Many call Jerusalem the center of the world, and it’s hard to argue since all eyes seem to be trained on it.  The city is wonderfully modern and fairly safe—a first for us since Cape Town and definitely a relief.  The Old City, separated from the rest of Jerusalem by beautiful limestone walls, holds more awe-inspiring attractions than any other place in the world.  

The Old City is divided into four quarters:  The Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, Jewish Quarter, and Armenian Quarter.  The ancient, cobblestoned streets wind through a fairly small place that holds precious places for three major religions.  It’s not difficult to see how complicated the city would be to regulate.

We started our time in Jerusalem our favorite way: a bike tour (was a whiter sentence ever said?)!  But not any bike tour, a sunrise bike tour!  The tour’s early hours allow access to crowd-free sights and streets in both the Old City and modern city.  It was the perfect introduction and gave us an appreciation for the wonders in store for us.  At one point, we were standing over where the Last Supper occurred, beside the building that holds King David’s tomb, looking out over a sunrise on the Mount of Olives, with the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount to our left!    

We continued our first day with an afternoon tour of the Old City from Tours for Tips.  WOW again!  The brief introduction (two-hours was NOT enough!) only reiterated that we needed to get busy!

It was Ryan's birthday and his parents gave us a special treat: Dinner at Notre Dame of Jerusalem, which has a rooftop cheese and wine restaurant that overlooks the Old City.  It was a feast!

The next day, we took a quick day trip to Bethlehem.  Bethlehem is in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory, so we weren’t sure what to expect (again, we were here during a time of increased tension).  While we never felt threatened, we did have to pass through a guard station to get into the area.  We felt grateful that we could pass in and out of the territory freely, while this is much more difficult for others.  Plus, the streets of Bethlehem were eerily quiet and empty, as their tourism has been affected greatly while people worry about the clashes between Jews and Palestinians.

Bethlehem is a quiet city with stone streets that haven’t changed since Mary and Joseph first arrived on the scene.  It was a marvel to walk where they would’ve walked!  

The Church of the Nativity is built over the stable where Jesus was born.  Unfortunately the church was under restoration construction, but we were still able to glimpse the beauty behind the tarps.  History tells us that the stable where Jesus was born was actually more of a cave that would be under the main house.  We were able to go down into the cave where the altars hardly conceal the humble beginning of God’s son. 

The cave was divided amongst the Catholic priests in one corner, the Greek Orthodox in another section, and the Armenians in a third section.  Each denomination’s territory had strict property lines and hours of operation.  While hundreds of people line up, the Armenians performed communion before the cave opened.  Then, the cave wasn’t open thirty minutes before the Catholic priests closed it to hold a private communion.  The hundreds of people waiting would just have to wait a bit longer.  I heard many tour guides explain to their groups how viciously each denomination fought for dominion over territory.  It was a mess and a disgrace.  This is the face we show the world?  We have no excuse to fight amongst ourselves like this, but we tried to not let this detract from standing in the place Jesus was born.

Anyway, after our short trip to Bethlehem we headed to Jerusalem’s fabulous street market for our favorite activity: picnic preparation.  The selection was amazing—blueberry walnut bread (that tastes fantastic, by the by), cheese of every type (including a truffle honey situation we couldn’t afford), and an Israeli wine we dared to try. Whether in Central Park or Jerusalem, these are all of the ingredients for a fantastic picnic.

After our picnic we went to the world class Israeli museum.  WOW.  It has more artifacts than could be imagined on its well organized and laid out grounds.  Everything we could’ve wanted!

Blakely with a model of the Second Temple and the Holy City before the Roman destruction in 66 A.D.

Among many other things, this one museum holds the Venus Berekhat Ram (the oldest artwork in the world dating back to at least 230,000BC), a world-class Fine Arts Wing, and an Archeological Wing that literally tells the story of the world.  No biggy.  But main event for us?  The Shrine of the Book.

The Shrine of the Book holds the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain the oldest biblical scrolls in the world.  These scrolls date back from 300 B.C. and into 1 A.D.  While pictures weren't allowed inside the vault, we can tell you this: they had better handwriting than us.

The vault entrance.

The next day was the main event: A tour of the holy sites of Jerusalem.  Get ready!

Check out the full Israel Gallery here.

