Andy Mossack, a well-known British travel writer and the creator and presenter of BBC Radio’s “Where in the World is Andy” travelogue series, takes us on a personal tour of Israel and Jordan in his latest installment. Be sure to check back in for other insightful reviews from Andy’s travel exploits.
It’s just past noon and I’m having a moment.
I’m up to my knees in water in a 2,000-year-old man-made tunnel with nothing but a small flashlight and goose bumps, knowing people back in biblical times had walked this very route.
Hezekiah’s Tunnel is the climax of my visit to the ancient City of David, which many archaeologists agree is the location of the biblical Jerusalem of King David, built well before the Ottoman-inspired Old City of today just a stone’s throw away.
The tunnel is unrecognizable from when I first saw it many years ago. Back then, the tunnel (hewn from rock to provide vital water for the city during times of siege) was hidden away within a tiny Arab village, and I was met at the entrance by a young boy who gave me a small candle for a few shekels. Its flickering light guided me as I waded along the tunnel to the Pool of Siloam at its end, where Jesus was said to cure a blind man.
How times have changed. Today it’s a major tourist venue, with much of King David’s original city now unearthed. It’s still a working dig, but you can experience it up close on one of the hourly guided tours.
Inside the Old City Walls
Just a short walk from here and we’re at Dung Gate, one of eight entrances into the Old City and the nearest to the fabled Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple. The Wall and the wide plaza in front of it are bustling with life 24 hours a day. It’s the spiritual heart of the Old City with the glistening golden cap of the holy Dome of the Rock behind. I walk up and lay a hand on the huge stones of the wall, glass smooth from millions of hands doing the same thing. Scraps of paper scrawled with messages and crammed into every reachable crack are a poignant reminder of how important these ancient bricks are to Jews the world over.
To the left side of the plaza is the entrance to the Western Wall Tunnel, a stunning guided walk back in time that takes you directly underneath the Wall and Temple Mount. Actually touching Herodian stone from the time of Jesus is one thing, but coming across a group of highly emotional women praying in a corridor directly under where the original Ark of the Covenant used to be, is almost overwhelming.
Back in daylight and just to the right of the Wall, a rather innocuous walkway leads to The Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam and revered by Muslims and Jews for different reasons. It’s a shrine built over the actual rock where Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven on his winged horse, leaving a hoof print in the rock face. For Jews, it’s the rock on which Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Unfortunately, only Muslims are allowed into the Dome these days, but anyone can take a moment and wonder at the sheer beauty of it.
Leaving the plaza, the Arab souk beckons. Hidden inside its timeless twisty streets, the Via Dolorosa winds its way past tawdry souvenir shops and the odd local vendor promising “a piece of the actual cross!” The path leads me to the holiest spot in the Christian faith, the magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was said to be crucified and laid to rest. Up a stone staircase to the right of the entrance and I’m at Calvary, the place of the cross, where a glass-encased rock clearly shows a slot carved into it. Back downstairs, the center of the church is dominated by the huge Sepulchre, the empty tomb of Christ, where each Easter the miracle of the Holy Fire occurs. A priest enters holding an unlit candle and emerges triumphantly with it miraculously ablaze.
Arguments still rage as to the authenticity of these sites, but regardless, no one can take away the sheer emotions these places evoke. There’s a cave just outside Damascus Gate called the Garden Tomb, which some believe to be the real tomb of Jesus.
Exploring the Holy Land
Leaving Jerusalem, I travel north to the Sea of Galilee. The views here are spectacular with the mountains of Syria dwarfing the opposite bank. It was around these very shores where Jesus’ ministry became legend. The Jesus Trail has just been unveiled here, a forty-mile route following his footsteps from the charming Church of the Multiplication and its ancient floor mosaic of loaves and fishes, to historic Capernaum and the oldest synagogue in the world.
A trip into Jordan is always worthwhile on a visit to Israel, and you can cross one of the borders at Allenby Bridge, just thirty miles from Jerusalem. It’s not far from the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth some 1,400 feet below sea level. Its salty waters once bathed Cleopatra, and today many visitors still enjoy its healing qualities while being enveloped in mud that’s millions of years old.
Petra and Wadi Rum are some distance away and need an overnight stay to do them justice, but I’m taking a day trip to visit Madaba along the famous desert Kings Highway. The town is pretty nondescript but for its one startling relic inside the small Greek orthodox church of St. George: a sixth-century floor map of Jerusalem, the oldest in existence and still used by archaeologists today to locate Jerusalem’s still-buried origins.
Close by here is Mount Nebo. From the summit (easily reachable by road) I look out at the stunning view back into Israel, the same view Moses gazed at when he was forbidden to enter the land of milk and honey. His journey ended right here and he’s buried somewhere on this very mountain. Far below me, a shepherd boy leading his small herd of goats along a stony path completes the perfect biblical picture.
These very lands spawned three huge religions, and wherever you go here you’re reminded of it. Where else in the world could you see road signs to Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem? It’s where history and religion converge to form a quite unique vacation opportunity. And that’s the gospel truth.
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Featured Image: View of Jerusalem Old City (Shutterstock.com)
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