Our penultimate day in the Holy Land began with a short trip southeast of Jerusalem to Herodium, almost 2500 ft above sea level and the highest peak in the Judean Desert. This is an amazing archaeological site which contains Herod the Great’s fortress (with his palace inside) that was built between 23-15 B.C. The fortress is quite impressive. The palace was built on a smaller hill and then dirt was added all around the exterior making a larger hill out of the smaller one. From atop the fortress, one has a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside. One can see Jerusalem and the Dead Sea from the site. We walked through his fortress and enjoyed the beautiful vistas of the surrounding valleys and mountains. We walked down into the tunnels within the walls, initially used for water cisterns, but later for defense purposes by the rebels. Herodium was one of the last rebel strongholds after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. We walked past the amazing theatre he constructed on the side of the fortress as we made our way to his tomb, which was only discovered in 2007. Herod the Great was definitely a great builder!
From this point southeast of Jerusalem, we journeyed to a site northwest of Jerusalem, that is, the tomb of the prophet Samuel. Nabi Samuel, located in the West Bank, contains an 18th century mosque built on top of a Crusader church. In the crypt is a tomb that is said to contain the remains of Samuel. A small synagogue is also located in the underground chamber. The site is considered to be a Holy Site by Jews, and we saw a number of orthodox Jews praying here. Unfortunately, the tomb itself was being renovated/restored, so we could not make our way into the crypt.
Today’s weather was pretty miserable. The high temperature was in the low to mid 50s and the wind was blowing at 25 mph with considerably higher gusts. We also had rain showers off and on. Ze’ev stated that this is the coldest Independence Day in the last 25 years. We were bundled up as best we could, but the cold was still biting and uncomfortable.
From Samuel’s tomb, we returned to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City. We had a quick bite to eat, and then walked a section of the ramparts on top of the walls. The present walls of Jerusalem were built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The section of wall which we walked took us around, primarily, the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. Once again, the views were great. As we walked along the top of the wall, hundreds of young people walked beside them, a part of the Independence Day celebration in Israel. They were concluding an activity known as the March of the Living, an annual educational program which brings students from around the world to Poland, where they explore the remnants of the Holocaust. On Holocaust Memorial Day, thousands of young participants march silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp complex built during World War II. Many of the participants then come to Israel to march in celebration of Israel’s independence. The waves of blue-clad young people making their way around the walls and into the Old City, singing as they went, accompanied by the beating of drums and the blowing on shophars, was quite a sight.
We finished up our day with a wonderful treat – to see the Shroud of Turin exhibit at the Pontifical Institute of Notre Dame of Jerusalem. The exhibit contains excellent information regarding the history and questions of authenticity of the shroud. There is also a full size replica of the shroud on display. The original just went on display in Italy for the first time in five years. Although not the Shroud of Turin, it was still quite remarkable to see the replica and surrounding exhibits. This shroud is a 14.3 x 3.7 ft. piece of cloth which contains the image of a man who obviously underwent great physical trauma consistent with a crucifixion. It is claimed by many to be the burial shroud of Christ. There is, obviously, much debate about its authenticity, but I find the evidence in its favor to be quite persuasive. If you are interested in reading more, I’d suggest reading this piece by Gary Habermas, a respected scholar on the resurrection of Jesus.
This evening, some of our group decided to go have dinner at the American Colony Restaurant, which was purported to serve the best steaks in Jerusalem. It was a lovely evening which took us out of our regular routine… And the steak did not disappoint!
Tomorrow is our last day of this wonderful tour. I am very sad to see it end, yet very glad for the coming rest. We will check out of our hotel in the morning, do some last minute touring and shopping, have dinner, and go to the airport for our flight which leaves just after midnight.