Sunday, February 16, 2014

Final Day of Touring (Petra, Jordan), Trip Home

Wow!  It's the middle of February and it's been over a week since I posted anything about our Holy Land trip!  I wish I could blame it on laziness or busyness, but instead I get to blame it on illness.  For the last week I've been dealing with strep throat.  I was basically in bed last Friday and Saturday and have been trying to get back to "normal" (whatever that is) ever since.  There are several bits of good news I want to share with you before I wrap up with a description of our last day of touring and our travel home.  First, I'm almost finished re-editing all of the pictures from the trip!  That means I'm almost ready to begin work on the book about the trip that you'll be able to purchase.  It will include many of the pictures and descriptions from this blog as well as quite a bit of other stuff I've held back (yes, believe it or not, there are MORE pictures).  Also, I will be giving a presentation on this trip at Trinity Lutheran Church in Brooten, MN on Sunday, February 23 at 10:30 a.m.  We will have a shortened worship service, followed by the presentation, followed by a potluck lunch in the basement (free will donation).  Everyone is welcome and I'm excited to share this experience with folks in my congregation and anyone else who wants to come and hear about it.

With that out of the way, let's wrap this blog up with a good long post about our last day of touring, shall we?

 Our 9th and final day of touring found us waking up bright and early one last time at the Ambassador Hotel in Jerusalem.  Our guide wanted us to get an early start so we would be one of the first tour buses in line at the border crossing when it opened.  We enjoyed another wonderful breakfast, made sure our luggage was on the bus, double checked that we all had our passports, and a few of us took the opportunity to exchange some Israeli shekels back into US dollars.  Before long it was time to board the bus and be on our way out of Jerusalem. One last view of the hotel:

And I took the opportunity  to get a picture with our great bus driver, Isa.  We were all amazed at how smoothly and expertly he navigated some very tight spaces, especially in Jerusalem.  I can't imagine any group having a better driver/guide combination than we had with Isa and Gila. 

After my experience with Israeli security crossing from Jordan to Israel, I expected the border crossing going the other way to be just as difficult and prepared for a long process.  It turned out the longest part was just waiting on the bus for the border to open.  As our guide predicted, we were the first tour bus in line, sitting with several other buses full of Palestinian travelers as well as commercial semi trucks.  The crossing itself was simple.  We left our bus, identified our luggage to the porters so we made sure we had all of our things, then walked into the security checkpoint.  Our passports were checked and stamped, then we were on our way out the other side of the building to find our Jordanian bus.  A kind of surreal moment for me was walking out of the checkpoint and looking to the left to see Isa and our Israeli bus sitting less than 100 yards away, then to the right and seeing our Jordanian bus and driver (Sam, the same one we had before) waiting for us.  I was free to go to one bus, but not back to the other, even though there was no fence or barricade or anything to stop me from trying.  It made me think a little about how silly our man-made borders are sometimes, but I guess they're necessary at some level, too.  At the very least, there are a lot of people in a lot of places who are employed in some capacity to maintain and defend all of these borders. 

After crossing the Jordan River one last time, we made our way into the checkpoint on the Jordanian side where we picked up our Jordanian guide, Fadi.  Our destination for the day was Petra, in southern Jordan, so we had a few hours' bus ride ahead of us.  First, we had to climb out of the Jordan valley.  What looked barren and desolate a week ago actually did kind of look like fertile farmland this time around, at least to my eyes, with groves of olive trees and other kinds of agriculture dotting the hillsides:

 We came into the outskirts of Amman and got on the main highway that would take us south into the desert toward Petra.  We had traveled this highway on our first night going from the airport to the hotel.  It was a different experience to see it in the daytime.  All of this was feeling a lot less foreign to me.  If not for the Arabic on the trucks, this could easily pass for a freeway in the American southwest:

Traveling south, the terrain got very desolate.   The skies cleared, but the wind was still blowing pretty strong.  We didn't encounter any major sandstorms, though.  This is basically what the view was like for a good long while:

 One of the main products of export for Jordan is potash, which is mined in the desert.  Here's a distant view of one of the potash mines, along with a narrow gauge rail line that comes up from the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea.  

