“Now they’ve come before Jerusalem.
And the Crusaders, so daring and invincible, so vehement in
their every march and onslaught,
are fearful and nervous and unable
to go further; they tremble like small children,
and like small children, weep, all weep,
as they behold the walls of Jerusalem.”
~C.P. Cavafy, Before Jerusalem
I was convinced our guide David was the late Leonard Cohen’s doppelganger. All he needed was a sprightly fedora, and I was certain that his commentary would turn poetic and lyrical. But he was, of course, our earthly tour guide, in charge of leading us from the Israeli port of Haifa on the hour-and-a-half journey to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
It was a tall order for only one day, and I had booked Regent’s small group excursion – there were about 15 of us – with the hope that we would be able to fit in everything on the itinerary. Security at the port was tightly controlled as we left the ship for our 6:40 a.m. departure. Passports were checked, we were given Israeli Border Control B2 Stay Permits, and soon we were heading south toward Jerusalem.
As our bus driver made his way along Route 6, David talked about life in Haifa. He lived on a kibbutz, he told us, and said one of the things he liked best about Haifa was that there was little religious tension among the city’s Muslims, Jews and Christians. For the most part, he said, people got along. He encouraged our group to ask questions, and I got the feeling that this was going to be one of those really great tours where deeper insight would rule over don’t go there politeness.
First Stop – Elvis???
Life on a tour bus – no matter how large or small – always includes one or more planned “comfort stops.” The chosen spots typically can accommodate large groups of people, offer plenty of parking and include places to purchase snacks and souvenirs. Most are unremarkable, but a heavenly-looking spot called Moon Lake on the road to Salzburg last year forever changed the way I look at these stops on the way to somewhere else.
Nothing, however, prepared me for this place: the Elvis American Diner. Part Graceland, part Las Vegas, part personal shrine to the famous singer, it was the last thing I – or any of us, I’m certain – expected to find in Israel. The parking lot was sheer pandemonium, with dozens of buses parked in dozens of different directions. Our bus driver dropped us off before parking at a satellite spot somewhere down the road. David told us when to meet, but exactly where we’d find the bus, no one was quite sure. Little did we know this would foreshadow a day of intense crowds that would turn our trusty tour guide into an efficient head-counter!
Mount of Olives
Just outside Jerusalem’s Old City stands the Mount of Olives, a gently sloping ridge named for the olive groves that once covered its land. Our bus dropped us off at a panoramic viewing spot, and David talked about the Mount’s history and its religious significance for Christians and Jews. The Mount has been the site of a Jewish cemetery for more than 3,000 years and is said to contain 150,000 graves. For Christians, it is the place where Jesus is believed to have ascended into heaven.
Garden of Gethsemane
Back on the bus, we made the quick journey to the bottom of the Mount and the Garden of Gethsemane. The place was teeming with visitors, but its peaceful setting amid ancient olive trees and vining bougainvillea evoked a feeling of quiet solitude. It is believed this is the place where Jesus spent his last night praying.
Next to the Garden of Gethsemane stands the Church of All Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony. Designed by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in 1924, the Roman Catholic Church enshrines a section of bedrock where Jesus is said to have prayed before his arrest. The All Nations name reflects the many countries that supported its construction.
Old City of Jerusalem & The Jewish Quarter
It’s about a 15-minute drive from the Garden of Gethsemane to the gates of Jerusalem’s Old City. Our bus driver dropped us off near the Dung Gate entrance, and after waiting in line at a security checkpoint, we entered the Jewish Quarter. We passed an area of ancient ruins and heard festive music coming from a nearby celebration – a bar mitzvah, David thought. Moments later we were standing near the Western Wall, a holy place of prayer and pilgrimage for Jews.
I was surprised by how intimate the wall seemed in such a vast, open space. People were placing their hands on the wall, leaving notes of prayer, reading from scriptures or just standing in its presence. It was a very moving experience. I assumed you had to be Jewish to venture beyond the gate, but David told us we were all welcome to visit the Wall – regardless of our religions or beliefs. Herb went to the men’s section, and I walked to the women’s side with two other women from our group.
The Muslim Quarter
Next we headed into the Muslim Quarter, the most populous of the Old City quarters. With Friday prayer services underway, the narrow stone streets were crowded with residents as well as visitors. It was literally difficult to move, and at times it felt as if we were walking shoulder-to-shoulder as a massive group rather than as individuals. Delicious aromas wafted through the air as we passed food vendors and markets. Residents were shopping and going about their daily lives, seemingly unaffected by the hoards of tourists walking through their world.
The Christian Quarter
Our final stop in the Old City was the Christian Quarter. We followed the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus is believed to have walked as he carried the cross to his crucifixion. The route begins in the Muslim Quarter and winds through the Christian Quarter, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Along the way, Stations of the Cross mark significant places from the day of crucifixion, where Christians on pilgrimages pause to pray.
After lunch at a nearby hotel, we boarded the bus for Bethlehem, a 20-minute drive from the Old City. David introduced us to a guide from Palestine who would be leading this part of the tour. Someone asked David the question I’m sure all of us were thinking: Was he forbidden to conduct tours on the West Bank?” Oh, no,” David said. “I just think people should have a chance to work and earn money where they live.”
Our Palestinian guide turned out to be an extremely enthusiastic Christian. “Let’s sing Silent Night!” he exclaimed, almost before saying hello. No one seemed to know what to make of this unusual request, and we rode along without joining in his buoyant rendition. After the first verse, he told us we’d be visiting the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the location of Jesus’ birth, but that there wouldn’t be enough time to see the grotto where the exact birthplace is marked with a silver star. “People wait it line for hours to see that,” he told us.
We arrived in Bethlehem without going through any checkpoints, which surprised me until I later learned that the security stop would be on the way out of the city. Our new guide led the way to Manger Square, while David joined the rest of the group, serving as a sort of back-up guide. We had a brief tour inside the Church of the Nativity, and as expected, the line to the grotto was hours’ long.
Next door to the Church of the Nativity is the Church of Saint Catherine, our final stop on this incredibly full day. As we waited outside to enter, we heard a familiar request: “Let’s sing Silent Night!” It wasn’t any closer to Christmas than it had been twenty minutes earlier, but the setting did seem a little more appropriate than the bus. And you had to give the guy credit for his persistence and unbridled enthusiasm.
And so, on a late afternoon in early November, standing in front of a church in Bethlehem, our entire group sang Silent Night.