Holy Land Tour: Jerusalem and the South

Our tour of the holy city of Jerusalem began
with the enormous 37 acre temple mount. This huge foundation structure was built by King
Herod during the life of Christ, with the purpose of expanding the smaller temple platform
so the structure could accommodate the huge number of pilgrims that came here during the
Jewish feasts. Most of the upper portions of the structure were destroyed by the Romans
in 70 AD, only leaving the foundation walls to tell the story of this wonder of the world.
As we climbed up to the sacred mount and passed through security, we felt a keen awareness
of the sacredness of this site. Here once stood Solomon’s and Herod’s temple, and here
the Savior gave many discourses, and cleansed the temple, His Father’s house. We started the tour by first learning of the
washing rituals of the Muslims, who prior to each daily prayer, wash various parts of
their body in preparation to commune with God. We then came to the east stairs of the
Dome of the Rock, where we looked over the Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane
and to the thousands of Jewish and Islamic tombs. As we climbed the eastern steps, we
came into view of the breathtaking Dome of the Rock, completed in 691 AD. The building
covers the rock, where according to Jewish tradition, is where Abraham was to offer Isaac
as a sacrifice. The mosque is built of thousands of colorful mosaic tiles, grand arches, beautiful
stone work, and a gilded golden dome. As there have never been formal excavations on the
temple mount, there are many opinions as to where the ancient Jewish temple actually stood.
Several scholars, including our tour guide, Brother Don Parry, believe that the temple
stood to the north of the Dome, at the location of the smaller Dome of the Spirits. This opinion,
in part, comes from the fact that this area is directly in line with the Golden Gate. We concluded our tour of the temple mount,
leaving from the northern gate, near the Lion Gate of the old city. As we left the precincts
of the temple structure, we came to the gardens, church and archaeological remains of the pool
of Bethesda. This pool is where Jesus healed a lame man, commanding him to take up his
bed and walk. Most of the remains are actually of later Byzantine and Crusader churches built
over the pool. The only visible remains of the Herodian pool are the steps located deep
beneath the later churches. While in the beautiful St. Anne’s Church we also took advantage of
the incredible acoustics, singing a favorite hymn as a group. We next walked the Via Dolorosa, or way of
the cross, visiting several churches that mark the traditional path that Jesus took
while carrying the cross to Golgotha. After walking through part of the old city, with
its many steps, ramps, arched ways and narrow streets, we finally came to the Western Wall,
the most sacred site for Jews today. While here, we witnessed several Bar Mitzvahs of
young Jewish boys, explored beneath Wilson’s arch, watched as Jews ritually washed before
prayer, and reverently observed as Jews from around the world left prayers within the cracks
of the stones. We then traveled down the Kotel tunnel, an
excavated tunnel that transverses the western wall below the modern city of Jerusalem. The
tunnel gives a unique look at the ancient wall of the Temple Mount, including one of
the largest building blocks in the world, being 40 feet long and 10 feet tall, and estimated
to weigh 570 tons. We then walked through the long tunnel that runs the length of the
western wall, eventually arriving at the Strouthion Pool, likewise built by King Herod. Our last stop was to visit the ancient remains
of the city of David. Here we saw the likely site of David’s palace, the huge stone stepped
structure which held up the palace, and the later remains of several homes dating to the
time of Christ built on these same ancient stepped stones. We then walked through the
secret tunnel, which led to the Gihon spring. Because the spring was located outside the
city wall and low in the Kidron Valley, the ancient Cannanites and early Israelites used
this passageway to access the waters without actually having to leave the fortified city
walls. Later King Hezekiah decided to cut a new tunnel through the entire city of David,
to bring the waters of the Gihon spring inside the city walls. The tunnel workers started
from opposite sides and somehow met in the center. The tunnel is an ancient marvel of
human engineering. As you exit from Hezekiah’s tunnel, you come to the first century Pool
of Siloam, which is the location where Jesus healed a blind man, commanding him to wash
in the waters of this pool. We then climbed up part of the ancient steps, and through
the Herodian drainage tunnel leading up to the Temple Mount. On Tuesday, our sixth day of the tour, we
left Jerusalem to go into the southern desert to visit Masada, Qumran, and the Dead Sea.
Masada is a fortified palace built by Herod on a huge mountain overlooking the Dead Sea.
