Holy Land Day Eleven

Holy Land — Day Eleven

Hebron

Our last day in the Holy Land, and we head to a town south of Bethlehem, called Hebron. The way it’s been described to me, Hebron was once a thriving city, a city of commerce and trade. This is where the famed Hebron glass was made and sold. I would soon discover that it is a very different story for Hebron these days.

Our guide capitalized on the lengthy bus ride to offer a few history lessons and to prepare us for this day’s tour.

The route we took is part of what is called the Patriarch’s Road because it’s said Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the patriarchs) used the road frequently. The names of the villages along this road are recognizable from biblical days — villages like Shechem and Hebron. In biblical days, this road was the safest route because of all the villages along the road. Crowds of people meant fewer robbers.

After the conflict with Samaria happened, the Jews started taking the Jordan Valley Road, which meant the Patriarch’s Road was less often used. Then closer to Jesus’ time when Romans occupied the Holy Land, people used the coastal plain to travel, so as a result they built the Via Maris – from Egypt to Gaza to Jaffa to Megido to Capernaum, and so on. All that to say, this is a very old road!

“Hebron,” in Arabic and Hebrew, means “the friend” and is referenced to Abraham because he was a friend of God.

Just before we arrived in Hebron, we were told to leave all sharp objects on the bus and that we shouldn’t take pictures of soldiers or women unless we asked permission first. We had never been given instructions like this, so our curiosity and awareness heightened.

Our guide tried to explain that under current Israeli occupation, Hebron is divided into Edge 1 and Edge 2. Edge 2 is the new city, controlled by Palestine. Edge 1 is the old city, controlled by Israel. In the Old City 1100 shops, the main source of income, have been closed by military order, and Israel also imposes a military curfew periodically – sometimes it’s for days at a time. Between 2001-2004, Hebron was under curfew (that’s 24/7) for more than 500 days. As a result, many people left the Old City. By 2004 only 500 Palestinians remained in the Old City. Today that number has increased to 5000 Palestinians, but mostly impoverished families.

Hebronites are known to be great business people – from beautiful glass blowers to well-known shoemakers. Our guide said that to this day there are pockets of Hebronites around the world selling their wares…even in China!

On that note, we exited the bus and my heart sank.

Oh, Hebron. I thought the Aida Refugee Camp was heartbreaking. Hebron wins hands-down. Row after or after row of closed shops. Small children carrying heavy containers of soup and packages of bread given to them by a charity organization that feeds them once a day.

hebron kids food last day
Soup in pans, buckets, or jugs. Pita bread in sacks.

Men and children BEGGING for a shekel or a dollar…over and over and over. Shopkeepers who hadn’t had any shoppers in a long time panicked as we’d walk by without buying anything (because we’d made purchases at previous shops). The desperation was palpable. Some children wore smiles and would wave or say, Hi. But most had deep sadness in their eyes.

hebron old and new last day
This view captures the dichotomy of the situation. The streets of Hebron, in the foreground, are destitute, contrasting greatly with the brand new Jewish settlement buildings in the background.

Our guide took us to one shop along the row that had at one time been the busiest shopping market in Israel. At Hebron’s worst, this man’s shop was the ONLY open shop; the day we were there a few others were open alongside him. He was well-spoken and friendly despite the story he told of Jewish settlements being built right OVER their market, cutting market streets off from each other.

hebron market man last day

These settlers have harassed the shop owners for years, tossing garbage, urine, dirty water, and other such grossness on them. The shop keepers banded together and put a fence above their stalls to catch the garbage. Israeli soldiers have two watchtowers on either end of this row of shops and can see everything, but they do nothing to stop the settlers.

I took this picture looking up, directly above my head as I stood outside the man’s shop.

As I process how a human can treat another human like this, I do recall something one of our speakers said – over the history of humanity there have been groups of people who are told and taught dehumanizing tales about another group of people. I think of American slaves or Jews during the Holocaust. This is reminiscent. Israeli settlers have been taught in such a way that Palestinians have been dehumanized, so their treatment of them doesn’t seem wrong to them…..

