A Pilgrimage to Israel
Apprx. Reading Time: 6 minutes
Currently, the world could do with hope. Hope that stems from faith. Belief.
While religion may be on the decline (Sometimes for good, I think), my recent visit to Israel proved that the ones that still do believe, believe with all they’ve got. Even if you’re a festive Christian like me, there’s something about the fervor in the air in Israel, which makes you think not just about life; the path you’ve chosen, the good (or bad) you’ve done but also takes you on a journey through history and culture.
The three biggest religions have their holiest places in Jerusalem – all located within an area of 1 km of each other.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims – all praying, crying and thanking the Lord. While I also visited the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, I spent some time trying to figure out the political situation and trying to sample the local culture and food too, but the most was spent on visiting all the religious places I could.
For many of you that do not believe in religion, these places are still definitely worth a visit because they’re brimming with history and stories.
For the ones that do, here’s a list of the must visit Biblical places in Israel.
West Bank – Bethlehem
The Church of the Nativity
Luke 2: 1 – 14
“And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people;
For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. The Church, a World Heritage site, has withstood centuries of destruction making it one of the oldest in the world.
We entered through a tiny entrance enough to just let one person pass at a time, to bow and show humility. We visited just before the Grotto was to be opened for visitors. Mass was underway and was being presided over by Greek Orthodox priests. I was mildly surprised when at Communion, a huge loaf of bread was blessed and divided. Visitors were not permitted till the ceremony was complete. We sat on the stairs that lead to the entrance and heard lively conversations between Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests who share custody of the Church while they swept and cleaned the place before it was opened for visitors.
A Silver Star in the floor marked the spot where Christ is believed to have been born in the Grotto of the Nativity. The intricate carvings on the altar inside the Church, built by the Greek Orthodox are beautiful. Do not miss the original mosaic floor.
I’ve been to many tours around the world and had the pleasure of speaking t many guides, but Ashraf who shared his knowledge with us on this tour, was one of the best!
Honestly though, Abraham hostels has the best of the lot. Ask for him when you book your tour with them!
The best time to visit is early morning about 9.00. Additional details can be found here.
Additional locations: The fields in the neighboring village of Bayt Sahur are believed to be the site of the angel’s visitation to the shepherd’s announcing the birth of Christ.
Basilica of the Annunciation
The Church has two levels – the lower level has a Grotto – The Cave of the Annunciation believed to be the home of Mary where the angel Gabriel announced to Her that she would be the mother of Christ.
Inside the courtyard are mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary donated from various countries. From the interior, the conical dome takes inspiration from the Madonna lily that signifies Mary’s purity. When we visited, Mass was being conducted on the upper level in Chaldean, from the Aramaic family – known almost from the beginning of human history and thought to be used by Christ himself.
St. Joseph’s Church
The Church is located a quick 2 minute walk away from the Basilica of the Annunciation. Stained glass windows depicting various Biblical scenes adorn the top level. Beneath the Church was a crypt which contained a grille through which we peeked into a cave, believed to be St. Joseph’s carpentry workshop and his home. Some stone formations were still intact.
Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha
Matthew 14: 17 – 21
“They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.”
And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass; and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.
And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
The location where Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying Bread and Fish and feeding 5000 people. The Church, although on the route of almost every Holy Land tour, is quite peaceful and has beautiful views of the Sea of Galilee.
I wandered off by myself and took a seat in one of the pews, pondering about the life of Christ. I then strolled around marveling at the main highlight of the Church – a reconstruction of the original mosaic floor depicting flora and fauna in that century. Beneath the altar is believed to be the original stone on which the meal was served and adjacent to it is a mosaic of loaves and fish.
Yardenit – The Baptismal site at the River Jordan
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens open and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven; “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.”
Green – that’s the first word that popped into my mind when I entered Yardenit. The atmosphere reverberated with the sound of Hymns as people dressed in white prepared to get baptized in the very place Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and the Spirit descended on Him, in the River Jordan.
The verses above are inscribed on ceramic in more than 85 languages and run along the ‘Wall of New Life’ adjacent to the Baptismal Pools.
Travelers can buy or rent white robes, take a shower, change and buy refreshments at the Visitor’s Center located adjacent to the river.
Cost: $10 for rent or $25 for purchasing a Baptismal Kit. You’re not allowed to enter a pool without wearing the white robes provided and wearing a swimsuit underneath (preferably opt for a dark colored one, as the robes get almost transparent when wet). More details here.
Capharnaum – Capernaum National Park
“And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea…”
Jesus chose his disciples and performed many miracles here in Capernaum, also known as ‘The Town of Jesus’. Within the park, A Church now stands on the upper level; the lower level contains a glass floor through which you can view the ruins, believed to be the house of Peter, located underneath.
The remnants of a synagogue where Jesus preached also stand nearby. A little ahead lies a small sanctuary leading to the Sea of Galilee. It was very peaceful here as the crowds were concentrated near the Church. In the Sea of Galilee was a small boat with a lone fisherman waiting patiently trying to catch some fish and it dawned on me that I was watching the very place where Jesus did the same with his disciples.
