Considered by many to be the holiest site in the Jewish religion, the Western Wall – or Kotel HaMaaravi in Hebrew – is the last remnant of the Second Jewish Temple. The temple was expanded upon by Herod the Great, and the ancient wall has absorbed continuously the centuries-old cries of the Jewish people’s prayers. Walking through the heart of Jerusalem, over the cobblestones and up to the wall, even the most cynical cannot hold back the flood of emotion as the combined wave of ancient history and religious fervor come crashing down. While there, don’t forget to leave a note containing your deepest prayers in between the cracks of the wall.
Church of Holy Sepulcher
As you continue your spiritual journey, a stop at the Church of Holy Sepulcher should be high on the list. The site is mentioned in all four canonical Gospels, and it contains within it the Calvary, where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, and the Tomb of Christ, where he was buried and resurrected. The magnificent architecture and beauty of the church is unmatched, and there is a palpable feeling of devotion throughout. At present, there are three principal communities that have jurisdiction over the church (Greek, Fransiscan and Armenian), and there are always priests that are ready to hear confessions and administer the sacrament of Reconciliation. It is recommended to go at off-peak hours, as it can get crowded; either way, this is not a place to miss.
Standing at a peak height of 575 meters and gazing over the Lower Galilee, it is easy to imagine the Israelites – under the leadership of Barak and Deborah – rushing down the mountain to vanquish the army of the Canaanites under the command of the General Sisera. It was also at this site that Jesus underwent his Transfiguration and became radiant in glory. After a visually inspiring walk up the mountain, one can take a tour of the Church of the Transfiguration, which contains a beautiful mosaic depicting the metamorphosis.
Mount of Olives
The Mount of Olives is an important site in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. Along its two-mile-long ridge that lies to the east of Jerusalem’s Old City are three main summits. The mountain has served as a burial ground for the Jewish People for 3,000 years, and among the 150,000 graves, there are the tombs of the prophets Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi, as well as many other notable rabbinical figures. The sacred nature of the mountain is touched upon in the Bible. The Mount of Olives is mentioned frequently in the New Testament as the place where Jesus stood when he wept over Jerusalem. A visit to this more somber of spots should include the Dome of the Ascension and the Olive Trees of Gethsemane, which are among the oldest in the world.
Valley of Elah
Located amongst the Lower Hills of Judah, it was here that the epic battle between David and Goliath took place, and as with many places in Israel, with only a Bible, a map and a little imagination, it is easy to travel back in time and experience the story as if you were there. There are several sites mentioned in the Bible that surround the valley that turn this classic day hike into a veritable leap into history. The valley is named after the terebinth trees, and today, visitors can walk through fields covered with red anemones, sunflowers and multi-colored lupins.
Sea of Galilee
A visit to Israel would not be complete without a stop at the Sea of Galilee, and this is especially true for those looking to learn from Jesus at the very site where much of his ministry took place. Four of Jesus’ apostles were recruited from the shores of the lake, and the Sermon of the Mount was given on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the lake. Many of the miracles mentioned in the New Testament, including Jesus’ walk on water and the feeding of the multitude, took place here as well.
The Jordan River
The Sea of Galilee could not exist without the Jordan River feeding into it, and this is also an important landmark for both Jewish and Christian people. The ancient Israelites first crossed near Jericho under the leadership of Joshua, and the miracles of Naaman the Leper, Elijah and Elisha occurred at the river as recorded in the Bible. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, and the Baptismal Site can be visited (although the actual site is in Jordan).
The annihilation of the city of Sodom, as it is relayed in the Bible, is a story that has fascinated people for centuries and has caused the name to become synonymous with sin and destruction. The Mountain of Sodom, made up almost entirely of rock salt, is located on the southwest side of the Dead Sea, and a wonderful walk up the mountain will treat the hiker to some amazing views. Be sure to catch ‘Lot’s Wife’ as she juts out from the mountain, stuck there for eternity as a pillar of salt.
The city of Hebron has a rich history for the Jewish people. It was from here that David first reigned for seven years before he became King of Israel, and it was here that Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah were buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs. According to the Jewish tradition, the Patriarchs were buried in the cave because it is a threshold to the Garden of Eden.
The ancient city of Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Bible as the site of Rachel’s Tomb, where the Matriarch Rachel was buried when giving birth to Benjamin. Based on the verse in Jeremiah, Rachel is seen as a natural protector of the Jewish people, and as such, the tomb is considered to be a very holy landmark in the Jewish tradition. Additionally, the New Testament, in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, identify the birth of Jesus as having taken place in Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest surviving Christian churches and has drawn Christian pilgrims for centuries. After walking through the small entrance to the church known as the Door of Humility and following the pathways past the wall mosaics that date back a millennium, you will find yourself at the Grotto of the Nativity, the spot that has been honored as the place where Christ was born.