventually discontinued because of mass cholera outbreaks), and a dizzying array of Herod-era stones, unrestored because there's no need. They're not even mortared together... they're cut so perfectly that they simply fit together!
When we ascended to street level, after passing a portion of what would've been a street Jesus definitely walked on, we visited the Praetorium, where Antonia Fortress would have been. Some of the original Roman paving is still there, and it's there (or immediately nearby) where Pilate would have tried Jesus. No pictures, because sidewalk isn't intrinsically visually interesting, but I took some video of where the paving stones transition from modern to Roman... coming soon to a Blue Gospel Scripts show!
Then, technically speaking, we left Israel and went to the West Bank - Palestine - to begin our afternoon in Bethlehem. With a local guide, we visited the Church of the Nativity, built on the traditional site of Jesus' birth (which was, we learned, a cave and not a wooden stable). There are really 3 churches on the site: Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Catholic. The line to get into The Cave from the Greek church was really huge; from the Catholic side we were able to enter basically the cave on the other side of the wall from The Cave. I shot some video of Dave singing in there that hopefully we'll get to show you at our December 4th Blue Gospel Scripts performance. As if all that didn't make it special enough, the people in the Armenian church took our Armenian contingent down to The Cave, and just watching their video at dinner and hearing the story was deeply special!
We finished our day (and very sadly, our time with Dan, though we are of course assured the GTI guide joining us tomorrow is excellent) with a fascinating non-Biblical site: Herodium, site of one of Herod's pre-royal military victories, where he planned to be buried.However, he insisted it be visible from Jerusalem, which his architects told him was impossible. This of course did not deter him, and his builders literally chopped the top off the hill next door and built up the mountain for him. It's not enough that he had a freshwater pool inside the Mediterranean (at Caesarea Maritima) - he also had to build a mountain on top of a mountain to have the tallest fortress in the land... then he made them run water up to the top so there could be a BATHHOUSE in the tallest fortress in the land! King Herod. Whoa. One of Dan's professors was the archaeologist who excavated here for 34 years, looking and looking for Herod's tomb, which he found when he stumbled across a staircase leading up to the hilltop fortress. Those stairs have only recently been opened to the public; we were some of the first to walk up! The panoramic views from the top were amazing, and because of this morning's rain we could see clear to the Mount of Olives to the north and the Dead Sea and Jordan to the east. Amazing.
One of our Indian friends on this trip was really emotional at the Church of the Nativity... he said he was thinking about how he came from a Hindu background, and to think that he of all his family got to be there just overwhelmed him with gratitude.
Another traveler said her highlight of today was praying at the Western Wall.
Another said her highlight of today was hearing the Lord's Prayer in Armenian at the Church of the Nativity.
I've just sat here for 5 minutes trying to come up with my highlight of the day. Perhaps I'll instead mention something that stood out, and that's the story of St. Jerome, who spent 30+ years in the cave next door to The Cave at Bethlehem creating the Latin Vulgate translation of the Old Testament - it was the first to have been translated directly from the Hebrew. I find scribes fascinating, and the idea that someone felt an urgent enough need to dedicate decades to meeting it inspires me to continue to live out my calling!
Featured Signature Tour
Sep 3-14, 2023
Experience Israel for 11 days in the context of biblical history and personal faith.