Biblical Israel Tour Experiences from the April-May 12 Day Israel/Istanbul Tour (with 3 day option to Turkey)
April 26 – May 7, 2015 (Optional Extension for sites in Turkey, May 7-9)
Individual Photos of Tour Members
DAYS 1 & 2 – SUNDAY/MONDAY, APRIL 26-27
Our day of departure finally arrived. A total of only 13 of us are on this trip. Some of us met in NY, while others flew from Chicago. Still others arranged their own flight.
Although these non-stop flights were long and delayed, we arrived in Istanbul just fine. We were met by our guide, Muse, in the baggage area. Boarding the bus, we drove to our hotel located on the European side of the city. After checking in, we enjoyed dinner together, with a number of us enjoying an optional walk after a brief orientation meeting.
We are looking forward to a full day in the unique city of Istanbul before flying to Israel tomorrow evening.
DAY 3 – TUESDAY, APRIL 28
Today we spent almost a full day in Istanbul. It was a gorgeous day, with sun and temps in the low 70s. Following breakfast on the balcony of the hotel (with a great view), we departed at 8 a.m. Taking the light rail train for a few stops, we arrived at the area of the Byzantine Hippodrome. Today is it decorated with an Egyptian obelisk. We next entered the Blue Mosque. Built in 1617, the mosque is lined with 6 minarets on the outside and beautiful tile on the inside. It is still an active mosque for Muslims today. Located just a short walk away is the St. Sophia Church (also called the Hagia Sofia). The structure was built originally in the 4th century AD in the days of Constantine. It was called the First Great Church. Later in 530, Justinian rebuilt the church. Some pillars from the Temple of Artemas in Ephesus as well as red granite pillars from Egypt were used as part of the inner structure. In 1453, the church was converted into a mosque. While the large hanging signs depicting the names of Allah and Mohammad glaringly remind us of the false religion of Islam, one has to be impressed with how massive the overall building is. Marvelous Christian frescos from the 6th century are still well preserved.
From here we took the light rail train once again a few stops to the Grand Bazaar. Historically, this bazaar goes back 100s of years. We enjoyed lunch on our own as well as exploring a few of the 2,700 shops within the Bazaar. From here we walked through the Spice Market to the Bosporus Straight. We boarded our private boat and traveled north. With the “European” side of the city to our left (west) and the “Asian” side of the city to our right (east), it was a great way to see parts of this city of 13 million people.
Following the boat ride, we transferred back to the Istanbul Airport for our short flight to Tel Aviv, Israel. After going through Passport Control and securing our bags, we met our guide (Hezy will be our guide through Wednesday, after which Shlomo will be with us). After boarding the bus, we left the Ben Gurion Airport and drove north through Tel Aviv to our hotel in Netanya located on the shoreline of the Med Sea. We enjoyed a late dinner, with some enjoying a short optional walk to the downtown part of the city as well as to the beach.
We all are looking forward to our first full day here in Israel tomorrow.
DAY 4 – WEDNESDAY, APRIL 29
Our first full day here in Israel was a warm one, with highs reaching the mid 90s. After a wonderful buffet breakfast, we left the hotel at 7:45. Our first site, Caesarea, was only about 10 miles north on the coastline. Built by King Herod in 22 BC, this coastal city was the main harbor into Israel during the days of the New Testament. After watching a video on the history of Caesarea, we entered the theater. We read from Acts 10 (about Peter and Cornelius), 12 (about Herod Agrippa I) and 26 (about the boldness of Paul). We also saw here the palace, the Pilate inscription, the hippodrome, the Crusader part of the city, and the aqueduct that brought water into the city from Mt. Carmel 4-5 miles away. Carmel was our next destination. We read from 1 Kings 18 about Elijah vs. the 450 prophets of Baal. From the rooftop of this Carmelite chapel called Muhraqa, we saw the Jezreel Valley for the first time.