We passed through several towns along the way.  Here were some children playing soccer in an open area next to the highway:

After a bathroom and refreshment stop, it wasn't long before we turned back east off of the desert highway and started down a two lane highway toward Petra.  The view didn't change much at first, though:

 Another town we passed through, showing some of the shops and some of the typical Middle Eastern parking prowess:

 The landscape became hillier and we began descending down through the rolling terrain.  After a while we came to the city of Petra:

Our first stop in Petra was for lunch at another buffet that featured some specifically Jordanian cuisine.  Some of it was very similar to what we had in Israel, but a few different spices and flavors.  Here we are leaving the restaurant to head for the ancient ruins of Petra that are the main attraction here:

Petra is most famous for the ancient Nabatean city that is literally carved out of cliffs.  It looks like it comes right out of the rocks.  It's been made famous through movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is on many lists of great places to visit including Smithsonian Magazine's "28 Places to See Before You Die".  Entering from the east side of the city, we walked down a gravel path, descending through ruins that are actually ancient tombs.  There were of course many vendors as well as people selling carriage rides down the path and back up again to save all the walking we did.  Here was one of the first carved formations we came across:

About halfway down the first path we walked, looking back up the hill:

Another example of the way they carved these things right out of the rocks:

After a half mile or so walk, you come to the entrance of the Siq (pronounced "seek") that leads down to the main portion of the city.  The Siq is a naturally crack in the earth, probably produced by an earthquake.  This is part of what made this site ideal for a well-protected city.  Here is the entrance to the Siq, showing the path we'll continue down as well as one of the carriages carrying some folks back up the hill.

I don't know exactly how to describe how amazing it was to walk through this natural wonder and see not only the beauty of the rocks themselves, but also the interesting man-made accomplishment of building a city here.   Here's a picture showing the rock walls, a tree growing along the wall, and you can sort of make out the water channel that was carved into the wall to bring fresh water down to the city.  This channel runs the entire length of the Siq.

Looking up at one of the narrower places we walked through as we descend lower toward the city:

A place showing one of the natural faults in the rocks we saw.  The rocks also began to change color to this beautiful red.  This is why Petra is sometimes called the Rose City. 

Another niche carving along the way:

The bench in the distance gives you a little sense of scale for how massive these rock walls are:

Our group walking along:

I could have spent the entire day just exploring the various features of the rocks with my camera.  It's amazing what wind and sand and water can do over time to create some truly beautiful formations like this:

We stopped along the way at several places where our guide Fadi explained different aspects of the city to us.  This shot also shows the water channels carved into the walls:

Another shot of our group, and again you can see the water channel.

There were also several dams built to hold back rainwater so that the Siq wouldn't be flooded.

Some more interesting engineering with steps that were carved right into the wall to reach a tomb above. 

After another mile or so, we came to what Fadi called our "Indiana Jones moment" where you walk through a narrow part of the Siq and catch your first glimpse of the most famous part of Petra, a carved facade called the Treasury:

It's incredible to step out of that narrow passage into an expansive area and see this immense carving in front of you.  This is a picture I took a bit later when Fadi came up to me and said, "Get a picture.  You almost never see it without people in front of it!"  The entire thing was carved out of the canyon wall, including the columns.  You can also see a small opening just above the door.  Fadi said this is where they started carving the inside room, first creating the ceiling, then chiseling away at the floor until they reached the bottom.  Pretty ingenious if you ask me!  This would have been another tomb, but it's called the Treasury because local legend held that many of the decorative figures and containers on the outside held treasure.  Unfortunately, this meant some of them have been destroyed, only to find of course that there was nothing inside. 

One of the reasons I'm sure you almost never see this without anyone in front of it is because everyone wants their picture in front of it, of course, but also because this is a place where there were people offering camel and donkey rides for a few dollars.  A few members of our group decided it was too good of an opportunity to pass up, and we all enjoyed watching them have their rides. 

The process of getting on and off the camels was really the most entertaining part:

After we had our time at the Treasury with Fadi, we had time to explore a little farther before making our way back up the Siq and to the bus.  Not far down the path from the Treasury were more impressive tombs:

An overall view of the area, showing you some of the vendor stalls that were also set up here. 

