Since our excursion meeting time today was 8 am, Denny set his alarm for 6:15 to provide plenty of waking up time plus time for breakfast. When we arrived at the inboard meeting site, it was obvious what seemed like the whole ship must have gotten up even earlier than we had! Already some people were being escorted to their bus while hundreds of us, coming from three directions and flowing like lemmings, fed into two single lines. It was reminiscent of a multi-lane highway with traffic in every lane trying to feed into one lane. Of course we finally made it through all the lines and eventually to our bus.
For this first day in Israel we opted for the half-day tour, about 5 1/2 hours. First we had to get from the port city of Ashdod to Jerusalem, an hour’s trip. Our group had an outstanding and knowledgeable guide who made that hour fly, as we travelled through fairly hilly, very arid regions to get to the city. There was little to see but dirt, dust and occasional trees — certainly there were no flowers, roadside plantings or grassy areas. In fact I don’t recall seeing any grass during this excursion.
The main foci of the tour were the Christian and Jewish holy sites, although some minimal Muslim information was shared. The main attractions today were the Wailing Wall, the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) to observe the Stations of the Cross including those in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
It was interesting to see three or four different groups celebrating Bar Mitzvahs as we walked toward the Wailing Wall. The groups surrounding each young man varied greatly in size. A couple were quite small while one was huge with dozens of people celebrating. The groups made their presences known with singing, clapping, horn playing, etc. as they walked to the Wall. Before arriving in the plaza just in front of the Wall, men and women separated into two lines/ sides to go through security and have bags inspected before joining up again just past security.
At this point we were in a large plaza and could easily see the top portion of the wall. There are separate entrances and sides for men and women who want to go down to the wall to see it or to pray. The women’s side is much smaller than the men’s, because the men’s side includes movable tables. Many of the men bring the Torah with them to the Wall and need some space to spread it out on to study it there. Close to the Wall it was packed with women (on my side) praying and young schoolgirls visiting it. I did not go all the way to the Wall to touch it, as I did not want to disturb those praying. It was a very worthwhile experience to see such a piece of history that is so revered.
One thing that was very surprising is the proximity everything we visited today had to each other — they were all within walking distance through narrow alleys lined with shops. Unfortunately we weren’t encouraged to stop and shop, as we had a lot of ground to cover and had to keep moving.
After leaving the Wall area and walking down a couple fairly short, narrow streets, we arrived at one of the Stations of the Cross then continued walking past most of the first nine stations. The final five stations are in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which was erected by the Crusaders on Byzantine foundations, dating to the time of Constantine the Great. The thirteenth station, where Jesus was placed after his death and before being laid in His tomb, is a large slab of stone placed in the floor where people today come to touch it and to pray. Our guide provided an excellent commentary through the earpieces everyone in our group wore and made history come alive here.
When leaving Jerusalem for our return drive, our guide pointed out many places of historical significance like Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives. We arrived back at the ship tired, hungry and pleased that we had selected this trip.
Tomorrow is an 11-hour excursion to the Dead Sea — yes, we’re taking our bathing suits!