Although we were just a small group in the large crowd of tourists admiring this historic place, one could not help but feel very much in awe of the human effort and ingenuity required in its creation. And yet, Petra was just one of so many highlights of our amazing travels in Israel and Jordan!
In the preceding week or ten days, we started our pilgrimage in the historic port town of Old Jaffa near Tel Aviv, we admired the impressive Roman ruins of Caesarea on the shores of the Mediterranean and we toured “the Galilee,” the beautifully lush and fertile region between Haifa and the Sea of Galilee, which our wonderful and very knowledgeable guide, Hanna Khoury, calls “home.” We began our biblical explorations as we walked the paths of Nazareth Village and the Mount of the Beatitudes, we listened to Rev. Dan reading from the New Testament and we imagined Jesus preaching to the people of Capernaum and joining his apostles as they were setting out to fish in the Sea of Galilee. We came to the legendary Baptismal site on the shores of the Jordan river, we visited Masada, the isolated mountaintop fortress not far from the Dead Sea, where some 1,000 Jews had resisted Roman conquest by enduring 2 years of grueling siege and ultimately, in the year AD 73, chose to commit mass suicide rather than falling under the harsh yoke of Roman rule. We gazed at the sandstone hills of Qumran where the Dead Seas scrolls had been hidden in caves for over 2000 years, we hiked in the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve to a surprising waterfall in the otherwise barren desert landscape and many of us floated in the very salty and muddy waters of the Dead Sea.
To actually walk the streets of 21st century Bethlehem and Jerusalem while pondering what the landscape and architecture may have looked like and what life may have been like during Jesus’s time 2000 plus years ago was humbling, at times rather confusing, but always intensely thought-provoking and for some of us it was an emotional experience that we will always remember. Strangely, we considered ourselves fortunate to have actually stayed on the West Bank, to have travelled along the threatening border wall, full of political graffiti, and through the very intimidating checkpoints that are undisguised reminders of the stark differences between Israel and the West Bank and the immense economic and social challenges of the Palestinian people.
Each and every day, Dan, our efficient and patient “herder,” was full of contagious enthusiasm and energy. He always found the perfect Bible reading to ignite our imagination and to provide us with context of history and faith, and we followed his lead, even when that meant getting up at 5:30 or 6:30AM so that we could have some breakfast before heading to our bus by 7 or 8AM, “because we had yet another full and exciting day ahead of us.” And since he had been to the Holy Land before, we were the beneficiaries of his previous experience and enjoyed a great, fun evening in Bethlehem’s “best falafel restaurant of the world,” AFTEEM, a stop that had not been included in our original itinerary but which provided a most welcome change from the dinner fare at our hotels along the way - plus some most welcome glasses of wine, courtesy of Hadi and Mirella Hajjar.
The fact that we actually returned home as originally planned, with only a few hours delay and in spite of an unfortunate and unsettling dose of excitement after landing at JFK, could almost be considered a miracle!
Needless to say, we were all very happy to be HOME, enriched by what we had learned and experienced and filled with renewed appreciation of the freedoms and privileges we so often take for granted, and best of all, grateful for having forged new and wonderful friendships with our fellow “pilgrims!”