Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.
Most of our group connected first at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Little did we know that “Fat Stanley” would be joining our pilgrimage and reporting back to his friends in Monroe, Wisconsin.
We flew to Israel via Turkish Airways with a brief stop-over in Istanbul. It was a very pleasant experience, as much as 10 or 11 hours in the air can be. The jet had fairly roomy seats (rows were 2x4x2 across), individual remote-controlled entertainment consoles (I watched “The Book Thief” and “World War Z”), and excellent food, including an appetizer of “Turkish Delight.” Every time the attendants gave us a piece, I thought of Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Tasty as it was, I couldn’t imagine selling my soul for a piece of it!
We arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel around 8:30 PM and boarded our tour bus to head for our first accommodation in Bethlehem — the St. Gabriel Hotel, which is a brand new facility on the outskirts of the city. Our charming guide, Foteh Mickel, immediately began to bond the group together by telling stories and assigning us to small groups. (Since I was nicknamed “The Queen of Small Groups” in a previous church I served, I fell in love with his leadership almost instantly — a deep respect that would continue throughout the trip.) The staff at the hotel held dinner for us, which was only the first example of their gracious hospitality. From its gleaming marble-clad lobby, to the spacious rooms with balcony views, to the excellent breakfast and dinner buffets, the St. Gabriel was voted the number one favorite by our travelers.
Most of us were still bothered by jet lag the next morning, but we started our first full tour day bright and early in order to take full advantage of the glorious spring weather. First stop was the Herodian/Herodium, the archeological remains of one of Herod the Great’s fortress/palaces a few miles east of Bethlehem. The volcano-shaped hill was easy to spot from just about anywhere in the area, and I could easily imagine how intimidating it would have been in Jesus’ day.
I posted about the Herodian earlier, so I won’t take up space describing all of it again. But since we visited four years ago, the site has added a really interesting explanatory movie and several 3-D models. (The film showed what it might have looked like with flags on top and banners hanging from the battlements. Quite impressive!) Herod’s tomb and the royal theater on the hillside have also been recently excavated.
Our next stop was Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahour. Beit Sahour is a Palestinian town east of Bethlehem, where 80% of the 12,000 plus residents are Christian. As with many areas of the Holy Land, two different areas claim to be the site where the shepherds heard the angelic message of Jesus’ birth. We visited the Franciscan site, which includes a beautiful church designed by architect Antonio Barluzzi. (Dubbed “the architect of the Holy Land,” Barluzzi also designed the Church of the Beatitudes, the Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, Dominus Flevit (Jesus Wept) Church on the Mount of Olives, the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa, among several others.) There is also a chapel in one of the large caves that commemorates where the shepherds were “abiding in the fields” and a peaceful outside devotional area that overlooks the fields where sheep are still grazed.
After a tasty falafel (fried chick pea balls) or chicken shawarma sandwich at Ruth’s Field restaurant, we headed for the Old City of Bethlehem — always a challenge because of limited bus access and large crowds. In 2009 we couldn’t visit the birth grotto in the Church of the Nativity because there was an over-two-hour wait to go downstairs. But this time Foteh’s timing was perfect, so we paused before the 14 point star that commemorates Jesus’ birth, and also saw the Grotto of the Manger, the Byzantine era mosaics under special sections of the floor in the main building, and the cave next door where St. Jerome translated the Hebrew/Aramaic Bible into the Latin Vulgate, the language of the common people.
(The 14 points of the nativity star refer to Matthew 1, where Jesus’ genealogy is broken down into 3 sets of 14 generations: from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian exile, and from the exile to Jesus.)
Outside in Manger Square, Foteh introduced us to one of the local craftsmen who makes olive wood figurines — Joseph. Joseph met us later at the Christian-family-owned store where we shopped, and he personally signed the pieces we bought. (I got one of the Holy Family and another of the woman washing Jesus’ feet.) I was glad to spend my money at an establishment that helped the local Christian community. On our drive back to the hotel, we viewed the shops and houses of two very large Palestinian refugee camps and saw some of the “outsider” mural art on the Separation/Security wall that surrounds the the residents of the West Bank (areas under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority.)
After another tasty buffet dinner at our hotel, we enjoyed our first evening Bible study, sharing highlights of the trip so far and learning about Jesus’ birth and childhood. All told, we had a very good — and very full! — first day!
Click here to see additional group pictures of Day 1.