Monday, November 15, 2010

Nov. 15th–Last day and some final thoughts!

If you haven't done so yet, start with the entry dated "Nov. 12th" below to get caught up on our activities of the last three days.

Today our group of hardy pilgrims is scheduled to visit "Coptic" Egypt and the Church of the Holy Family. There is so much yet to see and experience, but we only have today!

Cairo is an amazing place–this is a city with no traffic lights (!!) but the traffic just flows and drivers are considerate of one another. It would be interesting to try this experiment in the states! For those who love to shop, part of today will be spent at the Cairo Bazaar, one of the most fascinating and unique in the Middle East. Then we will return to the hotel for dinner and pack for home.

It is interesting that many of us already have our thoughts turned toward home–already the cares of the life we left behind intrude on our final hours here. But we do miss our families and friends and are ready to come home. We leave for the airport at 8:00pm Cairo time, to depart before midnight and we arrive at New York-Kennedy before dawn tomorrow, Tuesday, Nov. 16th. Please pray for us at 2:35pm, Mountain Time today, that we will have a safe journey home.

I suspect that there will not be another opportunity to update these entries and the stories of our "last day" will have to wait a while for a later opportunity.

Literary thousands of pictures have been taken and we all have made some new friends, and memories that we will indeed cherish a lifetime.

It is difficult to organize a summary thought or two ... we came here because this was the land where Jesus walked and we have tried to trace his footsteps and grow in our faith. May the Lord bless our journey's end and give us the wisdom and the courage that is part of a Living Faith in the only Savior of the World.

We pray also for you, that God may bless you in every way and make his life abound in you, that the Gospel may be preached to all the world. Amen!

See you at home!

–posted by Greg Smithhisler, Liturgist

Nov 14th–The Land of the Pharohs

Someone told that what we were doing was illegal–we gathered at 7am in Room 1011 to celebrate Sunday Mass. Fr. Oscar of Holy Trinity in Paradise Hills, CA (near San Diego) led us in a quiet celebration of our faith. We treasure our new friends from the San Diego area!

As always, you were in our prayers this day, and we continue to carry your prayer requests with us and in our hearts as well. Today's Gospel passage where Jesus says, " ... there will not be one stone left on top of another; they will all be thrown down" greatly impacted me–we had walked the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where those words were fullfilled by the Romans in 70 A.D. What a powerful gospel to hear as we continue into our last two days of this Pilgrimage.

Cairo is a modern city of 25 million and the Safir Hotel is stunning–by far the nicest and most oppulent of all the hotels we have stayed in. November is the beginning of the heaviest tourist season in Egypt and their are many tour busses carrying groups from many other countries. After Breakfast, our schedule today included a trip to the Pyramids and Sphinx (just south of Cairo) lunch at another very nice hotel, a visit to some local shops and a trip to the Cairo Museum–what a place! Our evening was caped off with a dinner cruise of the river Nile.

The Pyramids was another site that was thronged with tourists. We were allowed to climb the great Pyramid itself–the burgandy caps to the left is our group beginning the climb.

The scale of the building blocks of the Pyramids is amazing.

From the lower levels of the Great Pyramid, the throng of tourists, dozens of tour buses, and the city of Cairo in the distance.

Many of us choose to take our first camel ride here, because the end-point of the ride offers a view where one can see all nine of the pyramids of Giza "in a row."

The camel ride was quite an experience–the animals seem very gentle, are not especially foul-smelling, and not at all worthy of the nasty reputation that they seem to have in the states. The owner spoke good English and was very good with a camera–he took the picture below. When I asked, I was told my camel's name was "Michael Jackson"! About 45 minutes on a camel for $10–one of the best values on the tour!

Ayman did a superb job of keeping us all together and he didn't hesitate to go looking for the "lost sheep"! As an archaeologist he was in his "element"–in this picture he is gathering the group to explain the significance of the Sphinx and the temple complex that surrounds it.

Here too we were joined by many others tourists and accompanied by persistent but polite street vendors who were selling an interesting variety of books, head dresses and other items. Ayman says that the average Egyptian government workers makes about $300 (in US currency) a month--a dollar bill is a LOT of money in Egypt. In this picture Ayman is defining the rules for access to our group to one of the many vendors.

After the trip to the Pyramids we had lunch at a very nice hotel that was close by, comparatively speaking! Much of the afternoon was devoted to a whirlwind trip to the Cairo museum. The day was capped off with a dinner cruise on the Nile River. The food was excellent and the entertainment was amazing--we saw a "whirling dirvish" and Ayman explained the signifcance of the dance--a father's joy of finding a lost child!

