What is there about Israel that draws pilgrims and busloads of tourists from all over the world?
A tiny country of approximately ten million people, its land mass is minuscule in comparison to neighbouring Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. A country steeped in conflict long before its formation by the UN in 1947.
A country at the crossroads of civilizations and religious cultures for centuries. A country that invoked crusaders to travel thousands of kilometers to reclaim or defend this land marking it as the center for three world religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
The Muslim Mosque or the "Dome of the Rock" in Old Jerusalem marks the place where Soloman’s temple once stood, the spot where Muhammad allegedly ascended into heaven, and where Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac.
While Muslims worship at the Dome of the Rock, Jews at the Western Wall, and Christians at many church sites representing the significant moments in the life of Jesus. The proximity of all these sites impressed on me the complexity of spiritual faith.
This country, so full of divisive and contrasting sites, still is a magnet that draws visitors from around the world.
To walk beside the massive wall and enter the gate to Old Jerusalem was for me
like passing back in time. The narrow streets, crowded with people, shoulder to
shoulder, at times the press so great one waited for a moment to move forward.
Shops bordering both sides with the shopkeepers perched on chairs awaiting your
entry. The buildings appeared old but then one reads the city has been destroyed
twice, attacked, captured, and recaptured 44 times. It is difficult to date the
Visiting Old Jerusalem one sees the archeological remains of what is known as the City of David. Here I looked out over the Kidron Valley and could imagine David from this height contemplating the words of a psalm, or gazing down to rooftops below to spot Bethsheba bathing.
It was in the recently discovered City of David we walked the 533-meter-long Siloam Tunnel which according to common hypothesis was chiseled out of the rock at the time of Hezekiah in the 8th century BCE in preparation for an Assyrian siege. The tunnel could provide water for the city even during a siege. With flashlights in hand, and water flowing mid-calf around our legs, we walked the narrow passageway, an engineering feat at the time, down to the Pool of Siloam.
But the appeal to visit Israel is much more than the City of Jerusalem.
Bethlehem in the West Bank where our Palestinian driver took us to the Shepherd’s field,
where we recalled the stories of angels telling of Jesus’ birth. The Church of the Nativity, and Herod’s magnificent tomb were also part of a day’s journey.
We stood on the banks of the river Jordan the supposed location where Jesus was baptized, climbed Mt. Tabor where Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured along with Moses and Elijah, and visited Canaan where Jesus turned the water into wine.
Israel is more than “holy sites”.
Its national parks bring together the beauty of nature and historical moments. The En Gedi Nature Reserve, an area filled with spring-fed waterfalls and lush growth, is located on the eastern edge of the Judean desert, near the Dead Sea. Even at this beautiful spot, we are reminded of historical conflict. It was here David, and his men hid out in the surrounding caves and taunted King Saul but did not kill him though the opportunity arose.
Early in Israel's history, the nation had to fight for possession of the land. At Hermon Stream Nature Reserve, springs flow from the foot of Mount Hermon forming streams, the headwaters of the Jordan River. Gideon, the captain of the Israeli army brought his men here and had them drink. Three hundred drank from their hands, dipping them into the water whereas there other members got down and lapped the water like dogs. Gideon chose the former three hundred to become his special force to go against the Midianites, the enemy at that time as described in the biblical Book of Judges.
Israel is a country of geographical contrast.
We traveled many kilometers through rocky desert. And out of the wasteland appeared Eilat, a tropical paradise, a Cancun or Puerta Vallarta, at the southern tip touching the Red Sea.
From desert to oasis, from rocky canons to the fertile plains of Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee, to the lofty Golan heights, Israel is a land of contrasting beauty.
On our last day we had three more sites to visit; Nazareth, Megiddo, and Caesarea. None of us, including the throngs of people visiting the Church of the Annunciation knew what was taking place in Gaza at that moment.
We stood on the brow of the cliff to which they had brought Jesus to throw him off because his message—he had come to release the captive and let the oppressed go free --
was offensive to them. Meanwhile, bombs and rockets were going off in Gaza and
the surrounding area, a protest against the imprisonments of Palestinians.
Our next stop was Megiddo, during the biblical period a most important city linking world centers, Egypt and Mesopotamia, and thus another place of frequent battles. In the book of Judges, we read in the Song of Deborah, “The kings came, they fought…by the waters of Megiddo.”
Christian tradition identifies Megiddo as Armageddon, where the great battle between good and evil will finally finally take place. Ironically, standing on a high point, there at Megiddo we saw F18 fighter jets flying overhead. Soon after, Blackhawk helicopters.
Something was amiss. Our telephones alerted us to the situation in Gaza, and we knew Israel was once again at war.
On our arrival in Tel Aviv a few hours later we learned our flights home by commercial airlines were canceled.
Were we stuck in Israel?
Yes, a scramble to acquire new flights on ElAl delayed us by a few days.
Our delay was nothing compared to the hundreds, who are now stuck in the Gaza area separated from family, devoid of food, medicine, and hope. Our frustration was nothing compared to those who lost loved ones in the massacre or who wait patiently to learn the state of hostages.
What brings visitors to Israel? The contrasting beauty of the land, the rich historical stories, the birthplace and center of three religions, the land where God walked?
The Jewish prophets, Muhammad, and Jesus all spoke of peace and love, and yet this nation for centuries has been the battleground of faith and political ideology.
The prophet Jerimiah in the 6th century BCE speaking to his people about
to be exiled to Babylonia by King Nebuchadnezzar, in a moment of despair cried out “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” Jeremiah 8:22
Today two million Palestinians are stuck in Gaza, which has been described as,
“the largest open-air prison in the world.” Now, conflicting forces there, bring terror to the land.
Israel, in spite of being a land of beauty and history, is also a land of wounds.