Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (2010-04-12-26)

Archbishop Seraphim : Report
Pilgrimage in the Holy Land
12-26 April, 2010


It takes a long time to travel to the Holy Land, wherever on the North American continent one begins. In this case, some began in Ottawa, flying first to Toronto and then onwards. Some of the pilgrims travelled first to Toronto by bus, making a beginning of their travel 12 hours before departure time. Some began in Edmonton or Calgary, Alberta, others in Vancouver, BC, taking many hours already to arrive in time for the Toronto departure. Some of us travelled to, and/or through the eastern USA, and 4 travelled from Berkeley, California. The first challenge, managing to get to the Holy Land, is part of every serious pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is not tourism. Indeed, traditionally, pilgrimage implies walking (which only the very few, very strong in the Lord now do). We did do some noticeable (for us) walking, including in the aeroports, and we also drove in buses — in accordance with our reputation for pilgrimage in Ukraine. It takes a long time to travel to the Holy Land. Our travel included sitting on an eleven-hour flight, after having departed from Toronto at midnight Monday, 12 April, and arriving in Tel Aviv at 1800 hrs on Tuesday, 13 April. Once we arrived, and assembled, we numbered 43, although 2 of our number had to leave after a week because of a family emergency.

I cannot omit remarking that there were many Jewish travellers on our flights in both directions. In the course of these flights, it was impossible not to notice that the men and women of all ages were using their prayer-books, and they were offering their morning, evening and travelling prayers to the Lord. It was obvious what they were doing, because they were standing up and facing easterly, and their heads were covered by prayer-shawls. These prayer-books are always with these seriously-praying persons, and they very frequently are using them. The custom is, in fact, identical to our inherited custom of offering morning, evening and other prayers to the Lord — except that I have seen in my pastoral travels how much eroded this has become in our daily lives as Canadian Orthodox Christians. It is dangerous that we let ourselves fall into a minimal habit, merely saying “hello” to the Lord in the morning or “good-night” to the Lord at bed-time. Because we live in such a non-Orthodox environment, this allows us to slip away from Orthodox instincts and mentality, and to become captured more by other, quite foreign ways.

After we arrived, we easily made the ascent from Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean to Jerusalem atop the hills, because of the bus. I could see how walking up to Jerusalem would be a challenge. We settled in at our Mount Scopus Hotel. It was not luxurious (by Canadian standards), but it was clean and adequate, and offered very good food. This hotel sits on the border between East and West Jerusalem. It is useful to keep in mind that the country Israel (which numbers several million inhabitants) has now only about 120,000 Christians of all sorts, now making up only 1.5% of the whole population. Not long ago, the actual number of Christians was much greater, and the percentage of them was much higher as well. Circumstances (both political and religious) have for a very long time made it difficult for any and all Christians to remain in the Holy Land.

Making a pilgrimage does not in itself make one holier or better than anyone else. As anyone who has made a serious pilgrimage is aware, temptations do come with making this offering to the Lord, precisely because it is being offered to the Lord. However, there are blessings that do come. As one person already told me (who had recently accompanied Metropolitan Kallistos to the Holy Land on pilgrimage), she is now able, when reading the Scriptures, to have a clearer sense of the places that are described in the Scriptures. One can have an even better sense what it is to walk in the foot-steps of our Saviour, both while there and when at home : when reading the Scriptures, or when making liturgical observances, such as in Passion-time. Making a pilgrimage can make connexions in the heart. This is the case also with other pilgrimage destinations related to various holy persons about whom we read. In the course of our pilgrimage, we usually would read a passage from the Gospels or the Acts regarding each place ; and we often sang the tropars appropriate to the places, as far as possible.

On Wednesday, 14 April (day 1 of the actual pilgrimage), we arose to depart from the hotel at 0730 hrs, and we headed for the Garden of Gethsemane on the slopes of the Mount of Olives by the Kedron Valley, which we visited first. Here, we saw olive trees which are obviously very, very old. It is usually said that one or two could date from the time of our Saviour. After this, we went by bus again to the Saint Stephen’s Gate of Jerusalem, and we visited there the Temple of Saint Anna, close by the supposed home of Saints Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Theotokos. It is here that the Theotokos (the Birth-giver-of-God) was born. Near there is the Sheep-pool, where sheep were prepared for being sacrificed in the Temple, and where the paralytic was healed by our Saviour (see John 5:1-9). There are substantial visible remains of these deep pools. At this time, our leader, the Archpriest Ilya Gotlinsky reminded us about the tradition of the special, redemptive tree of Abraham’s nephew Lot, which was in effect a triple-tree. Having been cut for a beam in the construction of the Temple, it was rejected as inadequate, and it was placed in this pool. It was this tree that was kept by the Angel who stirred the waters, and which was later used for the Cross of the Saviour.

