Day 5: Jordan River Baptisms, Jericho, Mt. of Temptation, Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jerusalem Old City

Day 5 of the Ecclesia Houston holy land tour with Breaking Bread Journeys started departing Tiberias at the Sea of Galilee shortly after sunrise as we made our way to the Jordan River, the river in which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Many pilgrims among our group commemorated their baptisms in the Jordan.

I will say that this day of the itinerary is usually the most intense, as we cover so much ground in one day. It’s like packing three days into one. By the time we reached Jerusalem, many of the group remarked something to the effect of, “Wait, we were just at the Jordan baptismal site this morning?”

As you will see in the photos that follow, after our visit to the Jordan River, we made our way to a vista point allowing us a look at the Mount of Temptation where many from the group were able to experience a camel ride. It was a very fun break along the way.

Our tour guide Bassam pointed out that according to Luke’s Gospel 19:1-10, Jesus came through Jericho and met Zacchaeus the tax collector who had climbed a Sycamore tree to get a better look at Jesus. In Jericho today, there is a large, old sycamore tree that stands at a major intersection in town. Bassam pointed it out to us and told us that local tradition claims it as Zaccheus’ tree. Although the tree is quite huge, it’s probably not the original tree. If nothing else, it gives visitors a concrete idea of what the scene might have looked like on that day when Jesus passed through the town.

Some very interesting facts about Jericho. Jericho is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. It sits at the edge of the Dead Sea valley, 846 feet below sea-level, which also makes it the lowest inhabited city on earth. It is, literally, an oasis in the desert — a large spring there has fed that part of the valley for thousands of years, and is the only way people have survived there.

We then made our way up to the Mount of Temptation and the Monastery of the Temptation, a Greek Orthodox monastery. The earliest monastery located on the site was constructed by the Byzantines in the 6th century above the cave traditionally said to be that where Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting and meditating during the temptation of Satan. The monastery receives its name from the mountain which the early Christians referred to as the “Mount of the Temptation.” The Mount of Temptation was identified by Augusta Helena of Constantinople as one of the “holy sites” in her pilgrimage in 326 AD.

When the Crusaders conquered the area in 1099, they built two churches on the site: one in a cave halfway up the cliff and a second on the summit. They referred to the site as “Mons Quarantana” (from Quaranta meaning forty in Italian, the number of days in the Gospel account of Jesus’s fast). Thus the Arabic name of the mountain is Mount Qarantal.

Later in the post, you will see that our journey took us to the archaeological site of the Qumran Caves where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries were made by a shepherd boy, then to the Dead Sea where the group took a float in the extremely bouyant waters, and ultimately on up into the holy city of Jerusalem where we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter, and the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter. More on these Jerusalem sites in the posts to follow! Quite a day!

Some personal thoughts inspired by this journey:

I have often reflected on the power of a photograph to freeze time and capture a fleeting moment, and for this single moment, at least a thousand words could be written to describe what was felt and experienced within that frame. Then you stop to think of all the countless trillions of images like this which are accessible to God at any given time, and that he knows each one, feels each one, and has books written in his heart for each of us, lovingly journaling all that we have seen, felt, celebrated, and suffered. God sees all and knows all. Just a few pages ago, Jesus was being baptized by John, and in just a few page-turns in our story, we will be in the glory of heaven with God. “You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on.” (Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, 4:17-18).

As it is recorded in John’s gospel, Jesus assures us, “My Father’s home is designed to accommodate all of you. If there were not room for everyone, I would have told you that. I am going to make arrangements for your arrival. I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together. You know where I am going and how to get there.” (John 14:2-4). This idea of pilgrimage extends not only to a visit of the holy land but of our entire lives. We are on a journey, and God, in his ultimate love for us, has shown us the way to live it and promises that he prepares a final home for us at the end of this long journey. What is beautiful is that, while the journey is often full of sorrows and intensity, he has given us fellow sojourners to share the burdens along the way. We have experienced that on this journey here in the holy land. Just a few days ago we were a group of strangers. Now, already, especially after a day like today, we are already starting to feel like family. We have access to so much in the Body of Christ if we only choose to open our arms and receive the love and life-giving support that is available. While my life has seen its share of hard times, I am grateful for all the ways I have found strength through God’s promises and all of my brothers and sisters whom God has gathered around me on this pilgrimage; both this week and in the grander pilgrimage of life.

I wasn’t able to make it up to the Monastery, to the Qumran Caves, nor the Dead Sea on this visit, as I was in serious need of a break, but here are some of my favorite shots from my archives:

Day 6: St. Anne’s Church, Pools of Bethesda, Chefs for Peace, Western Wall, 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!

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”). Chris mentioned how we have trouble waiting 38 days, much less 38 years.

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 three 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 they 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 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 here. Several of us bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item.

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 a 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 weighs an estimated 570 tons.