Following a great lunch at a Druze restaurant, we descended down to the edge of the Jezreel Valley to the impressive archaeological site of Megiddo. The city boasts of 25 different levels of occupancy. Megiddo served a strategic city guarding the main entrance into the valley. We read from Revelation 16 about “Armegeddon.” We rejoiced in knowing God has the final word in the end of days, and our victory is found in Him and in the return of Christ! We saw a number of gate structures, the sacrificial Canaanite altar, and the granary. We exited the site through the water system, descending 180 steps to the water tunnel, and then 60 steps back up. The bus picked us up.
We continue from here to the Jewish site of Sepporis. During the time of Jesus, this city was one of the most culturally significant. We saw beautiful mosaics, including the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. We also saw part of the Roman villa and the theater. To end the day, we drove to the nearby the precipice of Nazareth. We read from Luke 4 and John 1 as we were invited to “come and see” Jesus in the context of Nazareth and the surrounding area. We enjoyed a quiet time of reflection here. Driving through Cana (John 2) we finally arrived in Tiberias. Before descending to our hotel on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, we stopped briefly for a wonderful panoramic view of this body of water Israelis call the Kinneret (“harp”). We checked in, enjoyed dinner, and then an optional gathering on the terrace.
What a great first day here in Israel!
DAY 5 – THURSDAY, APRIL 30
It was a beautiful day, with sunny skies and highs only in the 70s. We headed south first along the western shoreline of the Sea of Galilee before swinging north on the eastern side. We passed Kursi, the traditional location of the “Legion & Swine” story (Mark 5) before beginning our ascent to the Golan Heights. On the way we stopped for a view of the Plains of Bethsaida. Even though the morning haze prohibited us to see much of the NE corner of the lake, we read from Mark 8 (healing of blind man) and John 6 (Feeding of the 5,000), both stories taking place near Bethsaida. A little further up was Gamla, a 1st century city known for leading the 1st Revolt against the Romans (66 AD). We bussed down to the site and sat in the 1st century synagogue. No doubt Jesus would have taught here, even though it’s not mentioned in the Gospels. Gamla was known as the “Masada of the North.”
Further north was Qatzrin (Katzrin). This was a Talmudic village from the 3rd-4th century. We entered the re-constructed house of Rabbi Abun where we sat and listened to the story of Mark 2. We talked about Jesus authority (s’mekah) to forgive sins. We continued north to Ben Tal, an old military outpost that overlooks Syria. Shlomo shared some history from the 1967 and 1973 wars with Syria. With visibilities good, we could see a long way into this war-torn country.
We drove to the base of Mt. Hermon for lunch (at another Druze place). Descending the Golan Heights, we next visited Caesarea Philippi. We read from Matthew 16 and heard Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” We climbed up to the high place and saw the grotto area of this pagan city. Nearby was Dan. We walked through the nature preserve to the archaeological ruins. One of the three tributaries of the Jordan River is here. A massive amount of water flows down into the Sea of Galilee from here. On the walk, some even saw a wild boar with a few small cubs. Quite remarkable to see these, since Shlomo (in 30 years of guiding) has never seen them here. We read from Judges 18 and I Kings 12 about the “pattern” of disobedience and false worship that took place here. Archaeologically, we saw the high place, the altar area, and the Middle Bronze mud-brick gate that perhaps Abraham once walked through (Gen. 14:14)
We ended the day with an extra experience. We drove the Misgav Am kibbutz overlooking Metulla (Israel’s most northern city) and Lebanon. We even could look north and see Lebanon’s Shuf mountains (famous for the Lebanon Cyprus tree). Shlomo shared a little about the 1982 and 2006 Lebanon wars.
We drove south along the Naftali ridge, driving only 30 meters from the border fence with Lebanon. We even received waves from the UN guards posted here. We descended down to the Huleh Valley, passed by Hazor (a huge archaeological site, Joshua conquered this city), and back down to the Sea of Galilee and TIberias. We enjoyed dinner together and a gathering down by the water’s edge before retiring for the night. Another wonderful day!