We then began the Walk of the Passion, and we followed very approximately the way of our Saviour as He walked to His Death, beginning at the Franciscan churches and a series of other churches dedicated to this. Our guides, Nadi and Father Ilya, provided us with plenty of archaeological information regarding all the sites, and historical, liturgical and scriptural information as well. Sometimes, we stopped to sing tropars, and we often had the appropriate Scriptures read about the various stages of this walk. We stopped at the Russian Orthodox Representation (which had originally been purchased by the Russian Imperial Family). More than a century ago, it had been under imperial sponsorship through this Representation, that the necessary archaeological digs were undertaken, which uncovered and revealed the actual Judgement Gate through which our Saviour passed as He walked to His crucifixion. There are also some portions of the original wall still connected to the gate, which may be seen there. These structures are all within a modern building. At this time, there was shown to us what is well-expected to be the “eye of the needle”, to which our Saviour referred in one of His statements (see Matthew 19:24). It is a small opening in the wall near the Judgement Gate, which could admit someone trying to gain entry after the closing of the gates. We also visited the prison where Christ would have been kept imprisoned and also scourged. The dark cave, in which prisoners would be seated (chained by the neck and by the ankles) was very intimidating. Then it was time to visit the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which was a short walk distant. We were not able to meet Patriarch Theophilos to take the blessing, because he was in Qatar consecrating a new Orthodox Temple there ; but we were warmly received for a substantial encounter with Archbishop Methodios of Mount Tabor, and a few others. After leaving

We later arrived at the Temple of the Resurrection, where there were large numbers of other pilgrims and visitors. This Temple is frequently called by others “the Church of the Holy Sepulchre”. We were guided around the whole structure by Father Ilya, so that we would be aware of the history of the work of Saint Helena of Constantinople († ca. 330), the mother of Saint Constantine the Great, and also of subsequent constructions. The following sites are all under the roof of the one structure. We were shown the Tomb of the Martyr Saint Nicodemus († first century), and then we descended into the Armenian chapel of the Finding of the True Cross (ca. 326) by Saint Helena. After this general introduction, which included considerable information, we then ascended the Hill of Golgotha (see Matthew 27:33 et al) to venerate the place of the Crucifixion. This is nowadays approached by means of marble steps. The crowd was numerous, so this took some time. Following this, we queued to venerate the Tomb of our Saviour. This construction is not exactly the original Tomb as it was then, but a re-working of the original Tomb, including the original materials. By this, it is intended to say that these sites were formerly parts of a single hill (with Golgotha above, and the Tomb at its foot). The Tomb remains where it was, but the hillside was cut away from it so that it became free-standing (with some later decorative carving of the stone). Although most of the original rocky hill was removed, what remains allows pilgrims to understand what was the original arrangement of the whole site. After the hill was cut away, the Temple of the Resurrection was constructed to contain everything under the one roof. This reconstruction allowed many people to have access to each important part of this Holy Place during the course of any day. Most of this happened in the 4th and 5th centuries.

After we had all completed our venerations, we walked on across the Old City to the Western Wall of the Temple. As we walked, we passed through a district in which we had to “walk the gauntlet”, as it were. Some by-standers jeered and threw refuse at the pilgrims. We were able to observe the Western Wall from an elevated and distant spot, but not to approach. From our place above, we could easily see the former site of this Temple, which is now replaced by the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosques. We then walked to where our bus awaited us, and we returned to our hotel for supper and for rest. Many of the pilgrimage sites had long ago been described by the fourth-century Spanish pilgrim Egeria ; and, in the course of this day, we had come to understand that these sites are, indeed, in the very places which she had described. Further, the sites are all connected with the important element of oral tradition. We were frequently reminded that even in the context of the Roman and other destructions, the local faithful always remembered the important places, always went to them, and that they kept this custom over many generations in secret, despite persecutions.

On Thursday, 15 April (after breakfast), we left our hotel with our baggage at about 0800 hrs. The weather was again mild and sunny. We drove first to the base of the Mount of Olives, to the Tomb of the Theotokos, which is now separated from Gethsemane by a road. Here, we venerated the Tomb of the Theotokos, and also the Wonder-working Jerusalem Icon of the Theotokos. Nearby is the Monastery of Saint Stephen, which had been recently rebuilt over the very old monastery which had long ago been established at the site of the martyrdom of the Archdeacon Stephen (see Acts 7:54-60). After this, we walked a little farther down the Kedron Valley to the monument which is often called the Tomb of Absalom (son of King David). However, it was explained that there is another tradition which, from ancient times, associates this monument with the father of the Forerunner John, and with Saint Symeon the God-receiver, and with one or another prophet. From there, we drove to Mount Sion on the west side of the old city. There, we visited the 2 representative sites which provide an “iconographic” site for the Upper Room. This was the site of Great Thursday’s Supper (see Matthew 26:17-30), of the choosing of Matthias (see Acts 1:26), of the Descent of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:1-12), and of other important events), and then below this room, the Tomb of King David. Despite the usual accuracy of oral tradition, the actual sites cannot be found because of the very thorough Roman destructions (ca. 70). These sites are, however, near the originals. We then went “next door” to the Roman Catholic Abbey of the Dormition, which presents a possible site at which the Mother of God reposed. The Upper Room (in which the previously-mentioned 3 Events occurred) and the Tomb of King David were likely in this very neighbourhood, if not on these actual spots. We then walked on to visit the Monastery of the Repose of the Righteous Elder Symeon the God-receiver.

