Kent, Austria, Israel

Heathrow Airport is a huge place and very busy but it is also very well laid out and with clear directions it was easy to meet up with the Oak Hall Expeditions tour guides and so begin our much-anticipated trip to Israel.  We were flying with Austrian Airlines both ways, and were initially very impressed with the  airliner itself, a lot more room for the passengers than AirNZ’s planes but there the  comparisons swung back to AirNZ.  These planes only had a small TV screen between three rows of seats and after the standard safety film was finished the entire entertainment was cartoons with no sound!  Tom and  Jerry and Mr Bean cartoons for two hours to Vienna, then another five hours to Tel Aviv.  And then some of the meals were so skimpy as to be almost none existent, lunch was ONE piece of bread made into a sandwich with salami and cheese, (That’s one piece folded in half, not two to make one sandwich) and a cup of coffee.   Dinner was lovely but also very small portions and there was none of the wonderful service of AirNZ, where the hostesses or stewards walk up and down the aisles with refills of wine or hot drinks for anyone on several occasions.  The flights were smooth though and as Dennis and I were not seated together for the first leg we met some interesting people.  Dennis spoke to a Northern Irish pediatrician who was  off to Vienna for a conference.  Dennis told him to look out for a NZ pediatrician he knew and say hello to him from Dennis (!) but it turns out that the conference was for 20,000 doctors and the Irishman thought it unlikely that he would meet up with one New Zealander!   Looking out the window was magical because with a full moon shining brightly I could clearly see Turkey, which has many islands dotted along its coastline, and each small township was twinkling under the street lights.  
We had two tour guides, Ian and Chris.  Ian is one of the original founders of the company, Oak Hall Expeditions, which started in 1961 when 13 young Christian friends decided they wanted to go on holiday together.  They hired a small bus and drove themselves out to the Middle East and back from Britain.  They had the policy of visiting places from Biblical accounts and once there, reading the relevant Scripture verses while looking out at the actual historical sites.  They all enjoyed it so much that upon their return to London they thought that there must be more Christians out there who would enjoy this kind of tour as well and began a small business catering for this particular market.  Oak Hall grew in leaps and bounds.  Today they have tours going in all directions, in the height of summer they can have 800 people on bus and cycling tours through places as varied as Switzerland, South Africa, Montenegro and Iceland  (obviously only Israel has Biblical references!).  They now travel through 27 countries and after Dennis’ suggestion they may consider adding New Zealand to their itinerary as well.  This was Ian’s 60th trip to Israel and Palestine so needless to say he was FULL of information.  Along with one guide from Oak Hall they also take a Pastor as the second guide.  Chris had just ceased serving as a Pastor in a Baptist Church and has now become a  Professor of Old Testament studies at Moorland Theological College in  Southern England.  He is particularly interested in archeology and has participated in several digs around Israel. Not only was he able to give us in-depth Biblical analysis about the various places of interest,  he was very up-to-date with historical finds.  The two leaders complimented each other extremely well and created an atmosphere of excitement, comprehensive Biblical and geographical knowledge and lots of fun.   

We arrived at the beautiful Tel Aviv Airport at 1.00a.m. local time and was so surprised to be able to gather our suitcases as a group and then just walk through Customs without anyone even being in the room!  I had visions of being searched thoroughly before entering the security conscious nation of Israel, especially with the civil war going on next door in Syria, plus the usual threats from Iran.  Then leaving the building another surprising thing was that it was 28 degrees C, we had been told in the pre-tour literature that it got cold at nights so bring some warm clothes.  Then it was onto our comfortable bus for a one and half hour drive  up to Jerusalem.  Ian started off our tour as he meant to continue, with a word of prayer before we began driving and then as the bus was going up the steep incline heading towards Jerusalem, he read through some of the Songs of Ascents in the Psalms written by King David.  So right at the beginning of this journey Scripture is already coming alive to us, as we drive up the long steady climb, remembering how the Israelites were required to walk up to Jerusalem three times each year for the various Old Testament festivals and how they sang on the way with joy and anticipation as at that stage God’s Shekhinah glory rested above the Temple. 
We were to stay at the three star Rivoli Hotel in the Arab quarter of this famous city, the entire hotel had been booked for our group of 42 people.  Oak Hall uses this particular hotel for every tour to Israel and are treated exceptionally well.    On our arrival we had a quick drink and bite to eat then off to our beds by 3.00a.m.  Thankfully, a fan was provided in the bedrooms as there was no air conditioning there.

