Day 6: Church of Saint Anne, Pools of Bethesda, Chefs for Peace, Tunnel Tour, Razzouk Tattoos

Continuing the Ecclesia Houston tour with Breaking Bread Journeys… after a morning of free time recovering from our epic road trip the day before, we started the day with a visit to the beautiful Church of St. Anne, built between 1131 and 1138 on top of the site believed to be the childhood home and perhaps the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The church possesses mesmerizing acoustics, and this makes the church a pilgrimage site for soloists and choirs, of which we got to hear a few from around the world singing praises in various languages. We contributed our own song as well!

Our tour guide Bassam shared some very interesting facts about the unique nature of the church:

Unlike most other Crusader churches, St. Anne’s was not destroyed after Saladin’s 1187 conquest of Jerusalem (Saladin led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states). In 1192 Saladin converted the building into a madrasa (Islamic educational institution), known as al-Madrasa as-Salahiyya (of Saladin), as is still written in the Arabic inscription above the entrance to the church.

During the renewed Muslim rule of Palestine, Christian pilgrims were only permitted inside the grotto after paying a fee. Eventually, the madrasa was abandoned and the former church building fell into disrepair. In 1856, in gratitude for French support during the Crimean War, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I presented it to Napoleon III. It was subsequently restored, but the majority of what remains today is original. Currently St. Anne’s belongs to the French government (thus the French flag that flies atop the church) and is administered by the Missionaries of Africa, commonly called “The White Fathers”, for the color of their robes.

The church is located right beside the archaeological excavation of the Pools of Bethesda and its collonades mentioned in the 5th Chapter of John’s Gospel. Pastor Chris Seay read to us this Gospel account of the crippled man who had been waiting 38 years to be healed in the pool which was known at the time to have healing powers (“a heavenly messenger would come to stir the water in the pool. Whoever reached the water first and got in after it was agitated would be healed of his or her disease”).

And I thought about how this crippled man had kept his faith all those years, believing that he could be healed if only he could get in the pool at the right time. And the passage indicates that Jesus knew of this man’s longsuffering spirit in waiting for so many years. I think perhaps that’s why he chose to heal him, to underscore how great this humble man’s faith was. Look at the results of his faith: a visit from the son of God himself, and he was instantly healed. May we all have even half the faith and patience of this man.

A definite highlight of our week was meeting up with Chefs for Peace, a non-profit, non-political organization founded in Jerusalem in 2001 by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs committed to exploring cultural identity, diversity, and peaceful coexistence through food. Chefs for Peace realizes food— its preparation, sharing, and enjoyment— is a powerful means of creating a bond with others and revealing that which is valued by all faiths: food, family, and friends.

We met the chefs at the Damascus Gate on Thursday along with the founder of Chefs for Peace, the Armenian, Jerusalem-born chef Kevork Alemian. They then took us on a tour of the old city to buy the ingredients we would be using to prepare our dinner!

After shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made, the chefs took us for lunch at a restaurant known for their falafel and hummus, Abu Shukri, which is located by Stations of the Cross 5. They explained to us the different styles of making hummus and how to eat the various appetizers served.

After a visit to the spice market, we then made our way to the hidden gem of Zalatimo’s Sweets. In a small room with just an oven, a refrigerator, and a few tables, Mr. Zalatimo and his relatives serve up the greatest pastry that the Old City has to offer, an Arab treat known as a mutabak (from the Arabic for “folded”). The flaky phyllo dough type creation is the only food served at Zalatimo’s, and ordering is simple: “with nuts” or “with cheese.” The shop also includes another treasure: one of the original entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is now sealed off and no longer used.

Afterward, we visited a famous photography print shop, known as Elia’s Photo Service. The photo prints this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by their late grandfather Elia Kahvedjian, an orphaned refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. He and his family are featured in the National Geographic film “Jerusalem: Within These Walls” to represent the Armenian Quarter. The photos, which had been hidden away since 1947 by Elia as he thought they were of no value, were rediscovered by the family over 30 years ago and now serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. For a fascinating article on the importance of the photographs, you can read here. Several of the group bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item.

