The anxiety kept increasing as the journey progressed to the famous country along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. This could be easily deduced from the outburst of songs of praise and thanksgiving to God from the over 300 passengers on board when the airbus stopped over in Turkey for refuelling and changing of crew.
After about eight and half hours flying, we were at last warmly welcomed into Israel, where the stories of the Bible Knowledge (BK) and Christian Religious Knowledge (CRK) classes would soon be relived and confirmed as we explored the country’s landscape.The excitement started at the Ben Gurion International Airport, the largest and busiest international airport in Israel, and the second-best worldwide, according to Airports Council International Organisation, handling 5 to15 million passengers annually and over13 million passengers in 2011.
We were gracefully ushered into waiting cosy buses and we headed off to Tel Aviv, the second largest city in the country established in 1909, called the “city that never sleeps” by the locals, because of its vibrant nightlife scene. There, we noticed a slight traffic said to be caused by high migration of people into the city for commercial purposes.
During this ten-day trip, we were privileged to have a first-hand experience of some of the known high mountains, seas, rivers, fascinating vegetation and the other natural endowment of the historical cities spread across the country. Most of these eventful outings took us to sites related to Jesus’ birth, life and death, King David, Moses, Abraham and some of the prophets as recorded in the Holy Bible.
Israel, which has remained one of the foremost tourists attraction areas in world and pilgrimage location for various religions for many centuries, draws huge attention due to its religious significance, especially the presence of Jerusalem, which is of historical importance to the three monotheistic religions; Islam, Christian and Judaism.
With a population of over 7.8 million, 5.9 million or 75.3 percent of Israel are Jewish and 1.6 million or 20.5 percent Arabs, while those not identified make up the remaining 4.2 percent of the population or 325,000 people.While the sites have gone through series of transformation (destruction and rebuilding) by opposing religious groups who had control over the country at some point in history, the Israeli government ingeniously preserved them and today, tourism is one of its major source of income as it recorded over 2.7 million tourists arrivals in 2011 alone.
All through the journey from the airport to Netanya where we spent the first night, the long cravings in our minds began to receive attention as Etamal Book, our tour guide, took us through the preparatory class.
The next day, our journey started from the Aqueduct, an ancient water channel located near the Mediterranean Sea, built by King Herod, which supplied water to Caesarea, and then the visit to Mount of Precipe or Mount Kedumim near Nazareth, where the Jews attempted to throw Jesus off from the cliff top, but He escaped (Luke 4: 14 -30).
Speaking in his Hebrew accent English, Book who is fondly called Emeka, said every church in Israel was built for a reason; something spectacular must have happened on its location. And this we soon discovered on our visit to Nazareth where Jesus’ birth was announced to Mary by Angel Gabriel, according to the Holy Bible, there stands a gigantic church; the Church of Annunciation built on top of the ruins of Mary’s house.
Also close to this church was St. Joseph’s Church, said to be built at Joseph’s carpentry workshop, while in between the two churches is a Franciscan Monastery, where the monks managing the churches reside.
While one would perhaps think that 100 percent of the people who are presently living in Nazareth are Christians, ironically, 60 percent of the population are Muslims, while only 40 percent are Christians. Pilgrims/tourists can easily notice the silent struggle for supremacy between the two religions, with the presence of a big mosque in front of the Church of Annunciation.
It was said that the Muslims had attempted to build the mosque so high in order to cover the Annunciation Church built earlier, but they were stopped by the government in power then.
The church is one of the numerous churches designed by Antonio Barluzzi (September 26, 1884 – December 14, 1960), an Italian Franciscan monk and architect, who is also called the “Architect of the Holy Land.”
It was a snake-like movement up the 560-metre high Mount Tabor, where the transfiguration of Jesus Christ took place (Mt 17: 1-9). While we were inside the shuttle bus climbing the mountain, I was busy talking to a fellow pilgrim, a woman in her 50s, after some time, I noticed she was not saying anything, I turned and discovered that she had a tight grip on the seat in front of her while closing her eyes and squeezing; I then burst into laughter and called the attention of others, some of whom were also taking similar precaution out of fright.
Meanwhile, as those that have phobia for height were fidgeting, others were climbing the mountain on foot, maybe, as a form of mortification (spiritual exercise to chastise oneself) or physical exercise. On top of the mountain stand two churches; a Franciscan and a Greek Orthodox churches where worshippers as well as pilgrims trooped in to offer prayers.
As the tour progressed, we visited Cana in Galilee, where Jesus did His first miracle of turning water into wine during a wedding feast (Jn 2:1-11). At this site is a Franciscan “Wedding Church.” Here, the pilgrims prayed for their marriages and that of their loved ones.
In Capernaum where Jesus lived, preached in the synagogue and performed many miracles, including healing Peter’s mother-in-law, there are the relics of an old Olive press, the Synagogue where Jesus preached and Peter’s house upon which a space-ship like modern Franciscan church now stands.