Last but not least, we ended the night with a visit from Palestinian Christian Wassim Razzouk, whose 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 5: Jordan River, Jericho, Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jerusalem

Day 5 of the Ecclesia Houston holy land tour with Breaking Bread Journeys started departing Tiberias at the Sea of Galilee shortly after sunrise as we made our way to the Jordan River, the river in which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Many pilgrims among our group commemorated their baptisms in the Jordan.

I will say that this day of the itinerary is usually the most intense, as we cover so much ground in one day. As a result, it’s the day that provides the most photo opportunities. It’s like packing three days into one. Probably the hardest part of publishing this blog is narrowing down the photo choices!

By the time we reached Jerusalem, many of us remarked something to the effect of, “Wait, we were just at the Jordan baptismal site this morning?” I have often reflected on the power of a photograph to freeze time and capture a fleeting moment, and for this single moment, at least a thousand words could be written to describe what was felt and experienced within that frame. Then you stop to think of all the countless trillions of images like this which are accessible to God at any given time, and that he knows each one, feels each one, and has books written in his heart for each of us, lovingly journaling all that we have seen, felt, celebrated, and suffered. God sees all and knows all. Just a few pages ago, Jesus was being baptized by John, and in just a few page-turns in our story, we will be in the glory of heaven with God. “You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on.” (Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4:17-18).

As it is recorded in John’s gospel, Jesus assures us, “My Father’s home is designed to accommodate all of you. If there were not room for everyone, I would have told you that. I am going to make arrangements for your arrival. I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together. You know where I am going and how to get there.” (John 14:2-4). This idea of pilgrimage extends not only to a visit of the holy land but of our entire lives. We are on a journey, and God, in his ultimate love for us, has shown us the way to live it and promises that he prepares a final home for us at the end of this long journey. What is beautiful is that, while the journey is often full of sorrows and intensity, he has given us fellow sojourners to share the burdens along the way. We have experienced that on this journey here in the holy land. Just a few days ago we were a group of strangers. Now, already, especially after a day like today, we are already starting to feel like family. We have access to so much in the Body of Christ if we only choose to open our arms and receive the love and life-giving support that is available. While my life has seen its share of hard times, I am grateful for all the ways I have found strength through God’s promises and all of my brothers and sisters whom God has gathered around me on this pilgrimage; both this week and in the grander pilgrimage of life.

As you will see in the photos that follow, after our visit to the Jordan River, we made our way to a vista point allowing us a look at the Mount of Temptation where many from the group were able to experience a camel ride. It was a very fun break along the way. We then made our way up to the Mount of Temptation and the Monastery of the Temptation.

Later in the post, you will see that our journey took us to the archaeological site of the Qumran Caves, the Dead Sea, and ultimately on up into the holy city of Jerusalem where we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter, and the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter. Quite a day!

Day 4, Part 3: Jerusalem Old City Entry, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Western Wall

After a long day of travel from the Galilee region down to Jericho and the Dead Sea, we finally made our way to Jerusalem in time for a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dinner at Jacob’s Pizza, and then finally, a visit to pray at the Western Wall, a site sacred to both Jews and Christians. The Western Wall is the largest remaining section of the retaining wall of the Second Temple. Thousands of people come to pray here, leaving prayer notes in the wall. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains the traditional sites believed to be where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, therefore the name of the church is sometimes referred to as The Church of the Resurrection. Whether it be the actual historic site or simply the location tradition selected, it is a beautiful space full of reverence and deeply inspiring art.

Day 6: Jordan River, Mount of Temptation, Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jerusalem

Day 6 of the Ecclesia Houston holy land tour with Breaking Bread Journeys started departing Tiberias at the Sea of Galilee shortly after sunrise as we made our way along the Jordan River to the site thought to be very close to the Baptismal Site of Jesus Christ. Many pilgrims among our group commemorated their baptisms in the Jordan, and two of those traveling in our group were baptized for the first time. I have many more baptism photos but for the purpose of the blog, I have just chosen a few representative shots. It’s so hard not to publish them all! But if I did, it would be overwhelming for the casual visitor I think!

This is my 6th holy land tour group to shoot for, and our itinerary generally follows a similar path. I will say that this day of the itinerary is usually the most intense, as we cover so much ground in one day. As a result, it’s the day that provides the most photo opportunities. It’s like packing three days into one. Probably the hardest part of publishing this blog is narrowing down the photo choices! From this day alone I have over 200 “keeper” shots!

My devotional thought for Day 6 focused on the transitory nature of time and life. By the time we reached Jerusalem, many of us remarked something to the effect of, “Wait, we were just at the Jordan baptismal site this morning?” I have often reflected on the power of a photograph to freeze time and capture a fleeting moment, and for this single moment, at least a thousand words could be written to describe what was felt and experienced within that frame. Then you stop to think of all the countless trillions of images like this which are accessible to God at any given time, and that he knows each one, feels each one, and has books written in his heart for each of us, lovingly journaling all that we have seen, felt, celebrated, and suffered. God sees all and knows all. Just a few pages ago, Jesus was being baptized by John, and in just a few page-turns in our story, we will be in the glory of heaven with God. “You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on.” (Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4:17-18).

