In Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter of the Old City, the Burnt House Museum vividly illustrates the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. The exhibit includes the excavated remains of the home of a priestly family in the once upscale Upper City area near the Temple Mount and displays of artefacts found in the house. Among the items found are the arm bones of a young woman, a spear, stone jugs, bowls, plates, and oil lamps. Layers of ash and burned wooden beams and stones indicate the house was destroyed in an intense fire.
the Burnt House Museum, photo courtesy of our friend Larry Bell
the Burnt House Museum, Jerusalem, photo courtesy of our friend Larry Bell
the Burnt House Museum, Jerusalem, photo courtesy of our friend Larry Bell
An inscription on a stone weight found in the house seems to identify the occupants as the Kathros family, a family of ill repute, chastised in the Talmud for abuse of power.
A film at the site gives a good overview of the political context of the destruction of Jerusalem and a moving account of the final hours of its citizens.
These caves are named for the ancient settlement just below. They’re located in the Judean Desert, about a mile from the Dead Sea and about an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. In 1947, a local Bedouin boy found a cache of ancient scrolls in one of the caves while searching for a wayward goat. Subsequent excavations yielded nearly 900 scrolls in 11 caves. Scholars are still studying the manuscripts, many in fragments, today. Some of the scrolls can be seen at the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.
Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. It’s home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities, now about 40% of the population, but once around 85%. It’s a small city of about 25,000, with tourism as the main industry.
Besides being the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and the site of the tomb of Rachel. Rachel’s tomb, on the edge of town, attracts Jewish and Muslim pilgrims, but Bethlehem’s star attraction, by far, is the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, in the center of town.
The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
The original church was built upon orders from the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena around the year 327. The emperor Justinian rebuilt the church a couple hundred years later, and that church still stands, the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land. Beneath the church is a cave believed to be the actual spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The earliest written accounts of Jesus being born in a cave date from the 2nd century, but the oral tradition is likely much older. Many houses in the area are built up against caves, which were used for storage and animal shelter.
The very spot upon which Jesus was born, according to tradition. This is in a cave under the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.
Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Most scholars think not. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, place the nativity in Bethlehem, although the details differ. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, don’t address Jesus’ birth at all. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah would be descended from King David, and David was born and raised in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It could be that the writers of Matthew and Luke symbolically placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in reference to that prophecy. Journalistic accuracy was not intended or expected.
Personally, I don’t think it matters where exactly Jesus was born, but I do find it interesting to think about the context in which the Gospels were written and their intended audiences. Although they carry an eternal message, the form that message takes tells us a lot about the world of the first Christians. Matthew cites the genealogy of Jesus back through David and ultimately to Abraham. That would have been meaningful to a Jewish audience. Luke’s genealogy goes right back to Adam to encompass all of humanity and he exults the newborn Jesus as savior of the whole world, not only of the Jews. Luke was writing for a Greek, gentile audience.
Getting to Bethlehem is easy, just a short drive from Jerusalem. Tourists pass through an Israeli check-point from Israel to the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Israelis are not allowed to enter, so if you’re on a guided tour, a Palestinian guide will meet you on the other side.
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is held on December 24-25 at the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s, next door to the Church of Nativity. Tickets (no charge) are required to attend the service. Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6-7 for the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches and on January 18-19 for the Armenian Orthodox Church.
As our guide Jacob will tell you, Beit She’an (aka Scythopolis) is one of the world’s most extensively excavated Greco-Roman sites. Blessed with fertile land and abundant water, this strategic location at the convergence of the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys has been occupied at least since the 5th millennium BCE and holds remains from Canaanites, Egyptians, Philistines, Israelites, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines in 18 distinct layers. At its peak, as the main Roman Decapolis city, Beit She’an had a population of 40,000.
Birds near Eilat, Israel, photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism
Just as Israel has historically been a thoroughfare for human traffic and a meeting point of diverse cultures, it is a superhighway and home for a vast array of birds. 530 species have been recorded.
As a geographical bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel hosts 500 million migrating birds each spring and fall. Winters in Israel are mild enough that some European and Asian birds winter there instead of traveling all the way to Africa.
A wide range of habitats makes Israel home to numerous year-round, resident species, including European, African and Asian species living on the fringes of their natural habitats.
Cranes in the Hula Valley of northern Israel, photo by Itamar Grinberg, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism
photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism
Any time of year is good for birding but especially November-May, which encompasses both fall and spring migrations and wintering birds. March is best, with spring migration underway, many of the wintering birds still around, and mating season making local birds particularly active and showy.
The prime places to see birds are in the Hula Valley in the north and around Eilat in the far south. Two birding festivals happen each year during migration season, in Eilat in the spring and in the Hula Valley in the fall.
The inland sea pictured above forms part of the border between Israel and Jordan. This sea lies at the lowest elevation on earth, over 1,300 feet below sea level at the surface. Due to a unique mineral content, the sea water and mud are prized for their therapeutic qualities. The extreme salinity of the water makes it very difficult to sink. Bathers bob on the surface effortlessly. Atmospheric conditions here also have health benefits. High levels of oxygen are both invigorating and relaxing. It’s really a magical place. The sea is centrally located and makes an easy stopover between visits to other top tourist attractions. It also makes a good base for visiting a number of tourist sites.
Can you name that body of water?
See below for answers.