It is amazing to think that these are the same sights that Joseph and Mary and the boy, Jesus, would have seen nearly 2000 years ago ... "out of Egypt I have called my Son."

–posted by Greg Smithhisler, Liturgist

Nov 13th–The "Mountain of Moses"

Early the next morning we had breakfast in St. Catherine's City, then loaded the bus for the short trip to St. Catherine's Monastery at Sinai. We parked at the lower parking lot and walked the 15 minutes it takes to get to the Monastery. For those who wanted there was the option of a Taxi or a camel ride up to the monastery itself. Today we all chose to walk. The Monastery quickly came into view.

St. Catherine's Monastery is an ancient Eastern Orthodox Monastery, The monks here are an independent group with their own Archbishop and they enjoy special staus within the Orthodox community. We entered through the main gate and through a small entrance we were allowed into the great church, but were not allowed to take pictures inside.

The Monastery courtyard was crowded with early morning pilgrims.

We spent a considerable amount of time here, walking the grounds, praying and hearing the story of the Monastery and the mountain. The monastery is built around the "burning bush" of Moses which is in the main courtyard.

From a distance the most prominant feature of the Monastery is the tower, seen here from the courtyard.

Back outside, many pilgrims climbed the rocky hill opposite the Monastery to get a better view.

The courtyard was crowded with many pilgrims and there are two Gift Shops at the Monastery that have an amazing assortment of Icons and other religious items for sale. This view is seen from the opposing hillside.

Somewhat reluctantly we walked back to the bus to move on toward Cairo.

With each step my admiration and appreciation of the saints who have gone before us grows. Sinai seems like such a desolate place, yet the monks of Sinai have lived here and welcomed pilgrims for 1400 years–an astounding thought!

It is a six hour drive from the St. Catherine's to capital city of Egypt. The bus was generally quiet as we considered the places we have been and the things we will yet see–Cairo awaits.

–posted by Greg Smithhisler, Liturgist

Nov. 12th–On to Mount Sinai

I just bid my fellow prilgrims "farewell" for the day and I write now from Safir Hotel in the city of Cairo to catch up on the last three days. It is quiet and the view of the city from my 11th floor balcony is impressive.

Internet access has been good to non-existent, and free with the hotel (as at the Jacir Palace in Bethlehem) to very expensive. At the Leonardo in Gallilee, Internet access was $12 an hour! Here at the Safir it is 3.90 Egyptian Pounds per minute with a maximum of 155 EGP per day--only 28 dollars for 24 hours of access! Ah well, we do what we can.

Friday, Nov. 12th dawned bright and early and we had breakfast, loaded the bus and bid our farewell to Bethlehem and the city of Jerusalem. Last night we said goodbye to those who were returning to the states and our Pilgrim group today is nine members smaller. God bless you, Fr. Anthony and all the others–may God grant you a safe journey home!

This is our last time to go through the hated gate between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The Iraelis are building a 3-story(?) concrete wall between the Palestinian territories and the state of Israel, and Bethlehem is in the Palestinian territories. Where we are the Wall is covered with grafitti and the vast majority of the graffitti on the wall in is English–obviously aimed at english-speaking tourists. One line that caught my eye was "Life without freedom is a kind of death"–a sentiment that George, (our Palestinian Christian guide for the first part of the Pilgrimage) would definitely have agree with.

Every time we left our hotel in Bethlehem we had to cross this border, passing through the checkpoint that was staffed by Israli soldliers carrying BIG guns. The last three days two of them walked through the bus, sometimes asking to see our passports. On Tuesday morning when we left Bethlehem at 4am for the Way of the Cross and Mass at the Holy Sepulchre we thought we might have a problem because some on the bus mates didn't have their passports with them–two future Deacon's wives in particular (ahem!). But the guards let us go on–I guess Pam and Bella didn't look too threatening!

Through the bus windows now we can see the walls of the old city of Jerusalem one last time.

We retraced our journey from the day before as we headed south along the length of the Dead Sea toward the Red Sea port city of Eilat. As soon as the bus passes by the Mount of Olives we begin the descent into the Judean Wilderness and the immediate change in the terrain is striking. The Judean Wilderness has a beauty all its own.

The journey to the port of Eilat is nearly 4 hours and "Coffee Out" stops were mandatory–here the group begins to regather at the bus to continue our journey.