The shop keeper we met today told us they just want to be left alone to try to make a living. They just want to live in peace. He wants to know if anyone will listen.

hebron last day
So many closed shops, as this one…though hope is not totally gone.

Our group heard. We took pictures. We asked questions. We left that area with a heaviness.

We did get to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs while in Hebron. It is also a venerated site and is a shared site between Muslim and Jews. On the Muslim side, a mosque has been built. Inside it are the tombs of Jacob and Rachel. On the Jewish side, a synagogue has been built and inside are the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca. Where the two places of worship meet (a common wall), they share the tombs of Abraham and Sarah.

We were able to gain entrance to the mosque, and as we walked into the small, ornately carpeted space, we could hear a group of Jewish worshipers singing next door.

While I did find it fascinating to be inside a mosque, it wasn’t until I left that I thought about the fact that Jews and Muslims share these patriarchs of our faith with each other and with Christians. Somehow it was fitting they found a way to share the tombs of our Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I admit I was my most anxious at this site, in this city. Everything about my experience in Hebron was blanketed in oppressiveness. The tall fences with barbed wire. The Israeli soldiers with machine guns across their chests, staring at us from their perches at every turn. The grown men desperately pleading for our money. The woman in the bathroom gently asking for money for the toilet paper she’d given us. The children excited over watery soup and bread. The shopkeeper who was angry we’d spent our money next door. The beggar who told me he could smell my money….

Nowhere else had we seen and experienced such depravity and hopelessness. Never had I been so sad for a group of people…and felt so helpless to change their circumstance.

The Herodium

We couldn’t leave the West Bank and not see another great Herod site – aptly named for this self-focused king – the Herodium. This could be the place where Jesus was standing when He made the comment that faith can move mountains…much like a king as Herod can. Yes, you heard me right. Herod took two small hills and made one “big” volcano-like mountain because he wanted to be able to see Jerusalem from this southeast-of-Bethlehem fortress.

The volcano-like mountain in the distance is the Herodium.

This fortress was seven-stories tall, built inside two concentric circle walls. It was an incredible feat of architecture and defense.

We viewed the ruins at the top of this mount then headed into the mountain where we found much cooler temperatures and three very large cisterns that had been part of an elaborate watering system.

In 2007 Herod’s tomb was finally unearthed, so as excavations continue to uncover things like the theater and royal theater box suite that were found in 2009 and 2010, I suspect this site will gain more and more attention. It was impressive!

Mar Saba

Our final stop on our Holy Land tour was to another site in the middle of nowhere – more Judean wilderness. Our little bus made hairpin turns downward toward what I later learned is the Kidron Valley (as it runs toward the Dead Sea).

We obediently followed our guide across a gravel path to one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen.

Our bus took us a long way into the ravine, then we walked the sidewalk you can see along a ridge that gave us a great view of the monastery.

Maybe it’s because I had no idea what Mar Saba was or what we’d see when we got there, but I never expected the beautifully designed monastery, caves, and out-buildings that we saw…waaaay down in a deep ravine.

More amazing is that it’s nearly always had Monks living there since St. Sabas built it in the fifth century. A big earthquake did require some sections to be rebuilt in 1834, but other than that it’s been a fully functioning monastery – men only, of course. St. Sabas did build a “tower” for his mother to stay in when she’d visit. When we took a look, we decided it looked more like a prison than a guest house.

Some of the caves of the canyon had been converted to “homes,” and the original cave St. Sabas stayed in upon his arrival was marked with a cross. The view of the whole thing was a marvel. We took lots of pictures and ooo’ed and ahhh’ed appropriately.

Lots of Russian and Ukranian Christians stepped in and out of the monastery, chatting and taking pictures. It was obvious they were excited to be there, and it brought to mind just how many Christian groups we have seen and met on this trip. It gives this girl lots of hope to see believers out in such numbers.

Sharing My Experiences

I wrote a lot of these entries during our ten-hour flight from Tel-Aviv back to Newark…back in September. All these months later it’s been great to re-read and edit them as I prepare them to be posted. It’s like reliving our experiences all over again!

