From Akko With Love, and Euro-Layover Round 2

 After two weeks abroad, a layover in Madrid, and another adventure in London, I made it back home safe and sound, and with some extra stamps and stickers in my passport. 

The last few days in the Galilee were amazing. My group visited Nazareth and Cana, two very important sites in the life of Jesus. We stopped by the churches there, which commemorate the Annunciation and the Wedding at Cana.  Luckily, we visited on January 6, which is when the Eastern Churches celebrate Christmas and the Western Church celebrates epiphany, so there were some services going on with great music echoing throughout the large stone structures. 

   
   

We also visited the Golan Heightta, exploring beautiful hills, waterfalls, and some more ancient ruins. We saw the only (and oldest) mud-brick gate in the world that is still preserved, marking the wall of an ancient city of Northern Israel. We also stopped by the Temple of Pan in Cesaria-Philippie, where the Romans held ceremonies for the god Pan who brought humans out of the wilderness into civilization, and where interestingly, Christ revealed himself to his disciples as the Messiah. 

   
   

Perhaps the most exciting part of the trip for me was when my uncles picked me up outside of Nazareth and we headed to the city of Akko on the coast. Interesting in its own right, Akko holds a special place in my heart because my father was born and raised there. So, my uncles and I went down to the old city, exploring the narrow streets and fish markets. To top it off, we found the home my dad grew up in and the family happily invited us inside for coffee! 

   
   
  
    
  
Then, my uncles took me to Rame, where more of my family lives. They cooked me a feast, with rice, chicken, olives, leban (yogurt), pita, salads, and more. After dinner, one uncle told me I had more family nearby in Pki’in, so we headed up the mountain to visit them. They were so excited to see new, hugging and kissing me and offering us plenty of food and drink. What a family I have, and what an exciting chance to see them all at once!
  
 
I fully intended this last picture to be the end of this series of posts, but after a delayed flight from Tel-Aviv, I got stuck in London for 24 hours waiting for the next flight to Dallas. The airlines put me and about 10 others up in a nearby hotel, and with some time to kill, a few of us headed downtown to th city! I gave them a quick tour of the main sights since I had been to London about 18 months ago, and we had a great time seeing the bustling city at night. I didn’t think I would be back so soon but I’m glad I made the most of it and got to see some more stuff on this never-ending trip!

   
  

    
  
And for comparison, here is a picture from 2014:

  

Anyway, I made it home safe and sound, with some great memories and experiences all over. Somehow I got to see the Holy Land and Madrid and London, not to mention long-lost family and tons of great places in Jerusalem and the Galilee. The trip was absolutely wonderful and I would do it all again. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to have yet another adventure, and it couldn’t have been better. Thanks for reading and I hope you all enjoyed the stories as much as I did! Until my next time, Akko!
  

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Along the Sea

We made it to the Sea of Galilee. I don’t think words can describe the all encompassing beauty of the place, so maybe this picture will suffice:

  
The Sea is astounding, inviting me into a reflective, solemn state every time I look at it. No wonder Jesus made this his home during his years of ministry.

To start, we traveled up to the coast. On our way, we stopped in the Judean desert, where the monastic tradition developed. Like the Sea of Galilee, the Judean desert was a vast expanse of hills, nearly silent as the wind blew threw the caverns. Here, we saw the beautiful St. George Monestary, tucked away in the hillside. Again, the site drew me into a reflective state, and luckily one of my friends got a snapshot of me gazing upon the vastness of it all. And to top it off, we visited the Jordan River, where Christ was baptized long long ago.
   

   
  

   

Next, we passed through a number of ruins, visiting old Roman and Byzantine sites. These sites let us peer into the past to see these ancient ways of life. The remains tell us a story of a Roman-Christian-Jewish mixture of cultures, where the faiths and traditions appropriated from and mingled with each other to create a fluid evolution of ideas. What we see are mosaics and synagogues and churches with various symbols both inside and outside of their particular faith tradition, borrowing elements from a number of seemingly conflicting sources.  