We reached our destination at high noon–Just beyond Eilat is the border check point. We gathered our luggage and spent a long time in line, going through security and getting our Egyptian tourist visas. It was nearly 2:30pm when our security guard arrived to escort us into Egypt. Our tour guide for our stay in Egypt is named Ayman (pronounced like "Simon" without the "s"). Ayman has a masters degree in Archaeology, is married, in his thirtes and has been working in the tourism industry for 18 years. He told us that Tourism is the second biggest industry in Egypt–second only to the income generated by the Suez Canal.

Taba is just across the border from Eilat and is becoming a major tourist center. There must be nearly a dozen major new hotels that are in the process of being build.

We had a wonderful lunch at the Taba Marriott just before heading down the road toward Mount Sinai. A few of us took the opportunity to go wading "ankle deep" in the Red Sea. It was a very beautiful place.

From Taba it is four hours to St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai. We arrived at St. Catherine City and had dinner and settled in for the night.

Even here we were accompanied by many other pilgrims. Just after our arrival a group from India and a group from Brazil also arrived, wanting to see the "Mountain of Moses". Those who chose to climb Mt. Sinai for the Sunrise had to rise at MIDNIGHT to begin the climb! The rest of us slept very well!

–posted by Greg Smithhisler, Liturgist

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Our final day—So much yet to do!

Thursday found us jorneying to Bethany, the home of Mary & Martha whose brother was Lazarus. The Church there was beautiful and the accoustics were super for singing! In the picture below Fr. Oscar, from Holy Trinity Church in Paradise Hills, CA (San Diego) leads us in the Prayers of the Faithful.

 As at each mass with our group here in the Holy Land, your prayers requests are remembered and they always sit at the foot of the altar with the collection basket.

After Bethany we made our way toward the Dead Sea and visited the site where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The site has extensive ruins which captured the attention of us all.

This is the cave where it all started in 1947.

After Qumran we journeyed on to the site of our day swim in the Dead Sea itself. The water contains more than 22 minerals and is thus so "heavy" that you don't swim--you float! We promised to not post any picutres of the group in their bathing suits! But this a view of the beach at the Dead Sea.

We continued down to the road to the oldest continuously inhabitated city in the world-Jericho. This is Elisha spring in the center of the square.

Also at Jericho is the mount of Christ's Temptation in the Wilderness. It is toped by a Monastery from the crusader era.

The ruins of the old city are impressive and new discoveries are made every year. Here the group is on a walking tour of some of the extensive excavations.

Jericho also offered an opportunity for some fun. Rosita Basett celebrated her 81st Birthday at the mass in Bethany earlier this day--in the picture below our birthday girl has found a new friend: "Sammy" the Camel.

Happy Birthday, Rosita! Space here doesn't really permit, but we had time for some to take a camel ride and got some great pictures!

After Jericho we headed back to Bethlehem for our farewell dinner at the Tent Restaurant.

Everyone had a good time but we were a little rushed. We had to say goodbye to eight members of our group who were headed back to states at midnight. The rest of us rushed home to pack our bags for Egypt!

Internet access has been excellent here in Bethlehem. Tomorrow is a day of travel and we journey to Sinaie and St. Catherine's Monastery, then on to the Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo. We will continue our story, as time as Internet access permits. Museums, the Pyramids and Holy Family Church in Egypt await us. We head back to the states next Tuesday.

Please keep us in your prayers, as you will be in ours!

-posted by Greg Smithhisler, IHM Liturgist

Nov. 10th—Bethlehem

Wednesday began with a trip to the "Shepherd's Field" in Bethlehem, where we had our morning Mass. A mal-functioning camera means that I have no pictures there and I will have to depend on the generosity of others and post them at a future edit of this entry.

After the Mass we walked around the corner and spent some time in one of the nicest gift shops in Bethlehem. Issa owns  Holy Land Travel, which set up our pilgrimage, and his family owns and runs this shop. They were generous with their hospitality and their discounts and many were eager to spend some money on gifts for family and friends

 After the Gift Shop we were treated to a surprise-the group was honored with an invitation to Issa's parent's house for "Tea." We all had a wonderful time and were deeply honored that Nicholas and Lydia would invite us to their home. The view of Bethlehem from the roof of the house is spectacular!

 In the picture below Nicholas, Issa's father, bid Deacon Don farewell as we prepare for our trip to the Church of the Nativity.

Christmas is still some weeks away but the Church of the Nativity was very busy and the wait in the line was a long one. In this picture we have Deacon Don and Fr. Anthony Romero waiting in line.

The Church is currently under major reconstruction and there is scaffolding everywhere. Even so, the wait was well worth it to see the cave in Bethlehem.