Another collection of tombs:

We just made it far enough to see some of the city itself, including this amphitheater:

The big tomb in the middle of this picture has been restored to show how most of these places would have originally looked before thousands of years of erosion took their toll:

I really wish we would have had more time to explore because we just barely scratched the surface of what there is to see at Petra.  I'm sure you could spend days and days exploring all of the ruins and seeing it all and I'm sure it all looks completely different at various times of the day.  Before long it was time to start on the mile and a half hike back up the hill.  Because I still had my Vibram running shoes on, I decided it was a rare opportunity to run through some ancient ruins, so I left my camera with some other members of the group and took off toward the top.  It was really fun to run back up through the Siq.  What I didn't expect was that there were a few Arabic guys I passed about halfway up who I think were a little macho and wouldn't stand for this American to just run past them.  A few of them started to run with me a little ways.  It was all in good fun, though, and it wasn't long before we were all smiling and laughing.  They were trying to get me to run faster and showing off a little.  I've been running long enough to know not to worry about how anyone else is running and just go the pace I set for myself.   So I let them run on ahead and tire themselves out.  It wasn't long before I caught up to them and ran right on by.  I easily beat them all to the top and exchanged a few high fives and handshakes in the end.  It was a good time, but the most thrilling thing about it was just getting the chance to run in a place like that.  I still like the gravel roads and parks around here, but the scenery doesn't quite compare to Petra.

At the top, a strange sight met us.  One member of our group is allergic to horses, so as we went farther down the Siq in a more confined space where horses were going by fairly frequently, he began to have a reaction and decided to head back up to the top.  They passed the time by purchasing a couple of Arab headdresses.  A few more of our group bought some more, so we suddenly had a few Norwegian sheiks on the bus.  Here are Dan and Sharon with their headdresses on:

After a good supper and a brief but comfortable stay at our hotel in Petra, we woke up before 4 AM so we could be on the road back to the airport in Amman.  It was the start of our long travel day that would bring me from Jordan back to Chicago, on to Minneapolis, and eventually, to my bed at home in Brooten.  Here is the Royal Jordanian airplane that would take us on our 14 hour flight from Amman to Chicago:

I'll spare you the details of that flight, but it included me watching 3 movies only to find that the flight was barely half over, as well as a member of our group (a registered nurse) coming to the aid of another passenger who had some kind of medical emergency as we flew over Canada.  We were all very thankful that the passenger was fine for the rest of the flight and we weren't forced to land somewhere other than Chicago. 

After marveling at what ancient civilizations were able to accomplish, it was really remarkable to travel nearly 7000 miles in only about 30 hours.  To think that our day began with this sunrise over the Jordanian desert and ended with driving through near whiteout conditions in central Minnesota! 

So that's about it for the trip.  I'm glad so many of you have enjoyed following along.  I'm extremely grateful for the people who made this possible for me and I'm thankful that they appreciated my presence on this journey.  Above all, I have to thank my wife Lindy who bravely stayed home with our three children, as well as my mother in-law Laurie and our favorite babysitter Michelle who pitched in to help, too.  I thought this would be a once in a lifetime kind of a trip, but now that I've been, I want to go back and take my family along next time.  The trip has forever changed the way I read the Bible as well as the way I think about the Middle East.  I hope you've learned a little something, too.  Thanks again for tagging along!


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Day 8: Final Jerusalem Day

I'm slowly but surely making progress and I'm hoping to have the last photos edited after this weekend, but we shall see.  For now, I'm ready to give you a rundown of what I saw on our last full day in Jerusalem.  This was our "free day" to explore the city on our own without our guide.  Not everyone did the same things, so part of this post will be from Pastor Art.

In the morning, we arranged for our usual bus and driver to drop us off at the Jaffa Gate of the Old City.  Most of the group planned to go to the King David Museum, which Pastor Art will share with you in just a moment.  I was interested in going back to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.  After seeing so many Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, I jokingly told everyone that I wanted to walk into a church where I could say, "I belong here!  I'm Lutheran!  Where are the things for me to kiss and the curtains that I get to look behind?"  Of course, there is nothing like that there, but I did want to see the church and perhaps meet with the two ELCA pastors that serve the English-speaking congregation.  The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer also features a large bell tower (a picture was in my previous post) that you can climb up to get a good view over the entire Old City.  That sounded like a wonderful idea on a beautifully clear morning like the one we had that day.