After this, we went to the Monastery of the Holy Cross, a very old monastery with origins in the 4th century, at which traditionally grew the Triple Tree planted by Abraham’s nephew the Righteous Lot. The wood of this Tree eventually became the Wood of the Holy Cross of Christ, as we learnt on our first day when we visited the Sheep-pool. This monastery also has a Georgian history. Following this, we visited the Monastery of Saint Elias near the Tomb of Rachel (see 1 Moses 35:19-20), which is at the place to which the Prophet Elias fled after the miracle of the fire and the rain (see 3 Kingdoms 18). We took lunch at this site, and then we drove to the Shrine of the Book, the Israel Museum (in new, West Jerusalem), which presents displays about the several findings of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 11 caves (which began in 1949 and continued for some years). In this museum, there is also a detailed model of pre-Roman Jerusalem. After this, we visited the Temple of the Holy Trinity, the main Representation of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Russian Mission. Earlier in the day, Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kyiv had completed his visit to the Holy Land in this Temple. From here, we drove to Bethlehem. We passed over the border and the border-wall to the West Bank area, Palestine. We checked into our hotel and took supper. Then, there was time for shopping before we retired.

On Friday, 16 April, we rose early for breakfast, and we made our departure at 0800 hrs. We drove through the so-called check-point at the border between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The passage took more than a half-hour. That 2 soldiers walked through the bus (albeit smiling) while they were carrying machine-guns, made it appear much more like an international border. This wall of separation reminded one of the former “Berlin Wall”. May it be demolished soon. There is no doubt about how this makes life painful for ordinary Palestinian farmers or workers. This wall divides many of their farms and orchards in two, and makes access to the Israeli side somewhere between difficult and impossible for them. From this border, we drove through Jerusalem and onwards to the east (where the road becomes the Jericho Highway), to the Red-rock area, on which are 3 significant archaeological sites. For our visit to these, we had the aid of a Russian-Israeli archaeologist who has personally worked on all 3 sites. The first site was the Monastery of Saint Martyrius, which flourished between the 3rd and 6th centuries. This monastery was very significant in its day, being an important hiatus point for pilgrims on this Jericho Road. The intact early mosaics are impressive, to say the least. Very isolated in its day, it is now in the middle of a housing development. The small cells of the coenobitic monks were interesting. This monastery began as a lavra, but it was (as were others) converted to coenobitic life. At that time, a lavra was a group of detached or semi-detached cells of hermits which surrounded a central chapel or Temple. Most of the monastery’s foundations remain intact, along with the original mosaic floors. The monastic cemetery has not been found, but the grave of the major abbots has been found.

The second stop was at the Saint Euthymius Monastery, which was in existence from the 4th to the 12th centuries. After the Persian and Islamic conquests, it was recovered, rehabilitated and remodelled by the Crusaders. It was a large monastery, with an amazingly large sixth-century water-cistern. One might describe the cistern by saying that it resembles a very large below-ground hall which has a very high ceiling. This monastery also had its beginnings as a lavra, and the remains of this construction are under the existing foundations to the south-west of the complex. In this case, the Temple is on the second floor. It was previously very large, but then reduced in size because of fewer monks and less available money.

The third stop was the Good Samaritan Inn on the same road (see Luke 10:30-37). Archaeology shows that the beginnings of this inn were in about the 2nd century BC. This inn is perhaps half-way between Jerusalem and Jericho. It had its own mosaics, and these were rather amplified in later years when an East-Roman (usually called Byzantine) Temple was constructed. Nearby, there is a fortification constructed by the Crusaders on a hill, which protected this inn. In time, it became a Turkish caravanserai. Fourth on our agenda was Bethany, which is now largely a Muslim town, and which is very different from how it was in Biblical days. Here, we visited the Tomb of Lazarus (see John 11 ; 12:1-11), and afterwards we took lunch nearby.

After a brief pause, we drove again past the Good Samaritan Inn, towards Jerusalem. We followed the road, then, which took us once again past the great “evil wall” which blocks direct access from Bethany, and we continued on to the Mount of Olives. This journey now requires a circuitous half-hour drive to cover a distance that once took a few minutes. At the top of this mountain, we entered the Monastery of the Ascension (a community of the ROCOR), and we were led by a monk, Pierre, who guided us around this monastery. We visited the Temple of the Ascension there. On the floor is a portion of a sixth-century mosaic, and there is also the circular spot near the entrance, in which lay the Head of Saint John the Forerunner for several hundred years until it was taken. We then walked to the nearby site of the Ascension itself, now covered by a small circular building within a much larger octagonal wall, at the foot of which are the remains of pillars that once supported the large Orthodox Temple which before extended to the outer walls. The site is now in the hands of a Muslim family. Inside the circular building is a foot-print in the rock which remains from the Ascension (see Luke 24:50-53 ; Acts 1:9-11).