Though the entire region is barren and dry, Herod built this palace as a safe place in
time of war, with Roman styled buildings, waterfalls, fountains and luscious gardens.
The fortified mountain later became the last stand for the Jewish rebels, who unsuccessfully
from 66-70 AD sought their independence from the grip of Rome. We next came to Qumran, the ancient home to
a Jewish sect who were know for their daily washings in the numerous ritual baths, or
mikvahs, and who wrote and hid away what is now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. To finish
our day, we swam, or better stated, floated in the Dead Sea. Because the Dead Sea contains
one third salt, you can actually hold up your hands and feet above the surface of the water,
and still not sink. A few of us decided to add a little extra weight to see if that would
do the trick. On Wednesday, we once again left Jerusalem
to travel to Bethlehem, the birth place of the Savior. We first visited the Shepherd’s
field church, which marks the traditional site of where the angels appeared to the shepherds
to bring them glad tidings of great joy. We then came to the traditional site of the birth
of Christ at the Church of the Nativity. The church was originally built under the direction
of Constantine in 327 AD over a cave, which had been revered by earlier Christians as
the grotto or cave where Jesus was born. We then returned to Jerusalem and toured the
Israeli museum, admiring the enormous and incredible model of Jerusalem and Herod’s
temple in the first century. The model is one of the best representations of the city,
and is an amazing tool to visualize the Jerusalem Jesus would have known. We then went through
the Shrine of the Book, where Brother Don Parry taught us from his vast knowledge and
understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. What an experience, to listen to one of the leading
scholars of the Dead Sea scrolls, while standing in the Shrine of the Book! We then visited
the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, which stands as a somber witness of the atrocities that
were committed against the Jews during World War II. The last day of our official tour began on
the hillside of the Mt. of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane. While sitting within the beautifully
landscaped garden, we pondered and learned of the atonement of the Savior. We learned
of how the word Gethsemane means olive press, and of how the Savior was pressed down, bearing
our sins and sorrows. We discussed the importance of the Tabernacle, the Day of Atonement, and
the high priest, and how each of these pointed to the atoning sacrifice of the Savior. We
then toured the Church of All Nations, built over the rock, where tradition says that Jesus
prayed while in Gethsemane. The church is designed to create the atmosphere of night,
with stars on the ceiling, blue light coming in through the stained glass windows, and
angels holding up their hands in prayer, to symbolize that night of nights. One of the
murals, depicting when the soldiers fell back at the words of Christ when he spake “I AM”,
shows that even the trees and flames of the torches fell back at the power of the Savior’s
words. We next came to an overlook of the city of
Jerusalem from the Mt. of Olives. The view gives you a full perspective for the size
of the Temple Mount, and for the grandeur and beauty of Jerusalem. We then drove to
the BYU Jerusalem Center where we walked the halls of this sacred school of the Lord. In
the chapel, we heard a gorgeous organ recital as we overlooked the breathtaking view of
the old city of Jerusalem. Several of us also tried our hand at an ancient olive crusher
located at the center. Some were more successful than others… Our next stop was the traditional tomb of
King David, which interestingly enough is located directly below the traditional site
of the Last Supper. How poignant, that King David be memorialized by the Jews under the
commemorative room where Jesus Christ, the descendant of David and heir to his kingdom,
would hold his last Passover meal, and institute the sacrament. We next came to the Church
of St. Peter in Gallicantu which is built over the possible site of the imprisonment
of Jesus and of the home of Caiaphas the high priest. This is also the traditional site
where it is said that Peter denied the Savior three times before the cock crowed. To finish our Holy Land tour, we visited the
Garden Tomb and the hill of Golgotha. Here we learned of the crucifixion and burial of
the Savior in the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Each of us had the chance to
enter the tomb, and to feel of the spirit and power of this sacred site. It is difficult
to describe the feelings that we each had as we thought of the Savior of the world,
and of this culminating act of the resurrection which took place at this tomb, or at a similar
tomb nearby. To conclude the day, within the confines of the garden, we gathered and bore
testimony of Jesus Christ, of His life, His mission, and of His atonement. Though the
trip had now concluded for most of us, we felt gratitude in our hearts for what we had
learned, seen and felt. We all had come away with a stronger desire to be better followers
of the man, who 2000 years ago, walked these very streets where we had walked.

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