We stopped by Samara Tours, where co-owner of Breaking Bread Journeys works running her decades-old family tour business. As it was Valentine’s Day, Christina and her co-workers had an unexpected gift of roses for each member of the group!

After we literally ate our way through the Old City, the chefs invited us to learn how to cook with them at the Bulghourji Restaurant in the Armenian Quarter, and then we ate some more.

Next, after a walk through the Jewish Quarter and another visit to the Western Wall, our tour with Breaking Bread Journeys took us through the tunnels revealing archaeological finds deep underneath the Old City. The Tunnel Tour is in such high demand that you must book it two months in advance. We learned that much of the city was raised from a small valley centuries ago by arched supports, and it is under these arches that many of the tunnels were excavated. We saw the ancient gates to Solomon’s Temple and learned that one stone of the temple’s western retaining wall (which our group was able to see and touch) weighs an estimated 570 tons. To put this weight into context, the heaviest stone in the Great Pyramid of Giza, found in the “King’s” chamber, weighed 80 tons.

Last but not least, we ended the night with a visit to Palestinian Christian Wassim Razzouk’s tattoo studio. The Razzouk family has been in the tattoo business in the Old City for over 700 years. It has been a longstanding practice for Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem to get the Jerusalem Cross tattooed as a commemoration of their pilgrimage. Several of the members in our group did just that. To learn more about the fascinating history of the Razzouk family business, you can read an article here.

Day 2: Jacob’s Well, Nablus Old City, Samaritan Village, Mount Gerizim

Continuing on Day 2 of Ecclesia Houston‘s Holy Land pilgrimage with Breaking Bread Journeys, we started our tour by making our way from Netanya to Nablus in the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories. Our first stop was to the Greek Orthodox Church that sits atop the three-millennia-old Jacob’s Well. Christianity has a longstanding connection with the site of the well, with various churches being constructed on the site since 384 AD. We tried to guess the depth of the well today, which prompted me to research the question. I found that based on a measurement made in 1935, the total depth of the well is 41 meters (135 ft).

Pastor Chris read to us from John’s Gospel 4:1-26, which describes the account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman who drew water for Jesus from this very well. In the passage Jesus tells the Samaritan woman of the living water that quenches our spiritual thirst forever. Jesus breaks accepted social barriers of the time by associating as a Jew with a Samaritan, and by associating publicly with a woman.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “Drink this water, and your thirst is quenched only for a moment. You must return to this well again and again. I offer water that will become a wellspring within you that gives life throughout eternity. You will never be thirsty again.”

We experienced the rare blessing to drink water from the same well mentioned in this Gospel passage – to quench our physical thirst – while on the very same site were reminded of that eternal spiritual wellspring deposited within us!

Next, we made our way into the old city of Nablus to visit an olive oil soap factory that’s been making hand-cut soap for 180 years. It has made Nablus famous throughout the middle east for its soap. We then toured more of the old city, visiting several street food vendors and a candy factory.

It never ceases to amaze me how extremely friendly the people of Nablus are to us foreigners. So often we heard, “Where are you from?” with us replying, “America” and them then saying, “Welcome, welcome.” We learned to say “salaam alaikum” which means “peace be with you” and “shukran” which means “thank you.” These two phrases carried us far with these kind people, as you could tell they were grateful for us visiting their city, and we were likewise humbled by their hospitality.

Next, we arrived at an event prepared by Slow Food Nablus, the culinary school for The House of Dignity which is an empowerment and education program for Palestinian women. The women of this community are incredibly joyful and were so happy to serve us. Our meal was an unbelievable feast we will not soon forget. At the lunch we were joined by a local Sufi Imam who shared with us his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian tensions, what life is like in Nablus, and how he is working to try to influence youth to seek peaceful resolution to the tensions vs. violence or military struggle. He cited that over the past few decades it has become clear to him that military struggle creates only loss in their pursuit to see the freedoms they desire.