I need to tell you that in the weeks leading up to this trip I was pretty anxious about blogging, which might seem silly since I posted a blog from Israel every day of my trip in 2014. But I knew this trip would be different. I knew this was no simple sight-seeing expedition. I knew we’d meet real people with real problems who faced real danger. And I was…scared. I was scared to post something some government official in Israel wouldn’t approve of.

So I compromised with myself. Every day I journaled and typed. But the only real-time posts I did were on Facebook, relaying pictures and stories of the historic sites we’d seen.

On evenings while talking with locals at Manger Square, I’d hear stories of foreign journalists who were imprisoned for posting videos that incriminated Israeli soldiers and stories of Palestinian children who were yanked from their homes in the middle of the night, suspected of crimes against the government. These stories only raised my anxiety about posting articles that could get me in trouble. When I voiced my concerns to a friend via a text, he said the worst that could happen to me is a delay at the airport and maybe get put on the banned list, not being allowed to return to Israel in the future.

Gulp. That did not help.

Then something happened. The longer we were in Bethlehem, the more people I met, and the more I started to care for people around me (like our guides), the less I thought of myself.

Then I was sooooo thankful I’d heeded my concern and waited to do posts. The last thing I wanted to do was get THEM in any sort of trouble.

So over these last few months I’ve been thinking about and praying over how these posts should go. And I sense I’m just supposed to give it to you straight…tell it like I experienced it and perceived it.

I have no political agenda. I have no expectations. I just want to share with you what we experienced on our Holy Land trip that took us behind the walls and into some very real people’s lives.

I also want to say that just because I’ve grown sympathetic to the Palestinian situation does not in any way mean I’ve taken sides. The world would have you think so. But if we think of our Savior, Jesus did not take sides. Yes, He spoke truth. But He also loved people well. All people. And we, as his believers, have been called to do the same.

My time there has reminded me that I can’t just take people’s word for it any more. I can’t just hear and see what is published in papers, online, and in newsrooms and believe every word of it. So, I’m not asking you to take my word for it either.

I would, however, invite you to take your own pilgrimage to the Holy Land — meet the various people who call it home, and see with your own eyes how beautiful, how absolutely beautiful, the people and places are…experience walking 1000s of years-old roads among throngs of people who have come from 1000s of places around the world to see and hear and smell and taste all the sites of the Holy Land.

Be sure to look behind the walls!

Some Outtakes and Funnies

I thought I’d end this final blog of our Holy Land 2017 Trip with some of our favorite sayings and funnies over our 11 days out on our pilgrimage. And, really…these will only be funny to the 18 souls on this trip. We spent a lot of time together…especially on buses, of varying sizes. So it’s only natural that we’d start to form our own “language” and have our inside-jokes.

But just in case you have interest…here are a few:

FOOD

Food was such a big part of this journey. From hummus to baba ganoush, from olives to the never-ending salads with cucumbers and tomatoes. We ate in homes, large hotel dining halls, small street-side Jerusalem cafes, guest house lodging, on mountainside porches and in some really nice, local restaurants. Some afforded great views. Others great food. And sometimes even a LOT of food. We had whole, fried fish and Palestinian-style pizza. We dipped and dipped and dipped in ALL the bowls around us. And we always, always had our pita bread!

So, it’s no surprise that we’d find ourselves saying things like:

“Kelley ‘baba-ganoushed’ her phone.” Or “Ruby can’t talk right now…she’s ‘oliving.’”

We became connoisseurs of sorts…like the time Donna tried the squishy purple stuff only to discover…it tasted a lot like olives (She doesn’t like olives — you should have seen her scrunched-up face!). And the time our guide made a special stop at a local bakery so we could taste traditional baklava, which earned the yummy comment from one of our own: “The baklava in Palestine is not nearly as ‘tooth-cringy’ as what we have in Oklahoma.”

Then…then there was the lunch at the restaurant (one with lots of bowls of dips and flowing fabrics) where several men in our group tried the hooka. From then on, the phrase, “We’re gonna ‘HOOKA!’” became common vernacular.

PALESTINIANSIMS

Our guides were really good at using words of their hometown verbiage and were part of their personal collection of loving phrases…that we soon adopted.

