The Complete Guide To: The Biblical Lands

The New Testament territories are a fascinating destination for a holiday. David Orkin visits the religious sites of Israel, Jordan and Palestine


THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD?

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD?

That's for you to decide. But even though it's 2,000 years since the events described in the New Testament took place, many biblical locations are still recognisable from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

WHERE EXACTLY ARE THE NEW TESTAMENT LANDS?

Joseph and Mary briefly travelled with the newborn Jesus to Egypt and there are some other important sites in Syria and even Turkey: Antalya, formerly Antioch, in the south-east of the country was second only to Jerusalem as a centre of early Christianity. But if you exclude churches built centuries after Christ's death and the journeys made by Paul (which took him to modern-day Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and Italy), the vast majority of biblical sites fall within the present-day borders of Jordan, and Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (I&PA).

Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have seen many changes since biblical times, and Israel's urban areas are all totally different. Intense building and farming have meant that vast tracts of land have changed remarkably in a few decades, let alone in two millennia. Parts of North Africa, for example, are much closer to how the Holy Land would have looked in ancient times - Monty Python's Life of Brian was filmed in Tunisia.

Many Christians are disappointed that the very sites they consider so important are marked by unsympathetic architecture and often ugly, gaudy shrines. Exceptions include the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem and - if they're not too busy - some of the shady stream-side paths at Bethany beyond the Jordan.

CAN I WALK IN JESUS'S FOOTSTEPS?

Yes, and see some sublime landscapes along the way. For example, the Mount of the Beatitudes (where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount) has peaceful well-tended gardens that overlook the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus walked between Jerusalem and Jericho, it is likely that he took the path through Wadi Kelt. Though the monastery of St George here dates from the 5th century, this valley has a strong biblical feel and is thought to be the location for the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In Jordan there are many wilderness areas and unspoilt places of natural beauty that are likely to invoke spiritual feelings: however awe-inspiring such magnificent areas as Wadi Rum may be, no substantial evidence has yet been found to tie them in with specific New Testament sites.

DID JESUS SPEND MUCH TIME IN JORDAN?

Yes. Christ often crossed the River Jordan from Galilee, Samaria and Judea into Perea, a region of present-day western Jordan roughly bordered by Pella in the north and Mukawir in the south. Jordan got a big boost as a destination for New Testament travel as a result of a papal visit in 2000. But most of the biblical action took place in present-day I&PA, and in particular Jerusalem - possibly the most significant city in the world.

WHY IS JERUSALEM SO IMPORTANT?

Because the city is at or near the heart of three of the world's great monotheistic religions. A settlement existed here at least 4,000 years ago (incidentally, Jericho, 15 miles to the east, has been dated back to at least 7000BC) and its recorded history began about 1,000 years before Christ's birth, when the Jewish King David captured the city from the Jebusites. To establish it as the Jews' holy city, David's son Solomon built the First Temple on the site where God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The building was finally completed in 950BC.

In 586BC Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians but they in turn were driven out by the Persians 49 years later. The Jews (they didn't officially become Israelis until the State of Israel was established in 1948) built the Second Temple on the site of the first in 515BC. The famous Wailing Wall is the western wall from the Second Temple.

Alexander the Great conquered the city in 331BC and it was then ruled by the Seleucids - Syrian Greeks. Pompey's armies captured Jerusalem for the Romans, and Herod the Great was installed as king. After his death, the Romans decided to use procurators to rule rather than kings. The fifth procurator was in power from AD26-36: his name was Pontius Pilate.

O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM...

...is eight miles south of Jerusalem. The Church of the Nativity here was rebuilt in AD529, after the original edifice was damaged. A silver star, held by the Catholic Church to be the exact spot of Christ's birth, was set into the floor in 1717. Midnight Mass from nearby St Catherine's Church is broadcast worldwide on Christmas Eve, when Bethlehem's Manger Square is packed with thousands of Christians.

AND NAZARETH?

Today the place where Jesus grew up is the largest Arab town in I&PA. Its present location is thought to be a little to the west of the town where Jesus spent his early years. The major building here is the Basilica of the Annunciation, which was completed in 1969; it opens from 9-11.45am and 2-4.30pm daily (not Sunday mornings), and admission is free. Many visitors feel the simpler, quieter Greek Orthodox Church of St Gabriel is more in keeping with reflection and prayer.

The Mensa Christi church was built in 1861 around a stone identified by 17th-century pilgrims as the table Jesus set for his disciples after the Resurrection. It reopened a few years ago following extensive restoration works that had taken over 30 years to complete.

Nazareth has several other interesting churches but many visitors prefer to base themselves on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Tiberias when touring the nearby sites which include Capernaum, Cana, Taghba (where the 5,000 were fed), and Mount Tabor - the Mount of the Transfiguration.

AFTER CHRIST'S LIFE?

