Pilgrimage Reflection: The Lay of the Land

A view of the Old City from Mount Scopus (c) John Pearson

One of the main reasons I wanted to be a pilgrim in the Holy Land was to visit the various sites that are mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Gospels. And I wasn’t disappointed. Often beginning with a wake-up call at 5:00am and returning to our room around 8:30pm, we walked many miles each day (or rode a bus to various locations, where we did more walking) taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Holy Land.

The Damascus Gate today (the “original” Roman gate can be seen below and behind the railing).

Arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, it was dark as we made it by bus to St. George’s Guest House in the West Bank of Jerusalem. It was an uphill drive, following a similar route the Romans would have taken, coming from the east coast. (When entering Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples would have climbed to the City from the west. See Marcus Borg’s book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem). Jerusalem really is a city high on a hill – 2,000 feet above sea level with many surrounding hills and narrow valleys. Limestone rocks and cliffs abound. It is a forbidding land, nothing like “the land of milk and honey” I expected.

Day 1 started with Morning Prayer in the Chapel at St. George’s where we began to get acclimated to our new environs scripturally: Psalm 122 and Luke 13:34, and musically in four-part harmony: “Jerusalem, My Happy Home” to Land of Rest. We donned sunscreen, hats, scarves, and cameras to walk to the Damascus Gate and Salah Eldin Street to get the feel of the distance and view the wall of the Old City and how it had been built up from Roman (1st C) to Byzantine (4th C) to Crusader (11th C) times.

A view of the Old City about 3 miles away from Mount Scopus.

Boarding a bus, we headed to Mount Scopus. Jerusalem is a city built on seven hills, and the most impressive of these, commanding the impressive view of the Old City which gave it its name, is Mount Scopus. The mountain, called Har Ha’Tzofim (Mountain of the Watchers) in Hebrew, derives its Latin name from its use as a vantage point for the Roman Army during its suppression of the Jewish Great Revolt, from which Titus’ legions planned their final attack on the city in 70 CE. The view was spectacular and our guide pointed out what we could see: Syria to the north, Egypt to the south, and Jordan to the west. Straight ahead of us we could see the Old City surrounded by its walls, with the Elharam Wsh Shaarif (The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque), the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall, the Kidron Valley, the Mount of Olives, Church of the Ascension, and much more. Bethlehem was beyond the City, only about 6 miles south – also on the top of a hill. (You will see a theme going forward – most villages, towns, settlements are built on the top of hills.) Beyond Bethlehem was Tekoah (home of the prophet Amos) and the city of Hebron. The prophet Jeremiah’s region was a few miles to the northeast. To the east was the Judean Desert, a vast and lifeless looking expanse that descends to the Dead Sea; the land of the Moabites and Ammonites, plus where Sodom and Gomorrah would have been. All in a circumference of about 15 miles. (Political note: The landscape was filled with modern construction – Israeli settlements. That is for another day, another post).  

The Herodian fortress ruins. (c) John Pearson

After lunch we visited the Herodium, 8 miles south of Jerusalem at 2,469 ft. above sea level.  Built by Herod the Great – great only because he built so much – around 40 BCE, it was one of his fortress/palaces to hang out in to keep a watchful eye on all the land he ruled. Viewing the archeological site, we imagined how slaves would have brought water up the “mountain” to fill the cisterns for the baths King Herod would have availed himself. (Biblical note: Herod had three sons – Herod Antipas ruled Galilee during Jesus’ life; Herod Archelaus was king of Judea and Samaria; Philip the Tetrarch  probably ruled over today’s Syria and Lebanon).  

View looking down from the Herodium (c) John Pearson

Next: Exploring the Old City of Jerusalem

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