After this we journeyed to the birthplace of St. John the Baptist in the mountains outside of Jerusalem, and our last stop of the day was to the village of Emmaus, really only a short distance from Jerusalem.

After dinner, most of us continued into the late evening with a beutiful "night tour" through the City of Jerusalem. The Temple Mount and The Mount of Olives are both well light at the view from either side is simply spectacular. After taking in the panoramic view of the city at night, we went down to Ben Yehuda St. for some ice cream, a little late-night shopping, and a trip to the ATM. It is wonderful to know that there are ATMs in Israel that dispense dollars!

May God bless you this day-you are in our thoughts and prayers always!

 —posted by Greg Smithhisler, IHM Liturgist

Nov. 9th, Part 2—The Temple Mount

After our extraordinary experience in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we returned to the hotel for breakfast and a couple of hours "off" to rest a little and reflect on what we had just participated in–a group Mass in the Holy Sepulchre is truly a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience, and you were in our thoughts and prayers.

At 11:00AM we began the 2nd part of our day–a trip to the Temple Mount. It is perhaps the holiest site in Judaism and, some would assert, the holiest spot of ground on planet Earth. Also because of this, more blood has been shed over these few acres of land than over any other. It is the site of Abraham's sacrifice of Issac and Solomon Temple (which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC). It is the site of the Temple of Jesus' day, built by King Herod the Great, who died long before its reconstuction was finished. The Mount saw the invading Roman armies who destroyed the city of Jerusalem and Herod's Temple in 70AD.

Everywhere is Israel there are ruins to be discovered and this is also true of the Temple Mount. Even as one climb's the ramp to the Wailing Wall, one can see excavations in progress.

 There are Security check points everywhere in Israel, and the Temple Mount is a sensitive area. We were told to leave everything we didn't need on the bus, including watches, and jewelry. Strange, perhaps, to modern western attitudes, the Wailing Wall is segregated by gender–the security line to the left was for the men, and the one to the right was for the women. Having successfully cleared the Check Point our group entered the area of the "Wailing Wall" that we have seen on TV so often. The crowd was light this day, but made up of what I'm sure is quit "normal"–Security guards, "Orthodox" Jews (black suites and hats for the men, long dresses and head coverings for the women), other Jews, Moslims and many tourists. There was even an Evangelical Christian group a stone's throw from us quietly singing, "How Great is Our God", a popular contemporary Christian "worship song." Everyone taking in the site and worshiping in a way that is comfortable to them. At the Wall, the men and women are again segregated: men to the left and women to the right.

At the Wall, the men and women are again segregated: men to the left and women to the right. This is easily seen in the photo below, which was taken as we ascended the ramp to the Temple Mount itself.

The first thing one sees when reaching the top of the Mount is a large "garden" area with some sizable everygreen trees. The group even had to dodge a bulldozer whcih was in the process of removing a pile of dead branches that were being removed.  Beyond the garden, on the southeast corner of the Temple Mount is the al-Aqusa Mosque. The picture below shows the purification area just in from the Mosque.

When we looked to the north, we got our first "up close" view of one of the most famous landmarks on earth, The Dome of the Rock.

In the picture below we have gathered in the shade just inside the south entrance to hear George give a brief history of the site and some interestng connections with other places that we will visit. We were not allowed inside, but were given a fair amount of time to walk around the Dome and take pictures.

The picture below: from the Arch entry way on the west, one can easily see the Mount of Olives. The gold domes of the Orthdox Church of St. Mary Magdalene is clearly visible at the bottom of the first arch on the left.

With our time on top of the Temple Mount ended we exited the site to the north where we went to visit the Church of St. Anne, the mother of Mary.  The church was built by the Crusaders who believed it to be the birthplace of St. Anne, This church is one of the few that were not destroyed by the invading Mamelukes in the 12th Century. The Church has superb acoustics, and we entered and sang as a group,the chorus to "Here I Am, Lord" and the first verse of  "Amazing Grace" – but pausing  between phrases to listen to the reverberation. Though relatively small, the church has a 6-second "delay." What a wonderful place to sing!

One of the most touching features of the Church is the beautiful statue below of St. Anne with the child Mary.

Just outside the Church of St. Anne is another area of excavation, this one of ancient healing pools.


Our afternoon completed, we exited the Old City of Jerusalem through the "Lion's Gate"–in the picture below note the lions on either side of the opening. This gate is also know as "St. Stephen's Gate."

A very long but very rewarding day for everyone. God bless you all!

 —Posted by Greg Smithhisler, IHM Liturgist