Monday, December 12, 2016

Dippinng into River Jordan, Mount Tabor, Megiddo and Nazareth

Nov 22, Tue: River Jordan-Mount Tabor-Megiddo-Nazareth

            Our day began with a buffet breakfast in the hotel where I opted, once again, for Shakshuka Eggs and a variety of roasted vegetables with local cheese and olives.

Baptism in the River Jordan at Yardenit:

Not long after, we were in the van driving along the shores of Lake Galilee and arriving at the spot where modern-day pilgrims re-enact the Baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist in the waters of the river Jordan. Although faith causes many groups to take a ritual dunking in the water and although we, for lack of a priest in our midst, baptized ourselves with the river’s waters, I should state that contemporary scholars are of the opinion that the actual spot at which Jesus’ baptism took place is in modern-day Jordan. In fact, during our travels in Jordan, a few years ago, Llew and I had visited this spot. The Jordan no longer flows through that part of Jordan (the country) as it has changed its course in 2000 years. But archeological evidence believes that John confined himself to the “wilderness’ at this point and stayed alive through the use of water from a natural spring which is still active at the site in Jordan where every Christian denomination has built a church.

            Here (as an aside) are my notes from my Jordan Travelogue that I thought I would share at this time, in order to compare the two sites:

Off we went next to the banks of the River Jordan to a spot known in the Bible as Bethany to see the site of Christ’s Baptism. For the longest time, Biblical scholars and archeologists were not quite certain exactly where, on Jordan’s banks, Jesus was baptized by his cousin John. Pilgrims to Israel are usually taken to a spot on the river where accompanying priests perform baptismal rites upon them. Only in recent years, in fact, has the exact spot of Jesus’ baptism been pin-pointed with a reasonable degree of accuracy and this spot seems to be, not in modern-day Israel, but in Jordan. Indeed, the Bible refers to the spot of John the Baptist’s retreat as “Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan” where fresh springs flowed and where he began baptizing people with water.  Again, Pope John Paul’s visit to the spot where he said Mass, legitimized it as being the spot of Jesus’ Baptism and ever since then, various Christian denominations have been rushing there to build churches. Several are currently under construction and I would have liked to have entered the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George (as the area is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church) but, alas, it was closed.

            Still, we saw the simple wooden canopy that has been built to replicate the kind of circumstances in which John might have carried out his baptisms. There are moving mosaic depictions of the event at the site. A winding walk down a narrow oasis-like path, past fresh rushing springs brought us to the banks of the River Jordan, reduced to a mere muddy canal at this point. Here we could bend down and trail our hands in the cool flowing waters and look across its bank into Israeli territory, appropriately marked by the armed presence of its soldiers. Pilgrims on the Israeli side were treated to the swish glass and concrete, air-conditioned interior of a modern visitor’s center. It was the oddest feeling to look just across the river into Israel and think how far divided these two countries have become—although after the Peace Accord much more ease prevails between Jordanians and Israelis.


            We posed for pictures at the sign saying “Jordan River-Baptismal Place” but it was quite obvious that there are no signs or notes anywhere stating that this was the spot of Christ’s Baptism. Israel has built a very swanky Visitor’s Center at this spot with well-defined stone steps leading down to the water to enable pilgrims to take a dip—and indeed it was quite interesting to see some Filipino Evangelical groups take a physical dunking and come up spluttering.

Visit to Mount Tabor’s Basilica of the Transfiguration:

            Our next stop was Mount Tabor to which our van climbed to enable us to enjoy stunning views of the Valley of Jezreel spread out below us and to see the sides of the mountain dotted white by settlements. This church, a grey stone edifice that resembles a castle with twin turrets, was also designed by Antonio Barluzzi. In the front churchyard, a sculpture of Pope John Paul II who visited the church, has been placed in a small garden. There is also a bas-relief bust of the architect Barluzzi on the wall. Inside, we discovered that the church is built in two tiers. A long nave with a lovely hammered timber ceiling (quite unlike any other church we visited) leads to a sort of ‘platform’ from which one can view the lower half of the church where the main altar is located. The gold mosaics on the church, in imitation of the style of Byzantine churches, gives it a very rich appearance.

            We were fortunate to find that a concelebrated Mass was being said at the main altar and since we had not heard Mass anywhere up to this point, we trooped down the stairs to the altar and joined the congregation there. This enabled us to receive Communion in the church built at the spot where the Transfiguration of Jesus took place. Appropriately, the mosaic above the altar depicts the two figures from the Bible, Moses (holding the Ten Commandments) and Isiah glancing at Jesus who shines with a pure light. It was a very uplifting spiritual experience and the first of the kind we would have as the days passed by. Mount Tabor is supposed to be the spot at which the Transfiguration took place—which is why it has been marked by a church that is a frequent sight-seeing and pilgrimage point. 

