Monday, March 15, 2010
Maria's Whirlwind Tour of Israel
Well, this Saturday I dropped Maria off at Ben Gurion airport with a tearful goodbye after one of the best weeks imaginable. We managed to fit in everything we'd planned and more.
Our week began with me picking her up in Jaffa, the old Arab port city on the south of Tel Aviv. There we had the first of many marvelous dinners in which we indulged each night throughout the week, this one on the Mediterranean waterfront. We stayed at Beit Immanuel before heading out to Nazareth the following morning.
After the lengthy morning bus ride we made it to the city of Jesus' youth. We worked our way through the busy Nazareth souq- which is one of the nicest parts of the city and feels far more authentic than the busy central street running by the basilica and Mary's Well- until we got to Fauzi Azar Inn (admittedly, we had to ask three people how to get there until the signs started, but once you know it it's very easy).
Lonely Planet highly recommended Fauzi Azar as a top pick, and thought they steered me dead wrong on Squalid Walid's in Old Acre, they were absolutely right in this case. Fauzi Azar Inn is the best bang for your buck in the entire country; for $55 each we got two single rooms, endless tea and coffee on the porch overlooking the garden, a cake baked daily for the guests, and more information on the area and tour options than I've ever seen in any five star hotel lobby. This is the place to stay in Nazareth.
That afternoon we checked out Sepphoris, where I got to see the one big thing I missed on my previous visit: the late antique synagogue. Curiously, the mosaic floor of the synagogue contains a zodiac, with more distinctively Jewish symbols on the periphery.
Even better, however, we spent the evening with the Millers, so Maria got to meet Alex, Sharon, David, and Mia. That was an absolute delight; Sharon once again showed off her cooking skills by making a Lebanese fish and rice dish. We then spent a relaxing three hours talking about politics, religion, and our personal hopes and dreams. For me, it was a wonderful way to spend another night with the Millers before leaving Galilee for the last time (on this trip), and I loved getting the chance to introduce Maria to some of the great friends I've made here.
The next day we did the regular Nazareth sites: the Basilica of the Annunciation, the Orthodox Annunciation Church, Mary's Well, and Nazareth Village. We also found a bathhouse (advised by Fauzi Azar) in a nearby shop. The owners billed it as a first century Hellenistic or Roman bathhouse, which would really change our understandings of Nazareth in the time of Jesus; from touring the country and seeing many archaeological sites, I came instead to the conclusion that it was Byzantine neo-classical revival, by the time Nazareth was already a larger Christian pilgrimage site.
That afternoon we said goodbye to Fauzi Azar and Nazareth and headed off to Tiberias. Once again we had a nice dinner, but also got to Mass at St. Peter's so Maria could meet the Hewerdines; after dinner, we went up to their apartment for a few hours of conversation. Quite different from the Millers, of course, but equally wonderful. It didn't hurt that Mary cooked up some popcorn. How I've missed it!
Wednesday morning we took a bus from the central bus station to the sites on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee: the Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha, and Capernaum. This was the beginning of the heat wave that has hit Israel and continues through to today (especially hot down here in Beersheva). Still, we made the walk up the hill from the Tabgha shore to the Franciscan monastery and Church of the Beatitudes, where an Eastern European group of some sort was singing some lovely songs. We hiked down the same path and wandered across a random grotto hewn in the rock (left) filled with candles and those unmistakable traces of the liturgy. We hiked then to Capernaum to see the spaceship church, and to Tabgha to see the far nicer Churches of the Primacy of St. Peter and of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. It was hot, and it was well worth it.
A three hour bus ride to Jerusalem followed, and this was where Maria truly began to feel exhausted and ill. It was great to get back to St. George's, however. She got the nicer room; like my former room, it had a vaulted ceiling, but it also contained some well-varnished wood. After relaxing here for a bit we trotted over to the Armenian Quarter for dinner at the Armenian Tavern. There we had lamb shishlik, and boy was it good. We also tried a bottle of Domine de Latrun Pinot Noir, grown at the Latrun Monastery that I visited on my very first day in Israel, the same day as the infamous Mini Israel. We both agree, Latrun Pinot Noir is the very best wine we had throughout the trip, and possibly in our lives. Highly recommended.
