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The Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem

The Scriptures record that in his search for the Promised Land the Prophet Moses was greeted with a magnificent view over Canaan as he reached the summit of Mt Nebo during 1,460 BC.

He was told this region was the land God promised Abraham as a homeland for the Jewish people. Although the twelve tribes of Israel settled in the area it was not until 14 May 1948 that the modern State of Israel was officially established.

In 1948 the State of Israel had an area of 20,582 square kilometres but today after wars with its neighbours, culminating with the inclusion of the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem the State of Israel has an area of approximately 22,725 square kilometres – about 2.7% the area of New South Wales. The population of Israel in July 2019 was estimated by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics to be around 9,061,500, approximately 1 million more than the population of New South Wales.

This tiny country is bordered by Lebanon and Syria to the north and north-east, Jordan to the east and Egypt to the South. To the west, including the Gaza strip, it has a 273 kilometre coastline with the Mediterranean Sea and a port on the tip of the Red Sea at Eilat.

Occupation of the region that is now the State of Israel dates back more than 5,000 years. It has a complex history as three major monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have struggled to assert their authority with their focus on the occupation of one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, Jerusalem.

Yardenit is a popular spot for those who wish to be baptised in the Jordan RiverYardenit is a popular spot for those who wish to be baptised in the Jordan RiverWith two friends, who had travelled through Jordan in 2018, we returned to this part of the world and spent ten days moving through the State of Israel.

After arriving at Israel’s major international airport Ben Gurion, we left by train where our first stop was Tel Aviv, the second most populous city in Israel. It is a sprawling city of approximately 500,000 people bordering the Mediterranean. It is a relatively new city founded in 1909, breaking away from Jaffa of which it was a former suburb.
Tel Aviv has the reputation of being a fun city with many clubs and bars open 24 hours a day. It is also a city of numerous museums and art galleries. In wandering around we visited the Carmel open air market, past the then still functioning United States Embassy building and a plaque on a building which advised it was the headquarters of British Intelligence Service until it was attacked in the mid-1940s by a pro-Israeli group.

Israelis have a novel approach to overcoming road traffic congestion. They have embraced the use of dockless electric scooters, especially in Tel Aviv. The scooters can be located by an app on a mobile phone, usage charges paid for by credit card and the scooters left virtually anywhere when you are finished. Several companies provide this service which is very popular with the younger generation.

Nearby Tel Aviv is the ancient city of Jaffa, formerly a major Mediterranean port, where according to the scriptures Jonah left in a vessel to travel to Tarshish but was cast overboard during a storm and swallowed by a giant fish.

The Western (or Wailing) Wall Photo by Dennis JarvisThe Western (or Wailing) Wall Photo by Dennis JarvisJaffa, because of its former importance as a port, has an incredibly violent history having been fought over by various religious groups, control changing hands often. Today the old section of Jaffa is replete with narrow winding streets, restaurants and coffee shops. Of interest is the open air flea market where goods range from junk to antiques. Jaffa also gives its name to the Jaffa orange developed by the Ottomans in the region during the 19th century and Israel is still a major exporter of them.

Although still a functioning fishing port many of its former warehouses have been converted to restaurants. Jaffa is now a major tourist attraction in its own right.

After two days we left and travelled 57 kilometres north to visit Caesarea. It is a former Roman city with a fine harbour initially built by King Herod almost 2,000 years ago. We visited the National Park which has many Roman ruins and in particular a Roman colosseum restored and used for concerts.

From Caesarea we continued northward 43 kilometres along the coast to Israel’s largest port, Haifa, an industrial city stretching from the Mediterranean up the slopes of Mount Carmel.

On these slopes is the Baha’i Gardens stretching one kilometre from the bottom to the top. The centre piece is the Shrine of Bab, a circular building with a dome which is the tomb of one of the prophets of the Baha’i faith. The followers of this fourth monotheistic religion are required to make at least one pilgrimage in their lifetime to this site. There are an estimated 1,700 steps from the bottom to the top but we elected to drive to the top and were rewarded with a magnificent view over the Gardens and the city of Haifa.