A few others from the group thought that sounded interesting and decided to tag along with me.  It was nice to have their company and somewhat of a relief to not be wandering through the narrow and unfamiliar streets of the Old City alone.  Even so, everyone else gave us a hard time, waving goodbye and taking our picture as we walked away as if they would never see us again.  We were pleasantly surprised to find the streets almost completely empty.  Our route to the church took us through part of the busy market that we had walked through the day before along the Via Dolorosa.  Instead of being crowded with people, however, it was virtually empty as most of the shops were not yet open, even at 9:00 in the morning. After our nice, leisurely stroll to the church.  The old church was locked, but the church offices attached to it were open, so we found out from the receptionist that the building would not be open for tours until 10.  We also found out the pastors were around, but in a meeting.

With some free time on our hands, we decided to make the short walk around the corner to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Amazingly, we found this place also almost empty, at least compared to how we experienced it the day before.  With no line, we took advantage of the opportunity to go back up to the top of Calvary to see the place of crucifixion.  Here is a closer view of some of the decorations:

Here is the place they believe the cross would have stood.  You have to kneel down to see it, and you can put your hand inside the hole there to feel the indentation in the rock where the cross would have been placed.  

Some more decorations adorning the altar built over the place of crucifixion:

A single prayer candle lit, overlooking one of the chapels that surrounds the main part of the church.  It really was a completely different feel to the place this time around; much more quiet and contemplative.

Another view of the modern mosaic behind the Stone of Anointing, this portion depicting Joseph of Arimathea removing Jesus' body from the cross.

I was able to get a better view of a few of the Orthodox pilgrims who were there so you can have a look at the reverence they show to the Stone of Anointing.  

By this time, a large group of Russian Orthodox pilgrims had arrived, so the line to see the tomb was quite long again, but I did have the chance to get a better picture of the shrine that's been built there than I had the day before.  You can just see the tops of some heads as people make their way into the door in front.

It really was a beautiful day to have a more relaxed look around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Old City itself.  Here's the courtyard we saw the day before, this time in brilliant morning sunlight:

We made our way back to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer to use the restroom and see if the church would be opening for tours soon.  As I waited for the others in the reception area, the two ELCA pastors came down the stairs and I introduced myself.  They were very kind and welcoming to us.  They even took time away from a birthday party (complete with cake) to give us a tour of their offices (very brave, if you ask me, to let tourists into your office!) and showed us the chapel where the English speaking congregation typically worships.  It's an old Crusader chapel, simple but beautiful.  Here I am with Pastors Angela and Martin Zimmann in the chapel.  Like I said, they were very gracious to spend some time with us and it was interesting to hear their perspective on living and doing ministry in Jerusalem. 

After our visit, Pastor Martin told Maurice (the man in charge of giving tours and collecting the fee to climb the tower) to show us everything and not charge us anything.  While they went off to the birthday party for one of their colleagues, we went back outside to a cafe across the street to wait for Maurice to open the building.  After purchasing a few things from one of the local vendors, we sat down for the ladies to have a glass of pomegranate juice:

Here was the view up at the church tower from our table:

After a while, Maurice came down and opened the main part of the church for us.  Here is a look at the altar.  This space is used by the Palestinian congregation, hence the Arabic:

A wider look at the front of the sanctuary:

After having a look around the sanctuary, it was time to climb the narrow circular staircase up to the top of the tower.  There's something like 177 steps to the top, so it's a good long climb.  The view was well worth it, though.  Here we are looking to the east toward the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives beyond:

Looking down toward some of the streets on the west side of the tower.  The cafe we sat at is out of the frame at the bottom:

Looking toward the northwest, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is on the right:

Looking southwest, the large towers in the distance are the King David Museum where the rest of our group was.  It sits right next to the Jaffa Gate where we entered the Old City on this morning.  You can see a small arch in some shadows on the far left center of the picture.  This is where Muristan Street (the street the church sits on) enters the enclosed market.

