Kevin and I have had Israel on our bucket list for years. Since we have been living in Europe, we knew this season in our lives was the best opportunity for us to go. Around Christmas of last year I received an e-mail that Hillsong United was doing their first tour to Israel. It was settled. We had to go!! It was a week full of new sights and new friendships. We had a absolute fantastic time! Here is how we spent our week:
We flew into Tel Aviv and immediately set out for Nazareth. This was about a two hour drive and I can honestly say that I slept almost the entire way. There is something about bus rides that puts me straight to sleep! We got to our hotel pretty late so we just grabbed a quick dinner with some of the other folks on the tour and crashed. We had to be up an at 'em by 7:30 the next morning!
DAY 1: CAPERNAUM, GOLAN HEIGHTS & CAESAREA PHILIPPI
We were up with the roosters... literally they were our wake up call. Crowing up over the sound of the city flooding through our hotel window. Since the telephone in our room was broken, we never received our actual wake up call so, the roosters crow actually worked out quite nicely. Our first stop on the trip was to Capernaum. We got there early in the morning so it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. It was cool and quiet as we looked out over the ruins Capernaum. One of small dwellings is believed to be the home of the Apostle Peter. They have built a church over the site and you can look down into the home through a floor of glass.
After Capernaum we drove to The Golan Heights. Our local guide explained to us in great detail about Israel's past and how this area serves of great importance to the Israeli military because of it's geographic location. We learned about the Israeli military itself and how this area was won over 50 years ago. It was a beautiful view as we looked out and listened to stories from our guide. It is such a beautiful country!
The area around the Golan Heights is home to a small minority of people called Druze. Our guide explained that these are people who live in Israel but still believe themselves to be Syrian and claim and alliance with them. During our visit to the site there were a few Druze men selling some fresh fruit and snacks. We were hungry and I never pass up an opportunity to eat!
After The Golan Heights, we headed to Caesarea Philippi. I thought it was interesting that Jesus would have chosen this place to retreat with his disciples. In the book of Matthew this is the location where He asks "Who do men say that I am?" During the time of Jesus, this was an area known for it's pagan gods and immoral worship rituals. At the time, the people who lived there believed the cave at Caesarea Philippi to be the actual gate to hell. I found it thought provoking that Jesus would stand at the "gates of hell" and tell Peter that he is "the rock on which he will build his church." I think it was intentional and is a bold statement. Amazing! Today, this is actually quite a pleasant place. We walked around and enjoyed the sound of running water and then sat down for a late lunch. This was my first Falafel of the trip... but it would not be my last!
It wouldn't be a Hillsong Tour if there were no worship concerts right?! After Caesarea Philippi we drove back to the Sea of Galilee to a large venue with about 2,000 people in attendance. There were people there from all over the world (even a few locals!) to worship God together as we looked out over The Sea of Galilee. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life.
DAY 2 : THE SEA OF GALILEE, CHURCH OF THE PRIMACY OF PETER, MOUNT OF BEATITUDES, NAZARETH VILLAGE & MOUNT PRECIPICE
We were up before the sun once again. So much to see so little time! We headed back for the Sea of Galilee because today, we were going to go out and actually sail the sea! I think this was my favorite thing we did on the trip. It was so cool to be out on the waters where Jesus would have walked over 2,000 years ago.
It was a sunny day when we sailed but it was still very hazy. It helped me to picture when Jesus walked on a water and his disciples thought he was a ghost. As we were out on the water the Hillsong worship band came out and met us and we were able to sing a couple of songs. So fun!!
Next stop was The Church of the Primacy of Peter. This is one of the three places where Jesus showed himself to his disciples after He defeated the grave! On most of the biblical sites throughout Israel, there is usually a church that has been constructed close by. Here, they built the church on top of the rock which they think his disciples would have been cooking fish when he appeared. It was a very peaceful and beautiful place to see.
For lunch, we ate Tilapia straight from The Sea of Galilee - complete with a slice of lemon and french fries! Next stop, was The Mount of The Beatitudes. This is where Jesus gave the famous Sermon on the Mount found in the Book of Matthew Chapter 5-7.
Back in Nazareth we went to a little touristy, yet very informative site called "Nazareth Village" This is a place where they have tried to recreate what the times would have looked like when Jesus walked through Nazareth. The city is complete with livestock, shepherds, craftsman, an olive press and even a historically accurate synagogue. It was cool to get a better idea of what things would have looked like at the time of Jesus.
We stopped by the Mount of Precipice right at sunset. The views were fantastic and the lighting was just right. It was amazing to look out over Nazareth. What a beautiful city!!
DAY 3 : MOUNT OF OLIVES, JERUSALEM OLD CITY
We got up even earlier than usual because we had to make the trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem. We spent the rest of the trip crashing in Jerusalem. This is about a three hour drive and, you guessed it, I slept almost the whole way! I just can't help it! Something about bus rides makes me sleep like a baby.