Part of the aim of this unique tour is to demonstrate the love of Jesus to all peoples of this diverse land as we enter in to their homes and neighborhoods to break bread and listen. I believe that part of loving like Jesus loves is to break the accepted social barriers as he did with the Samaritan woman, to go across those “borders” and listen with respect to those who are not like us. We will do that again later in the week as we tour Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust Museum, and as we enter a Jewish home to break bread in a traditional Shabbat dinner. And we did it today by listening to our new friends in Nablus. In between these two book-end experiences, we will walk where Jesus walked and further consider his radical ways of love, with no better backdrop than to be among those who often feel hated and misunderstood.

Next we visited the Samaritan Museum on Mt. Gerizim and enjoyed a scenic overlook with stunning views of Nablus below. The Samaritan Priest explained to us much about the tiny minority Samaritan faith (essentially, an obscure sect of Judaism, although they would not describe it that way) and its ancient history in the region. We were reminded again of the account of the Samaritan woman, and of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus, when asked by the scholar who Jesus means by “your neighbor”, tells a story of a man attacked by robbers and left for dead. An apparently pious priest and a Levite pass by the wounded man, but a Samaritan stops to help the man recover. Jesus then asks, “Which of these three proved himself a neighbor to the man who had been mugged by the robbers?” The sholar answers, “The one who showed mercy to him.” And Jesus said simply, “Go and do likewise.”

I felt this day that Jesus was calling us to “go and do likewise” to show mercy in the simplest of ways, by showing up, accepting hospitality, and blessing strangers with the gift of listening. It’s a theme I’ve seen on these tours, and I think our presence represents Jesus well, while trying our best to stay ubiased and avoid politics, to diffuse the tension of the region with the love deposited within us, to be ambassadors of God’s peace in the most unlikely ways. I feel that this is part of the adventure God calls us to.

I hope you’ll enjoy my photos from the day, and hope they offer a representation of some facets of what we saw and experienced today. Thanks for following along!

Day 7: Chefs for Peace Jerusalem Old City Food Tour, Cooking Classes; Holy Sepulchre, Tunnel Tour

A definite highlight of the Ecclesia Houston tour with Breaking Bread Journeys was meeting up with Chefs for Peace today. They’re a non-profit, non-political organization founded in Jerusalem in 2001 by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs committed to exploring cultural identity, diversity and peaceful coexistence through food. Chefs for Peace realizes food— its preparation, sharing, and enjoyment— is a powerful means of creating a bond with others and revealing that which is valued by all three faiths: food, family, and friends.

After a morning of free time recovering from our epic road trip the day before, we met the chefs at the Damascus Gate on Thursday along with the founder of Chefs for Peace, the Armenian, Jerusalem-born chef Kevork Alemian. They then took us on a tour of the old city to buy some of the ingredients they would be using to prepare our lunch!

But first we visited a famous photography print shop, known as Elia’s Photo Service, the pictures this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by their late father Elia Kahvedjian, a refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. The pictures, which had been hidden away since 1947, were rediscovered by the family over 30 years ago and serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. For a fascinating article on the importance of the photographs, you can read this article. Several of us bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item.

After shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made, the chefs took us for a lunch at a restaurant known for their falafel and hummus, Abu Shukri which is located by Stations of the Cross 5. They explained to us the different styles of making hummus and how to eat the various appetizers served.

After a visit to the spice market, we then made our way to the hidden gem of Zalatimo’s Sweets. In a small room with just an oven, a refrigerator, and a few tables, Mr. Zalatimo and his relatives serve up the greatest pastry that the Old City has to offer, an Arab treat known as a mutabak (from the Arabic for “folded”). The flaky phyllo dough type creation is the only food served at Zalatimo’s, and ordering is simple: “with nuts” or “with cheese.” The shop also includes another treasure: one of the original entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is now sealed off and no longer used.

After we literally ate our way through the Old City, the chefs invited us to learn how to cook with them at the Bulghourji Restaurant in the Armenian Quarter, and then we ate some more. I then led some of the members of the group on a photo tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as we had some free time before our next stop on the tour.