Cost: Entry is free of Charge. More details here.
The village where Jesus was said to have turned water into wine at a wedding. The Greek Orthodox Church of St. George was built on the site of this miracle.
Church of the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor
The site of Jesus’ Transfiguration where the prophets Moses and Elijah appeared next to him, and he spoke with them.
The place believed to be where Mary used to bathe young Jesus. The waters of the spring here are said to have healing properties.
Church of the Beatitudes
The location on the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount.
A lot of the locations are in proximity to the Sea of Galilee and provide fabulous views.
The Jesus Trail is another option for the ones who love outdoors, to walk/hike on a trail from Nazareth to Capernaum. The route begins in Nazareth and passes through important sites such as Cana, Tabgha, Mount of the Beatitudes and ends in Capernaum. More details and adventurous options can be found here.
The Way of the Cross which ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. You’d probably need a map to figure out the whole route but the locals are very helpful and pointed us in the right direction. They even advised us to start in the opposite direction if we didn’t mind as there had been a few local scuffles where the Via Dolorosa actually started, the Lions Gate. Wrought iron symbols mark the locations, and they’re easy to find.
I got up early morning and took a walk around, trying to recall all the Stations of the Cross and imagining how it would have been when it was actually happening!
The pain, agony and the suffering….all for the people, many of whom betrayed Him. It made me realize we need to do good, not for others but to be at peace with yourself.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is unlike any other Church you’ve ever been before.
And this isn’t because it is believed to be the site of the Golgotha or that Jesus was crucified here or because he was buried and resurrected here. It is because silence isn’t a virtue here. People here express their emotions, talk, feel overwhelmed and it isn’t just Christians that do so. People from all religions pay a visit to the holiest of all shrines in Christianity. You can touch the rock believed to be on which Jesus was crucified on the top level. The anointing stone is present just as you enter the Church believed to be on which Jesus was anointed before His burial.
The Aedicule present on the other side of the Church, contains His tomb, and there’s usually a big queue lined up to pay respect. Best to arrive early morning.
It was a very emotional moment for me and I spent about 2 hours in the Church, visiting thrice during my stay.
On the Mount of Olives….
Garden of Gethsemane & The Church of all Nations
Luke 22: 44-45
“And being in agony He prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
And when he rose up from prayer and was come to his disciples, he found them sleeping for sorrow…”
The Church of all Nations which stands next to the Garden of Gethsemane marks the place believed to be where Jesus prayed to the Heavenly Father the night before He was crucified. Even with a huge number of pilgrims and tourists visiting the location, it is the perfect place to pray and meditate.
Our guide mentioned to us that the olive trees present in the garden are the oldest known to humankind and no, he wasn’t kidding neither was he trying to add drama to the story!
Olive trees can grow back from their roots even when they have been chopped down, so if the main tree you see in the garden was the exact one that Jesus prayed beneath remains a mystery to this day!
Pater Noster Church
“He said to them, When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.”
The Pater Noster Church which stands next to the Church of the Eleona (Olive Grove) contains a grotto believed to be the location where Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer to His disciples. The ‘Our Father’ is inscribed in more than 100 languages here including Chaldean – believed to be one of the languages Jesus spoke. I happened to find one in Konkani and was overjoyed.
They keep adding to the plaques if new languages are brought to their notice.
Chapel of the Ascension
Believed to be the location where Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after His resurrection. The quirky history about this Chapel is that due to abandonment by worshipers and locals over time, unknown to the inhabitants the Chapel was converted to a Mosque!
Later after being discovered again, as a gesture of goodwill, a larger complex was created, and a Mosque was built within it which is now used for prayer. The Chapel also contains a stone with a footprint imprinted on it, believed to be that of Christ before He ascended into heaven.
Believed by the Protestant Christians to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Christ
Church of St. John the Baptist
The birth-place of St. John the Baptist who baptized Jesus
Tomb of the Virgin Mary
Believed to be the burial place of Mother Mary
The Russian Orthodox Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene
A Church dedicated to Mary Magdalene, who was the first to see Christ after His resurrection
The Cenacle- the Room of the Last Supper
The ‘Upper Room’ believed to the place where Jesus had His last supper with His disciples
The people visiting Israel do so with a lot of excitement – to visit the land where Jesus lived, The Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven and where the Holy Wall stands, or just to wander around trying to take all the culture in.
The people living there feel truly blessed to do so.
It is impossible to visit and not feel the energy pulsating in the air.
No matter why you choose to visit, you will definitely leave with a happy mix of feelings, some you may have never felt before!
PIN FOR LATER!
Holy Land Pilgrimage
- Most of the places have free entry, however it is best to go on a guided tour to learn more about the history
- It is definitely very much safe to travel to Bethlehem and the West Bank
- Do carry your passport when traveling to some places that have check-points
- The best times to capture pictures are early morning
- Carry a scarf to cover your shoulders when necessary and wear modest clothing
Looking to head off to the islands to catch some sun and sea? Why not head to Mykonos? All details here!
Any other items I should add to the list that you enjoyed? Let me know!
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