As it is recorded in John’s gospel, Jesus assures us, “My Father’s home is designed to accommodate all of you. If there were not room for everyone, I would have told you that. I am going to make arrangements for your arrival. I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together. You know where I am going and how to get there.” (John 14:2-4). This idea of pilgrimage extends not only to a visit of the holy land but of our entire lives. We are on a journey, and God, in his ultimate love for us, has shown us the way to live it and promises that he prepares a final home for us at the end of this long journey. What is beautiful is that, while the journey is often full of sorrows and intensity, he has given us fellow sojourners to share the burdens along the way. We have experienced that on this journey here in the holy land. Just a few days ago we were a group of 43 strangers. Now, already, especially after a day like today, we are already starting to feel like family. We have access to so much in the Body of Christ if we only choose open our arms and receive the love and life-giving support that is available. While my life has been full of my heartbreaking moments and plenty of loss, I am grateful for all the ways I have found strength through God’s promises and all of my brothers and sisters whom God has gathered around me on this pilgrimage; both this week and in the grander pilgrimage of life.

As you will see in the photos that follow, after our visit to the Jordan River, we made our way to a vista point allowing us a look at the Mount of Temptation where many from the group were able to experience a camel ride. It was a very fun break along the way. This group is very fun-loving and spontaneous!

Later in the post, you will see that our journey took us to the archaeological site of the Qumran Caves, the Dead Sea, and ultimately on up into the holy city of Jerusalem!

From a vista in Jericho, we could see a view of the Mount of Temptation. After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert, through which we journeyed today. The Gospels tell us that during this time, Satan appeared to Jesus and tried to tempt him. It is thought that he endured these temptations at this location. Unfortunately we did not have time to take the cable cars up to the Monastery located on the cliffsides of the mountain.

From there we made our way to the Qumran Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a shepherd boy in 1947. We learned that The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between the years 1947 and 1956. The area is 13 miles east of Jerusalem and is 1300 feet below sea level. They have been called the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. There are now identified among the scrolls, 19 copies of the Book of Isaiah, 25 copies of Deuteronomy and 30 copies of the Psalms. The Isaiah Scroll, found relatively intact, is 1000 years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah. In fact, the scrolls are the oldest group of Old Testament manuscripts ever found.

We then headed to the Dead Sea where members of our group were able to experience the extremely buoyant properties of the highly salinated water. We learned from our tour guide Bassam that most seawater contains 5-7% salt, but that the Dead Sea contains approximately 27-33% salt.

We then journeyed west through the mountains that divide the dessert from the coastal plain and reached Jerusalem in just 30 minutes. Pastor Chris guided the group into the holy city through the Damascus Gate. We arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre just in time to see the famous event many come to watch each evening: the locking of the church doors. The key is held by a Muslim family in a symbolic gesture of interfaith cooperation. There’s an interesting article about the key you can read here.

Pastor Chris then took us to his favorite dinner spot, Jacob’s Pizza…

Just around the corner from Jacob’s Pizza in the Christian Quarter near Jaff Gate is Razzouk Tattoos, a family tattoo business that has been marking pilgrims with special Christan crosses and symbols for over 700 years in the old city. We got to meet Wassim Razzouk and hear a little about his story.

We then walked over to the Jewish Quarter, where Pastor Chris introduced the group to the Western Wall where we prayed and experienced Judaism’s most holy site.

Ecclesia with Breaking Bread Journeys: Jordan River, Mt. of Temptation, Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jerusalem by Night

On day 5 of our journey we covered a lot of ground. We started our day at a baptismal site believed to be the closest to where Jesus was baptized. It’s a beautiful area with nothing else around it except for what’s across the river on the Jordanian side, you’ll see a couple of orthodox churches.

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From there we went on to Jericho for some camel rides and a trip up to the Mount of Temptation on the cable cars. The views from the mount’s sheer cliff dropoff are breathtaking.

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Next up was the Qumran caves, where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered.

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Next we heard from a representative of a local water conservationist NGO (EcoPeace Middle East) who showed us how far water levels were dropping. She took us to a previous resort that is now closed and abandoned because it is no longer at the shoreline of the Dead Sea.

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After that we visited Kalia Beach on the Dead Sea where we experienced the peculiar sensation of extreme buoyancy and the rejuvenating effects of the mineral-rich Dead Sea mud.

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We packed up and then made our way to Jerusalem. We enjoyed wine and pizza in the old city at Pastor Chris’ favorite spot, Jacob’s Pizza. Then we were able to make it to the Holy Sepulcher before closing time. We entered the old city through the Jaffa Gate…

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Afterward we saw the generations-old tradition of the locking of the doors of the Holy Sepulcher, something I personally had never witnessed in any of my five visits here.

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We walked onward through the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter. Pastor Chris was invited by some orthodox Jews to dance with them as they sang songs at the wall. Quite a night!

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