It was really neat to be able to look out over the Old City and see a different perspective on many of the places that we saw during our time in Jerusalem.  After taking our pictures and enjoying the view, it was time to head back down the spiral staircase and meet up with the rest of our group back at the Jaffa Gate.  Here is the view of the descent down the tower.  It was so tight of a space that I ended up having to duck my head for a lot of it, so the feeling was a lot like the old game of putting your head on a baseball bat and spinning around.  Luckily there are two landings along the way to break up the trip or else I'm sure I would have been really dizzy at the bottom.

Here we are reunited with the rest of the group, waiting for our bus to come and pick us up.

For the afternoon, most of our group traveled back to Bethlehem to have lunch with a Palestinian Christian family who have been to the United States to sell olive wood carvings and inform American Christians about the situation for Christians in the Middle East and specifically in Israel.  By this point in the trip, I was pretty well mentally exhausted.  After having a more relaxed morning exploring on our own, I knew it would have been hard for me to muster the energy to make another trip back through the checkpoint and wall to Bethlehem, travel by car to someone's home, and listen to passionate (although interesting) conversation about politics.  As I mentioned before, I also knew I needed to get a little work done to prepare my sermon for the Sunday after we returned home, so I, along with a couple of others who weren't feeling well, decided to go back to the hotel and have a more laid back afternoon.

After a little nap, the weather outside was just too nice to stay inside, however, so I ended up taking a little stroll a few blocks from the hotel to the light rail station.  I think I already shared in an earlier post that I like trains (since the age of 2, more proof that I haven't really grown up yet), so it was fun for me to go and take a few pictures of the modern light rail trains that climb up and down some of the hilly streets of Jerusalem.  Here's one of the pictures I took of a train stopping at the Shim'on Ha-Tsadik station.

That's all I really have to share from my day, so here is Pastor Art to tell you about what everyone else did:

20 of our group spent the morning of day 8 touring the King David Museum at the Citadel, one of the most easily recognized landmarks in the western part of the old city.  The Citadel was built by Herod the Great as protection around his palace in Jerusalem.  From the top of the highest tower, which Herod named Phasael, after one of his brothers, we got a great panoramic view of the old city, including the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer.

In the many rooms of the fortress, the Citadel houses the King David Museum, which tells the story of 3000 years of history and civilizations which have controlled the area of Jerusalem. 

Here is Craig looking at a display which explains how the Citadel was constructed, a subject of great fascination to the farmer/builders in the group.

This minaret, often called the “Tower of David” is a later addition from the Muslim Era, is a Muslim prayer house, which they named “David’s Cell” because they believed that David prayed in this place.

Group members relaxing and refueling at the snack bar in preparation for their last shopping excursion into either the bazaar in the old city or the modern shopping mall just across the street.

We also saw schoolboys there on a fieldtrip to study the history of the city of Jerusalem.

In the afternoon, we ventured back into the city of Bethlehem at the invitation of Michael and Carmen Zoughbi.  They are one of the few number of Christian families still living in Palestine.  Many of them have moved out because of the difficult living conditions brought about by ongoing conflict with the Israelis over the past dozen years.  They served us a lovely meal of chicken or pork schwarma (pleasing to our pig farmers), vegetables, fruit and coffee.  It was a delightful and informative afternoon of conversation.  In addition, we got to meet their son, Jamal, whose wife had given birth to their first child on the day before we arrived.   We then enjoyed thrilling car rides up and down the hills of Bethlehem on our way to the olive wood shop that the Zoughbis manage on behalf of a wood carving cooperative.

The last picture shows the hillside looking north from the gate to the house.  Supposedly, there are four steeples visible at the top of the hill (not necessarily in the picture), they represent a wide diversity of Christian denominations in Bethlehem, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Syriac and Lutheran (Christmas Lutheran Church of Bethlehem).

This is Bryant again, just wrapping up by saying thanks as always for following along and thank you to Pastor Art for sharing some of his pictures and words with us.  There is only one more day of touring to tell you about before our long plane ride home, so stay tuned for our trip back into Jordan and a spectacular visit to the ancient city of Petra.