Leaving this site, we descended to the church of the Our Father, on the walls of which this Prayer is written in a multitude of languages. We descended on foot, walking farther down the mountain along Palm Sunday Street (see John 12:12-15, et al), and we paused and visited the Tomb of the Prophets, which is deep in a cave. This may be the site of the burial of the Prophet Haggai, but it certainly was used by the earliest Christians as a place of refuge, of worship, and then of burial. There are many tombs in this very large, dark, unlit cave, one of which is also larger than the others, and which is generally assumed to be the tomb of Saint Joseph of Arimathea (see Matthew 27:57-60, et al). This great cave is surrounded by private dwellings of Muslim families, but it is cared for by the Orthodox Community of Saint Mary Magdalene. It was to this monastery that we then descended on foot by a narrow lane. Here, we entered the quiet gardens, and we joined the nuns for Vespers and Compline. After this, we departed for our hotel, and then to supper. At this time, there was a visit by the Priest Timothy Lowe and his wife Lisa, who now work on the edge of Jerusalem by Bethlehem. They served for some years in parishes in the USA, and they now direct the Tantur Research Institute (a subsidiary of Notre Dame University).

On Saturday, 17 April, we rose to visit the Basilica of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem (see Luke 2). We were warmly received by 2 of the Palestinian priests of the basilica, one who has served there for 40 years, and the other for 47 years. Here, we were able to venerate the places that mark the site of the Nativity of Christ, and the site of the Manger. These sites may not be exact, but that this Cave itself was the site of the Nativity was already of long-standing oral tradition when Saint Helena was doing her research. The basilica itself had been reconstructed by the Crusaders on a somewhat smaller scale than the structure erected by Saint Helena. Nevertheless, we can see some parts of the mosaics of the original floor of the original basilica through several openings in the floor. Nearby, under the Roman Catholic church, we visited the cave in which Saint Jerome lived and translated the Scriptures into Latin — the Vulgate (the language spoken by the people of the time). This cave is immediately adjacent to the Cave of the Nativity. As our leader Father Ilya repeated, many of the sites are mentioned by Egeria in her book about her fourth-century pilgrimage. He also reminded us that because of the climate, many a home of this era would have been built over a cave, in which goods could be kept cool (and where people also kept cool) in the hottest weather. Some such homes were larger under-ground than they were above-ground. One such example is the house in Jerusalem that represents the home of Saints Joachim and Anna.

We then boarded our bus, and we drove out to the Monastery of Saint Theodosios, which is now inhabited by nuns. From there, we drove in mini-buses to the Monastery of Saint Sabbas. This monastery began as a lavra of hermits, and then it became a coenobium. A coenobium was (and is now) a community in which monks have all things in common, and in which the monks usually live together in a more substantial structure. Only males may enter the Monastery of Saint Sabbas. The women pilgrims remained outside the walls, where they were given relics to venerate, and tea to drink, while the men visited the sixth-century Temples and viewed the caves over the Kedron gorge. The Kedron Brook was flowing strongly in this gorge. We also venerated the incorrupt relics of Saint Sabbas (†532). The guide here, Father Lazarus, was formerly from the USA. There were, at the time of our visit, 18 monks in this brotherhood.

After drinking coffee, we returned to our bus which awaited us at the Monastery of Saint Theodosios, and we drove to the Temple of the Shepherds’ Field, whose known foundations were established by Saint Helena. Some of its floor-frescoes remain. Here also, there once were the relics of the Bethlehem Martyr Infants and of the Shepherds (see Matthew 2:16-18 ; Luke 2:8-19) ; but there still remain the heads of Martyrs of the Persian massacre († ca. 614). Many years ago, the Abbot, Father Ignatios, had served in Mississauga in Canada for five years. After eating in the same town, we drove to Hebron, where we visited the Monastery Temple of the Ancestors of Christ, and we visited the Rector, the Archpriest Vladimir. On this same property is what remains of the Oak of Mamre (under which Abraham tented several thousand years ago ; see 1 Moses 18:1). This tree had stopped putting out leaves only a few years ago. This Monastery and Temple constitute the only Christian presence in Hebron. It had been founded over 100 years ago by the Russian Mission of the Moscow Patriarchate, under the patronage of Tsar Alexander III. We returned to the hotel, received a short talk about missionary work in Israel by the Priest Alexander Vinogradsky, and then rested briefly before our 2300 hrs departure for the Temple of the Resurrection in Jerusalem.

On Sunday, 18 April, we arrived at the Temple of the Resurrection before midnight, and we awaited the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. As it happened, there was a late beginning. Archbishop Methodios of Mount Tabor was presiding, and Bishop Antonin of the Serbian Church was co-serving with him, along with 4 deacons and about 30 priests. After the conclusion of Matins, the Divine Liturgy began to be served within the Tomb-structure (it was the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women). The Proskomedia had been prepared on the Tomb of the Lord itself, just beyond the ante-room of the Tomb-structure. Processions of the Lesser and Great Entrances were made by going out the one door from the ante-room of the Tomb, circling round about the whole structure, and re-entering the ante-room. The bishops were within the structure, and the priests stood in lines outside its entrance-door. The service progressed as would a normal Hierarchical Divine Liturgy. In due time, Holy Communion was distributed to the people in the main part of the cathedral, before the iconostas. During all this time, the people could venerate at will the Golgotha ; and this time, the Relics Room below the Golgotha was open and available to us. Pilgrims were there from all over Europe, and there were many requests for prayers because of the grounding of flights (due to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland). We returned to the hotel at 0500 hrs, just as the Islamic muezzin was proclaiming the first call to prayer.