The Jews did not keep their peace when the Greeks tried to rededicate the temple (the Jews' holiest building) to the Greek god Zeus in 168BC. When the Roman Emperor Caligula insisted that his image be installed in their temple, the uprising that followed ended only after a long siege in AD70. As punishment, the Romans destroyed the temple, and most Jews were exiled abroad or sold into slavery. Despite these actions, still fearing (quite rightly) that Jerusalem would still be seen as a focus for Jewish nationalism, the Romans decided to destroy the whole city. A few decades after the Crucifixion, Emperor Hadrian built a new Roman city on the site and named it Aelia Capitolina. In AD1099 crusaders broke through Jerusalem's defences and - in the name of Christianity - massacred some 40,000 Muslims and Jews. With the occasional lull, destruction and bloodshed have continued through to the present day: sadly peace and tolerance are not the first words one thinks of to describe the Eternal City.

AND JERUSALEM TODAY?

Jerusalem's Old City overflows with important New Testament sites and is now divided on geo-religious grounds between Christians, Jews, Arabs and Armenians; Armenia was the first nation to be converted almost en masse to Christianity. The layout of the current Old City is roughly as it was in the Roman-built Aelia Capitolina, though there is probably at least 20 feet of mud, earth and archaeology between the current streets and their level during Jesus's time. The city walls in existence today were in fact built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century when the Ottomans ruled the city.

The question of who should control Jerusalem is still at the root of many of the problems in the Middle East, and it's incredible to think that it is all packed into an area of less than a square mile. Outside the walls but within the present-day metropolitan area is the Mount of Olives, which provides one of the world's great city views. On the other side of the mountain is Bethany, the home of Lazarus - hence its Arabic name, El-Azariyah.

A Franciscan church commemorates Lazarus's resurrection, while Bethpage has a village church with a mural depicting Jesus mounting a donkey for his entry to Jerusalem.

Though biblical rather

than specifically New Testament, two sights that might be of interest are the Bible Lands Museum, part of the highly-regarded Israel Museum (00 972 2 561 1066; www.blmj.org) and the Biblical Gardens in Ein-Kerem (00 972 2643 0196; www.biblicalresources.net).

WHAT'S THE ISLAMIC CONNECTION?

Muslims considered Jerusalem such a holy city that the earliest mosques had two mihrabs or prayer niches: one facing Mecca and the other pointing towards Jerusalem.

Islam has its roots in both Judaism and Christianity. Throughout the Old Testament era there were prophets, and Muslims believe that Jesus was one of these. However, Islam is based on the belief that Mohammed, who lived in the early 7th century, was the last, and greatest, of the prophets.

On the evening of his death - which occurred in AD632 in Medina in modern-day Saudi Arabia - the Prophet Mohammed in the company of the angel Gabriel made a journey to Jerusalem. This is known as Al-Isra Wa Al Mi'Raj. In the presence of Allah, Mohammed then ascended to heaven from a place within the walls of the city. Some time later, a caliph (Islamic ruler) identified an area on the same site as the two destroyed Jewish temples as the location from which Mohammed had departed.

In AD691, the Dome of the Rock mosque was built on this site. It is now contained in the Haram El Sharif compound. For 36 shekels (£4.50) visitors can buy a combined ticket to the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa mosque and the Islamic Museum. The Dome of the Rock opens 7.30-10.30am and 12.30-1.30pm from Sunday-Thursday, but is closed during all prayer times and in the afternoons during Ramadan, and on Muslim holidays. It may also be closed during periods of tension.

IS JORDAN CALMER?

Jordan has many sites connected to early Christianity. Specifically in terms of New Testament events, you can visit Umm Qais in the far north-west - one of the cities of the Decapolis. These days no Gadarene swine wander the Roman and Byzantine ruins or soak up the magnificent views over the southern part of the Sea of Galilee. Close to the Dead Sea, Herod Antipas's hilltop fort of Machaerus (Mukawir) is where Salome danced and won John the Baptist's head. It is said that Jesus, Mary and various disciples passed through the town of Anjara and rested in a cave (site of the present day church of Our Lady of the Mountain).

Petra, the most famous archaeological site in Jordan that was hewn from the rock by the Nabataeans, is thought by many to be the last staging post of the three kings en route to Bethlehem with their cargo of myrrh, frankincense and gold.

A very important New Testament site can be found on the banks of the river Jordan a few kilometres north of the Dead Sea. It was only a few years ago that this was declared to be Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John the Baptist lived and preached, and where Christ was not only baptised but launched his public ministry. The large site also includes the hill from which Elijah ascended to heaven. Both Mukawir, Anjara and Bethany beyond the Jordan were declared pilgrimage sites by the Pope on his visit. Many Israelis continue to claim that the correct site is at Qasr Al-Yahud on the I&PA side of the river.

ARE BIBLICAL LOCATIONS ACCURATELY PRESENTED TODAY?

The short answer is probably not. It wasn't until AD330 that Constantine was inaugurated as the first Christian Emperor of the newly decreed Holy Roman (or Byzantine) Empire and attempts were made to recognise and mark the locations of the important events described in the New Testament. Constantine's mother, Helena, initiated a wave of "holy building": among the churches and shrines constructed at this time were Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Some sites match New Testament geographical descriptions closely, and at some archaeological evidence suggests veracity. At others the physical environment would have changed beyond recognition in those 300-plus years.