Near Haifa Bay is the former ancient Crusader port of Acre now known by its original name of Akko. During the 11th century it was captured by King Baldwin during the first Crusade and became the major port for the Crusaders for more than two centuries. After the 6th Crusade it was placed under the administration for a time of the Hospitaller Knights and is another of the oldest ports in the world. The old city of Acre is recognised as a World Heritage area because of the Crusader relics and is one of the few well preserved Ottoman walled towns complete with mosques and citadels built by the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. We visited the ruins of one of the Hospitaller’s hospitals established during their reign over this town and walked through the souks with their delightful odours of spice. Today Akko is home to a diverse population of Muslims, Jews and Christians.

The Israeli West Bank barrierThe Israeli West Bank barrierWe left the coast and headed eastwards to Tiberius, a town built around 20 BC by the son of Herod and named after the second Roman emperor. Tiberius is on the sloping west bank of the Sea of Galilee and is the major city in the Galilee region. The Sea of Galilee is Israel’s only freshwater lake and has a 51.5 kilometres coastline, is 22 kilometres long and 12.5 kilometres wide. On the promenade in Tiberius is a water sculpture which measures the level of the sea and on our visit the surface of the Sea of Galilee was 211.5 metres below the level of the Mediterranean Sea.

Near Tiberius is the region of Tabacha on the north eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee. This is where Jesus is said to have performed the miracle of feeding 5,000 people from five loaves
of bread and two fish. We visited the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes which is built over two former churches. It has a byzantine mosaic floor in which is embedded the rock on which Jesus is said to have stood and dispensed the food. On the nearby Hill of Beatitudes is the eight-sided Church of The Beatitudes on the site where Jesus is said to have delivered his Sermon on the Mount. From the Church you have a vista over the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights.

Leaving the Church of Beatitudes we drove to the remains of the small fishing village of Capernaum where Jesus is regarded as having based his ministry for three years and met five of his disciples. The site has been purchased by the Franciscans and Greek Orthodox Church and the Franciscans also own the church built on the summit of Mt Nebo. After paying an admission fee we were able to wander around the remains of this town.

To the East of the Sea of Galilee is the 1,800 square kilometre Golan Heights, formerly part of Southern Syria but captured by the Israelis during the 1967 War and annexed in 1981 as part of Israel. It is strategically important for from the top of the heights Damascus, the capital of Syria, is in clear view. However on the day of our visit there was a haze and visibility was restricted.

As we entered the village of Katzrin in the Golan Heights we were greeted with advertising signs indicating a winery and a brewery were located there. We visited the Golan Heights Winery for a wine tasting and as it was nearing lunch time we ate in the bar of the nearby Golan Brewery where we tasted the lagers. They were refreshing and we met many friendly local residents. After a pleasant time with the ‘locals’ we headed back to Tiberius.

 The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem The Walled Off Hotel in BethlehemOn the way we called in at Yardenit on the banks of the Jordan River. Yardenit is marketed as a baptismal site on the Jordan River leading from the Sea of Galilee. It proved to be a commercialised venture boasting restaurants, souvenir shops and a biblical pavilion. Pilgrims taking part in immersion ceremonies receive a Certificate of Baptism. Some were taking part in an immersion ceremony while we were present.

Early the next morning we left Tiberius by car for a four day stay in Jerusalem. Our first stop, however, was to be Nazareth which is the largest Arab town in Israel with a population of 75,000. On arrival we visited the Basilica of Annunciation where the Angel Gabriel is said to have told Mary she would have a child, Jesus.

Leaving Nazareth, we travelled a short distance to Cana, the site where Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. There is a church built on the site where this is said to have happened. Interestingly, the many small shops nearby sold holy wine and other souvenirs for tourists.

