These olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane still produce fruit, although they are said to be hundreds of years old.
NINA M. RICCIO/SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC VOICE
It's worth spending a week in Jerusalem alone
We arrived in Jerusalem on a rainy night, a city with a rich and colorful history and deep religious passions. Given the current state of the world, it's significant to remember that people of many different faiths lived here in relative harmony during the Ottoman Muslim Empire; it was only when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099 that religious intolerance reared its ugly and very violent head.
It's worth spending a week in Jerusalem alone. In the two short days we were there, we saw the Dead Sea scrolls in the Israel Museum, the archeological dig surrounding the Temple Mount, and visited a few of the Stations of the Cross through which the narrow, crowded marketplace winds. While we didn't tour the iconic Dome of the Rock (it's difficult but not impossible for non-Muslims to do so), its majestic gold dome was visible from every vantage point in the city. Jerusalem is under Israeli control, but the Dome and the Al Aqsa mosque are both under the jurisdiction of Jordanian Islamic authorities. It's another of the compromises made to ensure peace and honor the traditions of people of different faiths.
The "Catholic Pilgrimage to the Holy Land" was a weeklong tour put together by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. Four journalists from different Catholic publications around the country participated. Our tour focused on sites important to Christendom.
Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to be the holiest site in Christendom, was built on Mt. Golgotha, where Christ was crucified. It's a massive church reflecting the different styles of the various Christian sects that control it, and it incorporates the last four Stations of the Cross, the rock upon which the Cross is said to have stood and the tomb of Jesus. It's an interesting place with a peculiar history, but it was difficult to feel moved with so much gold and crystal around. How much more emotional it would have been to see the rock upon which the Cross stood, rather than to feel it through a small hole under an altar!
If emotional is what you want, a trip to Yad Vashem, the memorial to victims of the Holocaust, is essential. "The idea is not to tell the story of the Holocaust in terms of the extremes of monsters and victims," explained our guide, Avia. Rather, the memorial is designed to illustrate that each one of us has choices to make throughout our lives. Those who made the moral choice to save others, always at great peril to themselves, are honored in The Garden of the Righteous Among Nations. But throughout the memorial, exhibit after exhibit details a chilling buildup of bigotry within Nazi Germany. There's the 1930s board game called "Jews Out!" that challenges children to knock hats off the Jews, with the goal of sending the Jew to an island. "But you must play the game without asking any questions!" it says right on the game board. There are the neighborhood signs that admonish Jews to shop elsewhere. There are shoes and purses lined with sacred Torah scrolls pilfered from synagogues. Yad Vashem means "the memorial of the names," and whenever possible victims are identified by name in photos or film clips; it's a way of counteracting the dehumanization the Nazis tried to perpetuate. Each exhibit is a stunning reminder of just how insidious bigotry and evil can be, and of man's capacity to justify what is unjustifiable.
It would be disingenuous to say that a trip to Israel is without risk, and our itinerary was modified slightly to avoid areas of conflict. But tourists are rarely the targets of any unrest, and we never felt uncomfortable. (How ironic that right after our return, it was Paris that blew up.) I found that what moved me most were not the grand churches and shrines, but the simplicity of the ancient, gnarly olive trees "bearing witness" in the Garden of Gethsemane, or watching the waves while reflecting on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, or hearing the church bells ringing outside my window in Jerusalem, followed a few minutes later by the Muslim call to prayer from the mosque further down the street.
(Nina M. Riccio is a Connecticut-based traveler and freelance writer focusing on education, health and family issues.)
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