We rose a little later for a later-than-usual departure, after taking a brunch. This departure was further delayed at the “Wall of Separation”, because everyone on the bus was asked to pass through a cursory viewing of passports in a nearby building, and then to re-board the bus. Usually the bus is simply toured by two heavily-armed soldiers before permission to pass is granted. After this inspection, we began by driving to Emmaus-Nikopolis, an archaeological site some 30 km west of Jerusalem. This site (which includes a first-century Jewish burial site, a sixth-century Temple, and a fifth-century baptismal font for adult baptisms) is on the territory of a Roman Catholic Cistercian monastery. We were told that this particular site is one of three sites of the same name, one of which is only 11 km distant from Jerusalem. The biblical Emmaus (see Luke 24:13-35) was within a Sabbath-day’s walking-distance of Jerusalem. A Sabbath-day’s journey (depending on who defines it and when it is defined) could be between 2,000 and 11,000 cubits, that is, between about 9 km and about 50 km.

After this visit, we drove farther west to Lod-Ramle, which would be known to us as Lydda-Arimathea. Here is where Saint Joseph of Arimathea lived, and here was the site of the martyrdom of Saint George the Victory-bearer. Here, we met a group of pilgrims from Saint Petersburg in Russia, whom we met again as we travelled during the day. This Temple of Saint George has in its crypt the emptied tomb of the Great-martyr George, and on a wall hangs a set of the Chains of the Apostle Peter (see Acts 12:5-10). Since this apostle was imprisoned more than once, there exist several sets of Petrine chains. After this, we drove to Jaffa (Joppa), where we visited the Russian Orthodox Monastery of the Chains of the Apostle Peter (see Acts 12), and the Tomb of Saint Tabitha the Resurrected (see Acts 9). We saw the fruit of the labour of twenty years by Father Poemen, who has made a series of beautiful gardens now freed of multitudes of snakes. We were blessed by being offered to eat kulich and drink tea and juice. At this time (because we were late), we abandoned the attempt to visit Caesarea Maritima, and we drove back towards Jerusalem and visited at Ein Karem, the birth-place of the Forerunner, and the home of Saint Zacharias and Saint Elisabeth, and also the site of the Visitation of the Theotokos to Elisabeth (see Luke 1). Both these sites are governed by the Franciscans, and they were built by Crusaders over sixth-century East-Roman predecessors. Nearby is a Russian Orthodox Monastery on the mountain. After walking in this village and on the hills, we returned to Bethlehem in time for supper, and for earlier retiring.

On Monday, 19 April, we rose early to take breakfast and to begin the day’s journey as we drove to Masada, the site of an ancient Jewish fortress on the top of a mesa-top mountain. Masada is approached by driving south along the main north-south highway, which runs along the west coast of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea has become very greatly diminished from its former size by heavy water-usage. We were informed that there is a plan to build a canal to bring water to the Dead Sea from the Red Sea, in order to compensate. We arrived at Masada, viewed the introductory film, and then we boarded the cable-car to ascend to the top of the mesa. There is still a path by which one may make the ascent on foot, as some hardy folks do, but the heat deters most. There, we were walked about the Herodian fortifications, and we were given explanations about the usage of the various rooms, and about the processes of archaeological investigations. We also heard alternative theories about the meaning of the events surrounding the Bar Kochba Revolution, and the conquering of the defences by the Roman army (ca. 135 BC). We then visited the remains of a sixth-century Temple, which is what remains of what is understood to be one of the monasteries established by Saint Euthymius, namely the one at Marda. We sang there the Paschal Tropar. The temperature was very high, but the wind permitted some comfort. At the base of this mesa, the altitude is about 350 m below sea-level. At the top, the altitude would be about 200 m above sea-level.

After descending, we drove north to the site of Qumran, the visiting of which was also introduced by a short film. We walked about the site of the former Qumran community’s building-remains, and we viewed from a distance the cave in which the famous scrolls were found (see Day 2). We were presented with one theory as to the nature of this community, and its relationship to our Saviour and to the Forerunner. After hearing this “official” theory, we then debated amongst ourselves various alternative theories. Following this, there was an opportunity for those desiring it to spend time in the Dead Sea. I stopped for coffee with others, and there I found Bishop Antonin of the Serbian Orthodox Church. We had a long conversation about the nature of the Church’s overall life in North America. Then it was time for us all to depart.

We moved on to nearby Jericho, and we visited the monastery that encloses the remains of the tree considered to be that of Zacchaeus (see Luke 19). After visiting the Temple, named for the Prophet Eliesseus (Elisha), we went to the nearby Russian monastery, which includes the House of Zacchaeus. This room has fourth-century mosaics on its floors. After a thorough visit (which included tea), we drove to the near-by Monastery of Saint Gerasimos of the Jordan and the women’s monastery of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. Again, we viewed beautiful and old mosaics. Descending to the lower rooms, we venerated the bones of some martyrs who were killed by the Persians in this place. After having been offered refreshment, we returned to Jerusalem for supper, sleep, and an early rising. In the course of these 2 days, we had encountered more than 3 times a group of pilgrims who had travelled from Moscow and environs.