   
   

Then, we made it to the Galilee. Here, about 3/4 of the Gospel events take place, and we passed through many of them in conjunction. We saw the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Church of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Capernaum, Peter’s House, and of course, the sea itself. This tour of Christ’s ministry was moving and peaceful, as one could stand in awe of some of the biblical stories while turning one’s head to gaze out at the breathtaking sea. 
This trip has brought the biblical stories alive. Although many of the sites are symbolic representations of actual events and are not the true locations of certain things, the spiritual milieu and aura around them reminds one of the power of the Scriptures.  Whatever the true facts are, at least this much is clear: for thousands of years, this part of the world has been inhabitated by people who have given us one of the most foundational texts in the Western canon. Christ lived here, working, preaching, and ministering while spreading a message of love and peace. Today, I sleep well alongside the shores of the Galilee, remembering that I’m walking where Christ once walked.
   
    
  

Bethlehem, Bad Weather, and My Last Days in Jerusalem

Plans change sometimes, and the more you travel, the better you are at going with the flow. So when it started raining here in Jerusalem and the streets became flooded in the southern desert due to the runoff water from the Holy City and kept us from going to the Dead Sea, I figured that it could be worse and that changing plans is part of life. The heavy rains also stopped us from visiting the large outdoor markets, so we have spent a lot of time inside, getting some much needed rest from walking 9+ miles each day since we got here. And if the Jerusalemites are inside when it rains, it seems fitting that we should be too. When in Jerusalem, do like Jerusalemites.

So what did we do? We had more lectures on various topics from food to films, archaeology to the Oslo negotiations, and mummies to ancient cups. All of the lectures have been riveting, since they have highlighted issues within the state from a variety of vantage points, mingling ancient and modern problems with the messy situations to try to pinpoint the areas of tension throughout the state.  For me, what has emerged is an incredibly nuanced and dynamic understanding of the forces at work here that somehow, despite all odds, holds a steady yet precarious balance.

Now, these past few days were not all indoors. The highlight was our excursion to Bethlehem, where we visited the famous Church of the Nativity. Built in the basilica style by Constantine, the Church is one of the few Roman structures that was not destroyed by the Persians, because the mosaics in the sides depicted the three wise (and importantly, Persian) men giving gifts to Christ. The Orthodox Church had a number of icons, but was under extensive renovation. Nonetheless, we entered into the small grotto where Christ is traditionally said to have been born, feeling a spiritual presence even if the site itself is symbolic.

  
   
 
Then, we visited the Shepherd’s Fields, an old system of grottos overlooking the Palestinian countryside. The shepherds used to sleep in these grottos, humble workers whose lives were close to nature, dirty, and simple. As noted in the Gospels, Christ’s birth is announced to the shepherds, indicating the importance of the poor and simple, that Christ comes for everyone, including especially those who are socially the weakest. And later, Christ becomes the shepherd, a humble leader of the humble, a guider of us, the flock.

   
   

In addition to this, we went to the Israel Museum, and later the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The visits were interesting (but I didn’t take any pictures….), as we looked into the Dead Sea scrolls, ancient artifacts, and the modern government right across the street. And of course, I’ve had many more excursions back to the old city of Jerusalem, having fun running around slick cobblestone covered in the scent of spices and the weight of hundreds of years of history.

   
   
 

 
Lastly, one of the most exciting things that has happened has been meeting my family! My dad’s mother’s brother’s kids were all here, due to some unfortunate circumstances, but somehow, I have been blessed enough to see them all together even though most don’t live here. My family is from all over the world, including the USA, London, Greece, Cyprus, Oman, even South Africa.  Even more amazingly, this is the first time that most of their children have seen all of these aunts and uncles together at once, and their children are older than me. All in all, an incredible coincidence that seems like more than a coincidence, and a beautiful reconnection with much long lost family.

  

Goodbye 2015

And hello 2016! I have had a wonderful few days here in Jerusalem, and I don’t even know where to begin. Since I last posted, my group has visited a number of important sites all over the holy city, so I will focus on a few of the highlights and show you all some cool pictures I’ve gotten!