DAY 6 – FRIDAY, MAY 1
Another sunny day greeted us, with comfortable temps in the low 80s. Leaving the hotel once again at about 7:30, our first stop as Mt. Arbel. Four in the group hiked up the trail, meeting the other part of the group on tip of this 800 foot cliff that overlooks the NW corner of the Sea of Galilee. From here we can see almost the entire lake below. We considered the imagery of Matthew 13, a parable of the kingdom. From here we descended down through Tiberias to Magdala. Here we saw a 1st century synagogue. Not doubt Jesus taught in this synagogue, even though it isn’t mentioned in the Gospels. Mary “Magdalene” was from here. We also saw the inside of a beautiful new chapel on the grounds.
Driving to the NW corner of the lake, we visited Chorazim, one of the three cities condemned by Jesus (Mt. 11). We read from Matthew 23 (about the haughtiness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees) within the 3rd century synagogue. Our last stop before lunch was Capernaum, the “home base” of Jesus’ ministry. Within the 5th century synagogue we read from Mark 1, 2 Luke 7, and John 6, all stories that took place here in Capernaum. We enjoyed a quiet time by the shoreline of the lake.
Driving back to the Magdala area, we enjoyed a “St. Peter’s fish” lunch here. Driving to Nof Ginnosar, we boarded a boat for a 45 minute boat ride on the lake. We enjoyed a time of worship and reflection. We read from Mark 4 & 6 about the storm narratives that Jesus and His disciples encountered here. Embarking, we saw the 1st century boat that was found here in 1986.
Driving to Yardenit at the southern end of the lake, 5 were baptized in the Jordan River here. It was a special time for all of us as we re-committed our lives to following Christ as one of His talmidim (followers). Nearby we visited the Kinneret cemetery where the famous Rachel, a Zionistic Jew from the Ukraine, was buried in 1931. Shlomo read, sang, and played a few of her poems.
We ended the day by driving back to the Mt. of Beatitudes. We sat on the hillside (and top of a natural amphitheater) and heard the words of Matthew 5 read in both Hebrew and English. We enjoyed another reflective moment before walking down the field to the shoreline below.
Driving back to the hotel, we enjoyed another wonderful dinner together for Shabbat (the Sabbath), followed by a free evening.
It was great day of focusing on the life and ministry of Jesus.
DAY 7 – SATURDAY, MAY 2
Today we said goodbye to the Sea of Galilee. Checking out and loading the bus on what would be another sunny and warm day (temps in low 80s again), we drove south through the Jordan Valley to Beth Shean. We entered the site by walking in through the upper gate. On the way we saw a snake giving birth to little snakes in a hole she burrowed. It was very unique to see this. Climbing the tel of Old Testament Beth Shean from one side, and then looking down to the Roman city below was amazing. The view was spectacular. Walking down 180 steps, we visited the agora (market place), the colonnaded Roman street, the bathhouse and the theater. With only about 10% exposed to this point by archaeologists., there is a lot to see here. We spend over 2 hours here at this massive site.
Continuing our drive south through the Jordan Valley, we came to Jericho. First, we visited the OT tel of the city. From on top, we reviewed the stories of Moses (who died on Mt. Nebo, Dt. 34), Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua 3-4), the ministry of Elijah & Elisha (2 Kings 2), and Jesus’ baptism at “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” (John 1). We also could see the location of NT Jericho about 1.5 miles south of OT Jericho. We reviewed the stories of Zacheaus (Lk. 19), Bartimeaus (Mk. 10) and The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). We saw not only the oldest tower in antiquity in Israel (some say in the world), but also the stone retaining/revetment walls of the Canaanite city conquered by Joshua (Josh. 6). It was the mud-brick walls on top of the stone retaining walls that came tumblin’ down.
Following lunch (and since Shiloh was closed today), we enjoyed a nice “surprise.” We took the cable car to the high cliff called Jebel Quarantel (Mt. of Temptation). The view was spectacular of the entire Jericho valley below. We also could see the northern part of the Dead Sea from here. Even though the gate into the Greek Orthodox monastery was locked, we enjoyed the view and the reading of Joshua 6 and Matthew 4.