The Christian Sites of Galilee

Our first stop in Israel was Nazareth, a small city with big significance.  This is where Mary got the news from Angel Gabriel that she would give birth to God’s son.  It’s also where Jesus Christ lived, breathed, grew into adulthood, and first began his ministry.  The ancient cobble-stoned streets where Jesus ran as a boy wind in a charming, impossible to navigate way.  Thankfully the locals are gracious with directions.  

Today, Nazareth has Israel’s largest Arab population and we were able to see many Muslim’s cohabitating peacefully (69% of the Arabs in Nazareth are Muslim).  However, we also got our first taste of protests, which, though safe, was unsettling.  While it was very easy to avoid the areas where the protests were held, the police use tear gas liberally on the protestors and gas guns sound disturbingly similar to gunshots. 

In Nazareth we stayed in a gorgeous convent called Rosary Sisters Guesthouse.  The rooms were simple and clean and the courtyard gardens particularly welcoming.  

Our first stop in Nazareth was the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, which is built where the Greek tradition believes Gabriel visited Mary while she was visiting a well.  The ornate decorations were gorgeous throughout the small church.  

Our second stop was the Synagogue Church, an ancient room that was originally the synagogue where Jesus read from the scrolls of Isaiah, and first proclaimed Himself as the Son of God.  Besides it being interesting to see where Ancient Jews worshipped, it was an incredible feeling to stand inside a room where Jesus once stood. 

Our next stop was to a church dedicated to Joseph, which is built over the carpentry workshop where Saint Joseph worked.  We loved seeing a tribute to the man God trusted to raise His son, and the ruins of the carpentry workshop are possible to view as well.

The last stop in Nazareth was the Church of the Annunciation, which is where the Catholic Church believes the annunciation took place.  Wow.  We loved a modern take on classic church architecture (not something that gets said often!).  The massive building lets in tons of light and countries from around the world sent in artwork depicting Mary to honor the site.  The different pieces showcase hundreds of different cultures, but blend beautifully.  Together, they create one of the most interesting churches we’ve ever seen.  It was also one of the few churches we saw in Israel that celebrated our differences instead of showcasing our divisions (more on that later). 

From Nazareth, we visited the Sea of Galilee, which is the area where Jesus taught some of his most significant messages and performed many miracles in his ministry.  The first place we visited was a church built over the site where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.  This sermon was a biggy—it included the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and other groundbreaking lessons that revolutionized the mindset of the day.  Jesus told his followers to be the light of the world; to turn the other cheek; build their lives on the rock of God; to love their enemies; to ask, seek, and knock; and more.  The gorgeous grounds overlook the Sea of Galilee and the garden holds quotes from that monumental message.  It was easy to imagine the crowds that gathered to hear Jesus that day and the stillness that must have held them as He changed their world.

Second, we visited two different places where Jesus, instead of turning the listening crowd of five thousand away, fed them with only a few loaves of bread and a few fish.  Both churches have the original rock that Jesus used to bless the meal.  

One of the best parts about these churches is that we could get close to the Sea of Galilee.  A church built by man cannot do justice to Jesus' presence or the miracles performed.  But the natural beauty of the Sea of Galilee perfectly praises the wonders that it has seen.  Plus, while sites can be disputed, the Sea of Galilee has been there for thousands of years.  It’s definitely where it is supposed to be!

An important note:  It’s difficult for us to believe that the exact places from the Bible could be identifiable 2,000 years later and, without prior identification, they would be.  But in the 4th century AD, Constantine sent his mother, Saint Helena, to the Holy Land to search out the important spots in Jesus’ ministry.  Churches were built (Jesus was a pretty big deal then as well!) and those spots have been the same ever since. 

After the churches, we headed to the ruins of the ancient town of Capharnaum, which was the center city of Jesus' ministry and the site of many of his miracles.  It's possible to see the 2,000 year old ruins of Peter's house and study the stonework of Jesus' day.

Our last stop in our tour of the Sea of Galilee was the Jordan River, which is where John’s ministry took place and where Jesus was baptized.  Many people choose to the baptized here as well—celebrities like the late Whitney Houston even made the trip! 

In Nazareth, we hitched a ride with a friendly Italian named Moreno, who would become one of our favorite travel associates, and headed to the center of the world: Jerusalem.  Teaser: WOW. 

Our amazing new friend Moreno!

See the full Gallery here!