The next day (Thursday), we got up bright and early for the 6:30am Latin High Mass in the Holy Sepulchre. By this point, I think three things had really hit her: we were smack dab in the Middle East, there's a reason I keep saying how much I want to live here, and there's a reason why if I lived here in Israel, I'd be hard-pressed to be anything but Catholic. I ought to mention that in Tiberias that Mass was said in unison, with no variation, in Italian, French, Chinese, and English, and then we got Thursday morning in Latin; in Beersheva, as I'll mention in my next post, I got to attend a Hebrew-language Catholic Mass. There's just something so... catholic about Catholicism.
But I digress.
After Mass at the Holy Sepulchre we stopped by the Garden Tomb so she could see a good example of an eighth century BC tomb and a Crusader-era water trough, and then it was off to Bethlehem. On the other side of the checkpoint we negotiated a deal whereby the cab driver would take us to the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Angels and Shepherd's Fields in Beit Sahour, with a tour of each, plus shopping, for a mere two hundred shekels total. The cab driver did that and more; he hooked us up with a Palestinian Ministry of Tourism guide who let us skip the line in the Church of the Nativity (as when I went with the Alternative Tourism Group) and took us to a wonderful shop where Maria bought a moderately-sized, tasteful olive wood nativity set. We literally knocked out Bethlehem in two and a half hours.
We were back in Jerusalem by 1pm, which turned out to be enough time to see the Citadel, the northern ramparts walk, and even see St. Anne's Church and the Pools of Bethesda (the sheep pools). That was all done by five in the afternoon, enough time to head for Ben Yehuda for dinner. By the time we were back at St. George's, we were able to sit down with Ben (the English course assistant during the Palestine of Jesus course) for a few hours and laugh at pictures of bad vestments on the eponymous blog (check it out sometime).
Friday was the big day in Jerusalem. We started the morning with a tour of excavations around the southwestern corner of the temple mount that I had blasted through with St. George's in the rain. It was wonderful to be able to spend a good deal of time there, even in the ever-increasing heat. We then proceeded outside the Old City walls to tour the City of David archaeological park and pass through Hezekiah's tunnel. Then we blasted over to the Israel Museum.
At 3pm we met up with the Franciscan procession that walks the Via Dolorosa each Friday. I'd say there were about two hundred people in the crowd following two dozen Franciscans. All the chanting and responsive speaking was in Latin, but each reading at the stations of the crosses were done in Latin, English, Italian, French, and Arabic. It was a monumental wave moving through the Old City.
We, however, only followed them up until they reached the Holy Sepulchre, as it was going to be another two hours inside the building.
Instead, we'd arranged with the Franciscans to be locked in to the Holy Sepulchre once the doors closed that evening. We'd made sure there was a Russian group being let in for services by the Greeks around midnight, since otherwise people are locked in until the doors officially open again around 4am. Still, it was about four hours of prayer with only five or so other people besides the monks cleaning the church. We were able to pray the full rosary at each of the last four stations of the cross (Christ nailed to the cross, Christ dies, Christ's body is prepared, and yes, within the holy tomb itself), as well as in the Armenian, Franciscan, Syriac chapels, at the edge of the Greek sanctuary, and in the minor chapels of Adam and St. Helena. Let me assure you: one does not 'do' the Holy Sepulchre in the midst of flashing cameras and hordes of tourists. This rugged old building, almost slapped together from pieces of architecture that vary widely between different periods and cultures, truly speaks to the mystery of God's crucifixion and resurrection in the worship of the Latin High Mass and the silence of the nighttime lock-in.
The next morning we hiked around the Mount of Olives to see the churches there- St. Stephen's Orthodox Church below the Lion's (St. Stephen's) Gate, Dominus Flevit, the exterior of the Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, and the Church of All Nations/Basilica of the Agony at the Garden of Gethsemane. Then we made our way to Mount Zion (the modern Christian Mount Zion, that is), to see St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church and its more authentic Upper Room than the Crusader-era structure-turned mosque known as the Cennacle (which we also visited), as well as St. Peter in Gallicantu and Dormition Abbey.
After a bit of shopping for icons and souvenirs, we got back to St. George's and spent our last minutes just enjoying each other's company before I accompanied her in a taxi to Ben Gurion Airport.
And that was our marvelous and most wonderful week together.