Leaving Jericho en route to ascending 4,000 feet to Jerusalem, we made a brief stop to a place overlooking the Wadi Qelt and the Judean Desert. We read from Isaiah 40 (“Prepare the way for the Lord…”) and heard Shlomo sing Psalm 23. Arriving in Jerusalem, we already could see the Dome of the Rock and the walls of the Old City. Checking in at 4:30 gave us some free time before dinner at 6:30, followed by an optional walk to the Western Wall at 7:30. To see the Wall at night was truly incredible!
We are looking forward to our first full day here in Jerusalem tomorrow!
DAY 8 – SUNDAY, MAY 3
Today was another great one. With sun and perfect temps (mid 70s), we left the hotel at 7:35 and drove around the Old City to the Mt. of Olives. What a spectacular view of the Old City and Temple Mount from here. We walked down the “Palm Sunday” path, stopping along the way to consider the Biblical stories. We read from Luke 19 (Palm Sunday) and Zechariah 14 (prophecy about the splitting of the Mt. of Olives into two and Christ’s return) at the Dominus Flavet chapel. We walked further down to the Garden of Gethsemane where we read the narrative of Christ’s passion and Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (Luke 22). Here we had a time of worship and reflection.
From here we continued our walk into the Old City through St. Stephen’s (Lion’s) Gate. We visited the Pools of Bethesda (John 5) and St. Anne’s Church. Here we sang a few songs and enjoyed the 8-10 echo. We then walked the Via Dolorosa (the “way of the cross”). This is the traditional pathway of the cross (although it was probably from the other direction). We read from John 19 about the lithostrotos (“stone pavement”). We ended the walk at the Holy Sepulcher Church, one of two possible sites for the place of Christ’s crucifixion and tomb. Nearby we ate lunch in the Christian Quarter.
Leaving the Old City through the Jaffa Gate, we drove south and east to Herodium. This was a palace-fortress built by Herod the Great. He was buried here when he died. We hiked up to the top of this “artificial” mountain, descending down through the cistern system. Driving west towards Bethlehem, we entered a cave in the Shepherds’ Fields. We read from Luke 2 and sang Christmas carols in the cave and in the chapel. Next, we drove into Bethlehem proper and visited an olive wood factory. We enjoyed some shopping here.
For the “surprise” of the day, Shlomo invited the entire group to his home for cake and coffee. It was special to visit his home. Rachel, his wife, warmly welcomed us.
We drove back to the hotel for dinner and an optional walk on the Promenade, a quiet walkway that heads south of the Old City. It was a great day!
DAY 9 – MONDAY, MAY 4
We departed the hotel again at around 7:30 a.m. The day was sunny and about 90 (predictably warmer because of this 1,300 feet below sea level region). We drove around the Old City and headed east towards Jericho (literally descending 4,000 feet in elevation). At Jericho we turned south and drove along the western shoreline of the Dead Sea to Masada. Located on the southern end of the sea, this fortress was built by Herod on a “stand-alone” mountain 1,000 feet above the valley. We took a cable car up to the top. We visited the southern cistern and palace, the ramp, a few dwelling places, the synagogue, and the bathhouse. Shlomo passionately shared with us the story of the brave Jewish community who withstood the Romans for almost 3 years before committing suicide. 6 in the group hiked down the Snake Path. While Masada is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, we recalled the words from Psalm 18:1-2 (my “fortress” / metzada-masada).
Driving north about 15 minutes was our second stop of the day, Engedi. Here we read portions of Song of Songs 1 (“henna blossoms from Engedi…”), 2 Chronicles 20 (the Ascent/Pas of Ziz, the story of Jehosophat), and 1 Samuel 24 (David and Saul’s “cave” encounter). We hiked back a little to see some of the waterfalls that are abundant here because of the natural springs.
Continuing north, Qumran was our next stop. After eating lunch here, we toured the small site and heard the story of the Essene community writing the “Dead Sea Scrolls” here. We read from “Psalm 151” (the extra psalm found here), 2 Timothy 3:16, and Psalm 19. We celebrated the marvelous preservation of God’s Word here and the joy of the Scriptures. (Pastor John also hiked to Cave 1, where the Isaiah scroll and others were found in 1947 by the shepherd boy. A few pictures are of Cave 1 as well as looking out of cave 1 to the Dead Sea).