On Tuesday, 20 April, we rose even earlier because of the need to approach the border between Israel and Jordan at a very early hour. The process of crossing the border is usually quite lengthy, although our crossing was by God’s mercy rather quick. We had arrived before the opening of the border, which may have helped. Afterwards, upon boarding the bus with our Jordanian driver, our guide, and our tourist policeman, we drove immediately to Bethany Beyond the Jordan (also called Bethabara) (see John 1:28), where Saint John the Forerunner baptised, and where our Saviour was baptised. In this area, many Temples are presently being constructed by the Orthodox. There are archaeological remains in this area, dated from the 4th to the 6th centuries. We were able to approach the Jordan River (now a mere remnant of what it was, because 80% of the water is now diverted). By the water’s edge in this place are the remains of a very old baptismal pool, and of Temples with mosaics. It is a complex site. At the water’s edge, only some few metres from Israel (where there is a very well-developed baptismal site), one may touch the Jordan with caution. The caution is because of pollution. Nearby this site is a new Greek Orthodox Temple of Saint John the Forerunner. After leaving this site, we visited the hill of the traditional site of the ascension of the Prophet Elias to Heaven (see 4 Kingdoms 2:1-11). This site also has ancient baptismal pools and mosaic floors. In addition, there is a place where are the remains of an apse, in which is the traditional site of a cave where Saint John the Forerunner lived for some time. The temperature in this area was over 40oC when we were there.

After this substantial walking-visit, we drove to Mount Nebo (meaning “mountain of prophecy”), a Franciscan-protected and developed site. This is usually considered to be the place from which Moses viewed the Promised Land which he would not himself enter. It is also considered to be the place where Moses reposed and was interred by the Lord (5 Moses 34:5-6). Here, also, there were examples of intricate frescoes of the 4th to 5th centuries that are well-preserved. It is not easy to describe the beauty of the frescoes and mosaics we were seeing, and photographs do not do them justice, either. From here, we had a good view (through haze) of Jericho, and also of the Gilead mountains. At a height of 750 m above sea-level, the temperature was lower and the air was drier. From here, we drove along the King’s Highway to the town of Madeba, in the area of Moab. This is a very old town founded on the basis of fruit-production. We took dinner, and we then walked to the Temple of Saint George, which contains the remains of a famous East-Roman map-mozaic. Here also, we met a local priest who used to serve in the USA. After completing this visit, we visited the local mosaic work-shops, and we then departed for Petra, a three-hour drive. We went to our hotel nearby Petra, and after supper we retired rather late, ready to rise again early.

On Wednesday, 21 April, we rose early for breakfast, and we began the day devoted to the ruins of the ancient city Petra. First, we drove to Little Petra. This place is some kilometres distant from the main town of Petra, about 20 minutes’ drive (with stops). We were shown en route how the Nabataeans were farming the area, as are the Bedouin today, except that the Bedouins plant grain instead of the grape-vines and jasmine planted by the Nabataeans. The grapes and jasmine were used in trade with Egyptians and others. There are several wine-presses known to be in the area of Little Petra (one of which we saw). The wine was used domestically ; however, later on, it was used for tribute that had to be sent to Rome. Little Petra and Great Petra were settled over 3,000 years ago by the Nabataeans, who came previously from near Medina in Arabia. In Little Petra, there are still intact archaeological remains that are almost the same as those in Great Petra. It is understood that these Nabataeans could well be the descendants of Ishmael because of the place of origin, and because of their name. “Nabataean” is very close to the name of the descendants of Ishamel’s first-born, “Nebaioth” (see 1 Moses 25:13 ; Isaiah 60:7). The First Book of Moses indicates that the names of his children are connected to place-names. Little Petra, built in a similar fashion to Great Petra (in a blind-end canyon), is understood to be the place of interaction and taxation between the Nabataeans and the travellers on the Silk Route who were using the King’s Highway.

The King’s Highway still exists. However, in ancient times, it was a very important trade route in the ancient Middle East, and it is referred to in 4 Moses 20:17-21. It began in Egypt, at Heliopolis. Then it went to Clysma (Suez), south through the Sinai to Eilat and Aqaba. It proceeded northwards through the Arabah past Petra and Madeba, through Damascus and other ancient towns, to Resefa on the upper Euphrates.

After our visit to this site, we drove to the entrance to Great Petra, and we made our descent through the Siq (canyon), a walk of 1.5 km. We then walked the next more than 1.5 km amongst the many royal tombs that are carved into the very colourful sand-stone of the area. Although we saw a great many tombs, temples, and one stand-alone building, we were informed that 91% of the habitations are still unexcavated and unknown. Some of the pilgrims were able to walk up to the remains of a monastery (no small feat). Others visited a Temple of the 4th to 6th centuries (with a baptismal font of the 4th century), one of 3 excavated in the area, with 5 more yet to be investigated. One of the royal tombs was converted in the 5th century into a bishop’s cathedral, of which there remain physical indications. The day was very sunny, although rather less hot than the previous day, so the walking was manageable. We returned to the hotel for supper. In this area, there was noticeable greenery and blossoming plants of various sorts.