Visit to a Date Processing Factory:

            Throughout our drives of the previous two days, Moti had been passing around a box of dates for us to snack on. They were delicious and he had told us that he would take us to the processing plant where top-quality dates are harvested and processed for consumption. Hence, our next visit was to a date-processing factory where we had the opportunity to taste really superior varieties of the fruit on which the entire Middle East survives and to taste a number of preparations made with dates such as a concentrated date sauce and a fruity tea. There were also a wide variety of spices to be bought and a number of cooking tools and gadgets. Some of us did leave with boxes of dates to be gifted to friends.

Exploring the Excavated Site of Megiddo (Armageddon):

            Our visit to Megiddo (also known as Armageddon in the Bible) was one of the highlights of the trip for me as it introduced me to a site about which I had known nothing and from which I learned so much. Moti explained to us that Megiddo was excavated recently and discovered to be the site of a Hebrew settlement that was ingeniously created as a refuge from Roman persecution. Its location in the unprotected Valley of Jezreel made it vulnerable to attack—which was why it was essential for the Jewish inhabitants to create defenses that would baffle their enemies.     

            As we walked through the thick walls of the city, we entered Tel Megiddo (as it is known in Israel). The area has become a major spot of tourist interest—which explains why superb landscaping has created steps upon which visitors can climb and walk through the excavated ruins that date from the time of King Solomon in the 10th century BC. Among the many aspects of interest was the sacrificial altar (upon which animals were sacrificed to Yahweh). We also saw the foundations of what had been horse stables indicated by the presence today of a wrought-iron sculpture of a chariot upon which we all climbed for a picture.

            However, the most fascinating aspect of Megiddo is its underground tunnel (through which the modern-day visitor can walk) that was constructed as a means of providing water for the inhabitants through a source in a faraway spring that lay far beyond the city walls. Thus, when the Romans laid siege to the settlement, the people inside did not perish as they had a steady source of water that kept coming even while they were surrounded by their enemies. Moti led us to the entrance to the tunnel (which, at the time, was completely disguised so that no one could find it) and then told us to walk through it. He would meet us, he said, on the other side. Little did we know how deep we would have to descend into the earth through a series of stairways hewn into the rock base. Once we arrived at the bottom, we found a wide and very long tunnel stretching out ahead of us. Obviously, in its heyday, this cavern, about an arm-span wide, was filled with a pipe through which water was conveyed from the spring to the settlement in an incredible feat of ancient engineering. We walked right through the tunnel and had to climb several ranks of steps to emerge at ground level on the side. This took a great deal of effort and stamina and was perhaps the most strenuous part of our travels. It was easy to see why Megiddo is included on a tour of Israel. In its dimensions and in the objective with which this plan was hatched, designed and implemented, it was quite ingenious indeed and a great tribute to the astute Jewish minds that envisioned it so many centuries ago. You can understand now why most of the Nobel Prize winners are Jewish!

Lunch at Megiddo Cafeteria:

            Since Megiddo is such a well-visited site, it has a fairly well-organized cafeteria (which was where we stopped to have lunch). Llew and I chose to share a Set Meal which included a variety of mezze salads, onion soup, rice and chicken with fries and an orange for dessert. It was a very utilitarian lunch but it served its purpose of fueling us up for the rest of the day’s sightseeing—for we still had a lot in store.

On to Nazareth and the Church of the Annunciation:

            Another longish drive brought us to the city of Nazareth which is busy, chaotic and characterized by incessant honking. Nazareth, of course, is the city of Jesus’s childhood and early upbringing. It was where his foster-father Joseph plied his trade as a carpenter and where Jesus would have assisted as an apprentice. This is also the town in which Mary was raised and where, as a maiden betrothed to her neighbor, the carpenter Joseph, she received news from Angel Gabriel that she would conceive—the Annunciation. Accordingly, Nazareth is visited by modern-day pilgrims for the Church of the Annunciation—it was one of the most elaborate of the churches we saw and distinctive for its collection of beautiful mosaic panels from most countries of the world that depict the Virgin Mother in some shape or form. This motif commences in the courtyard along a lengthy walkway and continues inside the church—a quite beautiful one built in yellow and pink sandstone with a pretty dome at the top. We decided to recite a decade of the rosary in every one of the sacred venues that we visited and we started at this one.

