First (and Last) Sight of the Holy Land: Joppa

ImageBefore the conveniences of modern travel, Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land was a seriously daunting endeavor. Though these days the 12+ hours in airports and on planes is indeed grueling, it’s still a breeze compared to what pilgrims experienced hundreds of years ago.

For example, a traveler during the Middle Ages could anticipate at least several weeks of overland travel to Venice, with another five weeks of sea voyage added on from there. (And that was if the weather held steady!) Several old travel accounts describe the preparations for such a journey in detail; in addition to massive amounts of money (much of it for bribes) and provisions (including live chickens), pilgrims were advised to bring along a human-sized box for sleeping on the boat and for transporting their remains back to the home country in case they didn’t survive the trip.

After weeks at sea most travelers were ecstatic to catch their first sight of the Holy Land — the ancient port of Joppa (modern Jaffa or Yafo.) Actually setting foot there, however, was a different story. An old Hungarian commentary on the New Testament explains it this way:

ImageThe passengers on the “Khedivian,” however, while more fortunate than Jonah, for they did not need the help of the sea monsters to land them, still were in the clutches of Arab boatmen, which is nearly as bad, and unlike Jonah, they had to pay for their transportation to town.

The landing at Jaffa is a great experience. Scores of clumsy-looking row-boats are tossing about in the angry waves diving up and down, guided somewhat by the long oars of the Arab sailors. A swarm of them surround the vessel. They rise and fall, dashing one into the other in the mad effort of each rower to get nearer the rope gangway first.

One minute the boat nearest the rope ladder raised by the billows almost mounts into the ships, and the next, it sinks below the steps into a frightful gulf. Now the boat is up as high as a mountain, and the next moment it is in a deep ravine.  No better description can be given of this landing than the Psalmist’s, “For He commandeth and raised the stormy winds which lifted up the waves thereof. They mounted up the heaven, they go down the depths, they reel to and fro and again stagger like a drunken man and are at their wits end.”

Once through the narrow opening between the rocks, we are in calmer waters and we approach the only landing stairs that reach the dock or quay. Occasionally, when the water is shallow and the boats cannot come close to the dock, the passengers are taken in the bare arms of an Arab, and the Arab, wading into the water, carries the passenger to the landing place where he finds himself at once in a new world amidst new people, new streets and new houses.

In retrospect, disembarking from a jumbo jet seems quite tame in comparison.

ImageJaffa/Joppa is the last stop on our pilgrimage itinerary before heading back to the States. And while it doesn’t have a direct connection to the earthly life and death of Jesus, it’s still an important biblical site. The Old Testament prophet Jonah set sail from here in an attempt to flee his mission from God to call the pagans in Ninevah to repentance. And coming full circle, it was here in the home of Simon the Tanner (a site we will visit) that Saint Peter’s divine vision of clean and unclean animals convinced him to take the gospel message to the Gentiles, a fulfillment of Jesus’ command to “go into all the nations.”

Many improvements have been made to historical Joppa since our last pilgrimage in 2009, which will definitely enhance the ending of our trip. (You can watch a video about the new Visitor Center and other sites here.) I’m really looking forward to the visit — minus the wading ashore, of course!

Notice on the old map above that Jerusalem is the center or “navel” of the world. We’ll get a “birds-eye” look at that navel on the floor in an area of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.


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