Next, after a walk through the Jewish Quarter, our tour with Breaking Bread Journeys took us through the tunnels revealing archaeological finds deep underneath the Old City. The Tunnel Tour is in such high demand that you must book it two months in advance. We learned that much of the city was raised from a small valley centuries ago by arched supports, and it is under these arches that many of the tunnels were excavated. We saw the ancient gates to Solomon’s Temple and learned that one stone of the temple’s western retaining wall weighs an estimated 570 tons.

My devotional focus for Day 6 brought me to themes surrounding celebration, contemplation, and light. Our day started with the surreal juxtaposition of enjoying food along the route of Jesus’ path to the Cross known as the Via Dolorosa. It’s not an easy theme to consider, but in the Christian faith, Jesus’ execution is ultimately the celebration of his resurrection and victory over sin and death. So it is appropriate that, while we also consider his suffering and the penalty he paid on our behalf, we should find also a path of celebration and feasting along the same route. However, I appreciated the way that God led us to the Holy Sepulchre after this celebration where it is hard not to enter in a contemplative spirit.

As you will see in the images further down in the set, there is very inspiring art leading us to a contemplation of the sorrows that Jesus, his family, friends, and disciples endured on the path to the Cross and in his death. However, one of the things I love most about this church is how many beautiful lamps, candles, and lanterns you will find throughout the labyrinthine hallways, chapels, and crypts of the centuries-old structure. These lamps stand as a symbolic testament that, while there is a certain sorrow in considering Christ’s suffering he endured on our behalf, there is the beautiful light of resurrection coming, a light of rebirth and hope offered by God to all who will receive it. John recorded in his Gospel account that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Holy Land Day 5: Chefs for Peace, Culinary Tour of Old City Jerusalem, Tunnel Tour

A definite highlight of our week was meeting up with Chefs for Peace, a non-profit, non-political organization founded in Jerusalem in 2001 by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs committed to exploring cultural identity, diversity and peaceful coexistence through food. Chefs for Peace realizes food— its preparation, sharing, and enjoyment— is a powerful means of creating a bond with others and revealing that which is valued by all three faiths: food, family and friends.

After a morning of free time recovering from our epic road trip the day before, we met the chefs at the Jaffa Gate on Thursday along with the founder of Chefs for Peace, the Armenian, Jerusalem-born chef Kevork Alemian. They then took us on a tour of the old city to buy the ingredients they would be using to prepare our lunch!

But first we visited a famous photography print shop, known as Elia’s Photo Service, the pictures this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by their late father Elia Kahvedjian, a refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. The pictures, which had been hidden away since 1947, were rediscovered by the family 30 years ago and serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. For a fascinating article on the importance of the photographs, you can read this article. Several of us bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item.

After shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made, the chefs took us for an appetizer at a restaurant known for their falafel and hummus, Abu Shukri which is located by Stations of the Cross 5. They explained to us the different styles of making hummus and how to eat the various appetizers served.

After a visit to the spice market, we then made our way to the hidden gem of Zalatimo’s Sweets. In a small room with just an oven, a refrigerator, and a few tables, Mr. Zalatimo and his relatives serve up the greatest pastry that the Old City has to offer, an Arab treat known as a mutabak (from the Arabic for “folded”). The flaky phyllo dough type creation is the only food served at Zalatimo’s, and ordering is simple:  “with nuts” or “with cheese.” The shop also includes another treasure: one of the original entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is now sealed off and no longer used.

After we literally ate our way through the Old City, the chefs invited us to learn how to cook with them at the Bulghourji Restaurant in the Armenian Quarter, and then we ate some more.

Next, after a walk through the Jewish Quarter, our tour with Breaking Bread Journeys took us through the tunnels revealing archaeological finds deep underneath the Old City. The Tunnel Tour is in such high demand that you must book it two months in advance. We learned that much of the city was raised from a small valley centuries ago by arched supports, and it is under these arches that many of the tunnels were excavated. We saw the ancient gates to Solomon’s Temple, and learned that one stone of the temple’s western retaining wall weighs an estimated 570 tons.

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