Still exploring the locations of some events that took place around Galilee, we went on a boat cruise on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus called some of His disciples who were fishing to become fishers of men. To wade off fear, some of the pastors in the boat led a brief prayer session. Surprisingly, the Israeli boat captain played a Nigerian (Igbo) gospel music to entertain us as we danced and shook off the cold all through the cruise.
Ashore the sea, a first century fishing boat recently discovered on the mud is on display in a museum. The boat is said to be very similar to the one Jesus used, known as Galilee Boat or Jesus Boat. Other visits in Galilee include the Church of the Primacy of Peter, built by the sea side believed to be the location where Jesus appeared to Peter after His resurrection and ordered him to feed His sheep (Jn 21: 15-19), and the Mount of Beatitude in Tabgha, where the sermon on the mountain took place (Mt 5:1-12)
Other sites visited include the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptised, the Dead Sea, the lowest and saltiest spot on the face of the earth with its high mineral deposits, containing over 26 different minerals, which makes it impossible for any living thing to survive in.
There is also the Mount Zion, where we were shown the Tomb of David, the Last Supper room as well as the Upper Room.
At the old city of Jerusalem along the Jafa Market is the Via Dolorosa, Jesus’ way to His crucifixion, which terminated at the Holy Sepulchre Church where he was buried. Meanwhile, Garden Tomb is believed by the protestants to be the ‘Place of the Skull’ or Golgotha, where Jesus suffering and crucifixion took place.
Also, in Jerusalem is the Wailing Wall (Western Wall), built by King Herod in 20 BC. It is the holiest Jewish site and one of the most popular sites in Israel that brings together the three monotheist religion. It is the remnant of the wall that once enclosed and supported the second temple. Pilgrims from different religious background troop to the wall to pray and put prayer requests in cracks in the wall.
We also visited two territories under the Palestinian Authority; Jericho and Bethlehem. Just as Jesus was, we were taken up to the Mount of Temptation also called Mount Quarntal in Jericho, but now in a cable car. In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of Nativity, an Orthodox church built at the birthplace of Jesus. The Israeli guide had to drop at the border to allow the local guides to take us round.
For most of the pilgrims, the most interesting part of the pilgrimage was the tough and motivating climb of the Moses Mountain; the 2,285 metres/7,500ft high Mount Sinai in Egypt, located near the tip of Sinai Peninsula.
It was over five hours drive from Jerusalem by the Red Sea across the Taba Border to the magnificent Swiss Inn Resort in Sinai, where we rested for about an hour and had our dinner before we embarked on another roughly three hours journey to St. Catherine’s Monastery, at the foot of the Sinai Mountain, said to be where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush.
After several warnings sounded by the medical team that accompanied us from Nigeria and the scary tales about those who gave up half way or even after completing the climb, most of the able-bodied men and women withdrew from the race.
But some people like me already had our minds made up for the mountaineering. At the foot of the mountain, the Egyptian tour guides told us it was going to be a minimum of five and half hours climb up and down the mountain. We have to do at least three hours on a rocky path where we have an option of using a Carmel after which we would climb the rock-strewn stairway of about 750 steps.
The cold in the area both down and the up the mountain was double of what we experienced in Israel. Garbed in three pairs of trousers, a shirt and three jackets, two pairs of stockings on my sneaker, a head warmer and a muffler which I hurried bought to cover my nose and mouth, and motivated by Jude, a fellow pilgrim, I was fully kitted and ready for the journey.
At about 12am, we took off. More than half was into the journey, I was losing my strength; on raising alarm, my partner assisted me to one of the shops strategically located along the route where I took biscuit and a can of sprite. The longer we rested there the colder we became, so we had to continue. I tenaciously declined to the advances by the camel men for a ride at $20 for a seven kilometres. Before getting to the stairway, I was almost freezing, so we stopped over in another shop where I had a cup of hot tea for $2 to warm up my system. Then we started climbing the unending steps, having a brief stop intermittently, and setting out in motion again as the cold intensifies.
Finally, we made it to the top of the mountain at four hours instead of the three hours we were told; the feeling there was that of victory and fulfillment. For me, I felt very close to God as I knelt down and prayed for whatever I could think of as well as everyone that has any form of contact with me, including you reading this piece.
Before we could spend about five minutes praying and taking snap shots, our hands and feet started freezing up, so we quickly headed downwards. In the next two to three hours, we have descended back to the foot of the mountain, drained and exhausted, but feeling fulfilled and happy as those we left behind, “the brave minds,” applauded us for taking the risk.
With the climbing experience, I came to appreciate what Moses passed through going up the mountain to meet with God on behalf of the Israelites.
The experiences at all the sites we visited during the ten-day tour, some of which have been mentioned in this piece, are indeed a practical evidence that the ancient Bible tales actually happened and in places that exist up till date.