I’ve been to Palestine.

When I read that Martin Randall Travel was offering Palestine, Past & Present, 15-23 October, I decided the time had come to bear witness to this fascinating stew of history, religion and politics. Another incentive was respect for the British approach to history. Our group’s lecturer was Felicity Cobbing, the Curator of the Palestine Exploration Fund, founded in 1865. She has excavated in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, written widely about the Levant and is a superb leader. I asked Felicity about the PEF’s mission. It focuses on history.  It is not political nor philanthropic. Both Felicity Cobbing and Martin Randall Travel have kindly allowed me to use information from the Palestine, Past & Present Itinerary. I took the photos.

Psychologically, I’ve been in Palestine for many years. I’m a religious fanatic, having been raised in Catholicism, joined the Quakers, breezed through the Episcopalians and now am a member of the Judson Memorial Church, adding two more religions to my brag list since Judson is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA and with the United Church of Christ.

After arriving at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, we were introduced to our local Palestinian guide. Our first four days were spent in Bethlehem, about thirty-three miles from Tel Aviv. The Jacir Palace Hotel is enormous. My friend and I walked through the hotel’s vast marble enclosures figuring out where the lobby and dining room were. Was the air fresh because of the lack of cars? The soft early morning light and the endless evening sky were a treat to my New York eyes and ears. From our hotel room window, we could follow the curve of the wall erected by the Israelis to separate themselves from the Palestinians. When completed it will be a total length of 440 miles. This ugly structure was made more glaring by the messages of encouragement on the Palestinian  side. The English artist, Banksy, has a hotel near the wall, The Walled Off Hotel. We had several breakfasts there. Returning to the Jacir Palace we would pass Palestinian men eking out a living by selling fresh pomegranate or orange juice that they squeezed individually for each customer. Their accounts of their fractured lives was heartbreaking. Why one of the men’s fathers was shot by the Israelis was never explained. Instead, the son was wounded.

Wall Art, Bethlehem

The first day we went to Herodion, a palace complex built by King Herod, 24-15 BC, to visit the reservoir system, Solomon’s Pools. It’s being excavated by a joint Palestinian/American group. The American group is the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research which has hosted studies in the Levant since 1900.  Herod crops up constantly. From my childhood religious classes, I remember he had been accused of the

The Walled Off Hotel,

Massacre of the Innocents, assuming the image of a monster. Monster or not, like so many leaders, he was a great builder.

There was an afternoon excursion to Mar Saba Monastery, an Eastern Orthodox monastery halfway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Women were not allowed entrance. The real surprise came when the men were also forbidden entrance

Wall Art, Bethlehem

because they were not members of the church. Welcome to Middle East religion. In fairness, one of our group said that visitors would disturb the monastery’s life work. That evening Felicity began a series of talks about Pilgrims and Pilgrimage.

The next day, modestly dressed, we went to Hebron, celebrated for its association with Abraham. At Haram Al-Khalil (Tomb of the Patriarchs) we v

Server in The Walled Off Hotel, Bethlehem

isited the tombs of Abraham, Issac, Jacob and their wives. Muslims, Jews and Christians all venerate this site. The church within Haram Al-Khalil is now divided between Muslim and Jewish areas. It can be a volatile place but wasn’t the morning we visited. In the afternoon we went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The grotto within is venerated by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. The original church was built in 339 CE and is the oldest

Wall Art, The Walled Off Hotel, Bethlehem

church in the Holy Land.

That evening my friend and I, both weary and stimulated by the day’s events, had a delicious supper surrounded by political art and Victorian lighting in The Walled Off Hotel’s charming lounge.

Sometimes we would dine as a group in the hotel and sometimes we’d be taken to a Palestinian restaurant. We would be offered delicious and ever present hummus and olives. innova8ion is a restaurant on the top floor of a Bethlehem establishment. It has breathtaking views of the city. Near us, both men and women were smoking, in leisurely fashion, the hookahs.

Map of Jerusalem’s Gates

Day 4 was In Jerusalem. We walked around the Ramparts entering at Jaffa Gate. It was wonderful weather for scampering up and down stairs and staring down at the community: 70 degrees, a blue sky and the city revealing its secluded places.