There are two examples from recent times that help us to understand the problem of identification. In 1986, after a prolonged dry spell, the waters of the Sea of Galilee fell to their lowest level since records began. The remains of a wooden boat were discovered in the shallows, and as excitement mounted, archaeologists moved in. Despite the fact that it was the first ancient ship ever found at the Sea of Galilee and that the scientists could not say much more than that it was from the period between 100BC and AD100, claims went out that this was the very fishing boat that Christ himself sailed in.

What is certain is that for nearly 1,700 years, millions of Christians have been visiting these sites to pray: that alone establishes strong Christian spiritual and religious significance and Jordan has now been endorsed by the Pope as an important pilgrimage destination.

WHEN SHOULD I VISIT THE REGION?

Parts of Jordan and Jerusalem can get cold and wet in winter (occasional snow is not unknown). Due to Israel's size and varied landscape, winter visitors may be able to ski on the slopes of Mount Hermon in the north and snorkel in the Red Sea just a few hours' drive to the south.

Easter is also busy (often coinciding with the Jewish holiday of Passover). Sightseeing can be uncomfortable on hot summer days (when nights can still be cold), but even so the school summer holidays usually mean more visitors, resulting in higher prices for both flights and hotels.

In climate terms, the best times to visit are April/May and September/October. But bring along the right wardrobe and you can comfortably visit at any time of the year.

ISN'T IT DANGEROUS?

The Foreign Office certainly urges caution. Its advice to travellers to Israel reads: "There is a high threat from Palestinian terrorism in Israel. We strongly advise you to maintain a high level of vigilance, especially in public places, including bars and restaurants, and avoid public transport, and any political gatherings and/or demonstrations."

WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO VISIT?

For those who prefer things to be organised for them or who want to travel with like-minded people, various companies offer tours that specifically concentrate on the New Testament sites. These are often run by church groups such as Pilgrim Travel (01304 375345; www.pilgrimtraveluk.ltd.uk), a firm that offers tours to both Israel and Jordan, and Camino Journeys (01843 863904; www.camino-journeys.net) which can organise New Testament tours around the sites in Jordan.

IS IT POSSIBLE TO TRAVEL INDEPENDENTLY?

Doing things independently requires a lot more planning, but there are plenty of flights to Tel Aviv, Amman in Jordan, and to the neighbouring Red Sea resorts of Eilat (Israel) and Aqaba (Jordan).

El Al (020-7957 4100; www.elal.co.uk), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Royal Jordanian (020-7878 6300; www.rja.com.jo) all fly to the area from the UK, and connections via European cities are widely available.

El Al does not operate on the Sabbath, between dusk on Friday and dusk on Saturday local time.

HOW SHOULD I GET AROUND?

Though in New Testament times your choices would have been foot, donkey, or boat, Israel now has one of the world's biggest bus companies, Egged. In addition, key routes have shared taxi ( sherut) services that leave when all seats are full. You may choose to fly between Tel Aviv and Amman (25 minutes) as the three border crossings between I&PA and Jordan (Allenby/King Hussein Bridge near Jericho, Arava just north of Eilat, and the Sheikh Hussein bridge near Tiberias) can be problematic.

I haven't come across anyone offering donkey rides these days, although at the viewpoint on the Mount of Olives there are usually a few camels whose owners will allow you a quick ride for a handful of shekels.

Getting around the Palestinian Authority is best done in yellow taxis. In I&PA, car hire isn't cheap but distances are relatively short and roads are good. You can't take rental cars into Jordan, and you should always be careful not to stray into risky areas.

In Jordan, the main sites tend to be less accessible by public transport and a tour is a good option, especially as tour companies also benefit from lower accommodation rates.

HOW DO I GET MORE INFORMATION?

Several guidebooks focus on the Holy Land: try to choose one that has been updated or published as recently as possible. Alternatively, try the Israel Government Tourist Office (020-7299 1111; www.go-israel.org), the website www.visit-palestine.com and the Jordan Tourist Board on (020-7371 6496; www.see-jordan.com).

NO ENTRY

Though the list is a lot shorter than it was, some hard-line Islamic countries may refuse you admission if your passport has stamps from a previous visit to Israel. In case you might be considering a visit to one of these countries (such as Syria), on arrival in Israel before you hand over your passport for inspection ask the officer to put the entry stamp on a separate piece of paper. This is common practice - but it may not work if you're visiting Jordan or Egypt from Israel, and it is possible that merely asking for this courtesy could intensify the security check.

Entering Israel after visiting hard-line Islamic countries is less of a problem, though a passport full of visas from countries openly hostile to Israel will mean extra attention at security checks.

Jerusalem and other places in Israel and the Palestinian Territory frequently make the news for the wrong reasons. Throughout the region you will see a lot of people carrying guns: soldiers (on and off duty), police, guards.

Security checks on flights to and from Israel, especially on El Al, are lengthy and thorough.

Expect numerous military checkpoints on roads linking Israel with the Palestinian Authority, and access between the two may be restricted at short notice.

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