On Thursday, 22 April, we rose for an immediate post-breakfast departure at 0730 hrs (with pre-packed baggage). We drove first to the north, to Shubak Castle, which was constructed in 1115 by Crusaders. It is also called Krak de Montréal. We toured the substantial remains of this castle, including one of the several chapels. We then drove to Um ar-Rasar, or Castron Mefa, the remains of an East-Roman cavalry unit. It was a border-camp of the 5th to 6th centuries, which was finally overcome by Islamic incursions. This complex has the remains of many domestic and other buildings (besides the military compound), and it also contains the remains of 15 Christian Temples. We visited 2 of these, and noted the truly remarkable good condition of the sixth-century mosaic floors. Little has been disturbed in all these centuries. Following this, we travelled another kilometre to the nearby stylite pillar, one of the few in the world remaining intact. This 15 m construction was home, it is said, to a Monk Samuel in the period of the 6th century. Nearby this square pillar is a chapel, probably containing the tomb of the stylite, and also what appears to have been a pilgrim-hostel. Leaving this, we drove some distance to view the great Arnoun Valley, which divides the Moabites from the Amorites. We passed through Dhibon, the domestic capital of Meshach, sometimes called Kedar (see Psalm 119:5). From here, we drove to the remains of the Makheras Fortress of Herod Antipas (above the east coast of the Dead Sea), where the Forerunner John was beheaded (see Matthew 14:1-12, et al). Some were able to walk up the substantial hill and to view the excavations being undertaken. From there, we drove on to Ammon, where we took supper, and where we stayed the night in a hotel.

On Friday, 23 April, we rose again for a post-breakfast departure at 0800 hrs (with pre-packed baggage) for the archaeological site of the town of Jerash (Gerasa), 48 km north of Ammon. This city, one of the Decapolis (10 cities), was established in the time of Alexander the Great, and it persisted in some ways through the Roman period up until the fall of the empire. There have been found 13 East-Roman Temples, including the Cathedral of Saint Theodore. A former pagan temple of Dionysius became a Temple of the Theotokos. There are another 3 Christian Temples not far away, close to the temple of Artemis (which never became a Christian Temple) ; and there is quite a small Temple (more like a chapel) across the street from the Hippodrome and close to the Triumphal Arch of Hadrian, which suggests that it stood there as a witness to the better way, the Christian Way. There are many remains of beautiful mosaic floors, which usually include an indication of the dedication of the Temple in which they are. Outside the three-apsed Cathedral of Saint Theodore (built in about 365), there are the almost-intact remains of a fountain and its water-supply. Of old, in this fountain there was always water, except on the day commemorating the Marriage at Cana, when it flowed with wine. Many of the other Christian Temples were built in the time of the Emperor Justinian. The state of this city’s preservation is remarkable, especially considering the fact that earthquakes still continue to happen, which threaten the many free-standing columns. In the course of our walking, we met Orthodox people from Damascus and from Beirut (both not far away by land). The city of Jerash is only 20% excavated so far. Jordan has several hundred such sites, but there is no money either to do a complete excavation or to maintain well what has been excavated.

Departing from this city (after walking along the colonnaded cordo — main street), we boarded our bus to cross the River Jordan into Israel again at the King Hussein Bridge. This crossing was a time-consuming process. Once this was completed, we soon parted with Igumen Alexander (Pihach), who had to leave that night for Canada. The rest of us continued on to Tiberias on the south-west side of the Sea of Galilee. Tiberias is a Roman City built by Herod over a cemetery (which made it unacceptable for habitation to the Jews of the day). At present, the city of Tiberias is a popular resort-site, and it has a very large population. The Sea of Galilee is alternatively called Kinnereth, because it has the shape of a harp. We entered our hotel, took supper, and then retired. This day had been, on the New Calendar, the Feast of the Great-Martyr George ; but the Patriarchate of Jerusalem follows the Old Calendar.

On Saturday, 24 April, we began by taking a boat-trip part of the way across the north of the Sea of Galilee, the lowest fresh-water lake in the world (212 m below sea-level), to the site of a kibbutz, at which there are the remains of a recently-discovered boat from 2,000 years ago. This boat (now preserved in a special museum), demonstrates the appearance of the boats of the period which sailed on the Sea of Galilee, such as shown on many pieces of art of the period. From the boat, we saw Mount Arbel, past which our Saviour would have walked, on His way from Nazareth to the Jordan Valley and to Capernaum. After leaving the kibbutz, we drove to Kursi, in the Golan Heights. It was en route to this place that our Lord calmed the sea (Matthew 8:23-27, et al) ; and it is in this place that our Lord healed the demoniac, and then the herd of swine rushed into the sea (see Mark 5:10-20). Here, there are remains of an old monastery Temple of the 5th century, again with beautiful mosaic floors. This monastery was the largest East-Roman monastery on the territory of Palestine.