Megiddo, a strategic point on the trade route from Egypt to Mesopotamia, was our next destination. The group which controlled this point virtually controlled the trade route. Megiddo is also identified in the Bible as Armageddon where the great battle of end of days will take place. It is a World Heritage Site with many ruins that show how the people of the past lived in this region.

We left Megiddo for Jerusalem which consists of the Old City and New City. The Old City is located within the boundary of New Jerusalem and occupies approximately one square kilometre. It is enclosed by a wall 4,325 metres in length with a height varying from 5 to 15 metres and an average thickness of 1.5 metres. The total population of Jerusalem is estimated at 910,000 which included 40,000 in the Old City. Jerusalem is regarded by the State of Israel as its capital city.

Before visiting sites in Jerusalem we travelled south to the Dead Sea and the fortress of Masada. Masada was the last place of resistance by the Jews to the Romans. We went by cable car to the remains of the fortress at the top of the mountain where the Jews had decided to kill themselves rather than be captured by the Romans. From there we travelled to Qumran, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and then on to Jericho.

To enter Jericho we had to pass through security points controlled by armed Israeli army personnel. We also visited gardens containing the 2,000 year old Sycamore tree which Zacchaeus allegedly climbed when Jesus was passing through.

Jerusalem, in particular the Old City, has so many sites of historical and religious significance that we had to prioritise what we would see. We entered Lion Gate in the city wall which surrounds Old Jerusalem and walked the almost one kilometre long Via Dolorosa passing the Stations of the Cross each of which had a small chapel, visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the last four stations are said to have occurred.

Our main point of interest in the Old City was Temple Mount, the site where King Solomon built his first temple dedicated to God and as a home for the Ark of the Covenant. According to the scriptures Solomon sourced some of the material and labour for the building of the Temple from his neighbour, Hiram I, King of Tyre (a port in what is now Southern Lebanon). One of the masons provided by King Hiram is said to have been Hiram Abiff who is credited with being the chief architect of Solomon’s temple. This temple was destroyed by the Babylonians around 400 years after it was built and a second Jewish Temple was erected on the site generally referred to as King Herod’s Temple. It was destroyed by the Romans and the only remaining evidence of the second temple is thought to be the Western Wall, also known as the ‘wailing wall’ which is a place of prayer for the Jewish population and veneration by Moslems.

To approach the wall men were required to wear a head covering and at the entrance we were provided with a Kippah (Jewish cap) to wear while we were in the vicinity of the wall.

The Bridge to the Dome on the Rock and the Al Aqsa MosqueThe Bridge to the Dome on the Rock and the Al Aqsa MosqueAfter the invasion of the Moslems in the 7th century the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque were built on the site of the first two temples. The Dome of the Rock is an Islamic shrine while Al Aqsa mosque can accommodate 5,000 people in prayer. During the Crusader period (1095–1244 AD) the Al Aqsa mosque became the headquarters of the Knights Templar. Known as The Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon their name was shortened to Knights Templar.

After the Knights Templar were driven out of Jerusalem by Saladin the Al Aqsa mosque was refurbished as a mosque and remains so to this day.

Only Muslims are permitted to enter the Mosques. Non-Muslims are permitted to enter the surrounding grounds but must enter over a wooden bridge which is only open for a few hours each day. We accessed it by entering the old city through Dung gate. The wooden bridge provides a splendid view over the Western Wall.

It is not possible to travel through the State of Israel without being aware of the current political instability within the country, the plight of the Palestinians and the implied threats from nearby countries. The most visible effect of the problems in Israel is the 709 kilometre Wall which is built to separate the West Bank from Israel. When we visited Bethlehem it was confronting, as the town is almost encircled by a wall some 6 to 8 metres in height. Nearer the town the Wall passes in front of the interestingly named Walled Off Hotel and is covered in graffiti.

We had many interesting discussions while travelling but focussed on the history of the region as outlined in the scriptures and what we saw of the country as it is now. After ten days travelling we left Israel with emotions influenced on the one hand by the vibrant history of the region juxtaposed with its uncertain future.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, March 2020, pages 14 to 18.

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