In traveling the Holy Land with our daughter years ago, cruise ship excursions introduced us to Israel. Those treasured memories inspire our recent return aboard the elegant Viking Star and our visit to Jerusalem.
Leaving Ashdod, guide Mordecai welcomes us with “Shalom!” Interpreting the port’s cityscape, he smiles, “These modern neighbourhoods reflect new prosperity. Today Israel flourishes by developing high tech products like computer software, cell phone SIM cards, water purification systems and advanced security programs.”
Rolling through the homeland of Samson and King David, vineyards, grain and cotton fields, olive and date groves still thrive on the Judaic plain. Gradually winding upward between two hilltop villages, we learn that one boasts a synagogue shared by Jews and Christians. The other, Abu Ghosh, is an Arab community supporting Israel’s 1948 birth and later became Israel’s hummus capital by setting a Guinness Record for consumption. Below terraced hillsides, a striking 9/11 memorial represents a response to others suffering terrorism.
Upon entering Jerusalem, churches proliferate on the Kidron Valley’s eastern slopes. Mormons established the newest on the Mount of Olives. Most beautiful, Church of All Nations, features a mosaic depicting Jesus mediating between God and mankind. Mordecai reminds us that Jesus prayed in adjacent Gardens of Gethsemane before His arrest.
Old Jerusalem crowns the opposite mount. Dome of the Rock rises above the city’s sturdy walls. A golden shrine revered by Muslims and Jews alike, Mohammed “galloped on his steed” into heaven from the boulder inside. Four minarets soar above adjoining Al-Aqsa Mosque where he led prayers.
At Dung Gate, young soldiers check our backpacks. Entering the Jewish quarter, we gaze upon the Western Wall, sole remnant of King David’s great temple. Dressed in black, Orthodox Jews still gather here to mourn its destruction. Purifying at the plaza fountain, they pray at this holy site. Joining the devout in men and women’s sanctuaries respectively, we write special wishes on bits of paper to slip into niches in the sacred wall.
Passing another checkpoint and through a tunnel, we emerge on Via Dolorosa in the Christian quarter. Believing Jesus dragged his wooden cross along this “way of suffering,” Franciscans established stations of the cross for pilgrim meditation. Often based on medieval legends, one is dedicated to Veronica, who had allegedly wiped His brow. And one tiny chapel’s bronze sculpture portrays the Biblical episode of Simon helping Jesus bear the heavy cross.
Via Dolorosa ends at Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built in 325 AD by Emperor Constantine. Claiming discovery of Jesus’ cross and tomb, his mother Helena consecrated it. Crusaders, Franciscans and Orthodox monks later revamped and enlarged it. And since 638 AD, a Muslim family has kept the church keys and managed peace between the five resident Christian denominations.
Joining streams of others, our group trickles into the dim interior toward five further stations. Streaming right, steep stone steps re-imagine Jesus’ way to Calvary. Ornate chapels memorialize sites where soldiers stripped His garments, nailed Him to the cross and crucified Him. Below another stairway, a long line of people awaits entry into the immense marble vault enclosing His tomb. Instead, Mordecai leads us to see the anointing stone. And at a small, obscure chapel, he whispers, “Jesus’ mother, aunt and Mary Magdalene may have watched His crucifixion from here.”
Departing toward Jaffa Gate, countless stalls line the narrow roadway. Merchants offer a bedazzling array of olivewood mangers, hookahs, menorahs, vibrant enamelware, spices of all colours, olives, dried fruit and exotic sweets. Two favourite cheeky T-shirts declare: Keep Calm and Eat Kosher and Guns ‘N Moses.
Our experience reveals Israel’s modern side and the allure of old Jerusalem.
Visit www.vikingcruise.com to check out the Ancient Civilization Cruise itinerary.