Next, we drove to the site of the Mount of Beatitudes (see Matthew 5), which is cared for by the Franciscans, and there we met an Antiochian Priest from the USA, who was on a scholarly tour. We learned that lower on this hill there have been discovered the remains of a very old East-Roman Temple, but that it is not presently accessible to the public. After this, we drove to Tabhga, where our Lord multiplied the loaves and the fishes (see Matthew 14:13-21, et al). The name is an Aramaicisation of the Greek word for “Seven Springs”. In Tabhga, there is a baptismal font of the 5th century. Then we visited Capernaum (which in Aramaic means “Village of a Dignitary”). Our Lord spent much time in this town. It was a major commercial site, and a major stopping-place for travellers. In Capernaum is the home of the Apostle Peter and his mother-in-law, and the remains of a synagogue. This is a newer one built on identical ancient foundations, and this synagogue is the place where our Lord often prayed and spoke. Very near this place also are the remains of an ancient house-church (domus ecclesia). In this house, our Lord healed the paralytic (see Matthew 9:1-8, et al), and nearby, the woman with the haemorrhage (see Mark 5:25-34, et al). Nearby this house, at the sea-shore, also occurred the Miracle of the Fish and the Coin (see Matthew 17:24-27). Not far from the house-site is the Orthodox site, on which there is a beautiful Temple of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated in memory of the Healing of the Paralytic (see previous references) and the Calling of the Twelve (see Matthew 10:1-4, et al). Here, there are remains from the 4th to 6th centuries. Here also, as we walked about the grounds, we met the dean of the Orthodox Seminary in Iasi, Romania. After this day, we returned to the hotel in Tiberias for supper and overnighting.

On Sunday, 25 April, our last day in the Holy Land, we rose early to travel to Magdala, to serve the Divine Liturgy in the Monastery of Saint Mary Magdalene. This was the site of her home (see Luke 8:2). There are several Russian nuns in this monastery, and they welcomed us warmly. The service was served simply, but there were required doublings of readings and hymns for the sake of language, and we took more time than expected. We left the monastery to return to the hotel for breakfast, and after putting our bags on the bus, we departed for Mount Tabor, where our Lord was transfigured before His apostles in the presence of the Prophets Moses and Elias (see Matthew 17:1-8, et al). This is the only free-standing mountain in the Galilee. I wrote “the Galilee” because it is a specific region, and this has become the normal way to refer to this specific region. “Galilee” by itself seems to be vague. Because it is so high and steep, buses can travel only part of the way up the mountain, and mini-vans are required to take non-walking pilgrims the rest of the way. These are operated by Bedouins who had been settled in this region by the government. At the top of the mountain, which overlooks the Valley of Jezreel (Armageddon), there are 2 sites : one Orthodox, the other Roman Catholic. We visited the former. As in every case with monasteries we had encountered, this monastery enclosure was serene, quiet, well-ordered, clean, flowery and beautiful. The nuns admitted us to the Temple, which is in typical basilica form, and we venerated the Stone of the Transfiguration, and some relics, and we saw the beautifully renewed interior.

Having spent over an hour in this place, we descended the mountain to where our bus awaited us, and we travelled on to Cana (see John 2:1-11). We were not able to visit the Orthodox site in Cana, but we did visit the Roman Catholic one. Here, there are representations of ancient stone-jars in which wine would have been kept. Here, also, we met pilgrims from Moscow whom we had already met elsewhere. Then we drove to Nazareth, which is now the largest city in the Galilee. In the time of Christ (and even until World War II), Nazareth was a very small settlement, indeed. Again, we could not visit the Orthodox site, which is over the Spring of the Theotokos. Nevertheless, we were able to walk to visit the Roman Catholic Basilica, near which is the Home of Saint Joseph the Betrothed, and under which is the Home of the Theotokos. Here, also, are excavations which reveal the nature of ancient homes in the Galilee (but particularly in Nazareth), and here also are the remains of a synagogue. After completing our visit, we walked to a restaurant near the Orthodox site, where we ate our farewell supper peacefully, joyfully and talkatively. After this, we boarded our bus and began the less-than-two-hour drive to Tel Aviv and the aeroport, for our departure at 2355 hrs. Nevertheless, there were several pilgrims who had earlier decided to prolong their stay, and who would not arrive home until later that week.

The security processes at the aeroport were thorough and elaborate, and therefore time-consuming. One would want to arrive at least 3 hours in advance, and even earlier if one were not with an expected group. Once the return flight was engaged, all was peaceful and uneventful. Giving thanks to the Lord, we arrived home safely on 26 April.

Pilgrimages are always unpredictable, and each is unique. They all depend on the local circumstances at the time, and also on the personalities of the group of pilgrims. Pilgrimages always come with blessings, but they also come with temptations. Our group was spared any serious temptations, but there were many small ones. It is important that we all learn to call to the Lord for help in this circumstance, to give thanks to Him, and to be very careful to live in forgiveness with each and all at all times. Glory be to God for all things, and for His endless kindness towards us, for His loving protection, and for His tender care.