My recent visit to The Promised Land as part of The Oceania Riviera Cruise: Sanctuary Tours left me in awe and overwhelmed by The Holy Land of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. With 1,200 passengers, most of whom were boomers, The Riviera is a beautiful ship offering an exclusive three-day call at the Port of Haifa, Israel.
Our highlights of the shore excursion to Jerusalem and Bethlehem included driving along the same route used for centuries to reach Jerusalem. Once considered the centre of the world, the capital of Israel did not disappoint with its timeless beauty. We took in a breathtaking panoramic view of the walled Old City from the Mount of Olives. Near the base of the Mount, we also visited the picturesque Gardens of Gethsemane, site of an olive oil press yard that is surrounded by 1,000-year-old trees.
Our walk through the historical Old City was particularly impressive. Entering via the Jaffa Gate, our very experienced and knowledgeable tour guide (who was actually born a Palestinian) took us past some of the most sacred sites in religious history. The colourful Christian Quarter which rests beside a part of the famous Via Dolorosa, actually reminded me of The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. From Via Dolorosa, we embarked on a route believed by many to be the way Jesus followed as he carried his cross to Calvary – the Way of the Cross, as we Catholics commemorate and pray in memory of Jesus’s sufferings every Good Friday. Among the many religious sites we viewed included the golden-topped Dome of the Rock – the third holiest site in Islam – with its stunning blue and gold ceramic tiles. We also went to the Western (Wailing) Wall, the holiest site in the Jewish world because it is believed to have been closest to where the Holy Ark once stood. For 1,000 years, the Jews were not allowed to pray on the Western Wall and now they prayed and cried against the wall with separate entrances and walls of prayer for men and women.
We also rejoiced upon our visit to the newly refurbished and reopened Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was buried on Good Friday. Perched on the hill known as Golgotha, the Church marks the site of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The last station of the Way of the Cross was in the burial site of the Church where thousands of Christian pilgrims lined up every day to see the burial room. According to our tour guide, the site where Jesus was buried is the centre of the world; Jerusalem is the centre of Israel; and Israel is the centre of Europe.
The shrine, known as the edicule and in danger of collapse, had been propped up by an unsightly iron cage since the 19th century. The New York Times reported that for the first time in over two centuries, this sacred edicule has been restored when the shrine reopened to the public two months ago. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the Church. The restoration cost more than US$3 million, mostly financed by a donation from the World Monuments Fund, an American non-profit group. Other funding came from the three denominations and a personal donation from King Abdullah of Jordan.
Our visit to Manger Square and the renowned Church of Nativity in Bethlehem was one of the key highlights of this trip for me. The extraordinary church located in the West Bank, Palestine, was built over a grotto that is believed to be the location of Jesus’s birth. Due to the complex politics between the Jews and the Palestinians, our tour guide from Israel had to hand over his duties temporarily to a Palestinian guide in this territory. The Church’s original basilica was completed in 339 and destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolts in the sixth century. A new basilica was built in 565 by Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor, restoring the architectural tone of the original. The site of the Church of the Nativity is a World Heritage Site and was the first to be listed under Palestine by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The site is also on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.
Our full day in Jerusalem and Bethlehem left us exhausted, but spiritually uplifted and culturally enriched. Whether you are religious or not, Israel and the Holy Land should be on the bucket list of all baby boomers from a geographical, historical, cultural and scientific perspective!