A couple days ago, we visited the City of David, the original Cory of Jerusalem where the Old Testament narratives took place. This city is actually below what is now the Old City of Jerusalem, because it had been destroyed, rebuilt, expanded, and altered substantially throughout the centuries. Yet amazingly, there are some incredible ruins that have been excavated from the city. We saw what is supposedly King David’s old palace:
  

We saw the water shafts and the walls of the old city, and even climbed through an ancient sewer to the top of the Roman Jerusalem, where massive columns of stone formed an incredible wall that still holds up the city today:
   
 

That evening, I met my first round of long lost family! They were a delight, chatting up a storm about our family and old relatives from days past, the current situation about Israel and Palestine, and Arabic culture in the Mediterranian. We had a feast with arak, hummus, fattoush, roca salad, babaganoush, and my dish, mansaf, lamb cooked in a leban (yogurt) sauce. A delicious and delightful evening indeed!
   
 

The next day, we vitiated Mt. Herzl and Yad Vashem. Due to the particular nature of these sites, I did not take any pictures out of respect for those who have passed away. Overall, it was an interesting visit, because we could see the basis of Israeli civil religion and nationalism. They paint a story of success in getting their own state, upholding Herzl, the founder of th Zionist movement, the prime ministers and military who defend the country, and the heroes of various times in Israeli history. At the bottom is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, which tried to tell the Jewish narrative in the Holocaust, representing a scar, a Shoah from which the Jews have ascended in order to ultimately have their own state.

Yesterday, on New Year’s Eve, we visited the Mount of Olives, a mountain east of Jerusalem where a number of important events in Christ’s life took place. These sites were powerful and very intersting, covering a number of unique and famous events in the gospels. Here is where Christ is traditionally said to ascend to Heaven, leaving behind a footprint in the rock:
   
 

We descended and visited the Church of Pater Noster, where Christ taught the apostles how to pray (according to some of the gospels), with a beautiful collection of the Our Father Prayer in over 150 different languages:
  

Then, we saw the Dominis Flavit, a lookout where Christ wept as he for told the later destruction of the Temple. Nearby was an amazing lookout where we saw a beautiful view of Jerusalem from the east:
  

For me, the most powerful site was the Garden of Gethsemani, where the Agony in the Garden took place. A beautiful garden of olive trees surrounded a rebuilt church housing the rock which Jesus prayed on moments before his death, leaving one with a sense of humility and hope upon seeing the site.
   
 

Last night, we celebrated the New Year (with arak, of course!), with good food, good conversation, laughing and story telling all night long. 2015, what a great year you have been to me. I can’t be more thankful for being able to spend the last few days of it here, in the Holy City, with friends and long lost family, enjoying the complicated, tense, and beautiful mosaic of Israel.

Una Adventura Nueva

Here I am, off to another country! Today I find myself in Jerusalem, the Holy City, surrounded by ancient ruins, holy pilgrimage sites, and a community of classmates and faculty ready to read the city like a textbook.  But before I got here, I had a little adventure of my own.

I landed in Madrid, but missed my connection to Tel Aviv because my flight was delayed. What was left was a 10 hour layover, so I charged my phone and rested for a bit before heading down to see the city! After navigating the metro, I found myself in the Puerta del Sol, a huge plaza packed with people in the center of Madrid.

   
 
I then walked around for a bit, strolling past roller skaters and musicians, old men playing a Spanish version of corn-hole and seas of people moving through the narrow streets. Eventually, I made my way to a gigantic park, walked around and rested for a bit before getting some delicious tapas y vino for dinner.

   
 
After a second red eye, I found myself in Israel and soon met up with my group! We began our trip with a lecture and then quickly went to the streets, exploring the ruins of the old city. We saw a number of famous (yet mostly symbolic) sites commemorating various parts of Christ’s life. We saw a family tomb, what is left of Golgotha, the Holy Sepulchre, Gallicantum, and the Cenacle of the Last Supper. Sadly, the original structures where Christ lived are mostly gone, since Jerusalem was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt throughout its nearly 3000 year history. Nonetheless, the ruins help bring the stories to life, and to walk even near some of the places Christ did is incredible (and yes, we are pretty sure Christ would have walked up these stairs – only these because they are the only left from his Jerusalem).

   
 
Although I’ve only been out of the USA for 2 days, I have already had an amazing time and learned a ton! From Madrid to Jerusalem, it’s been quite the 72 hours since departing from home, and I can only imagine what this new adventure has in store for me.