Early Monday we departed for the harbor town Caesarea Maritima, which was developed by Herod the Great. We sat in the box seat of Herod Agrippa in the theater and read of his death in Acts 12. We proceeded to the Hippodrome where we enlisted the youngsters in our group to run a race with all the pomp and circumstance of Ben Hur. The winner received a coveted Magnum ice cream bar! We briefly saw a portion of the aqueduct that brought fresh water to the metropolis from Mt. Carmel, nearly 10 miles away, and dipped our toes in the Mediterranean Sea. We then drove inland to Meggido, where we learned the meaning of gates in antiquity - JEWS. J - justice, E - economics, W - worship, S - security. We also hiked our first of many water systems. We finished the day off at Nazareth Village, a recreated first-century village and farm. There we learned about every day life & activities in the times of Jesus.
Tuesday found us in the Galilee at Hazor, the largest tel in Israel at 200 acres. We saw the six chambered Solomonic gate that is nearly identical in size and design to the gates at Megiddo and Gezer from 1 Kings 9:15. We also had the special treat of meeting famed archaeologist Amnon Ben-Tor and getting a tour from his assistant director Shlomit Bechar. While we were there, we hiked yet another water system, and saw the remains of the mudbrick Canaanite palace. We then traveled into the shadow of Mt. Hermon to Tel Dan. There, the largest source of the Jordan River, the Dan Spring, emerges in a thick oasis of greenery. We saw a Middle Bronze mudbrick gate, and the platform for Jeroboams high place of 1 Kings 12:30-31. We also took in a bit of modern history at the trenches overlooking Lebanon that were used to guard Israel until the Six Day War.
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Wednesday was a series of quick visits to important sites around the Sea of Galilee. Our first stop was Capernaum. This was Jesus adopted hometown, and also the hometown of Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew. There we saw Peters house, and the 4th century synagogue that was built over the foundation of one built in the 1st century. It was there that Jesus preached John 6:35-59 and declared he was the Bread of Life. We traveled around the lake to see the 1st century Galilee Boat which our dig conservator, Orna Cohen, played a huge part in preserving. Then we took to the waters and took sail upon the Sea of Galilee. Scott had promised us a party boat, and he did not disappoint! We watched as the crew cast for fish, we danced to Hava Nagila, and took time to reflect on all that had happened on this lake. We continued on to Magdala, the traditional hometown of Mary Magdalene and home to one of only seven known synagogues in the world remaining from the 1st century. Here they found a stone that may be the earliest known artistic depiction of the Second Temple. On the way home we stopped at the massive tel of Beth Shean. It was occupied from the Chalcolithic period until Byzantine period when it was destroyed by an earthquake on January 18, 749 AD. In front of the looming tel, the Romans built Scythopolis, the capital city of the Decapolis, a city with all the trademark Roman urban planning - a theatre, hippodrome, cardo, public toilets, and bath houses.
Thursday we moved into the Jordan Valley. Our first stop was New Testament Jericho. Unlike other sites, the Hasmonean rulers and Herod the Great did not build on top of the tel, but a few kilometers west on the banks of the Wadi Qelt, the main route from Jericho to Jerusalem. It was there Herod built his winter palace and also died. We then traveled those few kilometers to Old Testament Jericho, known as Tall es-Sultan and saw the mudbrick tumble of the 2nd wall of Jericho which Joshua used as a ramp. A few in our group hiked around the tel, but only made it once around. We wouldnt have been very good Israelites! We made a short drive to the northern edge of the Dead Sea where we split up. Half the group went to Qumran to experience the community life of the Essenes, while the other half experienced the modern Israeli resort life by floating in the Dead Sea. We closed the day out by traveling to the traditional baptismal site of Jesus. Among the throngs of tourists there, we had the privilege of witnessing the baptism of five people in our group.
Friday found us in the Dead Sea region again. We made changes to our schedule due to Ramadan prayers in Jerusalem, but it turned out to be for our benefit. It was only 93 that day, instead of the 105 forecasted for Sunday when we were supposed to go! We made an early arrival at Masada, but not early enough to be able to hike the snake path to the top. Up the cable car we went to look at the storehouses used to supply this fortress, and the hanging palace of Herod the Great off the northern end of the mountain. We then learned of its fall at the hand of those who had built it, and the desperation of those who had revolted and were trapped inside. We then drove up the road to Ein Gedi, one of only two freshwater springs located on the western shore of the Dead Sea. It was there that David hid from Saul and cut off a corner of his robe without Sauls knowing in 1 Samuel 24. We hiked up the wadi to the lower waterfall. Here the group split up. Some stayed to relax, while others decided to channel their inner ibex and scale to the top of the high wadi edge to take in a breathtaking panorama of the Dead Sea and view a temple from the Chalcolithic Period. It was quite an adventure, and we rewarded ourselves by taking a refreshing plunge into the spring on our return.
Saturday took us just south of Jerusalem to Herodium, yet another of Herods fortress palaces. There he took a small hill and built a circular compound on top, then add dirt to the side to make it seem twice as tall as it actually was. He chose this site to be buried, building a huge mausoleum on the side of the hill that was visible from Jerusalem. At the bottom of the hill he built what was nothing short of a country club for his friends and family. It included a huge pool with an island in the middle that you could sail to. The opulence of this site was stunning. We then drove over to Bethlehem to witness the opposite of Herods splendor, to see where the King of Kings was born in a simple manager. Granted, over the years, things have built up around these traditional holy sites. The Church of the Nativity is in the middle of a massive restoration and the entire church was a series of scaffolding and tarps protecting the wooden columns. We waited in line to enter the grotto under chancel where we saw the birth place, along with about 30 other people squeezed into a tiny room. Quiet reflection is hard to come by in these places!
Sunday was my last day on the tour. We stayed in Jerusalem and went to the City of David just south of the Temple Mount. This was the original site of Jerusalem and the city that David made his capitol. We saw part of the palace that David built for himself, as well as typical four room Israelite house from the Iron Age. We then walked down the hill and waded through Hezekiahs tunnel, which protected the Gihon spring source and brought it inside the walls of the city, described in 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:30. In the afternoon, we went to the Israel Museum which turned out to be a great way to finish my portion of the tour. We were able to see the vessels that were found at Shiloh, the lions that stood guarding the Canaanite temple at Hazor, and the pink sarcophagus that Herod was buried in, among other things. Our ability to say, “Been there! Seen that!” as a tourist was officially accomplished!