We descended from the Ramparts at the Damascus Gate and went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Looking down from the Jerusalem ramparts

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has fragments of the original Constantinian church. Today most of the structure is a Crusader Romanesque building. It is one of the most sacred sites in Christendom because, according to tradition, it contains where Jesus was crucified and Jesus’s empty tomb. In addition, within the church are the last four or five Stations of the Cross. To say it’s a major pilgrimage destination is one way of explaining the vast crowds and prostrate people on various sites. Done once. Never again.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

That evening Felicity continued her talk about Pilgrims and Pilgrimage. Fired up by the check points, by the Israeli settlements overlooking Bethlehem and by Palestinian freedom of movement being dependent on the

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

whim of the Israeli government made some of us feel we were on a pilgrimage.

In the Levant many celebrities are at least two thousand years old. I’ll wager you haven’t thought too much about John the Baptist’s head. However, it’s been a hot topic in religious circles for thousands of years.  King Herod, who built Herodion, had John the Baptist beheaded. Moslems claim his head is in a Syrian mosque. Christians claim it’s in a Roman church. Felicity was told by a church custodian that his church had John Baptist’s head. Felicity pointed out that other religious institutions claimed that honor. The custodian said, “We have the young head.”

In Roman Catholicism there are three Gods in one God: God the Father, the Holy Ghost and Jesus Christ. Don’t ask. I’ve always preferred the Holy Ghost but In the Jerusalem Christian quarter Jesus is king. To wit: hearty Midwesterners with t-shirts that have Jesus printed in bold letters; people sobbing under the stations of the cross; women lying prone on Jesus’s burial site.

We, along with everybody else in the universe, including their motorcycles, walked along the Via Dolorosa to the Ecce Homo Convent where there is a portion of a Hadrian arch. Like King Herod, Hadrian was a great builder. Remember the Pantheon?

Our last stop of the day was at the tranquil 12th Century Church of St. Anne. On our final night in Bethlehem, Felicity gave a talk on the Canaanites to Israelites.

Next day we moved to Jericho. On arrival we took the cable car to a 13th-century Greek-Orthodox monastery. Afterwards we had lunch at a Bedouin camp. We sat on soft cushions in a large tent hung with colorful rugs while the men in the camp laid the table and brought in food. We had glimpses of very small children and several pregnant women but were not introduced to them. The lunch was tasty and ample. There were different kinds of chicken, falafel, hummus, pickled vegetables and pomegranates. Nearby was the Bedouins herd of goats. These Bedouin have been informed by the Israeli government that their camp will be shut down.

Afterwards we visited an 8th century Umayyad palace. Umayyad  is a member of a Muslim dynasty that ruled the Islamic world from 660 to 750. The dynasty claimed descent from Umayya, a distant relative of Muhammad. We then went to the lowest site in Jericho, Tell es-Sultan. Over lovely gin and tonics the talk that evening  was a continuation of Canaanites to Israelites.

In the morning, dressed chastely, we went to Qumran caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, then on to a Muslim site of pilgrimage, Nebi Musa. The coach took us to a baptismal site on the Jordan River. It reminded me of Judson baptisms in Ivoryton, Ct. Whether in the Jordan River or in the Incarnation Center lake, the wet bodies revealing underwear under their white sheets have an Elmer Gantry quality.

Jordan River Baptism

On Day 7 after taking the coach to the Nablus area, we went to Samaria-Sebastyieh to visit the Samaritans. Their ancient  synagogue is still in use. A young woman and a young man explained their religion and its ties to Judaism. The Samaritans follow the first five books of Moses. They also explained that there were about 800 Samaritans, few women than men. Ukraine women are brought into their community like war brides to marry the young men. The young man took us to the Teper Nacle, a design of different fruits arranged on a ceiling. There was a feeling of peace. My facile impression was that the Samaritans had carved a niche between the Moslems and the Israelis. In addition to Samaria-Sebastyieh, the Samaritans have a small settlement in Tel Aviv. The young man in the photo is a polyglot. He told us he’d learned his English from watching American cartoons.

Demonstrating the building of the Teper Nacle
The Samaritan Teper Nacle

Day 7 we moved to East Jerusalem to stay at the American Colony. It was founded over 100 years ago by Swedes and Americans fleeing the Chicago fire. Today it is a charming hotel in luscious green gardens. Our last day was spent visiting the Temple Mount/ Haram ash-Sharif, the El-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The evening was spent at a dinner given by the Albright Institute. The next day most of us returned to the U. K.

Mary Jo Robertiello's mysteries and life