Sites of the Holy Land
Given this year's worldwide economic problems, there are very few locations reporting a record year for tourism. But Israel is one of them — we found that out during our recent Post-Bulletin-sponsored cruise to the Mediterranean which included several days in Israel.
By mid-November, the Holy Land had already surpassed the high of 3 million visitors set two years ago, and that figure was attained despite the off-and-on hostilities that occur in that region of the Middle East.
In addition, that total is surging now as it always does during the Christmas season when many thousands of religious pilgrims — 90,000 are predicted by Israel tourism officials — come from all over the world to attend church services and view holy places.
Major stops in Israel
There was a focus on religious sites during a good share of our cruise — although it did include many other elements. Our group of about 60 started the trip from Rome with tours of the Vatican, then many in the group visited the shrine and home of the Virgin Mary along the coast of Turkey where she lived for many years until her death.
That was followed with major stops in Israel.
"Expect crowds virtually everywhere," our excursion tour leaders told us before we left our ship — the Celebrity Equinox — at Israeli ports. And we did encounter a nearly overwhelming number of tourists at most locations.
Jerusalem, and its walled Old City, attracted most of our group, as well as many from the ship. The Old City covers much of the sacred ground revered by three of the world's greatest religions: Christian, Jewish and Muslim. And we visited all three of these quarters.
The Old City is considered a bazaar of living history. It's a densely packed labyrinth of more than 100 streets, 1,000 shops and stalls, and 3,000 years of history. Even though the Old City is undergoing a $4 million restoration of its thick limestone walls, the ancient markets — virtually all manned by aggressive shopkeepers — and sacred religious sites have remained unchanged for centuries.
Holy s ites of interest
Within the walls of the Old City, you'll find the holiest Jewish site (the Western Wall), the third-holiest Muslim site (the Harem-esh-Sharif, or Temple Mount, from where Mohamed was said to rise to heaven), and the holy Christian sites of the trial of Jesus, his crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
One of the highlights included viewing the fabled Jaffa Gate, built in the 16th century by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, which had recently reopened after a restoration that included reattaching an original Arabic inscription above the entrance.
The Western Wall or "Wailing Wall" — a 187-foot stretch of limestone — was heavily populated by Jewish rabbis. Judaism regards it as its most sacred place of prayer.
Virtually all of our group followed the Via Doloroso (The Path of Sorrow), which is believed to be the path that Jesus walked dragging his cross on the way to his crucifixion.
Many tourists, including Karen Ricklefs, placed their hands over the places on the walls where it is believed Jesus placed his as he rested or fell dragging his cross.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Another sacred site that was visited was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, deemed the location of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
In a special arrangement, the church now is shared by six denominations. Another stop took us to the Garden of Gethsemane, situated on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem.
A short distance from Jerusalem is Bethlehem, which is visited by more than a million tourists a year. The focal point is the Church of the Nativity, which is built over a cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus.
We visited most of these sites on our three previous trips to Israel, but a new experience was traveling to the Jordan River, near Jericho. The site we visited is believed to be the spot where Jesus entered the water some 2,000 years ago to be baptized by John, who immersed his followers in the Jordan to symbolize their purification in the eyes of God.
Parts of the Jordan are under warning from the Israeli government that certain areas may be polluted from increasing amounts of sewage. But that didn't seem to affect a large group of Christian pilgrims that we saw going through baptismal rites in the water.
Shopping almost everywhere in Israel was about as popular as viewing the myriad of religious sites, or so it seemed to us. Many of our group — Tom and Sam Konakowitz, Karen and Merlin Ricklefs, and Mary Hanson in particular — loaded up on carved olive wood, nativity sets and religious Christmas ornaments. Most of our group's shopping bags were full