            Inside, the church was rather dark and somewhat unusual in its design—it is almost stable-like and created from stones in varied shades of sand. Behind  the main altar was a niche in which there was yet another altar—as people paused there in prayer, I do believe that they consider this to be the actual spot where the Annunciation took place. The church is also constructed around a batch of ruins that might indicate the home in which the Annunciation occurred—presumably Mary’s home. At one end of the church is a really beautiful depiction of the Virgin in a painted sculpture at the foot of which are the words, Maria di Nazareth. This church too is two-tiered and upstairs (you reach there through a number of steep flights of stairs), you arrive at a much grander basilica where mosaics make up the main altar, stained glass panels let in light, a high conical dome can be seen above them and varied panels continue to present the Virgin in her glory. What I found interesting about this church was that the panels depicting the Station of the Cross have notes in Arabic script. What I find most intriguing about these churches is the manner in which the original ruins of significant spots have been retained with contemporary architects designing new structures to sit right upon them.

The Church of St. Joseph:

            Just next door to the grand basilica is a much more modest church that is called The Church of St. Joseph which is said to be built above the exact location of St. Joseph’s home and workshop. A painting inside depicts the Holy Family with Jesus learning carpentry while his parents look on. The main altarpiece also depicts the Holy Family. There is a lovely statue of St. Joseph holding Jesus by the shoulder. I found it to be a very moving representation of foster-fatherhood.

            When we had spent a few minutes in prayer and circumnavigated the church, we were told to look for stairs leading down to the crypt in which parts of Joseph’s original home are preserved. We did find the steps and did get downstairs to find the place mobbed by tour groups whose guides had accompanied them downstairs and were offering commentary on many different aspects of the space. I stopped to listen to what one of them was saying and was deeply impressed by the detail to be found in his comments. Here too, a mural depicting the Holy family contributes to the psychological sense of being in a place where the presence of the Holy Family was frequent.

Sampling Sweetmeats in Nazareth:

            Unfortunately, although Nazareth appeared to be quite an intriguing city, we did not have much of an opportunity to explore it on foot (which was actually quite a drawback in our itinerary). Moti did, however, direct us to a sweetmeat shop as we had told him that we wanted to try kanafi. He took us to Mahmoon which our guide books had also extolled as selling the best sweetmeats. Moti arranged to have all sorts of items sent to us—but I have to state that I was disappointed as the kanafi that I had expected simply did not show up. We did try some varieties of baklava and other sticky sweet desserts—soaked, as baklava is, in orange blossom honey. But, the kind of kanafi that we had eaten repeatedly in Jordan and loved, remained elusive in Israel.

A Visit to a Diamond Merchant:

            As part of our travels, Moti thought it pertinent to include a visit to a diamond merchant’s showroom as Israel is well-known for its business in commercial diamonds (and other precious and semi-precious stones). As we all know, the Diamond District in New York’s Manhattan used to be dominated by Jews—it is only quite recently that Indian Gujaratis have entered the trade. Raw diamonds are sourced from mines in Africa, sent to India for sorting and grading, then sent to Antwerp for cutting and eventually distributed to showrooms worldwide by the Israelis.

            Upon entry in the showroom, we were greeted by a salesperson who gave us a very brief introduction to the cutting and grading of diamonds based on the concept of the four Cs: Color, Cut, Carat and Clarity. For most of us who are familiar with the Indian diamond trade, the prices at the showroom were atrocious. It is obvious that a huge markup was part and parcel of sales and that tour guides receive a heavy cutback from any sales. Certainly, the prices were higher (double or more) that any to be found in even the most prestigious diamond showrooms in India such as Bombay’s Tribhuvandas Bhimji Zaveri. It is not surprising that none of us bought anything as we certainly have far more reasonable sources from which to obtain our stones.     

Back to Our Hotel, Dinner at Magdalena and a Piano Recital:

            Back in our hotel in Tiberius, we debated our dinner options and decided to eat at Magdalena which is so-named because it is based in the town from which Mary Magdalen is supposed to have hailed. The restaurant turned out to be deluxe and although its menu was limited, its food was delicious. Llew and I shared superb Mediterranean Shrimp (which was similar to Scampi) and Kebabs Anatolia (minced meatballs with Turkish spices). Both our choices were good and with desserts based on chocolate, we had ourselves a very good meal indeed.

Soon after, we returned to our hotel and were treated to an amazing mini-recital from Cherie-Ann who played two most impressive pieces of classical music for us. She took the hotel by storm as she stormed the keyboard and had all the guests on high alert as they listened to her virtuosity on the piano. It was not long after that we called it a day and returned to our rooms.

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