On perhaps more than one occasion (haha!) when we’d be lagging behind or taking too long at any given site, we were hailed as a group to “yalla.” What a fun way to tell someone to HURRY UP! 😉

Yalla!!

And one guide in particular would follow that up with a, “Let us go! Ok.”

He even had a pet name for us… We were his “habibinis.” You have to hear it in his tone and with his accent to feel the love and affection behind it. Imagine our surprise to learn it actually means “loved ones.”

One of the trip organizers was the one who always kept us on time and on track. And he always made sure we knew what time to be where…. “In American time. Not Arabic. This is very important.”

SHOPPING

And, boy, did we shop. In fact, a few in our group had to buy new luggage just to get all their treasures home! And we had plenty of shop-keepers who “helped” us along the way.

One in particular, Aladdin, (yes, pronounced just like the Disney prince) “trapped” four of us in his shop late one afternoon, buying us tea and flattering us with his practiced pitches. We thought it was funny at first. But when we weren’t spending all our money on all his wares, he got more and more aggressive…okay, assertive. We finally “escaped.” With full sacks, of course!

But after that, we always cautioned ourselves not to get “Aladdin’ed” again!

OUR OWN WORDS

The day we cleaned all those solar panels we were a little limited on supplies and water. You should have seen all that dust! But one thing we had was this squeegee on a pole. It made all the difference. So we tell anyone who wants to know that we “squeeged” solar panels.

And, you could count on it. Every day. We’d get in the bus, which had good wif-fi, and “screen up.” (IOW, our phones were out, uploading, downloading, and connecting.)

At the end of a particularly lengthy jaunt through some ruins or an old city, you just might have heard a friendly debate going on in the back of the bus about who had the most “steps” of the day. Of course, we were “screened up,” comparing our odometer apps. (Honestly, these are some of my fondest memories. So predictable. So precious. So FUNNY!)

Even in the Holy Land, competition was alive and well.

Finale

Our last night in Bethlehem was bittersweet. We were ready to go home, yet we weren’t quite ready to leave the people and places we’d fallen in love with. Two dear men, who I believe were the main organizers of our trip, and their families, treated us on our final night to a lovely dinner at a local restaurant. Their thoughtfulness touched us deeply and left us with warm feelings of great hospitality and FUN! A much needed contrast to the heaviness of the past couple of days.

Our tables were filled, as we’d come to expect, with bowl after bowl of dips and “salads.” I found myself trying to savor every bit, knowing that this was it. My last traditional Palestinian meal.

And after dinner…..dancing! Some amazing, sweet dancers came in to dazzle us with their traditional dances, including one that brought us, the American guests, into their circle with clapping and dancing. And much laughter.

It was such a bittersweet night…but a perfect way to end our time here.

As I crawled into my Manger Square Hotel bed one last time, I wondered if I’d miss the prayer calls and ringing bells of Bethlehem. I wondered how we’d fare getting through the checkpoint and airport security. I wondered about our long flight home and all the people we’d be leaving behind.

And I prayed. I prayed for peace in a land that has known so little of it…for forever. I prayed for the people we’d met…that good change would come their way soon. I prayed for all of us on the trip…that we’d let this experience change us and motivate us to do more with our faith and resources. I prayed I’d get to return someday to see how things fared…especially with my Christian brothers and sisters.

We did end up having a soldier walk through our bus on the way to the airport, checking all our passports at the checkpoint. While a bit unnerving, we got through without a problem.

We did have a long wait…and a LOT of questions…at airport security, but we finally got onto our plane.

And we did arrive home. Forever grateful for the chance we’d had to see the Holy Land, not only through the lens of Christ but also through the eyes of its people. We certainly did see a lot of the “dead stones” of Israel’s historic sites, but we were most moved by and changed by the LIVING STONES.

And it’s those living stones who remain in my thoughts and prayers most these days.

I think they always will.

Published by Shelley Johnson

Follower of Christ, wife, mother of three, daughter, sister, friend. Seeker of ways to share the love I've found in Jesus with others.

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