Nearby is the Dead Sea. We floated in this unique body of water (33% salt/mineral). The sensation of not being able to sink is remarkable! After about an hour here, we drove back to the hotel in Jerusalem for dinner. The optional walk tonight was to Ben Yehuda Street, to taste a little modern Israeli life. On the way, we poked our head into the King David hotel and looked at all the famous signatures on the floor. In the alleyway of the hotel we also saw Herod’s family tomb, complete with a rolling stone.
DAY 10 – TUESDAY, MAY 5
The morning began with a 7:30 departure again. The weather was perfect today, with sun and temps in the low 70s. We drove just a short distance to the Western Wall (the “Kotel”). We entered the Western Wall Tunnels and walked along the impressive western retaining wall of the Temple Mount. We returned to the Wall to see many praying at this most holy site.
We walked to the heart of the Jewish Quarter. Here we visited the Temple Institute. It was interesting to hear how some religious Jews are preparing for the building of the 3rd Temple. Following this, we enjoyed some free time and lunch in the area.
After lunch, we walked out the Zion’s Gate where we met the bus. We drove to the western part of Jerusalem to the Israel Museum. Here we saw a 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem as it would have looked in 70 AD. We retraced the ministry of Jesus here, from Pools of Bethsaida, to the Temple Mount, and to His trial and crucifixion. The Shrine of the Book is right next to the model. We walked through, seeing various scrolls found at Qumran. A replica of the famous Isaiah Scroll is displayed as well.
Next, we drove to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum and Memorial. We heard Shlomo share about losing 12 members of his family in Poland (Vilna) during the Holocaust. We visited the Valley of the Communities, the Children’s Memorial, and the museum itself. It was an emotional but good visit.
On our way back to the hotel, we returned to the Israel Museum to visit and see the “highlights” from the archaeological section. We then returned to the hotel for dinner and a free evening.
DAY 11 – WEDNESDAY, MAY 6
Today we left the hotel at 8:15. Our first stop was to the Garden Tomb. This is a second traditional location for the crucifixion and burial-tomb site of Jesus. We saw what was suggested to us as Golgotha, the garden, and the tomb itself. We also enjoyed a time of worship and Communion together.
From this location north of the Old City, we boarded back on the bus and drove to an area south of the Old City today, the City of David. We visited and saw the palace of David, the excavations on the eastern slope of the city (“Area G”), Warren’s Shaft, and finally the tower guarding the source of water the Gihon Spring. We read from 2 Samuel 5 (the conquering of the city of Jebus by David), and 2 Kings 20 & 2 Chronicles 32 (about Hezekiah and Sennecherib, the Assyrian king who “surrounded Jerusalem like a bird in a cage.”).
Getting our water shoes on and flashlights ready, we walked through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This is a 1720 foot tunnel carved out of the bedrock by Hezekiah in order to bring water into the city during the Assyrian siege. We exited the tunnel at the Pool of Siloam. We read from John 9 about the blind man healed by Jesus here. The steps of the pool were excavated about 6 years ago.
From here, half of the group walked back up to the southern excavations of the Temple through the Herodian drainage channel. With the Roman street stones above us most of the way, it was also an exciting adventure. At the end of the channel, we popped up like “moles” right under Robinson’s Arch. Here we saw the Roman street, the massive stones brought down by the Romans in 70 AD, and the pinnacle of the Temple. Further east were the Temple steps. We walked up them in similar fashion as they did 2,000 years ago. Here we recalled a number of stories from the New Testament relating to the Temple (Luke 2 – Joseph, Jesus, Simeon; Mark 13 – a disciple’s comments on the awe of the Temple; Luke 18 – the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector going up to the Temple; John 10, Acts 3 & 5 – the royal portico/porch; and Acts 2 – Pentecost).
Walking up into the Jewish Quarter, we enjoyed about an hour of free time/late lunch before visiting a Jewish shop called Shoreshim. Here we listened to Moshe, an Orthodox Jew, talk about his Jewish faith. It was very insightful!