The Rivoli Hotel, excellent service and friendly staff

Beautiful blue sky greeted us when we opened the curtains in our Hotel room, not sure about the fence though.

So looking forward to our beds that first evening

This trip to Israel has been an extravagance for us so we were determined to make the most of it.  The tour guides stress that all the planned activities are optional and we are free to join them if we feel fit and able.  The ten days are packed from morning till night and it was our aim to participate in everything.  Just two things to remember at all times; drink water all day and use lots of suntan lotion.

With all this free sunshine, every house, hotel, etc has a its own solar water heater. Apartment blocks have rows and rows of them on their flat roofs

Day 2 was seven hours of walking in and around Old Jerusalem in 35 degree heat.   Although I had heeded the advice about suntan lotion I was so surprised to find that actually I didn’t burn.  The lily-white English people did and had to constantly smear lotion on but after  wandering in the sun all that first day I noticed that it didn’t have the same effect on me!  At home under NZ skies I am always spraying suntan lotion, normally once an hour, because the sun in NZ has so much power to it compared to the northern hemisphere, so this makes a welcome change for me.  We both realised that we did need to consume vast quantities of water, though.  Some days we drank up to 4 litres each, refilling our bottles several times a day from taps in cafes, etc along the way, as well as coffee and tea at the usual times.   Sometimes the tourist spots even provided chilled water…yah!

Dennis found a friend who gave him a big sloppy kiss

Ian organised that a normal suburban bus change their route and meet us at the door of the Hotel the next morning and drive us to the top of the Mount of Olives, in what other city could you imagine that happening?   At 100 metres above the city this affords an excellent view over Jerusalem and was an ideal place to begin to get our bearings.  Sitting in the shade of ancient olive trees, listening to Ian and Chris read through passages of the Bible dealing with the triumphal messianic entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11),  Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13) and how He wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19), descriptions of how Jesus and His disciples slept on this site (Luke 21) and then the long story of Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, and the Jesus’ arrest, etc.,  was quite an emotional experience.  Not in any mystical way but just listening to the facts of history in the place where it all happened was amazing and it really bought it all to life in a new way for me.

The view of Old Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.


These ossuary boxes are around 2000 years old. They placed a body in a stone tomb, left it there for a year for the flesh to decay and then the bones were gathered together and placed in one of these boxes.  (This is what the Bible means when it speaks of being “gathered to your fathers”) The size of the box depends on the length of the femur bone. These ones are at the Mount of Olives.

The Walls are actually very small compared to the entire city

Orthodox Jews aspire to be buried directly opposite the Beautiful Gate, as they believe they will be raised first on Judgment Day and get a great view of God judging everyone else. Today when Jews visit the graves as a mark of respect they will place a stone on the grave, much as we would lay flowers.

Ian reading through Scripture on the Mount of Olives

Ancient olive trees still on the Mount

We walked down into and through the Kidron Valley into Old Jerusalem through the Lion Gate and walked along the Via Dolarosa (the Street of Sorrows), traditionally held to be the path where the soldiers took Jesus.  In Roman Catholic tradition the ‘stations of the cross’ happened along this road.  We were shown into a basement area of the remnants of the Roman era Antonia Fortress, which had been built by Herod the Great.  It had a massive cistern here, where they kept water in case of siege.   This house is known as the possible place of Jesus’ trial, where He was flogged and mocked by the soldiers (John 18 & 19, Matt 27).   On the ground floor there are small amphitheatres suitable for tour groups, where we had the relevant trial before Pontius Pilate passages read before exploring the rest of the dwelling.  