Our first stop on the way into the city was The Mount of Olives. In biblical times, it would have been more lush and covered in olive trees. Today, it overlooks a large burial ground. It was crazy windy up there, but we were able to get some beautiful shots of the city. After visiting The Mount of Olives we headed for the Old City of Jerusalem.
While touring the old city of Jerusalem, we only had about 20 minutes to break away for lunch. Kev and I found this great place to grab a quick bite to eat. It was my second day in a row with Falafel for lunch.... I regret nothing. I love it!!
It wouldn't be a Hillsong tour without another appearance of the worship team. We lathered up with sunscreen and worshiped on the southern steps of the temple!
DAY 4 : GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE, VIA DOLOROSA, WESTERN WALL, ISRAEL MUSEUM, YAD VASHEM
GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE
The Garden of Gethsemane is the place where Jesus came to pray the night of his arrest. The Olive trees here could be offshoots from the same trees that were standing the night Jesus came here to pray. Amazingly, they still produce olives today!
As we toured through the old city of Jerusalem we saw these epic sheets of baklava and I just had to try some. Literally the best I have ever had in my life! So good!
Our trip to The Western Wall happened to fall on a national memorial day. Yom HaShoah or in English "Holocaust Remembrance Day." This comes every year in April. It is a somber day in Israel. At 10 o'clock a.m. sirens rang out over Jerusalem and the whole city comes to a sudden halt. Cars stop in the middle of the street, pedestrians stop walking and everyone takes a moment of silence to remember the millions of Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. It was such a powerful moment for me, I was brought to tears!
DAY 5 : BETHLEHEM, CAESAREA
We had on the itinerary to visit Bethlehem to see The Church of The Nativity. This is a church that was constructed on top of the site where they believe Jesus was born. It was being restored during our visit so it was difficult to get a good look at it. A few different denominations use this building as their place of worship which makes for an interesting architectural mixture. Services are held periodically and our guide said his daughter was even married in this church! The site where they say Jesus was born is actually in a cave underneath the church. There was a service being held in this cave during our visit so we didn't get to go in but we did get to explore another cave underneath the church which was pretty cool.
After our morning in Bethlehem we set out for Caesarea. This is a national park preserving the ruins of the old city built by King Herod. In The Bible, it describes the first conversion to Christianity on this site. It was so cool to be standing there about 2,000 years later because of what happened here. We had a pastor in our tour group and a few other folks put together a small communion. We gathered together in what used to be a chariot arena and we all shared communion together. It was one of the stop-and-take-it-all-in kind of moments.
As the sun set on our day of sight seeing, we all gathered in the amphitheater. It was quite a site as we watched 2,00 people from all over the world file in to worship. Hillsong United's worship team came out and we sang our hearts out as we watched the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea.
DAY 6 : GARDEN TOMB, MASADA, THE DEAD SEA
Kevin and I woke up tired for our last day of sightseeing. We had gotten in pretty late the night before from Caesarea. However, I was excited to see the Garden Tomb. It was on the top of my list of things to see so I was super excited! I learned on this tour that there is some controversy over the actual site where Jesus was crucified and buried. Some religious scholars and historians believe that these events would have actually taken place at The Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is the old city of Jerusalem.
During our tour, we visited both sites and heard about why each site is believed to be the location of Jesus' crucifixtion and burial. For me, it was not so much about being in the EXACT geographic location where he died. I came to see what Jesus would have seen. I came to better understand what Jesus would have gone through. It was being able to walk through the gardens and contemplate what he did for me. To actually see how big the stone was that he rolled away. That really was the whole point of the trip for me, to better understand Jesus. Geographically correct or not, I felt that the Garden Tomb helped with that immensely.
After seeing the Garden Tomb we set out for Masada. Honestly, I had never heard of this place before traveling to Israel. Which, now that I have visited, is crazy! I would recommend this to anyone who is planning a trip to this country. Masada is an ancient fortified city built by King Herod in the Judean Desert riddled with a tragic story. To begin, you enter through the well designed visitors center where you will watch a quick movie about the story of the site. Next, you take a short gondola ride to the top. You can also hike to the top if you prefer a little more activity. We gladly took the gondola because it was an incredibly hot day.
I am from Arizona so I am no stranger to warmer weather... But, the heat was insane on the top of Masada. We felt like ants under a magnifying glass but we did enjoy all the sites and you can even see The Dead Sea from the top of the plateau. Which, was our next stop!!
After the heat of Masada we gladly threw on our swim suits and waded into The Dead Sea. Due to it's salt content you are able to float on the top of the water which was extremely cool to experience! However, because of the salt content of the water we were not able to stay in for very long. We hopped out and grabbed a quick drink at the lowest bar in the world! TIP : If you do plan to visit, I would recommend wearing cheap flip-flops and swim suit you do not mind if it gets dirty. I wore my Rainbow sandals and had to throw them away because the salt ruined them!
This was a trip of a lifetime. We had an awesome time. My dad always says "you can judge how good your trip was by how tired you are upon your return." We were exhausted! We learned a ton and met some incredible people. Israel, you are beautiful. I hope to return one day.