We returned to the hotel, only to refresh up for our farewell dinner at the Olives & Fish restaurant. It was a great time of relaxing and conversation. Following dinner, some in the group enjoyed walking back to the hotel. With tonight being the “33rd after Omer” (honoring an event dating back to the Bar Kochba War in the 2nd century AD), we saw many bonfires all throughout Jerusalem.
It was a great last day here in Jerusalem!
DAY 12 – THURSDAY, MAY 7
The day started early for us. Waking up at 2:30 a.m., we loaded the bus and drove to the Ben Gurion Airport. After checking in and passport control, we boarded our flight to Istanbul. After getting our boarding passes (with some unfortunate unexpected baggage chargers) and going to passport control, we secured our bags and re-boarded our flight to Izmir. We met our guide (Mekmet) for the next day and a half.
Upon getting our bags, we drove towards Ephesus. Along the way, we stopped for an overview of the Aegean Sea and Kasadasi. We also stopped for lunch and a presentation at a Turkish rug educational facility. It as interesting to see and hear about the art of making double-knot rugs made of wool, cotton, and silk (gathered amazingly from silk worms).
Arriving at the ancient site of Ephesus, we are all in awe at the size of the city. Walking from the Magnesia Gate westward, we saw a number of structures from the Roman period: An odium (small theater), temples, arches, reliefs, the famous Library of Celsus, and the theater. In the theater that could hold nearly 24,000 people, we read from Acts 19 (Paul’s theater encounter) and 1 Corinthians 3 (about being the “temple of God’s Spirit”). We literally had the whole theater to ourselves. With the sun setting in the west, it made for some great photos.
We drove past the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus as we left the site for Izmir (ancient Smyrna) located on the western coastline of Turkey. All that is standing is one of the 127 pillars of this massive pagan temple. On top of this reconstructed pillar was a nest of a stork. In Izmir, we checked into our hotel and enjoyed a late dinner together.
Even if it was a long travel day, it was great to see Ephesus and this part of Turkey. We are looking for a full day of seeing some of the sites mentioned in Revelation tomorrow.
DAY 13 – FRIDAY, MAY 8
This was our last full day. Once again, the weather was perfect, with sun and highs in the 70s. It was a day of focusing upon the Churches of Revelation (Rev. 2-3). We checked out of our hotel in Izmir and visited ancient Smyrna, the first of four churches of Revelation that will saw today. While the excavations here are limited, at least we could peak through the fence and see the agora (market place). Later in the 2nd century AD, this is where Polycarp lost his life (in 153 AD).
From here we drove to Sardis. It is a site out in the country-side today. We saw the impressive (and huge) Temple of Artemis as well as the gymnasium and synagogue (3rd century AD). Driving about an hour through many small Turkish villages was very interesting. Most Turks in rural areas live in modest ways. The many fields of flowers (poppies) were beautiful!
We next visited Thyatira. Excavations here are also limited and unimpressive (mostly Late Roman). We once again read the narrative John wrote about the church here in the 1st century. After the visit, we enjoyed a great lunch. Most of us had either the meatballs or a “ram” burger.
Our last site to visit was the highlight of the day – Pergamum. We took the cable car to the top of the acropolis. From on top, the visibility was superb, allowing us to see at least 25 miles (almost to the coast of the Aegean Sea!). Pergamum was a city of about 10 pagan temples. We saw the ones dedicated and built in honor of Trajan, Hadrian, and Dionysus. The “altar of Zeus” could also be seen. This was probably what John had in mind when he wrote about the “throne of Satan.” Given all the white stone at the site, we also celebrated that fact that we are “proclaimed innocent” through Christ (the judicial act of holding up a white stone was a way to display an innocent verdict).
Upon descending by the cable car down to the bottom, we briefly visited the Red Bascillica (Late Roman) before driving about two hours back to Izmir. After check-in, we boarded and flew to Istanbul. We were met by our agent and bus. We drove to our hotel for a late dinner and overnight.
It was a great full day here along the western coast of Turkey.
DAY 14 – SATURDAY, MAY 9
We arrived home today. It was a long day of travel, but we end the tour with praise to God for a great experience together.