Lion’s Gate

The Damascus Gate

Little passages off the main routes branch off every couple of metres or so, very easy to get lost

Everything is built using the same stone, no other colours seen in the Old City

Leaving Old Jerusalem through the Damascus Gate we arrived at a cool, well cooler, cafe where Ian and Chris shouted the whole group lunch.  Falafels in pita bread with salads, yummy and very filling.  After lunch we walked to the Wailing Wall, now called the Western Wall, (we’re not wailing at the Wall anymore as we are a successful State).  One of the signs clearly states that God’s presence will never leave the site of the Temple, with the Western Wall being about all that is left of the second Temple.  The Orthodox Jews were easily spotted in their traditional clothing, black trousers, waist coat or long jacket with a crisp white shirt or white tassels called tzittzit swinging off a special four cornered garment known as a tallit, worn without the jacket, long peyos (long curly side burns), phylacteries (small portions of Scripture, enclosed in a small black box about a 5cm cube, with ribbons attached to secure it onto the front of the head), some of the men had their right arm bound and the box secured on the strap (this was available from a vendor at the Wall’s entrance if you didn’t have your own).  These men stood as close to the Wall as possible and rocked rapidly, bending at the knees, backwards and forwards  praying.  Little rolled up scraps of paper, with prayers written on them, were attached to the Wall by packing them into small crevices in between the stones.   The temperature rose dramatically as you got closer to the Wall, the stones on the ground and large blocks of stones that made up the Wall reflected the heat back at the crowds standing near.  There were probably around 100 men standing at the Wall, with so many more lining up preparing themselves before they walked forward.  Dennis and I were a bit slow getting to the site of the Wall and Ian had already told the rest of the group about the protocols about being in this “holy” place, so we missed the bit about the Wall being segregated.  I held on to Dennis’ hand as we walked towards a section of the Wall, when one of the armed soldiers started yelling at me.  He didn’t speak to me but motioned in a very agitated way that I was not allowed to continue.    It took me some time to understand what he wanted, that I was to turn around and wait back up past a certain point for Dennis to return, and he got more and more animated as I just stood there looking at him.  While waiting past the suggested point,  I then realised that the section to my right was for women only but I found the whole situation so sad I didn’t go anywhere near the Wall but stood in a small strip of shade and waited for Dennis to return to me.    There were also about 500 young, armed soldiers walking around this general area.  Dennis found out from one of them that these were young conscripts  who had just finished their first month’s training and were about to attend a swearing-in ceremony into the Jewish Army, just in the space near the Western Wall.  The recruits that Dennis spoke to said that the men were signed up to three years compulsory service and the women for two.  They were all aged 18 – 20 years and quite excited about this big day, where they would take an oath to swear allegiance to the State to defend their country, using Scripture passages to do this.  Paul, one of our group who had served with the British Army in Northern Ireland, told me that they had the magazine for their machine guns in their trouser pockets, so the guns were not loaded as these young kids walked around but could be at a moment’s notice should the need arise.  

Three Orthodox Jews, but who’s that coming up behind? (an Orthodox Christian)

The men’s portion of the Western Wall

After this we walked through a modern Visitor Centre and watched a video about what the first Temple may have looked like in Solomon’s day.  That was fascinating to relate those dimensions to the site outside and realise just how huge the temple complex was in those days.  How this must have impressed the average Jewish person coming into Jerusalem, to the Temple!  Tons of gold, silver and cedar decorating the massive Temple, giving a small picture of God’s glory.

Surprised to see cats everywhere in the streets

No Health and Safety around here

Down at the south-west corner of the Temple site there are these huge rectangular stones that the Romans managed to tear down from Temple Wall, fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of AD70, (Luke 19, Matt 24).  The stones were that massive that they went right through the 200mm thick stone pavement.  There are archeological sites all over the place around here so you had to carefully walk around the various digs in progress.  The Beautiful Gate is now filled in with stone blocks by the Muslins, who have built a Mosque up on the Temple Mount.  Chris read when Peter preached the Pentecost Sermon.  We were sitting on wide steps that would have accommodated thousands of people allowing egress through the Beautiful Gate.  Looking down, directly in front of us, were some of the remains of many deep pools that were used as  baths for the Jews to ritually wash themselves before entering the Temple precinct.  These were clearly big enough to have allowed 3000 people to have been baptised after the Pentecost Sermon.

Sitting in the hot sunshine (38 degrees) on the steps below the Beautiful Gate. Chris is reading this time.

Huge blocks of stones which were the Temple walls in 70AD

We had 30 minutes free time to have a quick look around this general area of Jerusalem and we chose to find a coffee.  Climbing the many steps in this heat was exhausting!   Dennis was stopped by an Orthodox Jew and asked what the names of our children are.  “Why?” responds an astonished Dennis, “so I can pray for them” came the confident reply.  This would cost 5 Shekels,  Dennis brushed him off!  A few steps later I saw one of our tour group being prayed for, a scarlet thread had been tied around one of her wrists and the man held his hand to her forehead while he prayed aloud in Hebrew.  She had obviously dropped the correct number of shekels into his cardboard box for this privilege.    Two steps past them I noticed another Orthodox Jew quickly gathering his wad of scarlet threads and throwing them over the balustrade.  He hid his collection box in amongst his clothing.    Two more steps and turning to begin climbing the next section of stone stairs it was then I realised why the second guy was so worried.  Two religious policemen, employed by the Jerusalem City Council, had stopped another Orthodox guy and was emptying the coins into a bag after ripping open his box with a sharp knife.  This is just a form of begging for the Orthodox Jews and they have such a bad reputation by the locals because of it.  Orthodox believers do not have to pay tax or serve in the Army which makes the local populace very irate when they see this begging going on as well. Its also the hardline Orthodox who are building New Settlements all the time in disputed territory and provoking the Palestinians.
Back on our way again we walked through these long, narrow passage ways crammed with small shops on either side.  They were selling all sorts of touristy bits and pieces, religious and otherwise, as well as fruit and vegie shops, bakeries, sweet shops, etc.  No time to shop as we tried to keep up with Ian.  He may be 72 but he walks very fast and I was forever hurrying Dennis along and dragging him away from all these tempting bargains.   Ian led us to where a section of Hezekiah’s Broad Wall has been excavated, (Neh.3) following the ’67 or ’73 wars, once again proving the historical reliability of Scripture.

Part of Hezekiah’s Broad Wall

Our next stop was particularly popular with the tourists, there were crowds here all with their own tour group leader explaining things in different languages.  Our tour came here to look only, not to worship, sing, make confession, or parade.  It was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, reportedly the actual site of the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and full of what I call smells and bells.  Other than admiring the architecture in and around the entrance I stayed clear of all the many altars to Mary Magdalene, etc and waited in the shade for the group to reassemble.

Very elaborate inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The exterior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre looks fairly plain

We were supposed to make our way to the Garden Tomb but about half the tour group failed to keep up with the intrepid Ian and got lost!   Even after asking several people it took us ages to find our Hotel and once there we were too pooped to leave again.  By now it was around 6p.m. and still very hot, a cool shower and sit down before our first dinner in Israel was a welcome break.  Mmm, the buffet dinners were excellent too!  Each day the first course was soup followed by a good selection of hot and cold dishes (including meat, vegetables and dairy as the Hotel owners were Arabs) and finishing with fresh fruit.      
After a short burst of free time Chris lead us in an evening devotion, recapping what we had seen that day and the Biblical, geographical and national significance of it all and a time of singing hymns.  What a busy day, they told us it would be full on and so it proved to be. 

Looking at all these ancient sites all day, it seems odd to then see modern conveniences outside the Walls